The free speech revolutionary

Annie Folger reflects on three decades in public-access television

Sitting in her office amid memorabilia spanning nearly 32 years in broadcasting, Annie Folger remembered the moment a studio was born in Palo Alto.

"Back in January 1991 when the first Gulf War began, we didn't have a studio yet all we had was a bare room and no equipment but we decided we were going to try to go live, so we jury-rigged a camcorder into the cable system and invited viewers to call in and share their feelings," recalled Folger, longtime Midpeninsula Community Media Center executive director, who retired Jan. 31.

"I brought a long extension cord for our telephone, and we ran it from the office into the studio, plugged the camcorder in and went live. People just started calling to tell us how concerned they were about this war going on. More and more, the phone just rang off the hook. We hung up from one call, and another call would come in.

"A studio was born in that moment. That was our first (live) show ... and we let it be known that all communicators, dreamers and community builders would be welcome in communicating their ideas. That was us from the get go," said Folger, a petite, 71-year-old brunette known as a "revolutionary" among her colleagues in the broadcast world.

From the earliest days of community-access television, Folger has advocated on a local and national level for people's rights to express themselves. Her advocacy stretches back to just about the time Congress passed the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 that paved the way for cities to collect fees from cable operators to fund public, educational and government access channels.

Folger said after working for AT&T producing video-training packages in the 1970s, she learned firsthand what could be done with video and television.

"I had this feeling that we could do way more with television than just entertain ourselves," she said.

After leaving AT&T, she set out to "put the vision in television." She launched the nonprofit Choosing Our Future that encouraged interactive citizen participation in government through a pilot electronic town meeting that she developed in cooperation with KGO-TV. Through the show, pre-selected viewers all over the Bay Area could use their touch-tone telephones to vote on various community issues throughout the segment a well-received (but expensive) concept that was before its time and didn't survive due to lack of funding.

She ultimately got involved in public access, and on her 40th birthday on June 19, 1985 helped launch the Midpeninsula Community Media Center (formerly called Mid-Peninsula Access Corporation). Though Midpen was incorporated in 1985, it didn't open its doors until 1990. Her role included supervising the purchase of the two-story concrete studio at 900 San Antonio Road as well as broadcasting the first show with a live audience a segment that prompted one unexpected listener, former U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz, to call into the studio. (He was working at the Hoover Institution and wanted to offer a job to one of the guests he heard on the segment.)

During her nearly 32 years at Midpen, including 15 years as executive director, Folger helped the nonprofit media center grow from one channel to five local channels, produce more than 2,000 hours of city council meetings annually and contribute educational and public programming to a regional channel that reaches more than 400,000 homes in 15 cities.

The grassroots operation is the largest public studio in the Bay Area, with programs ranging from the career-oriented "Ask 'Dr.' Business" to "American Songwriter," which profiles local musicians, to "Future Talk," covering the global impact of technology.

"Annie did a great job of balancing the sometimes competing viewpoints of staff while giving individual staff room to grow, take risks and experiment," said Becky Sanders, communications and marketing manager at Midpen. "She's an amazing leader."

Elliot Margolies, Midpen's founding executive director who worked alongside Folger from the first day the organization opened its doors until her retirement, described Folger as someone "willing to take risks and keep evolving as media itself evolves.

"She left us in a strong position as a staff," he said.

Just days before her retirement, while sitting in the same building on San Antonio Road where she ran that long telephone extension cord into the studio for the first live broadcast in 1991, Folger reflected on the successes and challenges of operating the Midpen and where she thinks public access is headed.

"From the very beginning, we've always had a forward-leaning approach. We reached out to get grants and make community collaborations with organizations, so we could bring people in to express their First Amendment right to free speech and to also really enliven participation in our democracy," said Folger, who was on the center's founding board of directors and served as its first cablecaster.

In the first year, the center secured a grant from the Irvine Foundation to conduct a two-year youth-development project that included teaching video-production skills to middle school children in East Palo Alto who called themselves the Ravenswood Video Posse.

From there, the center expanded its partnerships, working with the Palo Alto Unified School District, environmental groups, justice groups and various nonprofits to produce a wide range of content.

One particular show, "Make the Call," hosted by former Superior Judge LaDoris Cordell, focused on unsolved murders and law enforcement issues in East Palo Alto. The program ultimately helped solve a murder, Folger said.

"It was a really positive way to do something proactively to encourage people to help solve community problems," she said.

Folger is also proud of the center's extensive election coverage.

"From day one, we have covered every major election and issue in our service area," Folger said.

"It's one thing to read a League of Women Voters pamphlet; it's another thing to see a close up of a candidate saying what he or she believes in. You get a lot more from someone's expression than you can with just a written page. ... We get our biggest spike of users on web and video demand the week before an election."

Her most memorable studio experience, however, wasn't airing a show. She recalled a time when the Midpen was hosting a group of young adults with Down syndrome. After teaching the group about the aspects of work behind the camera, Folger and others decided to put them in front of it, making the group feel just as important as anyone else working there. The gesture was so unexpected, the group began laughing and hugging each other.

"These are the things that make me proud," she said with tears in her eyes. As executive director, Folger managed day-to-day administrative operations, seven full-time employees, dozens of part-time employees, hundreds of volunteers and an annual budget that grew to more than $800,000. She also was behind the scenes making sure the studio stayed in the forefront of broadcasting by embracing new equipment and technologies.

