Guerilla Television and Activist Video:
Early adopters of portable video technologies, such as Raindance Corporation, Videofreex, TVTV, Ant Farm and others, wanted to use the tools of television production to challenge and ultimately change the dominant corporate structures of TV production, transmission and reception. They were media activists, and the center of what became the Guerrilla Television movement.
Inspired by “...Teilhard, McLuhan, Bateson, McCulloch, Wiener and others, they developed the premise that if one could understand how our culture used information, one could devise a mix of strategies, using 1/2” video equipment, to leverage the rigid world information order of the time. They thought reversing the process of television, giving people access to the tools of production and distribution, giving them control of their own images and, by implication, their own lives - giving them permission to originate information on the issues most meaningful to themselves - might help accelerate social and cultural change.” (Introduction to Radical Software, Volume 1, Number 1, 1970 - http://www.radicalsoftware.org/e/volume1nr1.html)
As a participant in the Guerrilla Television movement and a founding member of the groundbreaking video collective TVTV, Tom Weinberg is still driven by the movement’s core principles. He has spent more than 35 years pursuing one goal: change the world through television. Throughout his career he has encouraged independent thinking through creating and distributing independently produced non-fiction video. From his work with TVTV, to Ant Farm’s legendary Media Burn event, Image Union, The ‘90s, and most recently The Media Burn Independent Video Archive, that single thread binds a diverse and exhaustive body of work.
In 2003 Tom founded The Media Burn Independent Video Archive in order to preserve his vast collection of videotapes, which includes the works of hundreds of independent producers. In October 2006, the archive’s website mediaburn.org launched as the first and only online archive dedicated to exhibiting the work of independent videomakers of the past 35 years. Over 500 full-length videos are currently streaming online, free, for anyone to see. The technology finally caught up with the vision to bring independent ideas to global audiences.
Just prior to the launch of mediaburn.org, Tom and I discussed his early work and what mediaburn.org means in the context of his long career, and what the future might hold. I first met Tom in 1990, as a production assistant on The‘90s. In 2004, as a film and video-archivist, I reconnected with him to help organize the archive. The interview and documents presented here are an overview of Tom’s early years with TVTV, the Chicago Area Videomakers Coalition, and the creation of the Chicago Editing Center/Center for New Television. We also discussed his work distributing independent media as creator of the television series Image Union, and The ’90s.
Conversation with Tom Weinberg
Carolyn Faber: What first made you think that you could make television?
Tom Weinberg: When did I first know? I wanted to make television and the only way to make television was at a television station, so I went to work at a television station. And I worked there for a year, two years or something and then I went to the Alternate Media conference at Goddard College, Vermont. I went with the people from the Seed, which was the alternative newspaper in Chicago at the time. I mean there were a lot of alternative people around doing things that were either radio or print or so on. And I found these people, and I met up with them at Goddard College and they had a videotape of Buckminster Fuller. It was like a whole hour of regular people just talking with him – the very people who I was sitting there with. Well, how did you do that? Well then they showed me this Portapak and it was like Oh my god we can do this! We can make TV without the television station, without any interference from anybody, without any money from anybody – essentially – without intervention. That’s when I knew. And I went nuts, almost literally at that point. I went nuts partly because all these people were there for 2 or 3 days who were in music and all kinds of – you know, it was my first exposure to gays who were really out and militant, to the Puerto Rican activists, to the Weather Underground. The Videofreex were there, Ant Farm was there – and I didn’t know that. I didn’t know even that until afterwards. OK. They said, “Were you there?” “Yeah, I was there, were you there?” and so on. But that was when I first knew.
CF: But most people from your generation grew up with television as a completely new technology and phenomenon – not everyone would think that they would want to make television or even could. So where did you make this connection that it was something that you could do, and wanted to do?
TW: I think one of the ways was that I could do audio. I was doing audio when I was a kid. Microphones, people talking, performing. Not so much performing actually, but interviewing, taping stuff off the air, talking to it and about it, cutting it, splicing audio together – so I knew the hands on part of it and video was no different in that sense. I mean it was a big difference because it’s a conceptual difference...
CF: But the recording and the cutting process, the tactile part of it was the same.
TW: Right – so I knew that on some level inside me I mean for my own experience.
CF: They had television courses at that time, already?
TW: It was the University of Michigan. They did. It was all studio production. Almost all studio production and [imitates low, authoritative booming voice] boom mikes and here’s how you do it and the control room and...
CF: Did you follow the course or were you off doing your own thing?
TW: Well you had to do things in the studio but then the final project was anything you wanted to do I think. I got very involved; in fact I stayed and did it afterwards to finish it.
CF: What happened after college, did you go to work for a TV station after college?
TW: I went to graduate school in business. For two years in New York. And in that time I learned some things about video – like at the Howard Wise gallery. I saw some stuff that I hadn’t seen before, but there was no – this was 66, 67, or 68 maybe – there was no portable video. It was performance, it was manipulating the image with electronics and, you know, there was some cool stuff but it wasn’t what we do which is about people, and events, and non fiction, changing the world and all those kinds of things.
CF: So how did you respond to what you were seeing in the galleries at that time?
TW: I thought it was really cool but I don’t know – it didn’t spark like “oh my god this is the greatest thing ever.” But it clearly opened up some possibilities for what can be done. You know, that somebody was working in that as a form, as a way of doing things on video that’s different from TV.
