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Santa Rosa's Community Media Center may go dark

Shari Borkin, works on one of her media shows at the Community Media Center of the North Bay on Mendocino Avenue, Friday, Feb. 1, 2013. Borkin has been working at the center for six years and posts many of her videos on YouTube.

(Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)
Published: Sunday, February 3, 2013 at 5:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 4, 2013 at 7:56 a.m.

Santa Rosa is preparing to cut off funding to the Community Media Center of the North Bay, a move that would shut down the nonprofit that since 1997 has broadcast City Council meetings, managed public access channels and provided video editing training to residents.

In an era of smartphones and YouTube, city officials say they no longer can justify spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on the center, which is located on the grounds of Santa Rosa High School.

The city plans to directly take over some of the operations.

The center employs about seven people and in 2012 received $300,000 in City Hall general fund money. On Friday, its staffers filmed the release by Russian River Brewing Co. on Fourth Street of its wildly popular Pliny the Younger ale for a county economic development board project promoting the area.

Jennifer Phillips, an assistant city manager, said the city is seeking a new approach.

"We have the same model we've had for 20 years," she said. "We're looking for innovation. We're looking for collaboration."

Center officials on Friday acknowledged the city's budget constraints, but said that the center is a rare and valuable resource that benefits schools, the public and government.

"These are difficult times fiscally and I don't think there's a lot of financial wriggle room," said Maria Sundeen, a board member. "Services are being cut and Parks and Rec programs are being ignored; it's difficult to justify a media center. But we don't have anywhere in Sonoma County a media center that does what this one does."

The city has been negotiating its contract with the center for two years. If the plan is approved by the City Council on Tuesday, the center would close after its contract expires March 31.

Sundeen said center directors hope the city will agree to at least extend that deadline to the end of the nonprofit's budget year, June 30, creating an opportunity to find a better solution.

"That's 60 days to shut down a 15-year-old media center," she said of the March 31 cutoff. "Let's go back to the table and look at some other things."

"We all want the media center to exist in some way, shape or form," she said. "And I think we all want to work together, the county, the city and the center, to create a viable media station for the entire county."

A shift in the city's stance toward the center became evident last year, when the City Council approved a one-year contract that cut operating funds for the center from $660,000 to $300,000.

Santa Rosa reviewed 11 other communities in Sonoma and Mendocino counties and found that it was the only one funding public access, education and government channels, or PEG channels, with general fund money.

But that singularity is, Sundeen said, a strong argument for the city to maintain the center.

"That's how they justify doing it, but it actually makes it clear why it's so desperately needed," she said, "It's the largest city in the county. It's the county seat. It actually justifies the need to do it, build on it, embrace it."

Last year, the council agreed to begin exploring whether other organizations could provide similar services. Two groups submitted bids.

"We were a bit surprised to have the numbers come back as high as they did," said Eric McHenry, the city's chief technology officer.

The Community Media Center of the North Bay said it could do the work for $952,884. The Santa Rosa Media Institute, a group organized by Eric Christensen, the founder of local video services firm Rotofactory, put in a bid for $791,440.

In addition to being unacceptably high, the media center's proposal "lacked innovation and community collaboration related to media center operations" while the media institute "lacked experience in delivering government production and programming," Phillips wrote in a staff report.

Christensen acknowledged his firm didn't have that experience, but said he was disappointed the city didn't even discuss his submittal with him.

"It just goes to show they were never really serious about this from the get-go," Christensen said.

The city instead is proposing to take over one of the key functions -- broadcasting meetings of the City Council, Planning Commission and Board of Public Utilities on the government access channel.

The city owns all the digital cameras and broadcasting equipment located at City Hall and at the center. Instead of having the center's staff members run the equipment, the city is proposing to do the work itself.

For $250,000, it plans to hire a full-time media services coordinator and pay part-time camera operators. Bringing the service in-house also would allow the city departments to produce and disseminate public service videos more effectively, officials said.

The policy shift has its roots in a change in the laws governing how public access channels are funded. In 1995, the city struck a deal with Comcast's predecessor to fund the center by increasing the franchise fee paid by the cable company to 5 percent. The company paid the fee as compensation to the city for use of its rights-of-way.

But in 2007, in recognition that cable providers were no longer the only game in town anymore, California passed the Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act, or DIVCA, which shifted the franchising authority to the state.

The law lifted the requirement for cable providers to provide public access to video studios, replacing it with a requirement to instead put 1 percent of their gross revenues toward PEG channels.

The law restricted those funds to capital expenditures, such as new equipment. This prevented such funds from being used for center operations.

Staff Writer Jeremy Hay contributed to this article. You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. OnTwitter @citybeater.

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