Panel discussions about square dancing, high school robotics competitions, music videos from the 1980s and Somali-language speeches. They all aired Friday on the Minneapolis Television Network, one of the most eclectic spots on the cable dial.
The network’s new leader, Tene Wells, is charged with bringing the quirky public access television operation into the 21st century and grounding it on more sound financial footing — all while the network pumps out community-produced programming 24/7 for three cable channels, relying largely on an unpredictable pot of cable fees from City Hall.
Wells, who comes with a background in nonprofits and fundraising, is determined to broaden MTN’s training offerings and bring in more money from grants and other sources. And she wants to ensure public access television remains an asset in a rapidly changing media landscape filled with online broadcasts.
“Because you can do it relatively inexpensively, it’s affordable, we’re accessible,” Wells said, noting that 55 percent of MTN’s content is produced by people of African descent. “That kind of [diverse] content is not being produced by mainstream media. And yet people’s stories need to be told. We need to inform our own communities.”
Now located in Northeast’s Thorp Building, the network went on the air in 1984 and is a public nonprofit company. Much of its funding comes from fees paid by cable subscribers, which are distributed by City Hall. Its nine-member board is appointed by the City Council and the mayor.
But Wells’ entrance also comes amid a behind-the-scenes tempest among several MTN producers, who say the organization has been unwelcoming to some communities and who accuse its board leadership of being opaque and insular in decisions about the future.
Valerie Lockhart, an MTN producer and former board member who served as interim executive director before Wells, said a growing number of producers have had “very horrible experiences with MTN.” In many cases, she said, they have been people of color or from different cultural backgrounds who have had difficulty determining how to become members, take classes or produce content.
“There’s not been any real community input as to what the direction should be, or what people actually want from MTN,” Lockhart said.
The board also heard complaints last year about disparate access to studio space, and several producers have penned lengthy letters peppered with examples of perceived slights and acts of retaliation.
Board Chairman Jon Thompson attributed the complaints to “a couple of very vocal producers” — there are about 300 members altogether — and said many of the racial discrimination concerns were resolved last year.
Creative freedom is an important part of public access television, since station operators are barred from controlling the content unless it is deemed obscene.
“That’s the beauty of it,” Thompson said.
Wells joins MTN with a background in the nonprofit sector. She spent a decade as executive director of WomenVenture, which offers business advice, loans and scholarships targeted to female entrepreneurs. Her work there earned her an appearance to receive an award on “Oprah.”
Ron Edwards, a longtime Twin Cities civil rights activist who has hosted a show on MTN for 26 years, said the city and MTN board are putting a “tremendous burden” on Wells to raise money needed to keep the network afloat. He lamented city funding cuts in past years that took a toll on the station.
“She’s a great fundraiser. And that’s what this is all about,” Edwards said. “She’s expected to raise a lot of money, because we really need equipment.”
Public training programs
Wells said upgrading equipment is one of her first priorities. But she also sees big potential in expanding the media training offered by MTN, which could attract grant money. A Best Buy grant is now helping Spanish-speaking youths learn production skills on weekends, for example.
“We see numerous opportunities for youth development, content development, training, exposure to careers … in media,” Wells said. “We see opportunities with [teaching] the senior population.”
Wells is also mulling possible underwriting of shows and doing more filming out in the community.
More than 80 percent of MTN’s $571,146 budget came from cable franchise fees in 2015. Across the river, St. Paul Neighborhood Network is less reliant on cable fees — about 50 percent of the network’s budget — largely thanks to an AmeriCorps program that teaches technology skills to immigrants and low-income residents.
Thompson, who has a marketing background, hopes that rethinking such training services and other activities can also help improve MTN’s brand, which he said has been degraded.
“You see that when you ask people what their understanding is of cable access in Minneapolis,” Thompson said.
“Most people are kind of bewildered that we even exist.”