Democracy Now!

History in the Making


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Since shortly after September 11th, Democracy Now!, already a well established radio show hosted by Amy Goodman, has been televised nationally. The show uses a groundbreaking method of distribution. Each day as the show is aired live (9 to 10am est on Manhattan Neighborhood Network), the show is simultaneously encoded into an MPEG2 file. Immediately following the show, engineer Chase Pierson FTP’s the file to a server in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The transfer takes about an hour and a half over a T1 line. Once received at Cheyenne, the file is decoded by FreeSpeech TV’s equipment to an NTSC, composite signal and bundled with FSTV’s DBS programming package. A scheduler in Boulder, FSTV’s home base, enters programming information into the electronic play list. Noon finds the show being nationally broadcast on the Dish Network, Channel 9415.

As far as Pierson knows, no other access show is distributed nationally on this scale, let alone on a daily basis. It hasn’t been possible before. "We’ve piecemealed some existing technologies into a new application," he explained during an interview in the Democracy Now! (DN!) headquarters at Downtown Community Television (DCTV) in New York’s Chinatown. And the equipment involved is surprisingly affordable: put together a Vela work station (a combination of encoder and FTP server, $8,000, a T1 line ($1,000/month), and a broadcast partner who can receive, and you’re ready to go. DN! chose the Vela because FSTV already owned one, hence the MPEG2 CODEC. "We wanted to minimize the chance for errors," Pierson explains.

The system is definitely not without flaws. The file ends up being encoded several times. Because Echostar is a network provider, not a service provider, the company is not staffed to accept content from individual producers: DN! must be sent to the network as part of the FSTV bundle. The show is decoded by FSTV in Boulder, bundled with other content, then re-encoded at 2.5 megabytes per second for transmission over T1 lines to Echostar. FSTV rents space at Echostar’s headquarters in Cheyenne, but Echostar’s corporate policy does not allow other companies to network their own computers to Echostar’s; hence the need for re-encoding. Echostar then decodes files received from FSTV to analog component signals, re-encoding them for uploading to the satellite. Its uplink is much faster than FSTV’s, which is why the signal must be re-encoded yet again. Echostar is set up to encode approximately 150 signals at once. These signals are then multi-plexed simultaneously at five megabytes per second. Finally, the signal is decoded at receiving access stations or at the viewer’s home.

By the time DN! reaches the viewer, image quality has suffered considerably as information is lost each time the file is compressed. Sometimes a delay is added as well, so the final product presents sound and image out of sync by as much as a second or two. FSTV is planning to invest in new equipment, with June 1st as the target date for getting the new equipment on line. The new equipment may decrease the loss of image quality.

Though only a reality since September of last year, a

community-based news shows has been a long-time dream of media activist DeeDee Halleck. She began working to realize the dream with Deep Dish TV. Deep Dish started in 1986, and by now has produced 500 to 600 shows. Series produced by Deep Dish include three prison series, one on the crisis in Latin America, and a 1992 series on 1492—16 one-hour programs produced by Native Americans. All of the programming has aired on public access TV. "We wanted to show what public access could be," Halleck explained, "if the passion and the resources were both available." The next step was a news show, and Deep Dish TV approached Amy Goodman, host of WBAI’s Democracy Now! radio show. "The thing about Amy is, you have an anchor—someone so knowledgeable, so on to the issues." And someone who already has a considerable following and reputation, albeit on radio.

The partnership began in Philadelphia, at the Democratic National Convention, when DN!, FSTV, Deep Dish TV and the Independent Media Center (IndyMedia or IMC) collaborated to produce the first ever live satellite-distributed protest coverage under control of a grassroots-based, independent media coalition. (See The Independent, 11/2000) On the basis of a promo piece created by taping at WBAI Radio in New York, about $40,000 was raised to produce DN! at the conventions. John Schwartz at FSTV kicked in another $70,000 to fund the daily satellite uplink, which consisted of the satellite time and a van equipped to communicate with the satellite. Deep Dish provided a network of stations set up for downlinking, a network extending from Ft. Wayne, Indiana to Somerville, Massachusetts to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

DN!’s part-time engineers, Pierson and Noel Rabinowitz, were the technical co-coordinators of the Philly set-up, then moved on to replicate it in Los Angeles for the Republican Convention. They produced two and a half hours of programming every day, one hour of DN! and 90 minutes of FSTV’s "Crashing the Party." "Basically we put together a TV studio over a weekend," Pierson said with a smile. "It was very exciting," Halleck added. "We had 3,000 people show up for a town meeting in LA. We had to set up two overflow rooms. The whole thing depended on Chase. He was just fantastic, made a totally chaotic thing work."