There have been challenges along the way, too, including an audit that has left Midpen's future with the City of Palo Alto unclear on the eve of Folger's departure. Last May, a city audit concluded that the nonprofit inappropriately used $1.4 million between 2010 and 2014 to fund day-to-day operations.

Under federal statute, cities can collect 88 cents per cable subscriber per month to fund public, educational and government access channels, but the money must be used for capital expenditures.

Midpen officials said the audit ignored a key piece of information and misinterpreted the law. They said that the center's existing voluntary agreement with the cities it serves allows it to use the fees for any purpose, including operations.

Discussion about the city's funding relationship with Midpen is ongoing and has not been resolved. Folger was unable to comment on the discussions, which are closed to the public.

"We have had fruitful discussions and are optimistic that we'll resolve the issues raised by the audit," Folger said. "The City has made it clear that it wants to work with us and find a practical solution that will preserve the Media Center's ability to carry on its operations. Nothing has been agreed yet, but we're making progress."

Staying relevant

The audit also raised the question of whether public access channels are still relevant.

"Cable and broadcast television were the only games in town when we started, and now there's so many platforms that display video content," Folger acknowledged. "But we have consistently stayed with the (digital) curve as it has expanded, and so yes, we're still relevant."

She's quick to point out that the center was streaming its channels from its website in 2005, when it was first possible, so people who couldn't subscribe to cable channels would also be able to see the content. The nonprofit converted its studio to high definition in 2015, has established a strong social media presence on Facebook, posts on YouTube, offers on-demand videos and uses Skype in the studio for remote guests on video so they can be there virtually.

Midpen, she said, has come a long way since its early days in 1989 when its first volunteer cablecaster, Maureen O' Sullivan, would drive around town in her Volkswagen Bug collecting VHS tapes from community producers and then take them over to the Cable Co-op (which eventually merged with Midpen) and play them on the air before the group had an office or funding.

The shifting technology landscape has also resulted in a sea change of another sort.

"One of the biggest challenges has been the whole idea of the ubiquitous use of video equipment," Folger said.

"When we first started out, camcorders were big and clunky and having one was a big deal. They weren't that common. Now, just about everybody you know has a smartphone in their pocket and can video."

But, this has helped community media centers like Midpen redefine their role as storytelling experts in the "cameras for everyone" era.

"We see people coming into our studio who want to be better (with) a hand-held iPhone or hand-held smart phone video," Folger said. "The biggest problem with all these smart devices is the audio. If you're holding it, and you sneeze, your sneeze is going to be louder than the person who is speaking two feet away from you ... and then you won't have a very good video.

"Our niche is to help people tell their stories more effectively."

Media centers can provide assistance with skills like editing, animation, photography, sound and other techniques to help produce better video than a hand-held wiggly phone might otherwise.

There's also the new challenge of being able to tell a story in a concise way so it's interesting.

"In the early days, people would either do a half hour show or an hour show. Now these days, people's attention spans are short. They're no longer willing to sit like a couch potato and watch a longer show. They want to be enticed to stay in, and they want something more powerfully presented. That's where we can help."

Even when websites replace cable completely which Folger said will happen storytelling will remain key.

"The community-access world is teaching the skills of good storytelling whatever the technology may be and offering a nonpartisan platform for dialogue," she said. "I really envision its role evolving from empowering public speech to empowering public dialogue."

Folger said she sees media centers heading into "the participatory democracy business" as technology makes it easier for audience members to communicate with broadcasters and one another live. In a way, it's the fulfillment of the vision Folger originally had when starting out her career.

"My hope is that public access will become a popular platform for citizen-to-citizen dialogue that will range from the local to the regional to the national and to the global level," she said.

Federal policy changes, however, may not be as easy to overcome as changing technologies.

"There's a major concern about what's going to be happening with the Federal Communications Commission. There are lots of rules that could be changed," said Folger, who belongs to the nonprofit Alliance for Community Media that advocates for about 3,000 public, educational and governmental access channels nationwide. (Many of the community and educational channels have been "defunded" over the years and have either shut down or are operating without a staff, which essentially means a nonprofit can promote an event on a station's community bulletin board listings or upload its own video, but there's no one available to help with training or equipment, Folger said.)

She said the new administration appears to favor less regulation, but community access is a result of regulated industry and could be greatly disadvantaged without it, especially as more things move to the internet.

The new FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, has publicly opposed net neutrality policies that were put in place to ensure that all internet content is equally accessible to consumers. The FCC is scheduled to review policy proposals for internet use and services over the next 18 months.

Folger said there's a possibility that through federal policy changes, the internet could become stratified for profit, giving better access and faster lanes to broadcasters who can afford it.

"So, yes, there are challenges," Folger said. "My hope is that Congress will use its power to continue to enable citizens to express their free speech on whatever media is available ... but if ever there was a moment for local communication and a new generation of civic participation, it is right now."


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Like this comment
Posted by EPAMom
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Feb 18, 2017 at 5:48 pm

The MidPen center is a unique place and has offered so many youngsters the opportunity to learn about broadcasting. So glad Ms. Folger made it her mission to establish this wonderful place.

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