WKTV Credits Grassroots and Cable Wire
Behind the Scenes of Community Access Television
Community Access Television began innocently in 1969 in Stoughton, Wisconsin as WSTO TV. The station was established before the city of Stoughton even had cable TV thanks to the grassroots efforts of Bob Burrel and his wife Janeen. They ran their own cables throughout the city and started broadcasting to people homes. When cable service providers finally decided to come into Stoughton, Viking Media Corp, in association with The City of Stoughton, negotiated the first franchise agreement in cable TV history, requiring the cable provider to provide a channel for this community station to continue. To insure the life of the channel, the agreement also required the provider to support funding in the form of an annual franchise fee. Soon after, Viking Media Corp became WSTO TV and is the oldest community access channel still in existence today.
Fast Forward a Few Time Frames
On October 16, 1974, Wyoming, Michigan incorporated WKTV as one of the first community TV stations in the State of Michigan. For nearly 40 years, this non-profit TV station has maintained an open invitation to the community to come in and learn how to create television programs for broadcast – all on a volunteer basis!
Long before its present location, WKTV occupied an old building on Porter Street in Wyoming. Community interest and enthusiasm took the place of quality equipment, technology, and fancy digs. Grand Valley film graduate Jim DeWindt started at the station as an intern there in 1978 only to become the general manager a year later. DeWindt credits his twist of fate to the fact that when the building’s roof collapsed from snow that winter, he was the only one who knew where all the equipment was stored during restoration.
“It was my job at the time as intern, to haul all the gear off to drier locations around the city. I was the only one who knew where everything was stored,” he jokes. The fact is, DeWindt was in the right place at the right time when former general manager Jack White stepped down after several months.
“I was only going to be here for five years and once I achieved my goals, I’d leave,” recalls DeWindt. “Well it didn’t take me five, it took me 18 years – I loved the challenge!”
During those 18 years, WKTV saw significant growth and multiple changes. In addition to studio addresses and locations, the station changed the definition of public access television thanks to DeWindt’s insight and leadership.
“Being a public, educational and governmental television station wasn’t going to work in Wyoming. It was just too small and the educational aspect was already being done by the school system,” explains DeWindt.
“I came up with the concept of community access television, marrying the interest of the community to make their own television programs. I thought, we could help and train people to put their own interests on the air.”
It took months of pounding the pavement and making phone calls (“Remember,” DeWindt points out, “there wasn’t internet or cell phones back then…”) to get local agencies and businesses in the door to look around and see how they could use the facility to reach out to the community.
“To my surprise, once we got people through the door, it caught fire! We were producing two shows a night with different groups of volunteers. That was the turning point where the station changed from being the little hole in the wall operation to the TV station it is today. And it still has the same spirit!”
We Can Do So Much With So Little!
That was the battle cry for a long time DeWindt says recalling how the station’s first “remote” truck was devised.
“It was actually a rusted out blue van that I stored in a barn. We had to push it to get it started,” he laughs. “We built storage racks that would hold equipment from the studio and fit inside the van. Then thanks to Mark Rawson, our volunteer engineer, we were able to put it together and make the whole set up work as a remote studio. Pretty soon we were covering events around Wyoming like sports and festivals.”
DeWindt confesses now that even broken equipment was used to the station’s advantage. A video camera that didn’t work was used as a prop to attract curious bystanders to ask questions about television production, allowing the camera operator the chance to sell the WKTV story. “We did what we had to do to get people in here and get involved. It worked like a magnet!” DeWindt laughs.
Secret to Success: Volunteers
If DeWindt said it once, he’s said it a thousand times: “The success of this place is because of the volunteers, they were, and are, the KEY!”
Take for example Phil Moore of Wyoming, whose curiosity to check out the station got the better of him in 1984. Little did he expect to become WKTV’s longest participating volunteer of 30 years by 2014.
“I started out working Master Control, learned camera operator and studio production, but Master Control is where I landed,” he says, adding humbly that in 2006, he was awarded Volunteer of the Year. Not surprising since he averaged over 790 volunteer hours for the year at that time. Today he’s at a modest 400 plus. “I guess what keeps me coming back here is that it has kept my mind sharp,” he admits. “And the people – I’ve met a lot of people here through the years – including my wife!”
Moore met his bride, Lynette Lawrence Moore, while volunteering as the Floor Director for her television show about empowering people with disabilities. In 1990 they held their wedding at the station giving community access a whole new meaning.
“It turned out to be the perfect location. Everybody fit and most of the guests were volunteers here anyway,” he laughs. “We were a big happy family back then.”
Today after 39 years, thanks go to Moore and hundreds of others like him for helping WKTV remain one of the oldest, most continuously operated Community Television stations in the United States. WKTV enjoys an active volunteer base of more than 400 people and in 2012 alone, community volunteers provided over 13,000 hours of volunteer time to the station and its programming.
Incidentally, the “W” and “K” stand for Wyoming-Kentwood Television. Originally, WKTV was known simply as Wyoming Community Television. In 1995, the City of Kentwood recognized the decades of service WKTV had provided to area residents and entered into a franchise agreement with the local cable operator to be included in the community television services.
Build it and They will Come
In 2000, General Manager Tom Norton started at the helm of WKTV. At the time WKTV was located in a warehouse off of 47th Street. “I flew in from Los Angeles for the interview,” said Norton, “and I remember waiting for the interview and seeing a mouse scampering across the floor.
“Given the fact that they were housed in a warehouse which wasn’t very convenient or that attractive, I suggested to the board that a great challenge might be a new building. I knew it had long been a dream for Jim, the board, the volunteers, everyone – and after just over a year the land at 5261 Clyde Park was purchased. In fact, we signed the deal for the land on September 11th, 2001. It was surreal walking the land WKTV had just purchased on such a beautiful sunny fall day when the rest of the world was imploding.”
Within a year the new community television station was built and WKTV took occupancy on August 16, 2002. Today this upgraded 10,000 square footfacility houses two studios, multiple digital edit bays, public spaces for media instruction and one of the largest HD television production trucks in ther state measuring 35 feet in length.
Citizen Journalism adds a New Dimension
In 2013 WKTV seized an opportunity to fill a local communication gap in the realm of print journalism by introducing WyomingNOW and KentwoodNOW, a web-based citizen journalism news source focused on hyper-local news and features.
“WKTV strives for one goal: to make ourselves the go-to resource for the communication needs of our local citizens and local government. The Citizen Journalism project WyomingNOW and KentwoodNOW are going to be a huge factor in realizing that fundamental part of our mission,” says Norton.
Although outlets for the public to create community media dates back to the 1970s, “citizen journalism” is a term from the mid-2000s to describe everyday people creating worthwhile, community related media shared online. In standing with WKTV’s mission, the citizen journalism project aims to cultivate “neighborhood correspondents” who are invested in sharing information online to support building a stronger Wyoming/Kentwood community.
“Thomas Jefferson said that information was the currency of a democracy and everyone at WKTV really believes that,” he adds. “Everyday we see how sharing information builds community and we’re excited for the futures of Wyoming and Kentwood.”
“People have to get involved to see what’s in it for them,” concludes DeWindt. “It’s the same spirit of community pride that I was a part of.”