Public access channel WilliNet looks to cultivate student interest

Let’s say you’re flipping channels on your TV, looking for something to watch, when all of a sudden, between Jerry Springer and an infomercial you see ordinary people sitting and chatting about local events. No make-up, no fancy sets or lighting. Just real people on TV – public access TV, that is. Every cable company in the country is required to provide its community with access to broadcasting. In Williamstown, there is WilliNet, a non-profit corporation funded partially by Adelphia Cable and intended to be a face and voice for the local community.

Resulting from contract renegotiations between Adelphia Cable and Williamstown, WilliNet was incorporated in 1994. The goal of WilliNet is to provide anyone in the Williamstown community who wishes to produce a show access to noncommercial broadcasting time and training in the use of video equipment. Every resident of Williamstown, including every Williams student, is a member of WilliNet.

After starting out in a tiny room in Town Hall, WilliNet moved to a cozy set of rooms on Spring Street, directly over Pappa Charlie’s. The setup is modest but adequate: a single studio with a blue screen wall (good for anything from weather reports to special effects), an office and a video editing room. While it may sound small, the WilliNet studio is responsible for handling Town Selectmen’s meetings, locally produced talk shows, a community bulletin board, and shows produced by the League of Women Voters and the Multicultural Center. Occasionally it also broadcasts sporting events and lectures.

The people behind the scenes at WilliNet are founder and President of the WilliNet Board of Directors Russell Carpenter ’54, Executive Director Sue Tiezzi and local technical guru Rick Lescarbeau. Carpenter and Tiezzi are both strong believers in the importance of the opportunities provided by public access TV, especially for community programming. Both have ties to the community; Carpenter worked for twenty years in the College’s Development Office at Mears House and Tiezzi is a Berkshire native who recently moved back to the area after living in Denver for several years. Carpenter’s interest with cable television stems from his work at Springfield’s WGBY during its early days. While at WGBY, he helped initiate the broadcast of city council meetings on television, which almost immediately led to greater community interest in city politics; after Springfield residents saw just exactly what their representatives were doing, people were more interested in running for office and in promoting local initiatives.

While public access television is an important way for citizens to gain knowledge about their local government, it is also useful in allowing people to gain experience in the field of television broadcasting. Tiezzi recognizes that local stations like WilliNet are the best way for people interested in media-related fields to gain valuable hands-on experience, as well as team experience, which is of primary concern in the expensive and complex worlds of broadcasting and entertainment. “This business gets in your blood, and if it does, you’re in trouble,” Tiezzi said of careers in broadcasting. After receiving her Bachelor’s degree in Film from Syracuse University and a Master’s degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Denver, Tiezzi searched for work in film or TV, gaining experience with internships at other local cable companies. Now, in addition to working at WilliNet, she is a freelance video producer.

For several years, WilliNet has been growing and expanding. It is currently looking for student and community volunteers to learn about the field of broadcasting and produce programming. Considering that WilliNet has three channels on which to run material and only uses Sunday and Tuesday nights and Wednesday afternoons, there is plenty of broadcasting time to be shared. WilliNet runs training classes most Wednesday nights to certify people, first on cameras and then on editing and graphic equipment.

For people interested in producing their own material to be shown on WIlliNet, there are surprisingly few restrictions: as long as the programming meets community standards of decency, doesn’t endorse commercial products, and is somewhat competently made, WilliNet will put it on the air. “Freedom and independence are at the heart of public access” says Carpenter, who adds that he and his staff don’t even pre-screen much of what they broadcast; the responsibility lies with the producer, for good or bad.

In recent years, there has been sporadic interest in WilliNet by students wanting to learn about film and television equipment and practices. This year, Carpenter hopes to make that interest permanent. This Wednesday any student who is interested in learning more about WilliNet or in getting involved with the occasionally defunct Williams College Media Center is welcome to come to an open house meeting, 4:30 at WilliNet. Carpenter sees a great potential for student involvement; students could record and air local concerts, special meetings, or group outreach programs. In addition, students could air their own independent video projects, or produce new programs not only with other students, but also with community members or local elementary and high school students, coordinated through a student-run organization that could conceivably share space and equipment with WilliNet. “It’s a great organization,” says Carpenter, “and I’m excited about the possibilities of greater cooperation with students.”

Any questions about this meeting or WilliNet in general should be directed to Russ Carpenter at WilliNet or Jeff McMahon ’99.