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April 22, 2008

A Mission to Help Everyday People Express Their Own Ideas on TV

Vel Wiley, executive director of MATA Community Media in Milwaukee, stood up at panel discussion last December in Milwaukee and declared, “When I was asked to be a part of this conference on the commons, I thought the commons was for people like Greenpeace, an environmental cause. But I understand now that I have been advocating for the commons over the last twenty years when I was advocating for public access TV and public airwaves.”

The truth is, most people deeply involved with protecting the commons in its many forms probably don’t use—or even know—that language to describe their work. At least not yet. They see themselves as concerned citizens, neighborhood activists, environmentalists, human rights advocates, cyberdemocracy firebrands, social justice campaigners or, in the case of Wiley, devout believers in free expression.

Let’s hope they embrace the idea of the commons as quickly and forcefully as Wiley has. “I became very excited about the commons,” she says. “I really did. It makes my work seem even more important.”

“I realized it was not just a small group of us advocating that the people have a voice in the broadcasting media. There are many of us out there fighting the good fight, and don’t realize it is all part of the commons. We’re all a part of something so much bigger, and that helps us to keep going.”

For 24 years, Wiley has been committed to the idea that everyday people should not simply be passive consumers of media, but creators of it, too. MATA Community Media (formerly Milwaukee Access Telecommunications Authority) has a fully equipped television studio and two local channels on the cable dial, which offers community groups and inspired individuals the chance to create their own video programming and see it play in thousands of Milwaukee living rooms. “It’s a community resource,” Wiley says, “Everybody owns it. Everybody can use it.”

MATA Community Media has helped the region’s Spanish speakers, community groups, church groups, youth groups, school children, deaf people, blind people, social justice advocates, boy scouts, non-profit organizations, and YWCA members tell their stories and hone their skills. One high school kid who cut his teeth at the MATA studio was George Tillman Jr., now one of Hollywood’s leading African-American moviemakers, director of Soul Food (1997) and Men of Honor (2000) and producer of the Soul Food television series. Others MATA alums have gone on to careers as newscasters, producers, and engineers for commercial TV stations.

Wiley notes that getting an opportunity to send their ideas and opinions out into the world changes people’s lives in many ways. “It’s so rewarding to see people benefit from something as simple as having a common place to express themselves. I’ve witnessed people who were so shy that they would barely speak to anyone when they first came in the studio, and it’s just beautiful to watch them find their voices and blossom.”

MATA Community Media, like public access channels all across America, was created out of a strong sense of the commons. Private cable TV operators depend upon public infrastructure to spread cable lines to customers’ residences, and federal communications policy along with local legislation has long required them to offer the public with a way to create their own television programming.

In return for a lucrative cable contract for the Milwaukee market, Time-Warner cable agreed to provide video production facilities and cable channels for the public at-large. That’s how MATA was born. Wiley, a native of southern California who moved to Milwaukee in 1980 seeking more of a sense of community, joined the project in its early years, even though her background was in accounting, finance, and human resources, not television production. “At first, I found the whole idea of public access intriguing,” she recalls, “and the more I learned about it, the more intrigued I got.”

Cable corporations resist the idea they owe the public anything in return for making heaps of money on a publicly guaranteed monopoly, and they have vigorously attacked public access policies. First, swarms of cable and telecom lobbyists pressured Congress to repeal a federal law that ensured public access broadcasting in all 50 states and then they hit state capitols to slash support for local public access programs. Some states such as Illinois beat back the assault but in Wisconsin, Wiley notes, more than 50 lobbyists set up shop in the legislature working tirelessly to release cable operators from their commitments to support local public access programming across the state.

“Our funding was cut 57 percent in 1999 and we went from training 600 people to training 100,” Wiley remembers. By 2012 all funding for public access will be eliminated. Yet Wiley and MATA refused to fold up. They now keep public access going in Milwaukee with foundation grants and on-air appeals for financial support from viewers.

Yet Wiley has not lost her ambitions for what public access can accomplish. She’s now exploring a regular program that would be directly focused on issues of the commons. “I want people to understand the commons. I want politicians to know what they are giving away when they take away our commons.”