Madison, Wisconsin’s struggling public access TV station, WYOU, has a new lease on life, courtesy of the Madison Public Library. The station, which has been limping along since a 2010 state law cut its funding, has been welcomed into the new Madison Central Library branch. Library staff and station volunteers described the new partnership as a win-win situation that lets the station eliminate its rent costs and take advantage of the library’s media lab and equipment, while the library gets a batch of potential new volunteers and media teachers with years of experience, and the chance to experiment with serving as an incubator for community-produced media.
Near the end of 2010, WYOU saw its funding slashed, when a new state law eliminated the small surcharge for public education and government television programming previously paid by Wisconsin cable TV subscribers. That meant cutting the positions of all paid WYOU staff; WYOU has been run solely by volunteers for the last two years. It also meant that just paying the rent on the studio space became an exercise in nearly constant fundraising, according to WYOU board chairperson Barbara Vedder.
“The last few years have been constant fundraising and counting on membership,” Vedder told Library Journal. “It’s been a real hard struggle, as we’ve looked for ways to stay alive and be sustainable and pay the costs of running an organization like this.”
While WYOU has been struggling, the library opened a new Central Branch earlier this fall, complete with a media space where patrons can do everything from learning video editing techniques to trying their hand at stop-motion animation. According to Vedder, it was Madison’s mayor, Paul Soglin, who first suggested that the new library could help provide the public access station—which Vedder told Madison’s Capital Times was on its death bed—with an opportunity to get back on its feet.
When the idea was raised to Trent Miller, the Maker program coordinator at Madison’s Central Library, he jumped at the chance. Miller oversees the branch’s Bubbler program, which works to engage patrons interested in making things at the library, from podcasts to video games to 3D models. “As part of the Bubbler program, we have room that’s a dedicated media lab, and we thought WYOU would be a good mix for that,” said Miller, adding that the mission of WYOU, which has been around since 1976, wasn’t that different from that of the Bubbler Program. “Public access TV is all about the public creating and distributing things.”
That sentiment was echoed by Vedder, who feels the new partnership between the two organizations has the potential to raise WYOU’s profile in the community after a rough couple of years, and help bring an infusion of new life and new interest to the station. “It lets us be brought more into the community,” Vedder said. “The more voices of people here in our community we broadcast, the more knowledgeable people become.” And the new home isn’t just a boost for WYOU’s flagging fortunes, Vedder said. Now that they’re transmitting the station’s signal from the library’s more central location, it’s easier for residents to see WYOU’s programming more clearly. The library is also helping to bring WYOU programming to the web, hosting and streaming the station’s content from its servers.
Along with a stronger signal and server space, the station also gets more up to date equipment for its volunteers to work with. Outdated cameras and computers had become an issue at WYOU in recent years, with many producers opting to bring their own gear to the studio rather than work with the station’s dated equipment. That won’t be an issue in the media lab, which has new cameras, lighting and audio equipment, modern editing software, and a green screen studio that allows producers to easily add digital effects to their work.
The upside of the new collaboration isn’t just on WYOU’s end. The library’s young media lab, says Miller, gets a new batch of potential volunteers and media trainers with years of experience producing local programming. “We get their people,” Miller told Library Journal, “who are interested in the same things we are.” And going forward, library patrons also get easy access to a channel that can help them get the things they create in the media lab into the wider world. “The hope is that with the new media lab, the people who are creating content for us will see WYOU as a way to get their creations out there,” Miller said.
Vedder hopes the partnership will also open the door for the library to get involved in more collaborations with other local media outlets in the future. “Maybe we could see more media collaboration, with radio and print as well,” Vedder said of the future possibilities if the initial partnership lives up to expectations. “It could turn out to be a much larger and grander thing than we’re doing right now.”