CF: So you spent a couple of years in business school in New York City and you were seeing this new video work and then what happened?
TW: I came to Chicago and I thought I was going to go into business. I actually thought I was going to go into my father’s business, and then he died, and we sold the business. So I was kind of free – I was supposed to go into that business my whole life. So I was free and I had some money. And I decided to do what I really wanted to do – not go into business or investment banking. I went to work at Channel 26, which was the first UHF station and it was run on a shoestring at the time. All day long it was a stock market and business show – which is why they hired me because I knew enough to do that. You know, I booked guests and I was on the air a little saying what the stocks are – every hour the stocks that were doing. And then I did a news show there – they started the first black news show and they made me the producer of this black news show, every night at 10:00. And it was a great experience. It lasted maybe 6 or 9 months and I had a fight with the management because they didn’t support me with the talent. And I mean, I wasn’t exactly the most experienced producer but we were doing ok.
CF: What was the show?
TW: It was called A Black’s View of the News. Roy Wood was the newscaster he was from WVON and a kind of a senior guy – went on to become head of the Black Audio Network. Don Cornelius did the sports – he went on to do Soul Train and other things like that. And Janet Langheart was the weather girl – that’s what she was called at the time. And she wanted to do horoscopes instead of the weather every night. And, I did something there that I had done when I was a sports editor in Michigan at the college daily – which is – every night I would write a crit sheet, a review of what we did right and wrong, trying to develop the show. And one night I wrote to one of the people, “You HAVE to be on time. The show starts at 10:00. It’s TV. You can’t walk in at one minute after ten and think we’re gonna...” Well he came in the next day (I don’t believe I’m telling this story) and he says, “You can shove this motherfucker right up your ass if you don’t like it”. Verbatim. And I said, “Wait a minute”. And I walked out, and went to the management, to the program director actually, and then the owners. I told them the story and they said: “Well, we don’t want to lose him”. And I said: “Well you just lost me”. So that was the end of Channel 26.
CF: So were you just looking around for work after that?
TW: Yeah – I think we did the first Channel 11 piece shortly after that – we, meaning me and my friend Mitchell Klein. This was before Porta-Paks I think, so we shot on film. It was in the studio, and the segments were on film. It was the only time I really cut film so it was probably 1970.
CF: Porta-paks were around.
TW: They weren’t really in Chicago until Anda [Korsts] and I and Tedwilliam [Theodore] got them all around the same time and I guess that was 1971. But in the meantime – I’m not really sure of the chronology – we did a show called Hiring Line. And the idea was to get jobs broadcast on the show, through whoever we could get jobs from – from the Illinois employment service and others – so they’d be on TV. Employers would be looking for people and we’d match them up with jobs, for people who didn’t have jobs and needed them. And the other part of it was consumer education and teaching people how to not get bilked. So, How to Buy a Car and not Get Taken for a Ride was one of them. It was just a pilot – we did it once or twice – but I think it wound up being the show Making It. That was my first experience in public television, which in a way got me going there. I started to know people there and a little later I started producing shows there.
CF: So you came into contact with other people doing the same thing as you, or who wanted to do the same thing. Is that how you met Anda and Tedwilliam?
TW: Yeah, exactly. And then Anda and I collaborated with Jim Wiseman, another guy who knew the technology, to do It’s A Living, which was based on Studs Terkel’s book Working, which was new at the time – that’s the first time I met him and worked with him. Maybe it was ’74 and it was based on Working. We had six people in the hour; 3 were people who were in the book (the same people) and 3 were different. So we were trying to figure out how the TV version would work – we were experimenting. Then we did five more 1/2 hours after that. So the first one was on Channel 11, the local PBS station. It was on a few other channels and then it went to the PBS system where others could pick it up.
CF: Did you produce that with your own financing? Or did PBS do that? Or WTTW?
TW: No, WTTW didn’t pay for it but they did give us services to take the 1/2” and turn it into a broadcast format – 2” I think. But the money came from the Illinois Humanities Council and maybe some from the NEA. And there was a law firm that Anda had a connection with that put up some of the cash. There wasn’t a lot of cash there – we had the cameras and Porta-Paks, we had the editing units – nobody got paid more than a quarter.
CF: So, where does your work with TVTV fit in to this?
TW: Well TVTV started in ’72 so that’s what I was doing for 3 almost 4 years. I knew Michael Shamberg from when we were kids. We grew up in the next town from each other on the North Shore, and we actually went to Sunday school together, and so we sort of knew each other. And I had met him at Goddard because of his work with Raindance. He and Frank Gillette and Ira Schneider and Beryl Korot. So we had corresponded a little and talked on the phone about the idea of getting a whole lot of people together in one place, and lots of our portable cameras and making a video out of that. And we decided to do the political conventions, which were both in Miami Beach in 1972. And so he came to Chicago and I remember we were sitting over at the Lawson YMCA for three hours trying to figure out what and how to get the money and so on. And that was like in March or April, May. And we did it in July and August. And then we edited it. We sort of invented this collage form of editing that had no voice over, and people speaking for themselves and trying not to have anything that was manipulative, you know – no cheap shots. But of course we learned from that because we had a lot of cheap shots. And I learned that that doesn’t work and it doesn’t feel right and you squirm. And so I’ve tried to avoid it ever since – I mean – consciously. Sometimes you can’t. But it just doesn’t work. And that was part of our – it was a whole education of how to edit, how to shoot, how to get people together. I remember I rented a big house with a big pool in Miami and there must have been 25 of us living in this place. It was big but it wasn’t that big. And – I mean living there for a week to 10 days at a time – we had a good time, but we also learned a whole lot about how to do this. And we connected with people from all over the country. The qualification for going there was essentially to have a porta-pak. And we didn’t know – nobody knew each other – almost. There was a network somehow – they knew them and they knew her and she knew her and she knew him. All of a sudden there were kids from Antioch, and Ant Farm was there – they drove in on a bus and I’d never seen anything like that.