In February 2001, Halleck raised $10,000 to get a regular production off the ground. So Pierson began looking for a location to house the show. DCTV, with its long-time history of community-based media activism, seemed a natural fit. Manhattan Neighborhood Networks (MNN), New York City’s public access station, already had space there.

In the summer of 2001, during power struggles at Pacifica, Pierson anticipated that host Amy Goodman might be thrown out her home at New York’s WBAI. So he got the radio equipment in place at DCTV, planning on six months to purchase and configure the video equipment. But the events of September 11th intervened. The Thursday following, MNN staffer Rick Jungers locked a camera down in DN!’s radio studio, inserted a cable and went straight into MNN’s TV1 line. The show started going out live, just blocks from Ground Zero. Amy and the show’s producers slept in the studio, afraid that if they left to go home the National Guard wouldn’t let them back into lower Manhattan.

After a few days, Pierson and Jungers set up two more of MNN’s cameras and began to use a switcher. Other video personnel quickly volunteered to help out. Halleck operated camera from time to time. An ad hoc distribution system was quickly set up. Besides going live onto MNN, the show was dubbed at Deep Dish and sent air express to a number of access stations, and also encoded and FTP’ed every day at Music Media, thanks to the support of owner Lenny Charles and other members of the New York IMC. Gradually a regular crew emerged, including Israeli director Uri Gal-Ed, who brought the show deep experience in producing live television. Funders stepped forward to keep the show in production. "We’re producing a totally historic, national alternative news show," Halleck marveled. "But we’re under mainstream media’s radar screens—it’s amazing that no one’s covered it."

At a time when most media outlets have been lining up to support the U.S. government, DN! is unique. Rita Lazar, whose brother was killed in the attack on the World Trade Center, was a guest on the show. She is an outspoken opponent of the war on Afghanistan. DN! produced an historic meeting between Lazar and Masuda Sultan, a young Afghan-American woman who lost 19 members of her family during the U.S. bombing. Reporters from other media outlets jostled each other to cover the event. Other stories DN! has broken include Marc Herold’s documentation of the more than 3,500 Afghan civilians killed in the bombing. Herold, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, closely followed reporting in international news wires and major newspapers, combined this information with firsthand accounts, and put it all together into a single report presented on DN! in early December of 2001.

DN! has recently focused on covering the Israeli West Bank occupation’s effect on the Palestinians, presenting in-depth interviews with Kristin Schurr, an American activist with the International Solidarity Movement, as well as reporters and Palestinian civilians in places like Jenin, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. DN! broke the news in the U.S. of the killing of 21-year old US citizen, Suraida Saleh, who was shot by Israeli soldiers as she sat in a car with her nine-month-old baby on her lap.

And, during the recent coup attempt in Venezuela, DN!, perhaps alone among American media outlets, refused to report the faked resignation of democratically elected president Hugo Chavez. Instead, DN! interviewed several experts, including journalist Greg Palast (BBC, The Guardian), who made a strong case for a deep U.S involvement in the attempt to oust Chavez. The theory is that Otto Reich, assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs and a key player in the Iran-Contra scandal, along with other veteran cold warriors, helped stage-manage the attempted coup. Reich is a hard-line anti-Castro Cuban immigrant with a long history of covert activity.

Thanks to a partnership Free Speech TV has created with Echostar, access stations around the U.S. are being provided with low-cost satellite dishes that will allow them to download programming for broadcast. Two to three hundred dishes will be distributed, and in about three months, DN! will be viewable live in just about any household with basic cable service, a potential audience of several million households across the country.

For those access stations without satellite links, DN! is available the old fashioned way: on tape. Dub queen Michelle Guanca makes between 19 and 31 of copies every day, overnighting them around the country to access stations. The show can be seen in states ranging from California to Maine and points in between. Some stations cablecast the show every day; others run it two or three times a week.

Viewers are writing in to express their support. One from Philadelphia said: "I think the programming is the most intelligent show I have ever watched on TV." Another in Georgia wrote: "I just got a satellite dish and was disappointed that it was pretty much the same old stuff, but then I found y’all. It was like glory! I bless you." And from one in Massachusetts: "We want to express our profound thanks to you and your colleagues for the role that each and every one has played in making this happen. Your efforts will surely contribute towards changing our country from selfish, short-sighted interests towards the love and compassion of which humanity is capable."

For more information, see www.democracynow.org