As virtual town halls and public hearings via Zoom become commonplace during the pandemic, public access television may be taking on a heightened role within local communities.
Chris Morgan, the Public Access Coordinator at Valley Shore Community Television, which serves nine towns in lower Middlesex County, said that the pandemic has created an increase in demand for programs.
“We have never been busier in seven years,” he said.
Morgan estimates that the station which reaches from Durham and Haddam in the north down to Old Saybrook and Westbrook, has produced 30 percent more content this year in comparison to 2019. Board of selectmen and town council meetings, talk shows conducted over Zoom, services at the congregational churches — all of it adds up to a full schedule.
Frank Facchini, the executive director at Southeast Connecticut TV said that he, too, is seeing a lot of demand for their content. He says that their production levels have remained the same as always — albeit with COVID precautions.
“It’s a little more challenging, you have to sanitize and everything, but other than that, we’re keeping pretty busy.”
Facchini said that the station, which serves Groton, Ledyard, Stonington, North Stonington, and Voluntown, occupies a niche that no one else has filled.
“There’s no one really who can do an in-depth story like we can here,” he said.
Local politics aren’t the only attraction for public access fans. VSCTV and other stations also air shows that spotlight locals doing community work, showing off their particular talents or simply telling their life stories.
Morgan said that one of VSCTV’s most popular features is the Pete Mezzetti Show. Mezzetti has spent 15 years interviewing local and state organizations like the CT Association of Boards of Education, the local chapter of the Red Cross and the Connecticut Interstate Athletic Council.
“People tell me this all the time — being interviewed by me, it’s like sitting down and having a cup of coffee with me for a half hour,” said Mezzetti.
Mezzetti also interviews politicians — he spoke with former governor Daniel Malloy two months before he was nominated as candidate for governor in the August 2006 primary. Two weeks ago, he interviewed Dr. Henry Lee, a world-renowned forensic scientist who founded the Henry C. Lee institute of Forensic Science at the University of New Haven.
Another popular show on VSCTV is Shoreline Music Monthly, which features local musicians. It’s hosted by Mark Koschwitz, a Clinton resident who started the show in 2013 after meeting a number of talented songwriters at open mic nights.
“I’m trying to bring local songwriters into people’s living rooms,” said Koshwitz.
Koschwitz said he hasn’t been able to produce new episodes since the pandemic hit. Having a group of people singing within close range was too risky. Since March, he’s been re-running the 70 or so episodes he’s produced since the program began.
Koschwitz has profiled groups like the Deep River Junior Ancients Fife and Drum Corps, the blues band Creamery Station. In a Christmas special one year, he brought out 15 horn players from the Tuba Christmas ensemble.
“There’s an amazing amount of talent here,” he said.
Koschwitz calls himself a “pretty fair harmonica player.” He has a fascination with unusual musical instruments, and has included segments in his show featuring the history of kazoos, rolmonicas and ukelins — a combination between a ukulele and a violin that in the 1950s became what Koschwitz referred to as a “borderline door-to-door salesman scam.”
Southeast Connecticut TV features shows like Books and Beyond, where host Jimmy Bennett conducts interviews with local authors and a political show called Potluck Politics. In one show, Vicki Anderson of The Neighborhood Center interviewed former olympic hurdler Connie Stoll, who lives in Uncasville.
Before the pandemic, the station hosted art shows at the studio where residents could come, meet the artists, and purchase their artwork.
“I tend to not even be aware sometimes at how much we’ve got going on,” said Facchini.
Stories worth telling
Cate Steel, a retired speech pathologist in East Lyme, hosts a show called Stories Worth Telling out of a studio in Waterford, where she does half-hour interviews with people living in New London County. The show is hosted on the local Atlantic Broadband, which serves towns from East Lyme over to Waterford and then North toward Uncasville, Quaker Hill and Voluntown.
“Everybody has their own little niche, and everybody has their own little story,” said Steel.
What is a story worth telling, according to Steel? Well, it can come from anywhere, as long as people are passionate and willing to be a little vulnerable. She said she particularly enjoys interviewing veterans, leaders of nonprofits and entrepreneurs.
“What I try to do is just really validate people and their experiences and what motivates them,” said Steel.
And some people’s stories have an unexpected twist. In October, for example, she interviewed Deke Haylon, who owns a bagel store in Niantic. He swears that the hype about New York bagels is a myth, and said his goal is to become the “Starbucks of bagels.” However, he also revealed on the show that he lived in New York City as a drug addict for eight years, and that he wants to set up a program to help formerly incarcerated people work alongside him and learn a trade.
“I just find people so fascinating,” said Steel.
From Cable to Digital
Despite the grant and the demand for programs, Morgan said he’s concerned about the studio’s budget going forward. Public Access TV is funded through a fee that is tagged onto people’s cable bills. As Netflix, Hulu and live-streaming lead people to forgo cable, the station has had to look for other forms of revenue.
Both stations were able to receive funding this year through a PURA grant, which Facchini used to purchase high-definition cameras for the studio and Morgan used to update their website.
Both stations are working on expanding on to online platforms like YouTube and promoting their programs on Facebook and Twitter. Morgan said this is an advantage because it means their viewership no longer has to be tied to geography.
“We’re trying to be where the viewers are and are going,” said Morgan.