Monday, March 02, 2009

Zane Blaney and the Death of Access SF

Last Monday, February 23rd, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors Rules Committee was the site of a hearing looking into the proposed drastic funding cuts to Channels 29 and 76, the public acess television stations on Comcast cable TV. Their proposed annual grant is being reduced from $800,000 to $120,000 in June of this year.

New California legislation had been written in 2006 that was heavily influenced by both AT&T and Comcast which included language that absolved it from funding any of the costs of labor or rent at the public access, educational, or government television stations that are carried through the cable channel.

Interestingly, this year's $929,626 Access SF budget includes $200,000 for rent at their studio on Market and Valencia Streets and over $550,000 in employee salaries including benefits (click here for the full budget). This is because after being something of an anarchic, volunteer-run collective from the 1970s to the end of the twentieth century, the operation was taken over by a nonprofit called the San Francisco Community Television Corporation.

This organization was headed by Zane Blaney (above) who was in cahoots with somebody at the Department of Telecommunications and Information Services (DITS) at City Hall. Mr. Blaney then proceeded to install himself and a half dozen, mostly gay aides to be in charge of the station, and they have proven to be a lethal combo of inept and dictatorial, driving out many of the volunteer producers who actually created content for the station. Some of the front-line "facilitators" have tried their best to be helpful, but they have a hard road navigating between the abusiveness of management and the lunacy of some of the producers.

In 2003-04, I created a 52-episode show called "FotoTales" which ran over the course of two years. When I first walked into the station, it felt like a civil war was raging between the new regime and the old producers. I didn't have a stake in either camp, but after witnessing management's ugly harassment of their most gifted employees, it became clear there was something very rotten going on. (Click here for a good account by Michael Faklis.) Before writing this post, I called a few longtime producers who still had shows and asked whether things were still the same at the station. "If anything, it's just gotten worse" seemed to be the consensus.

The previous incarnation of public access at the 15th and Folsom studios had a surprisingly large black contingent of producers, and the many "suspensions" and disciplinary actions taken by Blaney and Aaron Vinck, the "assistant CEO," were directed disproportionately towards its black population. (Click here for an SF Weekly story with an example.) As a white gay dude, I found myself embarrassed by many of their actions, especially towards people I adored such as Idell (above).

The hearing was being spearheaded by Supervisor Mirkarimi but it was essentially symbolic, asking the state and the feds to change the law, or as my friend h. brown put it, "closing the barn door after the horse has already gotten out." There will be a full Board vote on the resolution urging the fed and the states to Do Something on Tuesday the 4th.

There should be another large turnout of public commenters who have confused the survival of public access with the survival of Zane Blaney and his nonprofit. A few of them, such as Idell, have no such confusion, and used their commenting time to ask for a change in management at the station. The supervisors, however, insisted that was a completely separate issue, "and we don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater."

Throwing the baby out with the bathwater may be the only way to dislodge Mr. Blaney and his aides from their nonprofit jobs for life. A major disaster is arriving with the global financial meltdown this year and one of the few compensations is that change often happens after old structures are destroyed. The only way the "San Francisco Chronicle" is ever going to get any better, for instance, is after it dies, which will allow a different group of people to start something new. The same is probably true for public media access in San Francisco.


Matthew Hubbard said...

As a straight white dude, I long ago stopped being embarrassed by guys who share my orientation and pigmentation. You are no more responsible for these weasels than I am responsible for Dick Cheney.

If the Chronicle withers and dies, and there are strong indications, it won't change where I go to get the political and cultural news from The City. I read Civic Center much more regularly than I check out the Chron.

Civic Center said...

Dear Matty: I don't usually feel embarrassed by association with the deeds of others, but this really was an odd, special case. The management at the station genuinely creeped me out, and I've worked for some of the most evil capitalists in San Francisco over the years (some of them gay/lesbian), so there was a broad point of comparison.

Thanks for the compliment, by the way. I enjoy it completely without shame.

momo said...

This story breaks my heart. What a waste.
by the way, have you written more about your series?

Civic Center said...

Dear momo: I may replay "FotoTales" in 2011 on its tenth anniversary. I was documenting the world on a daily basis from April 2001 through March 2002. Quite a bit happened that year, including the dot-com crash in San Francisco and 9/11. I'd throw it on YouTube but I used quite 365 different pieces of music (half classical, half everything else) which would make that option problematic.

Markley Morris said...

Good timing, Mike. I tuned in channel 76 for the first time today. I just learned that they broadcast "Democracy Now" at 9 am and 11 pm five days/week.

I had been getting the program on channel 22, the PBS station in Rohnert Park. They have been broadcasting the day's program at midnight. Yesterday this stopped abruptly - so I was glad to find it's on channel 76 - which means I can get it a day earlier!

There's one fly in the ointment: channel 76 doesn't bother to list its program - it just calls everything "public access" around the clock, which means I can't get a season pass for "Democracy Now" on tivo.

I wonder if Zane Blaney could be persuaded to list the programs on channel 76.

Civic Center said...

Dear Markley: Zane Blaney can't be bothered to do much besides fight for his own meal ticket. When anybody would come up with a smart suggestion for the station, the response would invariably be, "We don't have the budget or the necessary expertise to (name an initiative)." As momo notes, it's a sad tale.

Greg said...

public access will die anyways because the Democrats in the legislature under Fabian Nunez just HAD to give away the store to ATT who wants to do cable tv. Comcast was the only one objecting, and the D's bought 'em off by eliminating city franchises entirely, with requirements for public service, and rolled it all into a statewide for Comcast.

