WLAA Exclusive: CTN created a virtual public square during the early months of the pandemic

Public, educational and governmental (PEG) cable channels don’t always get the respect, attention and recognition that larger, more mainstream channels receive from cable viewers and the community. They are often just taken for granted that they will be there and covering important local news when it’s important.

Fortunately for local cable viewers, Community Television Network (CTN) has been there and continues to be there for something really important – the COVID-19 pandemic. CTN and other local channels in communities across the nation have been critical communications resources, acting as a virtual town hall and public square, and proving how essential communication resources are not just in a crisis but in everyday life.

For more than 40 years, some 1,500 plus communities across the nation have negotiated with cable companies to get PEG access media on their cable systems. You might see board of education and city council meetings on some channels, while your neighbors might show up with programs ranging from tech advice to local music showcases.

There are more than 1,600 PEG media operations, which combined, manage over 3,000 PEG channels in the U.S.

CTN’s Dana Denha working behind the scenes.

Local issues, events, information and programming have always been important to CTN.

“Local issues, topics and information is one of the many benefits of community media,” says Melissa Bondy, assistant manager of Community Engagement & Education for CTN. “Community Media brings issues and people together that might never ordinarily bump into each other though they live side by side.”

Nothing was easy during the week of March 9. For many CTN staffers, they rowed into unchartered waters but still made everything look smooth and organized to the viewers. They were a place to turn to for very important local news and information.

“It immediately changed to realizing we wouldn’t have the studios which 100 percent of our regular series programs had some element recorded in, if not all,” says Bondy. “We (producers/talent) quickly got up to speed on Zoom, knowing we needed to get information out in a very timely manner remotely.”

Bondy and the CTN staff reached out to various groups, including the Ann Arbor District Library and Destination Ann Arbor, to let them know they were a resource for all announcements, PSAs or videos they want to share with the community.

“We had numerous public-schools staff and student-produced videos submit their messages to CTN,” she says. “We also worked closely with the Ann Arbor Summer ‘Virtual” summer festival, carried Virtual Graduations from five Ann Arbor high schools, Lincoln High School, Washtenaw Community College and Eastern Michigan University.”

Some of CTN’s efforts during the last few months included maintaining coverage of all virtual City Board and Commission (Zoom) meetings, which can be seen on TV and online, and conducting CTN show interviews via Zoom. They carried Virtual Earth Day programs, completed two CTN Stay Home, Stay Safe Promos and covered UM Ford School City Council Candidate Forums. CTN also produced a number of Mayor’s Updates virtually, assisted with League of Women Voters (LVW) Candidate Forums and produced Candidates Comments.

CTN also produced videos and or video segments  including for Meri Lou Murray Rec Center, WISD , Build Up Michigan, Arbor Farmer’s Market, Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), DDA, Goatscaping project, Cancer Support Community, Artisan Corner, Macaroni Kid Ann Arbor, AAATA, The Ride, Ann Arbor Art Center, Leslie Nature and Science Center, WCC, Leader Dogs for Blind, League of Women Voters, A2SF, Ann Arbor Meals on Wheels, Washtenaw County Public Health, Ann Arbor Public Housing, Recycle Ann Arbor, Safe House Center, Small Business Association of Michigan, Michigan Education Trust (MET), Ann Arbor City Clerk, AAFD, Sustainability and A2Zero Campaign, Catholic Social Services of Washtenaw, Aging Paws, Destination Ann Arbor, and Refurbished Pets of Southeastern Michigan – to name a few.

“We also had several local churches reach out to CTN to play their Sunday services on the public access channel initially for all members of the church who were not able to attend in person, and later for older adults, immune-compromised individuals, and those that did not feel comfortable attending in person once some restrictions were lifted,” Bondy says. “It requires quick turnaround on both the church and CTN to provide televised services in a timely manner.”CTN continues to be in contact with local, health agencies to help get important information to the public including the Washtenaw County Health Department, local hospitals, the University of Michigan, and the American Red Cross.

CTN is continuing to do virtual shows, even ordering ring lights, web cams and green screens for staff and the public access producers to create their own shows at home. They continue to receive requests from organizations and individuals who are not able to hold large in-person gatherings to program their virtual events and/or highlights of their events  – including Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Washtenaw County.

Tom Crawford, interim city administrator, recently stated: “The city continues to monitor this situation and coordinate closely with our local partners, including Washtenaw County Health Department, to remain vigilant in actions that can help to keep our community safe. Visit the city’s website (a2gov.org/covid19) for more information as well as watching Community Television Network programs and meeting coverage for local updates.”