So, Michael had written for Life magazine and he was – he was a journalist. And I had been doing journalism and some documentary stuff so we both had a fix on the organizing politics of it. But obviously it was all making it up as we went along, including the two shows that came out of that which were, The World’s Largest TV Studio and Four More Years. World’s Largest TV Studio was first and it’s not as well known. But in a way it’s almost more important because it’s the first one and there are a lot of mistakes, there are a lot of problems.
CF: What came out of that experience?
TW: We called ourselves TVTV – Top Value Television. At the time there was something called Top Value Stamps, which they gave away in the stores, you know for coupons and stuff. So, it was a pun on TVTV (like the Danish tv-tv group). And somehow there was no formal entity of TVTV, it was completely catch as catch can for those conventions. Then we realized we were on to something and we moved to San Francisco and started TVTV as a company. We went through a certain – we actually raised some money and we had stock you know – we were trying to make a real company. And so right after that the first thing we did was Adland, which was a partnership. We got other people to put in their money, TVTV was a general partner, and then money came in from TV Lab at WNET in New York, which was a joint project in some ways of WGBH Boston and WNET. TV Lab was a seminal place for video in lots of ways. That’s where Nam June Paik did all his work at the time and that’s where the Vasulkas were, that’s where we were doing things all the time. The Videofreex did stuff down there – I say down there – it was in the basement of somewhere on the east side.
The next thing we did was the Guru Maharaji and then there was another one about the Cajuns and Mardi Gras season, which I was not directly involved in, and New Orleans – not really New Orleans but rural Louisiana. We did the Superbowl tape in 1975 and then Washington Bureau, which was three one-hour tapes where we really converged in almost the same way we did in Miami. And by that time we were more organized, we had people who were really shooters – like cinematographers. We had audio people who were audio people from film and – it became a lot more professional and a lot less spontaneous. At the beginning it was pure jazz. And it was amazing. After a while it became – the tapes might have been good, the product was definitely good – but at least from my point of view the involvement was not as fun. And there was money pressure there too, because you had to deliver.
CF: You were a bona fide company at that point.
TW: Yeah. We weren’t much of a company but we were a company. Michael [Shamberg] and Allen Rucker and Megan [Williams]. But by that time the Ant Farm had completely pulled out of TVTV. They were there in ’72 and ’73 and Chip worked on Adland as a main person.
CF: What caused Ant Farm to pull away from TVTV?
TW: The reason there was a split was really there was no money. Nobody was paid hardly anything. $50 here, or $100 bucks there. And so we had a meeting, everybody together meaning all the Ant Farm people – maybe there were 12 or 15 altogether. And I remember Doug Michaels saying something like, ‘Well we’re not making any money, TVTV is getting all the publicity, Ant Farm is getting none. We were here before TVTV and if there’s no money then what is there? There’s image points. And we’re getting no image points and we’re getting no money so why should we keep doing it?’ And so there was kind of a clash of founders, if you will, between him and Shamberg. And that’s when Ant Farm went away from TVTV. They were still my friends and they were brilliant and when the Media Burn scheme came around I went for it, big time.
CF: And you were seen as turning against TVTV when you worked with Ant Farm on Media Burn?
TW: Well, I had grown away from them for various reasons. I was sometimes a liability because I didn’t play – I had my own problems, which had nothing to do with them per-se, except that the environment was such that it was too much stimulation for me in some ways and so I just went bonkers for awhile. Plus there were theoretical and principle things that I didn’t necessarily go for. TVTV is a remarkably important step because it was brand new and because nobody had ever done it before and because it was a success on some level at the time. Those first tapes were shown on TV, actual commercial TV stations in all of the Westinghouse stations.
CF: TVTV was the galvanizing force?
TW: Galvanizing...it was just the first force. Yeah. And what happened to TVTV – I started to say this before – is that several of the people including Michael, who in general was the driving force and Megan, who became his wife, and Alan Rucker who they knew from Washington University in St. Louis (and they were all friends with Harold Ramis at that time in college), they decided they wanted to move to LA and make scripted TV. And I wasn’t interested in that. You know– I didn’t know about any of this stuff until 1971 and so now here we are 5 years later and they want to molt into something that’s different, that’s obviously valid and using the techniques and the portable video and all of that, to become TV shows and eventually movies.
