November 6, 2010

Media Democracy Day 2010: The story of Chicago Independent Television

At Media Democracy Day 2009, I had the good fortune to talk about the future of media policy, highlighting my work with the group Chicago Media Action. This year, I'm talking about another media-themed project that I'm a part of, but one themed to making media -- Chicago Independent Television, the monthly television series of the Chicago Independent Media Center, Chicago Indymedia. It's a show that in a news-magazine-like format covers the intersection of Chicago and social justice. In this presentation, I'll talk about the show's history and achievements, some of the short films we've produced over the years, a behind-the-scenes look at the production of an episode, some more philosophical words about the show, and a bit what the future might bring.

In Hollywood, TV shows can sometimes spinoff from movies, and in a way that's how CITV started. The movie in question was "Where We Stood" -- a documentary produced by four Chicago filmmakers about the of March 20, 2003 antiwar protests in downtown Chicago and Lake Shore Drive on the escalation of the war in Iraq. (That film by the way was later aired on CAN TV, WTTW, and even ABC Channel 7; through those airings, Where We Stood earned a local Emmy nomination, though it lost to a pro-war documentary by the NBC affiliate in Milwaukee.) After one of the screenings of Where We Stood, members of Chicago Indymedia approached the producers of Where We Stood to consider the formation of a Chicago Indymedia video project, to continue the work stemming from Where We Stood. In the summer of 2003, a meeting at Chicago Indymedia's offices was held to agree to launch a project and have as its main focus the production of a regular TV series.

Most of those subsequent meetings in the late summer and fall of 2003 saw a lot of questions: Where would it air? How long would a given episode last? How frequently would we produce new episodes? What do you put in the show? What would the show's name be? In the end, we finally decided on producing a single new half-hour episode once a month. That might not sound like a lot to have to produce, but we styled the show like a televised news magazine, complete with a host, a regular show open and close, a series of short film segments surrounded by bumpers and nonprofit PSA "advertisements" -- what we call the show's "spine". And you already know the show's name.

The show finally launched in January 2004, and the first episode featured segments on a boycott of Coca-Cola over labor repression in Colombia, the Latino Union working on behalf of Chicago day laborers, an antiracism march in St. Joseph MI, and the first National Conference for Media Reform, held in Madison, WI in 2003. Starting a regular show, a regular anything is comparatively easy; keeping the show going, that's hard. Indeed, the show produced four episodes for the first four months of 2004, but only two more episodes for the rest of the whole year in 2004. But things improved; we were able to produce eight episodes in 2005. Now, we have a regular schedule where we produce ten new episodes a year; we take the months of August and December off. This week saw the debut of our 62nd original episode.

That first episode aired on CAN TV Chicago Cable channel 19, which to our eternal appreciation has aired the show since its beginning, and still does today. A year and a half after the show began, one of our former contributors, Kyle Harris, moved to Boulder, Colorado, and got a job at Free Speech TV, the progressive satellite TV channel which airs on Dish Network. Kyle emailed us offering CITV a chance on to be on FSTV, and after some paperwork we got on a national satellite network, which still airs us and reposts episodes of CITV on the Free Speech website, In October 2007, we started a podcast where we posted digital MP4 files of complete episodes on the Internet Archive. That podcast is also now linked on iTunes, as is the complete archive of episodes online at Chicago Indymedia's website,

Chicago Independent Television arguably began with covering the grassroots Chicago response to the war in Iraq and we have continued that coverage over the years, typically devoting an entire episode to the annual protests, including coverage of the repeated responses by local officials to block or intimidate protesters and the counter-responses by protesters in return. Our bread and butter over the years has been Chicago area protests, on a variety of topics -- Palestine, civil liberties, public housing struggles, environmental actions, health care, prison-related struggles, LGBT rights, anti-military struggles, labor actions, the Olympics, the list goes on. Of particular note to Media Democracy Day, CITV has covered many media matters over the years like media concentration, net neutrality, digital television, and three of the first four National Conferences for Media Reform.

A given half-hour episode of CITV typically contains four segments each around five minutes long and over the years we've done a handful of episode-long presentations. Chicago Indymedia's video collective typically meets twice a month during months when we're scheduled to produce a new episode. At the first of these meetings, we map out our paper edit for the next episode -- a detailed list of everything in a given episode down to the second. We also figure out details like who the host would be; what the deadlines for submitting segments; when we expect to produce host introductions; who the host, producer, and editor of a given episode will be; and so on. In the next two weeks, we carry out that plan as well as we can so that by the second meeting we hold a review screening to watch a draft of the next full episode. We watch and critique it, noting any glitches or errors or fixes to make. The final edits are then made in the next few days, and a new episode is submitted to CAN TV typically at the end of the third week of a month, and to Free Speech TV near the end of a month.

There is and probably always will be a tension on CITV between non- professional enthusiasm and professional standards. There is great strength in the power of grassroots media production, and indeed Chicago Indymedia's whole ethos includes expanding the power of the media, certainly among disadvantaged communities. But at the same time we strive to produce each episode of CITV to meet broadcast-quality technical standards for our broadcast partners, and it can be hard for non-professional video to meet those standards. That's not to say that non-professional involvement in shunned or never incorporated into the show; on the contrary, when I helped form Chicago Indymedia's video collective, I had a grand total of zero experience in making or editing video or film and I have now to date produced 48 short films for the show. All I'm saying is that we do ourselves no favors to ignore this tension, but we should acknowledge it and work with that diversity of experience, even if it means more work. Besides, video-making skills can be learned; I did.

And the show has made an impact in other ways. While CITV is all but ignored in the American and Chicago commercial corporate media, we're a go-to resource for overseas and nonprofit media outlets for "dissident footage" -- from Channel 4 in Britain to Russia Today to NOW on PBS -- mainly because the American commercial media don't cover what we cover. Our footage of the Chicago antiwar martyr Malachi Ritscher is being incorporated in two forthcoming British documentaries about Malachi. The show is watched, thanks to Free Speech TV, across the country, to the point where I can't walk across the main hall of the National Conference for Media Reform without getting recognized from the TV show.

A protest or event is one thing, but a protest or event is there and then gone -- unless it's recorded on some media. Then it's not just a protest or event -- it has the potential to live forever. Too often, activists regard independent media involvement as an afterthought or something remembered at the last minute, if it's remembered at all. I say that it's not an event or protest, or not much of one, without a serious independent media component, and we must always remember this. So, if you've got a protest or event coming up, let us know so we can record it. Or better yet if you have a videocamera or a video-capable mobile device, let us know so we can work with you to incorporate your footage into theshow. If you're interested in being a host, or can write, or can generate ideas or organize, even if you have no current video skills, you can contribute to CITV. There's more to making videos than making videos.

I would hope that we can expand the reach to other audiences. CITV has also been on YouTube since 2007 (indeed CITV predates YouTube), but I'd like to see the show get on Link TV on DirecTV, or perhaps on Chicago nonprofit broadcast television (dare to dream!). But I think that the next few years will focus on defending the outlets that currently host our show, particularly since they'll those outlets will face increasing attack. We should do well to remember that and include that fact in our work, as part of the show and elsewhere.

A big debt of gratitude goes out to Jon Groot and Fred Hickler -- two longtime producers and editors of the show who have been with the show since the beginning, as well to Andrew Neef, a recent contributor to the show, and to the many folks who have been contributors large and small, since the show began now seven years ago. I leave you with the words from GRTV, the TV outlet that helped shape my own personal political awakening, which are apropos for CITV and for videomaking generally: If you're not making television, it's making you.

Thank you.