San Bruno and Tacoma have great cable TV and it's cheap. That's because the City in each case owns the system and can offer HBO and stuff to make money, and use profits to put into gov't and public access. Heck you can get high speed internet in Tacoma for super cheap.

Civic Center said...

Dear Greg: Thanks for the AT&T/Comcast clarification, and also for the shout-out for the municipalized cable systems in San Bruno and Tacoma. Communications conglomerates seem to be up there with investment banks and health insurance companies as the nasty capitalist parasites of the earth.

Nice Guy said...

markley: Access SF has been trying for years to get the various program guide services (Tivo, TV-Guide, Comcast, etc.) to list its specific programs. All of them have put up roadblocks -- they are not PEG friendly. This is not a fault of Access SF, but of the program listings providers.

Nice Guy said...

A few comments and reactions to “Zane Blaney and the Death of Access SF” (for what its worth):
* It is interesting that an open public City bidding process, with a contract, deliverables, and annual reports, as NPO's operate public access all accross the nation, is here characterized as being “in cahoots with City Hall.” An interesting interpretation of standard business practices open to public scrutiny.
* Can you list the “mostly gay aides” you charge Access SF has, from its current 11 staff? To be “mostly gay," that would be 6 or more. Who are they? And the fact some or or any of them may happen to be gay, that is a problem why? There are staff (and interns and volunteers) who are men, are women, are Asian, are White, are Black, are Hispanic – which of those are problems as well?
* Who are “the many producers driven out”? Of those who you list, who of them no longer participate because of offensives such as verbally or physically assaulting staff or other producers/clients, not following established rules or staff instructions, or for stealing, etc.? Or, who of them elected on their own not to participate because they don’t like following established policies set up to fairly benefit the whole community, but would rather have things run their way benefiting their personal agendas?
* The blog suggests “Deena” [sic] “…has a hard road navigating between the abusiveness of management…” Have you confirmed this with Dina? Would she agree to your characterization of her thoughts about management?
*Which staff suffered “ugly harassment of their most gifted employees” – who are these employees you refer to? Other than the one disgruntled former employee you referenced (Michael Faklis who had his own personal issues and ax to grind—I think his over-the-top website speaks for itself) who are these multiple employees you refer to?
I don’t really expect any serious thoughtful (not to mention factual) answers will be posted to these questions. They’re more rhetorical in nature, and are more intended to remind this blog’s readers that there are always multiple sides to any story, and that anyone can easily make any unsubstantiated accusations one cares to make on the Internet – but that doesn’t make them true. But we’re all certainly entitled to our opinions and viewpoints.

Civic Center said...

Dear Nice Guy: Is that you, Zane, because if so you've really picked the wrong nickname.

There is absolutely nothing transparent about the workings at Access SF. My phrase, by the way, was "in cahoots with somebody at the Department of Telecommunications and Information Services (DITS) at City Hall." My understanding is that Mr. Blaney was in a personal relationship with somebody, now deceased, who was in charge of DITS, and that's how he got the inside track for the takeover of the station. That may not be true, which is why I didn't print it, but I haven't seen any other indication of Mr. Blaney's "qualities" that might have qualified him for that job.

You ask, "Can you list the “mostly gay aides” you charge Access SF has, from its current 11 staff?" I haven't set foot in the station for a good four years, but during my time 2003-2005 there were quite a few useless and incompetent "gay aides." Does the British lesbian graphics expert who didn't know diddly about graphics ring a bell? The skinny young development director who didn't know how to raise funds? The snarling Mr. Vinck whose role nobody ever could figure out? When you're instilling an Us vs. Them mentality, as the station management is wont to do, yes it's a problem when they are overwhelmingly gay.

As for "who are the many producers driven out," this was a comment I heard from three current producers I interviewed who are old-timers. Its truth seems to be confirmed by the long list of offenses you list which really do come down to "not following established rules or staff instructions," which can mean any damned thing management pleases.

As for Dina agreeing with my characterization of her thoughts about management, why don't you ask her? If she's smart, she'll deny having said any such thing to anyone because the station management has a long history of petty vindictiveness. As for "ugly harassment of their most gifted employees," do the names John Sanchez and Tom Barkett ring a bell by any chance? They were both brilliant, helpful and kind as was Michael Faklist), qualities I never witnessed from anyone in the front office.

Finally, my reputation for veracity over the four years I've published this blog is a lot stronger than any statements made by the liars running Access SF. And that's a fact. I'm glad you feel "we're all certainly entitled to our opinions and viewpoints," but in your long rebuttal I didn't see you correct any of my statements other than the spelling of Dina's name.

dinab said...

Tranny Talk TV thrived because of the management. It was taken off the air for a while because the hostess was in a fatal car accident. It had nothing to do with Zane. I have to admit some of the producers were haters, but most are my friends...
I have also been working there for a while and have to say there is some workload inequality, but other than that it's great. Zane is great.
No money in it though, which makes me want to avoid negative shit. And now there is so much of it Public Access Tv may go away...
That is a bigger deal than bashing management.
Save Public Access TV! If we don't it will go away for good.

Dear Blogger:
That picture of me is horrible, would you please consider removing it...I have better pics of me...



Civic Center said...

Dear Dina: That was a crappy picture of you, so I've removed it as you requested. Sorry about that. The point I was trying to make was that there are some people who work at the station who do a decent job under difficult conditions, and you've always been one of them. We're going to have to agree to disagree about Blaney, however, and the way he's helped destroy the station.