TW: The equipment was expensive – particularly the editing equipment. And when you had it you didn’t use it all the time so there was a something of a sense of community among the people who were users of video. And I think we came together – probably the first three people who were involved were Scott Jacobs and Tedwilliam and I – and we had this idea of having editing and playback and sort of a community. Creating community is obvious in the Internet age but it wasn’t so obvious then. And so we got the space on Hubbard Street, and had some editing equipment given to us by Roscor. Paul Roston. That was key at the time because we didn’t have any money then. And people joined because they wanted that to happen. It was a cooperative in a sense there was only one or two people working there and the rest of it was run by us.
CF: How did you get that equipment donated? Did you tell him (Roston) you were doing social media or did it matter to him?
TW: He had a very good sense of what we were doing and he had a conscience. You know most of his business was corporate but he saw that the 1/2” that we were doing and the way we used it – technical, political or social or whatever – it was different and he bought it, he believed in it. He was young, you know we were all pretty young. He was in his 20s, they were just starting their business. But he had a vision for what he was doing in video and it blossomed, huge. So for him to give us a couple thousand dollars worth of stuff at a very low price – I think it was key but it was also based on his understanding.
I’ve done very little with him over the years but we’re still in touch a little bit. I had lunch with him about a year ago, 6 months ago, and told him what we’re doing [with the Media Burn Archive] and he was interested. The continuity of having the guy who first helped us to start out the Editing Center in 1977 and having the people that I met at TVTV originally that first week in Miami – Skip Blumberg, Nancy Cain, Eddie Becker – all these same people I’ve been working with making video for 30+ years – they’re still my dear friends. See, there’s a difference in style. If you work at CBS news you develop friendships. I mean, I worked at CBS sports for a little while and you develop close friendships. It’s all for the business though. It’s all for the corporate good of making the program, and CBS’ ability to sell it and everybody doing their role. At the time that I was there – they did that very, very well. With us (TVTV) though, it was always a different thing – we worked with our friends. We worked with people and it became not just work, it was almost play. You know we stayed together, we drank together, we hung out together – it was a 24 hour thing almost in those days. And we liked – we loved each other. We grew and we learned from each other and it was just different. It was not corporate – it was fascinating. It was based on connection and friendship rather than accomplishment.
CF: Was there something different that you were trying to do with the Editing Center, when you started it, than you were doing with TVTV?
TW: Yes, the Editing Center was absolutely based in and local to Chicago – it was our community, it was our people. There were people from the projects who worked there, there were people from uptown, there were some artists. It was all Chicago. It was a Chicago phenomenon. And we brought in people sometimes from New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco because we had shows and we had the meetings and stuff.
CF: You had exhibitions there?
CF: How often?
TW: Several a year – I don’t know exactly. There was almost always something playing in one of the rooms that people could come over and see. What happened there was that after about a year and a half we were up and going and it worked. People had to pay a little money to do what they were doing but it was affordable. You’d shoot, you get 20 hours of tape, you go in and you edit for 3 days. It was first come first serve sign-up, no discrimination between what your work was or who you were. Yeah there were certain negotiations involved in that but basically that was the underlying thing. So it was up and going and then at that point we were saying, “Well what happens to all these tapes? How come nobody’s seeing see ‘em? We can play ‘em in the other room, the social action people can play ‘em in their community groups. But not the stuff that most of us were making.” And so I think maybe the first thing was that we talked to Ed Morris at Channel 44 into putting a one-hour show together. We called it the Chicago Area Videomakers Coalition – which was most of the people from the Editing Center. And so there was a TV show. An actual TV show that people saw.
CF: How did you get Channel 44 to show work by local independent video makers, a new group that no one had heard of – you could have been anybody – how did you do that?
TW: It’s hard. It’s who you know. I knew the guy. And he knew this was something different, he knew it wasn’t going to cost him much (almost nothing) and so he ‘d do it. Plus, they had relatively little money and so they were trying new things all the time that were cheap. I’m not sure exactly how I got to know him before that but I did. And so we went to him and he went for it.
CF: And the Chicago Area Videomakers Coalition – you gave yourselves that name to help get yourselves out there collectively – it was easier to do it that way than as individuals?
TW: Oh yeah – for sure.
CF: Did you submit your work to other outlets that way?
TW: I’m not sure we did. Let’s see, there was a TV show on Channel 11. Gene Siskel was the host. And it was called Nightwatch. And it was on about once a month – it was very irregular. It started at 11:00 at night and went until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. They showed independent film and video, and Gene was the host (This was way before Sneak Previews or Siskel and Ebert) and he would bring in people, whose work was on the show, including me. I was probably one of the more vocal ones at the time. I had a problem with that TV show because if you’re going to show independently produced work the concept is not to be a critic of it and say why it’s no good or what’s wrong with it. It’s to understand why it matters and where it’s coming from and how it’s remarkable that it could be done at all. It’s not to be a critic – as far as we were concerned. There’s room for criticism on multi-million dollar films but not dirt-cheap community video or weird little video manipulations on the first computers. And I had a little confrontation with him on the air when I first showed Media Burn. That was the first time Media Burn had been on TV, I think.
You know a lot of this distribution stuff was what I did, more than most anybody. I mean, that was sort of my thing. Even with the first TVTV stuff I got it on – at least made the connection to – the Westinghouse stations which showed it in New York, Hartford, Philadelphia, and Boston and Miami and maybe one or two other places where they owned stations. But in Chicago Channel 11 was sort of where we belonged. It was public television, it had a certain cache in the community, they had pretty good ratings and everybody knew it and it had a cultural standing and so on. And I had already done some documentaries by myself over there by 1978 (maybe it was Joe Cummings and the Overnight Man and maybe Marzullo or something...).
