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Shutting Down Public-Access TV 

AT&T and L.A. City Hall quietly lead a national push to silence the little guy

Wednesday, Dec 10 2008
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The day before Thanksgiving, Zuma Dogg, an outspoken community activist who has a comedian’s sense of the absurd, stands in the far back of the thinly attended City Council meeting at Los Angeles City Hall, waiting his turn to speak during the public-comment period. Wearing a black ski cap pulled down to his eyes, with black wraparound sunglasses and a black, long-sleeved T-shirt, he looks like a bank robber. But as host of The Zuma Dogg Show, he’s not only one of the most recognizable figures at City Hall, cordially greeted by passersby, including security guards and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, he also has the ear of high-level insiders, who feed him information in the hope that he’ll expose, and possibly stop, one questionable government project or another.

“People say no one watches public access,” Zuma Dogg uncharacteristically whispers, “but if you’re on there consistently, then people absolutely watch it. You now have a guy who’s famous in L.A. and without spending a lot of money. Public access changed my life.”

Zuma Dogg, who takes his stage name from Zuma Beach and the rapper Snoop Dogg, hears City Council President Eric Garcetti politely call out his name for the hundredth time or so in the past few years. He hustles off to the podium at the front of the cathedral-like chamber, where bright lights shine down from the ceiling and automated television cameras roll for L.A. CityView, the public-access channel that broadcasts every City Council meeting.

“I’m hearing rumors of a hiring freeze over fire and police!” Zuma Doggs yells into the microphone. “Will the council member who has that idea please raise his hand because I’d like to say it’s the stupidest, dumb idea! It’s outrageous! How can you put a hiring freeze on fire and police? It’s the first line of defense of public safety and the city, and here’s why I’m really upset! You did nothing but put up high-density [apartment and condo] projects! High density! With millions of people! So you’re prepared for all of these people! You must keep up with the fire and police hiring to go with the population boom!”

After his allotted two minutes are over, Zuma Dogg takes a breath and returns to the back of the council chamber, where strangers, who enjoyed the hard time he was giving to city leaders over the crowded new housing erected in L.A., give him the thumbs-up, shake his hand, and, on two separate occasions, slide him 20-dollar bills. Since he spends most of his time producing public-access shows and attending City Council meetings and hearings, Zuma Dogg doesn’t hold a traditional job. Instead, fans and friends help him get by. In fact, in his first years on the scene, because he sometimes slept in his van, he was quietly derided by insiders, including a gaggle of journalists who attend council meetings, the subtext being, who cares what some homeless guy thinks?

His persistence, and now, even critics must admit, his growing expertise on city policy and city government, have changed all that. “I always feel the love,” Zuma Dogg says. “I walk down the street anywhere in this city and people are always coming up to me. I think they’re a little more generous today because of Thanksgiving.”

Zuma Dogg largely built his cult status, and the much-needed donations that came with it, through appearances as a rapping, rhyming watchdog of the Downtown powers on such public-access stations as Channel 98 on the Westside. Just last week, he turned that notoriety into the ultimate public-access fantasy: The Los Angeles City Clerk formally approved his signed petitions, officially placing his name on the March 3, 2009, ballot in his exceptionally improbable run for mayor.

Despite his standing as the Eminem of public access in L.A., he may have already involuntarily taped his final cable show.

If everything unfolds as planned, on January 1, Time Warner, which owns more than 90 percent of the cable-television market in Los Angeles, will walk away from operating 12 public-access studios in L.A, which help everyday people to create hundreds of hours of content on 11 freewheeling, neighborhood-based public channels.

The dozen studios will go dark, their freely provided TV cameras and other pricey equipment — now available for anyone in L.A. to use without charge — will immediately be off-limits, and most of the little guys who dominate public access will be silenced.

Villaraigosa’s bureaucrats have produced a 19-page position paper that obliterates all talk of community-wide impact and is far more interested in detailing how City Hall can benefit from the demise of public access. Sources tell L.A.Weekly that plans were squelched, internally, for producing a 60-page City Hall report addressing the potential negative impact on dozens of citizen-produced shows like Etopia News, the Stanley Dyrector Show, Soul & Sound of Watts, Politics Matter, Knowledge Is Power, the Johnny Jay Show, Community Wrap-up, East L.A. After Dark, Catch the Vision, Neighborhood Point of View and All My Relations Television. In L.A., the PEG community — Public, Education and Government channels — will emerge as EG.

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