Voicing the Voiceless on Open Signal’s Public Access Cable Channels

Camera Training
Photo courtesy opensignalpdx.org

Standing on the shoulders of Portland Community Media’s 35-year history, Open Signal has filled five public access cable channels with an inimitable selection of programming since its launch in January, 2017. The organization offers classes, installations, and community outreach programs, but its commitment to “creativity, technology, and social change” is most obvious in its locally created content, which highlights local voices and local issues.

In a neighborhood experiencing some of the most rapid gentrification and displacement in the last fifty years of Portland’s history, Open Signal focuses on local residents and Portland natives. Of the 48 public access series programs airing this winter, only 9 are produced outside of the Portland metro area. The majority of the content is made with Open Signal’s equipment, and in their studio facility.

The channel’s programming represents a striking diversity in styles, interests, and backgrounds. Public affairs programs – like Jim Lockhart’s “A Growing Concern”, airing since 1998 – explore local grassroots issues affecting neighborhood and Portland residents. “My Iran”, another of Open Signal’s longest running programs, is a Persian language variety show that includes news, poetry, music, commentary, and comedy. Religious programs include “lectures on the religion of Al-Islam” (Al-Islam In Focus) and “praise through singing, dance, and speaking the word of GOD” (Rose E. Franks Ministries).

Other creators use community media as a platform for political activism and community organizing. “Ghetto Rise Media” focuses on self-improvement as a means for developing community and “Flying Focus Video Bus” seeks to “voice the voiceless” by using video as a tool for social change. “FACE Productions” has a “fresh approach to community empowerment” — their ambitious mission includes connecting community partners, engaging local and state government, and youth intervention through gang outreach.

Emily Roland, Open Signal’s Media Services Distribution Lead, has seen some emerging changes in Open Signal’s public access programming. Shorter length programs are becoming more common, a trend she calls “the YouTube Model,” and content creators are younger than in the past. There has also been a shift away from public affairs and activism towards original narrative works. “We are getting a lot creative videos,” Roland says. XRAY Radio’s partnership with Open Signal, XRAY TV, brings a second season of original content to the staff curated channel, Pulse of Portland (Xfinity Channel 29, CenturyLink 8004 and 8504 in HD).

Currently, Open Signal’s programming reaches 400,000 homes in the Portland metro area. However, their staff and developers are in the process of building a custom tool for video on demand and streaming through Archive.org, with a launch date goal of fall, 2018. Their on-demand broadcast system stands to benefit more than just Portland residents, however; Open Signal’s developers will publish their code base for other open source programmers to work with. More than just a distributor, Roland calls Open Signal “a trailblazing facility that creates custom software tools for public access and distribution for our channels.” However, this is uncharted ground, and Open Signal’s developers are in the painstaking process of investigation, testing, and iteration. It may be some time yet before we are streaming locally made Open Signal programming on our laptops.

Until then, check opensignalpdx.org for programming schedules and selected content.

By Alex Freedman