CF: Those were shows you produced on your own that got broadcast on WTTW?
TW: Right, but in conjunction with them. It was their show. I was the freelance producer. And we had a contract and all the post-production was there. And their guys shot most of it. So I was more like a traditional producer at that time except I was shooting it the way we always shot stuff – verite, almost no narration.
CF: Was there anybody else doing that at that time in Chicago?
TW: I don’t think so. Tom Palazzolo was doing stuff but it was coming from a whole different place – wonderful, but not the same. I don’t think so but maybe there was.
CF: I don’t think so.
TW: It was early ’78. We invited the boss – Bill McCarter, the head of Program Broadcasting, Dick Bowman and a couple other people to come and talk to us as the community. Well in those days television stations had to renew their licenses and had a little sense of having to really deal with community. And WTTW to their credit took that seriously, with or without the requirements, because they thought of themselves as grounded in Chicago – more so than the network owned stations that’s for sure. And so they came into the Editing Center and we sandbagged ‘em, essentially. We attacked them. About Gene Siskel and that Nightwatch show and about not having independent work seen on a regular basis on their air, and that they should because there was so much of it, it was important, it was another point of view, it was socially responsible so on. And we had a group, there were quite a few people, maybe 20 people in this discussion and you know – they were battered. I mean they didn’t expect that at all. And, it was pretty good. What came out of that was Image Union. Because I had done work there and because they knew me and because I was sort of the chairman of the Editing Center I was made the producer of Image Union, this new non-existent TV show for independents which they said they would put on the air every two weeks for an hour. And they thought there would be two or three shows and then there wouldn’t be any more material and then we’d go away. Well – what is it now – 29 years later it’s still on. I mean I’m not doing it anymore but there was no dearth of material – and there still isn’t.
CF: It’s amazing though that they went in there, you beat ‘em up like that and they didn’t just walk away.
TW: Yeah, it is pretty amazing but you know what – they’re good people ultimately.
CF: They listened.
TW: Yeah, and they took what they were doing seriously, as Chicago people trying to be responsible.
CF: Did the Channel 11 people presume that since you were making independent work, you knew it best, you knew the people doing it, you probably knew better than they did about how to present it?
TW: Right, for sure, definitely.
CF: That kind of respect doesn’t seem to exist anymore does it?
TW: [Laughing] No. Because everything, including Channel 11 is so corporate and so oriented around raising money, and spending money in a way that’s controlled. There is fear of radical content, or even slightly progressive content, everybody’s looking behind them and covering their ass so they can keep their jobs. Risk taking has taken a huge – it’s gone away. Yeah, it’s not the same.
CF: So how and why did the Chicago Editing Center become the Center for New Television?
TW: I think they’re the same thing.
CF: It just got a new name?
TW: Yeah. The Editing Center was too limited a name because we were doing other things. We were doing exhibitions and other things. You know the thing that made the Center for New Television work for the first couple years was the government of the United States, and the CETA programs. CETA (Concentrated Employment and Training Act) was a program within the labor department. It was a way you could get funding for hiring young people essentially to do work and the government would pay half it of and you would pay half as a non-profit and that is what made dozens of alternative institutions – that didn’t have any money and were undercapitalized – capable of existing in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It wasn’t a lot of money but it was an inspiration and it was enough money to make a difference.
CF: It seems like you’re always struggling to get the work distributed in some way – that it’s not as hard to make the work as it is to get it seen. What was changing about that at the time of the Center for New Television?
TW: Well, it was selling – for lack of a better word. You know it was getting out to the people you could get out to and try to convince them that it was a good thing to do. It wasn’t really for much money. It’s not the kind of selling that goes on at NAPTE for syndicated programs. But there’s some amount of convincing individual people that it’s worthwhile doing. Whether it’s Channel 11 or the original Westinghouse stuff or the TV Lab at WNET, we had to convince them that we were on an experimental edge. Or whether it’s Image Union or PBS stations for The ’90s. You know, for The ‘90s we had a guy who was on the phone 6-8 hours a day just talking to the stations to tell them about it and give them a pitch to make sure they at least considered putting it on. And we built it from 15-20 stations to over 200 in 2-3 years.
CF: The ’90s seems like your greatest success as far as getting independent work seen.
TW: Yeah people still say that. The ‘90s was 1989 - 1993 and we did 52 1-hour broadcasts. And for a while we were doing one a week. You know I talk to Joel Cohen now and he says, “I don’t know how the hell we did that”. I don’t know how the hell we did that. But we did it. It was clearly the most successful of that kind of genre for sure and the main reason that it could exist at all was that we got lots of money from the MacArthur Foundation. It was a good investment by that foundation, and then there was a little money from other foundations. Then we determined and committed ourselves to try and get the show on the PBS stations which we succeeded quite remarkably well in. Then the PBS and CPB have a program fund together and we became part of that. We were funded by that for a year and that was ’92. That’s when we did all the political shows and after we did the political shows there was no more money. The CPB gets its money from the Congress and ’92 was obviously an election year and they were not going to have any controversial political shows. They just didn’t want to fund that. They wouldn’t do that. That wasn’t your question – you were asking about The ’90s as a success.
