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"When I came to MCAT they were looking for an actor for a segment called 'Flashback,' about Vietnam veterans," says Tony Askins, who hosts "Talk of the Town." He starts to choke up. "It was very, very powerful. I went from nobody to an actor to the cameraman to my own talk show in a month and a half. I love what I'm doing." He pauses and points to Michael. "He made me somebody again."
Michael shakes his head. "You made yourself somebody."
A few other men, including Michael, tear up. The barbecue is gone.
"My grandfather taught me that it's really easy to be mad at someone," Michael says, collecting himself. "It's really easy to start chaos, but it's a better man that takes the time and gives a word of encouragement. That's what they needed. That's what I needed. In the beginning we were all rough, but now we're this band of brothers. It's amazing the way things have fallen into place."
When Joel Baird joined the MCAT board at its inception in 1990, the nonprofit dealt in SVHS tapes and cameras that were twice the size of a bowling ball. The common person didn't have the means to make a movie. Computers weren't powerful enough for editing and there were no smartphones or moderately priced digital cameras. The station's access center saw far more public producers during that decade.
From the beginning, MCAT was charged by local government to provide "Missoula residents and organizations with the equipment, training and channel time to produce programs based on their interests and concerns." The money, taken from cable subscriptions, is a kind of tax on the cable company for being able to make millions of dollars running its network through the public right of way. Per the Communications Act of 1984, the city of Missoula collects the money from the company and passes on 65 percent of what they collect to MCAT for its programming.
"So our budget is flexible," Baird explains. "If there are a lot of cable subscribers, our budget would grow bigger. If the cost of cable subscriptions goes up then our budget will also grow bigger."
From the beginning, MCAT had a wild mix of programs. One prominent show during the mid-1990s was a six-hour sermon every Friday produced by leaders from the local Bahá'í chapter, a religious group that seeks to unify the principles of all major religions.
"Back then MCAT was more 'Petticoat Junction' because producers would have keys to come and go," Baird says. "The Bahá'í started at 7 and they'd go until they got tired at about midnight or 1 and then start tapering off. They got a lot of national attention because they were proclaiming the end of the world several times and they showed up in Harper's magazine."
In 1998, MCAT went through some inner turmoil when the board fired Executive Director Randy Ammon over issues that, to this day, remain murky. People continue to have strong feelings about the situation on both sides, lauding Ammon as a beloved leader who was dedicated to community access television and free speech, while others expressed concern that he wasn't keeping up with new technologies. Ammon sued the station and, after the board dissolved as part of a settlement, MCAT struggled to overcome the blow of a small-city scandal.
A few years later, in 2002, Baird was asked to step up as director. "I was the reluctant hero and I also felt like a scab," he says.
MCAT operates under two main philosophies. One is supporting free speech for the public. The other is to provide access to anyone who wants to make a show. In that way, it is unlike most other arts and community nonprofits, because beyond its basic tenets, it doesn't support any one message.
"We're very chameleon-like in our public face," Baird says. "What people see are what the producers contribute to the channel. And producers change all the time. One day we're the golden child and the next day we're the evil harbinger of what-have-you."
Perhaps the most controversial period for MCAT programming started in June 2000 when white supremacist Matt Hale began producing his show "Race and Reason." MCAT ran the show according to its First Amendment beliefs, but many people were outraged that the station gave it air time. Baird says the Montana Human Rights Network eventually stepped in and produced a counterpoint show, which aired directly after Hale's.
"We want to be in partnership with the community and yet give that broad view of what people are thinking, too," Baird says. "That was one of my defenses on ['Race and Reason'] was, 'Don't you want to know that somebody in this town holds this view that the white race is the best race? Would you rather they were leading in secret? Now you know, and you can start engaging in a dialogue.' It's a tough thing, though."
MCAT isn't unique among the 1,300 access stations across the country, but it is part of an increasingly rare media model. Most governments use public access television funding for other civic needs or for purely educational programming. In addition, the Communications Act of 1984 includes an opt-out clause that many cities have taken advantage of in recent years. Seattle Community Network shut down in 2010. Tucson, which used to be a flagship for access television, saw its funding cut 60 percent in one year. The reasoning municipalities often give for cutting public access programming is that YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other new media offer an outlet that, they say, deems a public channel no longer necessary.
Baird says cable television subscriptions are rising in Missoula, with about 17,000 customers receiving MCAT. He also says MCAT recently renewed its contract with the city, but it's an inherently fragile agreement. As was the case in Seattle and Tucson, Missoula can opt out of funding at any time. And if cable subscriptions drop, the city is under no obligation to find funding elsewhere.
But the Missoula City Council shows no signs of pulling the plug.
"The city now distributes content on our website, but MCAT is still shooting and producing that," says Councilman Jason Wiener. "In the electronic age, even stuff on YouTube doesn't create itself. And for city council meetings, MCAT is really the only ones doing that. They do value-added stuff too, by providing context for city council with their other shows."
Wiener admits he mostly watches the civic channel, but he says the creative work MCAT producers are doing gives them a voice that would otherwise get buried on the Internet.
"I guess all those people could have their own YouTube channels," he says. "But then Emmet would just be another guy on YouTube."
Christian Ackerman used to edit his sci-fi and horror films using a VCR, a karaoke machine and the simple editing buttons on his video camera. When he moved to Missoula for college 13 years ago, he saw Emmet the Aging Punk Rocker on MCAT and became curious about the station. He offered his homemade films to Baird for airing, under the name "The Christian Ackerman Show." He recalls the rush of seeing his work on television and his name listed on TV Guide.