Thurston Community Media
(Published in the Summer Edition of South Sound Sustainable's Living Local - July 2017
Passion and empowerment are what’s in it for these locals who contribute to a sustainable community through the unique work they do every day
For nearly three decades Deborah Vinsel wakes up looking forward to each day because of the work she does. That’s no surprise when your job is to empower locals to discover their voice through community media.
What is community media? Think of Wayne’s World. Ok, now think of something better. I mentioned this to Deborah who laughed while acknowledging the iconic Saturday Night Live bit did “shine a big light” on local access broadcasting back when cable was pretty much the only game in town. We were chatting in the surprisingly high-tech studios of her organization, Thurston Community Media, housed in west Olympia’s Comcast building. Local access has come a long way since the days when you surfed through obscure channels, stopping only when it was late enough and you were inebriated enough to want to see what some crazy locals were up to. Deborah and her staff are all about media education on the cutting edge, “The tools keep changing but our job is to help people use whatever tools get developed. For example, we’re teaching people how to do animation on I-pads now”.
Americans are bathed in media now more than ever. Our wonderful e-toys are constant appendages, feeding us content without our full awareness of its source or its saturating effect in forming our world view. We are more aware of distant celebrities than the intriguing individual who daily walks our neighborhood. Perhaps we should question whether the A-listers who get shoved down our throats daily by big media are truly that much more interesting than the folks who live in our own community. What if this intense digital media beast were to be refocused just a little more back on us? Isn’t the ultimate reality TV right down the street?
There is little traditional media that is home grown these days. Not just members of print or radio talking about the Olympia region, which is minimal at best these days, but the community itself, talking and creating with itself in a candid and unfettered way. It’s hard to imagine digital media’s attention being panned over to our local community. Not as interesting as corporate media, you say? Well then do something about that. Deborah Vinsel and her crew stand ready to address this situation for a $45 yearly fee, and a brief orientation on how to best use the gear and the soapbox it can create for you. We’re not just talking about video of a sound stage here. Deborah gave me a tour of the facility revealing a wide spectrum of training, tools, and other communications resources just sitting around for anyone in the mood to grab the gear and start producing.
“It can be creative expression or issues related”, Deborah explains. Either way, the first amendment is alive and well at Thurston Community Media. I asked her what limits there were in the way of subject matter, message, tone and content and she shrugged and answered, “Very little, we don’t assume responsibility for content; we just show folks how to give their content access.” She went on to explain that, “The cable company is prohibited by law from censoring” what’s produced at community media so “it can be very unfiltered”. Ironically Deborah points out that self-censorship is more the issue she sees with folks checking themselves on what they air to their neighbors for fear of offending or retaliation in some form. Sad but understandable in today’s divided sociopolitical climate.
I told Deborah this sounded too good to be true. She explained the funding source is in federal law that allows local government to take a cut of cable revenue and in turn earmark those funds to community media. “Consider it rent from the cable company for the right-of-way they enjoy.”
Deborah celebrates that “it’s an interesting time to be in this industry” especially in freeform community media where she has been engaged since the 1980s. “We’ve evolved a lot since then but we are trying to be deliberate about how we evolve further. We are trying to figure out where media is going - both in technology and culture – the way people receive and consume media.” She’s not worried about next steps though: “Content is king – that’s the linchpin so it doesn’t matter the platform. My job is to help people learn how to create those messages effectively in light of the platform or technology that is available.” Speaking in quick bursts of passion and energy Deborah explains further, “Yes, we’re a network with four channels but we’re also a media education and literacy organization – a production house with content not just seen on channels locally. It can be “through internet or on the YouTube channel or video on demand via website.” So, in a lot of ways local production can know exists on a global broadcast platform, and it’s all just right down the street from the mall.
"Our product is not video – our product is empowerment and community. I’m most proud of our organization because people are welcomed and safe and not judged for anything. Eye brows might go up but were here to get your message out through encouragement and education.” Deborah reminds me that while shows can be live streamed, most are canned so don’t worry about embarrassing yourself, you can edit out your gaffes. “Most folks are hard on themselves – we play a role of encouraging folks to keep producing to get better. I could tell stories all day about people who have found a community by simply walking through our doors and being part of what we do here – found skills and creative outlets.”
Deborah’s ultimate message is that “We exist, so come take advantage of us.” Stop staring down at your phone and get on the other side of the equation. Stop consuming big media’s pap and start taking advantage of Deborah and her crew. Besides, you may discover your voice in the community and in the process, give Deborah one more good day to look forward to.