CF: That’s ok – that makes me think about MacArthur – they funded the production of The ’90s when there was no guarantee anyone was going to put it on the air?
TW: John Schwartz had founded a new TV station, which was KBDI in Denver, Channel 12. It was the first real alternative broadcast TV channel. Very little funding and rag tag. But it was a real station. They ran some of the PBS programming – they got it after the main PBS station, you know because they were second-class. But they were the presenting station to PBS the first time around. You need a PBS station to be able to present it to the PBS system. So you know it was like we were brothers and sisters at the time. So it wasn’t too hard to make that happen. And then Channel 11, WTTW came in as a co-presenter. Well they have a lot more muscle than KBDI. By then we were working with them a lot and I had actually been on the staff for several years before that. So, we started with those two stations that had a certain amount of credibility with MacArthur or with the funders because they were real they believed in it and Bill Kirby REALLY believed in it.
CF: What about WTTW, were they strong supporters?
TW: Bill McCarter was a defender in lots of ways for all this stuff and he took some heat for it. From some of the staff and some of his board maybe and from people who said you shouldn’t put this commie stuff on TV. You know it wasn’t commie stuff but it was a lot closer to liberal radical progressive politics than almost anything that was on. And he didn’t budge on it – he said, “you know it’s important. It’s one of the more important things we do and as long as I’m here I’m committed to doing it.”
CF: So he was still committed to that sensibility of community service, public...
TW: He liked the show too because he thought it was good TV, and different from anything that was on. Plus what happened there – surprisingly enough to everybody was that we started to get really good ratings. And they couldn’t believe it.
CF: We haven’t talked about technology yet. Can you talk about technologies since the Porta-Pak that changed the way you work?
TW: I think it changed every time something new came along. The time-base corrector as a separate unit made it possible to take this helical scan 1/2” tape that we were working in and convert it. Much later the analog tape could be converted to digital tape, which is what we do now with the archive. But that’s one piece that changed the possibilities. Cable TV and satellites changed the number of available outlets. The thing that changed the whole methodology though was the ability to edit videotape. And believe it or not that didn’t happen until 1965. All the rest of it was either film shown on TV, or it was live studio with some sort of roll-ins, but it wasn’t really edited – electronically edited. It wasn’t possible. I don’t know what changed it. So then they had this show called Laugh-in, which was a huge success – a network success at the time. It was the first time there were fast cuts – because they had the ability to do it. What happens is with technology is that mostly it works it’s way down. Occasionally, as with the Porta-Pak, it works its way up.
CF: What do you mean?
TW: Well the big companies and the corporate users and the broadcasters get first crack at the new stuff, that’s invented by big companies with big R and D, big expenses and a big need for getting paid back. So they sell it first to the people with the most money who have the most need for it, which are the networks and the local stations and those kind of people. And then, let’s take the first video Porta-Pak that came from Sony, you know people say 1968 but in fact nobody had them until 1970 or ‘71. It was something that was sold as a product for training purposes for corporate use. That’s how their marketing was set up. But what happened is that freaks like us got a hold of it and we had a different use for it and it worked. I remember 1972 at the convention we had a little workspace in the back space where all the newspaper chains and TV were. It was on a table and all our stuff was there and it was a meeting place. And I remember Charles Kurault came by and he freaked. Because we were doing something that they couldn’t do. In other words this technology was better and more suited for their work than what they had with their millions of dollars. So at that point – that means that this technology came from the bottom – being us: the least expensive, and the least capitalized, and the least corporate and the rest of it – up. So within a year and a half, CBS was working with mini-cams on the news. It went from a $1,200 or $1,500 dollar unit up to the mini-cam, which at the time was $30,000-$40,000 a pop. Granted it was color and it was fabulous and it had $5,000 dollar lenses and all the rest of it but the technology itself – once they got that – they were able to do news differently and they did. Other technologies – video editing and TV, electronic editing for our kind of video became important when that happened.
Cable and Satellite allowed for more channels and therefore the hope for diverse programming and in fact it was very disappointing, because it was just more of the same, with the same owners and the same everything. You know, MTV started in the early 80s and it was definitely something different on cable and it defined a new paradigm of sorts for commercial TV but it was commercial – it was selling records and songs and it was selling products and so it wasn’t really coming from a place of saying “We’re going to make the world a better place by using media”, it was “We’re going to sell more stuff and do cool things that people like so that we get ratings and more advertising.“
CF: It also sounds a little like what you mean by the top down. Instead of technology innovating from the top down, it was programming innovating in the interest of making money.
TW: Right but I was also talking about technology which you know came from the top down in that first, there was science and research and then there was government. Big science, big government and all of that preceded what we have now, all the way to the big corporate .com businesses. All of that is huge money, which now in 2006 and onwards filters to the little guys because we have the opportunity, based on this technology. You can see what’s just happening now with Internet streaming video and the capability of having Internet channels – which is going to be a monster wonderful thing that’s going to happen.
CF: One might argue that the Internet was really a free and open space and that’s why people were so excited about it to begin with. And that it is increasingly owned and co-opted by large corporations.
TW: I think you’re right. I think you’re right except for the fact that large government isn’t much different from large corporations in that it takes multi-millions, billions of dollars of investment to make it work. It came from the Pentagon. And they had all the money in the world to make this stuff work. It always had the capability of being decentralized and interactive and having major possibilities for all sorts of people but it happened because they had enough money to develop it.
