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Mayor Emeritus and Former City Communications Director Call for Public Access Station to Be Allowed to Stay in City-Owned Firehouse

Today, the Somerville Media Center is operating under the threat of eviction from the City of Somerville. We believe this eviction decision needs to be, immediately, reconsidered and reversed. SMC, in its original form, as Somerville Community Access Television, has been a fixture in Union Square for more than four decades. It has not only, in those forty-plus years, been a pure vehicle for First Amendment expression, but has served as a gateway of communications for diverse populations of immigrants, youth, and other marginalized groups who otherwise would be lacking a voice.

SCAT has always served to reshape politics in the City of Somerville by shedding light on political decisions and behavior—and our local elections have been, positively, impacted. Beyond that, SCAT has been a recognized model for the community access and local expression of news and art for the whole country—an eight-time winner of awards from the national Alliance for Community Media.

So, why then, as a community would we want to put the Somerville Media Center, within which the public access channel continues to operate, through the hardship of finding the proper space needed and the major expense for renovation and equipment? Why would we remove an oasis of the community, creativity, and participation in a growing zone of commercial development? Should we not have a positive and steady community anchor in this new sea of change in Union Square?

In 1982, when we finalized negotiations for our cable contract with the then-current operator, Warner Communications, we both realized that this may be one of the most important contracts that will determine the future of communications in our City. We made the conscious decision to locate the public access television channel, centrally in the City, and in a municipal building. We made sure the public access television channel was independent and free from political influence and coercion and provided an ongoing funding mechanism from the cable company to do so.

As we have stated, SCAT has evolved with the times, becoming the Somerville Media Center. It not only boasts the longest running public access program in the world since 1972, “Dead Air Live,” but is now also serving greater Boston by providing training, technology, and transmission means for the community to share beyond the boundaries of Somerville.

In 2011, the Somerville Media Center launched Boston Free Radio, an internet radio station, covering community events, meetings, and political forms. The Somerville Media Center is also a training program where several hundred members have attended workshops to learn the technology so that they can share their diverse voices via the electronic media.

In a time where there is much debate around the contours of the First Amendment, and whether social media giants should be subject to some kind of access requirements, and whether certain speakers should be banned from college campuses, we have right within our City a shining example of the First Amendment in one of its purest forms. We believe the Somerville Media Center should not only remain centrally located in the Somerville Fire Station in Union Square but should receive more support and recognition for the valuable services it provides to the public.

Again, let’s not have a decision like the eviction of the Somerville Media Center be made hastily just so we can accommodate the needs and profitability of universities or developers. Let’s have a good discussion with Mayor Katjana Ballantyne and the City Council before displacing such a precious resource such as SMC—so we don’t also, inadvertently, displace the special role that this enterprise has played within the City of Somerville for decades.

Photo credit: Photo courtesy of Somerville Media Center.

Eugene C Brune is mayor emeritus of Somerville and Howard E. Horton, Esq. is former director of the City’s office of communications.

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