Before YouTube or the internet, public access television was a way for people to freely broadcast a story, creative endeavor, or a cause to wider audiences. In the early 1980s, cable television companies began working in earnest to establish markets in various communities throughout the United States. In some early cases, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandated that the companies offer channels and studio space for public, education, or government (PEG) programming.
Portland was no exception, and, in fact, it had a flourishing public access scene for decades. Viewers who lived on the city’s west side in the early 1980s, for example, could tune into Liberty Cable’s Channel 7 on Fridays at 6:30pm and find programming that varied from week to week: in-depth interviews with members of the Institute for Professional and Managerial Women, a live performance from local band Smegma, or a profile on Woodburn graphic artist Jose Castro. While each of the programs in that time slot presented wildly different topics, they were all produced by The Video Access Project (TVAP), a nonprofit organization established to “demystify television production” and foster “community media access through the technology of small format video” (see Bob Flug and Elaine Velazquez interviews).
TVAP was founded in Portland in 1977 by Elaine Velazquez and initially focused on providing production workshops, screenings, and a video library in the city’s downtown area. As cable franchise owners began to establish themselves, TVAP then shifted its activities toward producing content for the public-access channels. This shift occurred under the direction of Bob Flug, along with volunteer producers such as Barbara Affleck, Tony Cassera, and later regulars such as Liz Lynch, Stan Hintz, and many others, each of whom provided their experience with studio equipment and connected with local groups and organizations looking for some time in front of the cameras. By the mid-1980s, TVAP was producing and broadcasting programs from up to four Portland studios: three at Portland Cable Access on the east side of the city and at Liberty Cable on the west side.
At that time, programs were recorded onto three-quarter-inch U-matic video tape, a format that originally hit the market in 1971. It was the first magnetic-tape video housed in a cassette, rather than in open reels, making it highly durable. Because of this and its low cost, broadcast television producers quickly adopted U-matic tape over 16mm motion-picture film as an industry standard for electronic news gathering and, therefore, for public access television as well. While many of these public access television tapes are likely lost, some TVAP program tapes have surfaced at Open Signal (formerly Portland Cable Access, then Portland Community Media, and one of the east-side studios where some shows would have originally been produced), and the Oregon Historical Society (OHS) holds close to 300 in its research library collections. The vast majority of the U-matic tapes related to TVAP were donated to OHS in 1994 by producer Ray Larson, along with a number of half-inch open reel tapes also related to community media in Portland.
I had the opportunity to work with the TVAP tapes at OHS starting in late September 2020 during an internship that met the practical coursework requirements while working toward a MA in Preservation and Presentation of the Moving Image from the University of Amsterdam. One of my goals was to gain experience with analog video formats, specifically because they are prone to deterioration even after only a couple of decades; the magnetic-oxide covering the tape, which holds all of the audio-visual information, can start to crack and fall-off, a problem known as “sticky-shed syndrome.” I also was interested in exploring the intersection of early videotape technology — adopted for its cost, portability, and durability — and the community groups, artists, and activists that broadcast a flurry of creativity, activism, and marginalized topics on small screens across communities.
Another of the internship’s goals was to make the TVAP programs more accessible through digitization. Before starting the digitization process, however, we needed to assess the range and condition of the materials. Picking up where a previous intern left off, I completed an item-level inventory of all magnetic-tape video related to Portland public-access programming (totaling over 1,400 items) before focusing exclusively on the TVAP tapes. From this inventory, I began the ongoing process of creating electronic records for the tapes in the Moving Image Database, which is currently searchable by select research library staff. The legacy equipment involved in reviewing the tapes included videotape recorders (VTRs), time base correctors (TBCs), cathode-ray tube (CRT) monitors, sync generators, waveform monitors, and more! Using digital editing software, I was able to digitally capture — and therefore watch — a number of TVAP episodes. It is hard to pick out only a few clips to share, since each program has its own historical, cultural, and research value, but I have selected a few highlights that I hope give a sense of the breadth of programming that TVAP provided.
Just a Jam, September 23, 1983
In this clip, Art Alexander takes a moment from an in-studio jam session to remind viewers about TVAP and how to get involved. Note the quick correction (“that’s Friday”) made by the studio engineers at 18:56. The 12-minute jam session was part of an hour-long program that played between segments with the Northwest Esperanto Society and the Institute for Professional and Managerial Women. Alexander was later hired by Rogers Cable in Portland to produce Black Community Television (BCTV), a local origination channel. OHS Research Library, MI11244.
Happenings with Bill Bulick, March 25, 1984
Bill Bulick was the first program director of Pioneer Courthouse Square and later went on to form the Regional Arts & Culture Council (RACC), an organization fundamental to arts funding in Multnomah County today. With host Peter Leseuer, Bulick discusses the then-new initiatives for using Pioneer Courthouse Square for cultural, public, and arts programming. In this one-minute clip, Bulick describes a little bit of the history of the project. OHS Research Library, MI11307.
Jose Castro (Artist / Hispanic Media Project), March 21, 1985
Woodburn artist and founder of the graphic arts company Solo Special Edition, Jose Castro describes one of his first mural projects at Woodburn High School, from which he had graduated several years earlier. This segment aired as part of a program hosted by Jim Apilado and member of the Hispanic Media Project, Terry Soliz. OHS Research Library, MI11340.
TVAP was a well-used platform, and although its programming represents only a fraction of content on public access channels, it presented a rich cross-section of grass-roots activities occurring in Portland only a few decades ago. Many more tapes are awaiting digitization at OHS, and similar efforts are occurring at Open Signal. Continued research and outreach to TVAP producers, hosts, and guests is ongoing and necessary to bring more of this unique Portland history to light. Were you involved in The Video Access Project? If so, we would enjoy hearing from you!
Bob Flug, “Re: questionnaire,” email message to Michele Kribs, July 30, 2004.
Elaine Velazquez, The Media Arts Program Equipment Access Questionnaire, Series IV, Nancy Legge — NEA media (The Video Access Project — questionnaire and correspondence), ca. 1977, box 80, folder 17, Jack Eyerly collection on Pacific Northwest Art, WUA097, Willamette University Archives and Special Collections.
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