CF: In your papers I found references to a show called Eye Contact, which looked like it was conceived in response to the early days of home video – when that was first happening. Is that true? Did you do something in response to home video market?
TW: We did something in response to the home video market when it first started. The studios didn’t know what to do and they were charging $129, in 1977, for a movie and nobody bought them. They were afraid they were going to lose their market. There were still 6 or 8 movie studios at the time. And so we got together somehow and did a series called Pop Video. And maybe there were 6 or 8 hours and it was a test – literally a corporate test market – and got all sorts of surveys back and so on because it was a corporate model. It was their product and our content. And I’m not sure what came of that except that when vhs was a new technology (we’re back to that) we jumped on it. We got a lot of help from Bell and Howell video from a guy named Bob Fancook who really put up the money. He was in the duplicating business for the movie studios. They would make thousands and thousands of tapes and what he thought, very wisely, was that there was going to be a whole market outside of feature films in video.
Well I’ll tell you one thing that was really huge was the small format – Hi8 for instance. When Hi8 came out it was definitely cheap, there were 60 minutes on a tape, even 90, and it was the size of your palm. And it worked. The camera weighed about 3 or 4 pounds. And the first camcorders with the box weighed about 80 pounds or 60 pounds I mean it was formidable. That was the new breakthrough. That was the technological breakthrough and that’s what made The ‘90s possible.
CF: Porta-Paks started it all because their possibilities encouraged people to think they could make television. It was portable, you could shoot, edit, do everything independently. So it inspired new thinking and new art and new documentary ...
TW: You have to understand that in some ways the times were different. Things were very, very politicized. You know I just moved and I found piled of Whole Earth catalogs from the 70s and I remember we contributed to one that was about media. And the whole point was that it fit into a movement, it fit a purpose – the use fit into a political, social ,cultural context at the time. Nothing like that has happened since then, until now, until the Internet. And now it’s happening because it’s a breakthrough and it’s the biggest breakthrough I can remember, ever. Why? Because the costs are low, the accessibility is 100% there’s nobody who can’t get on – somehow. Granted there are lots of problems but technologically it’s all there to do, and it never was before. You know every kid has a camera; people have it on their phone. So, there’s wonderful opportunity right now to amalgamate content, program things in a different way, build communities around the content and belief structure and cultural assumptions and all of that. And come out with something that’s global. And you know tv-tv in Denmark is more akin to us than Channel 9, here in Chicago. They’re our people, we’re their people and now we can communicate easily and see each other’s stuff.
CF: You were talking about how politicized things were when the Porta-Paks came out and do you really think they are now?
TW: No I do not think generally there is political awareness or consciousness in this country that’s anything like it was in ’67 through the early ‘70s, because it’s been beaten down and corporatized. I think that obviously in France, obviously in Africa, obviously in many places in Asia, obviously in the Middle East, South America and Central America – they are in a constantly changing and politically aware state. Cultural change, political change, social necessity – saving people really – giving them the things they need to be able to survive whether it’s water, vaccines – whatever it is – all of that is going on. That’s highly political and important stuff. And this country is just kind of floating through, ideologically, I think. So no it’s not like that here but it sure is around the world and that’s where we’re going. But in terms of video, using video and media for social change, and for just educating people about other people, and in terms of bringing people together who have common interest but didn’t know it, this is the best tool ever invented.
CF: What about You Tube, Google Video and My Space – where you can just put anything there and it seems democratic in the way that there are few filters? It begs the question of what do people really want? When you look and see what the most played videos are and what the most requested videos are and they’re not what’s going on in Lebanon. So now that we’re at this moment, of having a huge pool of every possible kind of video online nearly instantly, how do you build your audience, how do you really make free global access work for you when people don’t necessarily want to watch your stuff?
TW: Or they don’t know to watch even if they want to. I don’t know – we’ll have to see. Google video is amalgamating as much video content as they possibly can. And in less than 6 months, 7 months they’ve put together more video than anybody, already. And Google, we know they can sort things out. And that’s the goal with Google video – to be able to find things in a video search engine of some sort. Their strategy is transparent. They say what they’re doing and they spend a fortune to make it happen and have it and they’re going to be the ones, if you ask me. Even with that, how do you know – what do you look for, if you’re looking for Media Burn what do you say? Well if you know what Media Burn is I guess you can put that in and get it. If you’re looking for independent non-fiction video – well who’s going to be looking for that? Innovative TV? I don’t know – I don’t know the answer. But take The ‘90s for instance. We defined a community that didn’t exist and they found out how to find us on public television stations. They didn’t exist before, we got mail and faxes (there was no email yet) from all over the country, sometimes from the least likely sources, and they found it. Well I think that’s going to happen in some way with mediaburn.org – I know it’s going to happen in some way with streaming and Internet TV channels.
I had an electrician come over the other day – he was wiring some stuff in my house. And he saw me and I was working on the computer on something and he asked me about independent programming and he said, “I watch Free Speech TV all the time and I watch Link TV all the time.” This is just some guy and he said these are the only places that aren’t lying to you that they aren’t telling you the stuff that you know isn’t completely right or true. Well, I mean he’s an ordinary American working man – ok? He’s not some guy who walks around wearing his politics. So he found what he was interested in and in the same way, other people will too.
