April 21, 2004

AOC: Soon to be DOA?

It isn’t every day that a small public-access station wins against big government. So when Acadiana Open Channel recently came up short against the Lafayette Parish consolidated government, I wasn’t at all surprised.

Citing improper paper filing, the city-parish council denied one year’s funding to AOC. The legislature has expressed disdain for AOC over the years, in part because of allegations that live coverage makes them look bad (more so than, say, their own words). In any event, our community stands to lose one of its greatest free-speech assets.

I discovered AOC sometime around 1988, when I was a bored 8-year-old in the perilous Atari-Nintendo gap. Back then, Lafayette Cable TV was a little building in north Lafayette that shared office space with Firestone Tires. It was a low-budget and stifling monopoly, whereas Cox Cable now stifles us with a much higher budget.

A full subscription in 1988 netted about 30 stations. Several networks shared channels, which led to the always-exciting prospect of Nickelodeon suddenly being supplanted by riveting church programming. AOC shared channel five with CNN Headline News, which instilled in me distaste for cable news long before it was justified.

With AOC, I was introduced to the astounding concept that the public had rights to the airwaves just like the media conglomerates. That, combined with the realization that the studio was two blocks from my house, brought communication closer than ever to me.

AOC’s hook was the endless message board, a crudely computerized lava lamp of community events and upcoming programs. I memorized the entire sequence of pop-up screens and could call them before they appeared: “Next up is—the fish logo! Boo-yah!!” If the message board had ordered me to hurl myself off of the Atchafalaya bridge, I would have immediately scrambled for the keys to Mom’s Dodge Mirada.

Another startling revelation occurred in about 1993, when I discovered that AOC, in addition to its addictive message board, actually had shows. At first I was mad that they were crassly interrupting my slide show (“Damn that animal-rights program!”), but over time I got to appreciate the diversity of the programming. Who can forget the numerous political call-in shows, Homework Hotline (on which I appeared), This Week in Wrestling and the Rock Breauxz? In late 2002, AOC even put up with me as a political panelist, against the president of the UL College Republicans. That was nice of them.

Of course, along with the positive shows, AOC aired some real turkeys as well. Much to the delight of the Lafayette tourist board, “The Klan in Akadiana” was featured on “Hard Copy.” Only on the Klan show did we learn the real cause of the mid-1990s rash of black church fires: Jehri-curl juice! Host Darrell Flinn even went so far as to demonstrate this on a makeshift church pew in his own backyard. He poured what he claimed was 30 years’ worth of Jehri-curl juice on the wood, and then set it on fire. Case closed. Would the traditional media have given air time to such an experiment? I think not.

And that, precisely, is the beauty of public television. Acadiana Open Channel gave the airwaves to the people, a voice to the voiceless and, in some cases, a rubber room for the crazies. Yes, AOC sometimes aired overt racism and ignorance; but what better way for the public to see and deal with such scum than an honest forum of ideas? And I sure would have loved doing a report on exactly why Flinn had all that Jehri-curl juice. But, alas, free speech is yet another casualty of power.

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