Gaining access

Television is the least accessible medium. Print always has been accessible, from mass-producing flyers on a copy machine to writing a letter to the editor of the local newspaper. With call-in talk shows, nearly everyone can voice their views on the radio. These days the Internet has become a communication tool for the masses. But with the expense and technical expertise involved in producing television, relatively few people have a means of using it to express themselves

Now KCTV Channel 5 and its parent company, Meredith Corp., are trying to improve the station’s accessibility by airing videotaped comments from viewers. In Speakers Corner segments shown on the station’s 10 p.m. and morning newscasts, viewers see shots of various people peering into a video camera and discussing their views on local issues.

“The traditional thing is, you watch the news and you see our polished newspeople telling you stories and talking to what are often experts in the field of something,” says KCTV Speakers Corner Producer Mark von Schlemmer. “You’re not always getting the regular person and hearing their opinion, and that’s exactly what this is.”

The videotaped opinions are collected from three booths strategically placed around the metro area. The booths are at Metro North Mall, Henry’s in Lawrence, and the Johnson County Central Resource Library. Each booth contains a video camera and recorder, which people activate by pushing a button. The participants are prompted by three questions: The first two often concern events or issues in the news, and the last prompts the participants to talk about whatever is on their minds. Sometimes the questions are general, such as, “What does Kansas City need?” Other questions don’t relate to news issues, such as, “What do you do to stay warm?”

Von Schlemmer pours through hours of tape — exactly how many he’s not sure — from the three booths to cull the comments that are aired on the show. “It doesn’t take that much to get on,” he says. “If you have an articulate comment, you’re almost guaranteed to make it on there…. We’re not looking for any side of an issue. We’re looking for someone who can state (an opinion) without giving us the finger while they’re doing it.”

He adds that he tries not to skew the number of comments on an issue one way or the other. “If we get an overwhelming response on one side of the issue, we’ll show that side of the issue. Ideally what would happen is if someone vehemently disagrees with that, they’ll go to a booth and state their side of the issue, and we can get them on.”

That’s not to say that all of the opinions are particularly compelling. Many times people look as though they’re not quite prepared to answer the question. Speakers Corner booths are also popular with kids; although young people often have very clever and insightful answers, they also have a tendency to grandstand.

At least one viewer objected to such uses of the station’s air time, arguing on the station’s Web site that Speakers Corner was nothing but a chance for kids to get on television. He was reacting to a spot in which people had complained of being bored in Kansas City, and he argued that there were plenty of things to do that people are overlooking: “What you have fallen prey to is giving air time to the opinions of dull or lazy minds. That shouldn’t be what your spot is for. I can’t say I’d watch it anymore, because I think the time could be put to better use.”

Von Schlemmer argues that although such critics might be right that not everyone uses the booth for profound discussions, it’s the nature of free speech. “Come on the booth and tell us that,” he says. “That’s the other thing. People complain about what people look like on there or what people are saying. Well, guess what? Those are the people who are talking, and if you disagree with them, go to the booth and say that.”

Since it was introduced in September, Speakers Corner has generated many responses that just aren’t useful on the newscasts, and now the station has decided to give the feature its own show, starting Jan. 15 at 11 p.m.

“Part of the charm of Speakers Corner is that it’s shaped by who uses it and what they use it for,” von Schlemmer says, “and the show will let us show that more, because with the news, they were looking for slightly more news-oriented comments on the questions we would ask…. They wanted slightly more serious comments or those more pertinent to what’s going on in the news. But some of the comments were just random thoughts, so the show is really going to let us show some of the goofier people out there, some of the more creative things in which people aren’t trying to make a political statement but more just to be a goofball.”

Von Schlemmer says one example that is likely to end up on the show is a tape of comments from Jake the Cup. Jake, a coffee cup with a painted face, showed up on a tape from a booth located at a coffeehouse and made interesting comments voiced by someone off camera. Although the segment was not suitable to air on the newscast, von Schlemmer says, it’s perfect for the show.

“Gosh knows, broadcast TV needs some new things to keep it interesting,” he adds. “We’re feeling the pressures from all the cable and satellite channels and things like that, so we need to keep on our toes.”

Although Speakers Corner may show that Kansas Citians, when given the chance to speak their minds on local television free of charge, don’t always have insightful comments, it is the closest thing KC has to public access television. So more of us should take advantage of it and appreciate it — grandstanding kids, talking cups, and all.

Contact Michelle Rubin at 816-218-6784 or mrubin@pitch.com.

Categories: News