There are still magazines that still serve the interest of various cultural and political and social interests. There are still books that come out that are not necessarily mainstream books that you find in the top ten at the airport but there’s a lot of books and some of which have very significant input into the way people think and how the world changes. So that’s almost a better model in a way than TV, maybe. And it doesn’t take – it’s a different model, it’s a different dynamic. With commercial TV you have to have a certain threshold of viewers to really make your money. It’s tougher and tougher because there’s more commercial outlets and there’s more competition with Internet and Tivo and, DVDs and god knows what. The broadcasters are based on ratings, on numbers. The Internet allows you to be based on interest group so that you don’t have to have the numbers to survive. It’s a lot more specialized it’s a cheaper cost of entry. It can be supported, even ad supported by political, cultural or technological interests or whoever is interested in what the subject matter is – you can get the Google ads on the right side to match the subject matter and that’s money that can come back to the content providers in some way. That’s different – it’s a different configuration. It’ll happen somehow that way because there’s an opportunity and the technology makes it possible, nobody’s going to stop it. Broadcasters are going to squeeze anything they can just like they’ve squeezed the FCC and they’ve squeezed the government so they don’t even have to report – there’s no limit on the number of minutes of commercials in an hour – they’ve amalgamated it – so now there’s 2 or 3 radio companies in the country. There’s 5 media companies, or 4 now and 3 more in the world that are about the same size. I teach this course in television and society – and that’s all the stuff we talk about. But the Internet provides a lot of hope, more hope in a way than anything I can remember because it’s decentralized, because it’s cheap, because it’s worldwide. And because it doesn’t take a threshold of participants in order to be viable.
CF: So given that – it seems possible that channel 500 can fulfill your previous ambitions to have programming widely distributed – can you talk about that a little bit? What is Channel 500?
TW: Channel 500 is an online TV channel that’s interactive that builds its own community. It allows for viewer choice on some levels to be able to see things but it also has a continuum as a TV channel. You don’t have to watch what’s on the channel because you can go different ways and different places on line but it has an identity similar to a television channel. And in fact in the best dream of all would be to be able to do this online, take the best of it, edit it and put it on TV. And some television source would both promote and pay for the online channel. So what is it for – its to reach people all over the world with ideas – it’s the same stuff as everything I’ve done – except it’s much more possible now to reach people all over. And so it’s way beyond America, we just happen to live here. And it’s a way for people all over the world to get their points of view shown, it’s a way for us to get the kind of non-CNN line seen around the world. It’s a way to grow interest in non-traditional documentaries and films that have relatively narrow distribution. We got stuff from South America. We got stuff from people demonstrating in this country from years ago about issues that are now coming to the front again. We’ve got interviews with people who are now dead who had wonderful and important points of view about – anything. We can do obituaries, really, which I’m very interested in and always have been because you learn about somebody you don’t even know I mean, they’re great. There’s also, we’re also talking about something called ‘face time’ which is really just somebody talking to the camera telling their bit. We’ve been thinking about using kiosks where somebody can just walk up and say their business and it’ll come directly to us somehow and we’ll put them all over the place. It’ll take some money and it’s going to take some doing but at that point there is no filter.
CF: Like a Speaker’s Corner on every corner?
TW: Right. Well they have one at CITY in Toronto and that was the first one. I saw it and I just flipped. You know it’s like we had the idea and they did it. So there’s going to be artists and feature artists and some kids stuff and – not necessarily like the Wiggles or something but street kids – like Street-Level Youth Media – produced by kids. Their point of view is just as valid and maybe more valid and more important to us than their parents’ a lot of the time. So underneath all that is a concept and the concept is that if people find out about other people and other cultures and other histories and other points of view that that’s going to lead to understanding. That’s number one. Number two is that there are lots of people doing good work, helping the world be a better place whether it’s medical research or Doctors Without Borders or whoever. And yet, we see very little of it really. And so if those people have cameras, which they do or could very easily, or if we helped find correspondents that could shoot what they do, we’re showing something that is real that is believable that you wouldn’t see otherwise and it’s a model for what other people could do.
CF: Do you think media that works for social change and a commercial interest in it can work together?
TW: I don’t know, it’s possible. Where the hell are you going to get enough money except from people who have the money? And if you don’t compromise the programming to match them – I don’t know. Maybe after a period of time we would go down the drain because we [hypothetically] get money from GE. I don’t think we want any money from GE and I don’t think GE is going to give us any but Ben & Jerry’s might. You know the Calvert social investment group might. Hewlett Packard might. Microsoft might, the Gates Foundation might. All these people have interest in some of these things, an interest to be represented in a wider way and distributed in a well-done, productive way. If they can be shown in a light that works they’re going to want to put money into it. I don’t know – who knows?
But you’re right it is just an extension in large measure of the same work that I have been doing and people like me and my colleagues and friends have been doing for 35 years, at least. Really more. And it’s a thread. It’s a thread that applies to new technologies – it’s still the same thing it’s still this idealistic craziness of thinking the world can be better and that you can use media to make that happen. I don’t know why I got picked to do that but [laughing] here I am again, still.
Special thanks to Tom Weinberg and Sara Chapman, Director of the Media Burn Archive, for their assistance.