Rufus Johnson remains optimistic he can maintain his roles as a television producer and community activist in Cincinnati, despite Media Bridges closing later this year as a result of city and state funding cuts.
“This has been my home for four years, five years now, so it’s a great loss,” Johnson says. “But sometimes you have to move on.”
Media Bridges is a public access media organization founded in 1988 that allows anyone in Cincinnati to record video and sound for publicly broadcasted television and radio. It also provides educational programs for people new to the process.
For Johnson, Media Bridges provided an unprecedented opportunity. Johnson had been a community activist for years before joining Media Bridges, but the organization gave him a visible leadership role as a television producer in the city. By providing him with the tools and equipment necessary, Media Bridges let Johnson dictate the content, voices and narrative that he gave to his audience through his various political, religious and entertainment shows.
But Media Bridges on July 9 announced it’s shutting down by the end of the year, ending nearly 25 years of public service. The organization’s demise is a result of the city fully eliminating funding for Media Bridges in its latest budget, which was passed by City Council in May.
“It is with great sadness that I must announce that Media Bridges will close its doors by the end of 2013,” Media Bridges Executive Director Tom Bishop wrote in the organization’s newsletter. “The city has made it extremely clear that we will not be receiving any more funding from them. While we have tried many other avenues for revenue it has become clear that we will be unable to sustain operations beyond 2013.”
The shutdown will be a steady process, with Media Bridges completely closing on Dec. 13 or once its channels are transferred, whichever comes first.
The organization was originally financed through a state fund provided by Time Warner Cable, but the cable giant successfully lobbied to end the fund in 2011
Bishop disputes the city’s claim, saying Media Bridges and its staff weren’t informed that the city funding was meant to be temporary — at least until it was too late.
The city’s budget cuts were originally considered in December, but City Council managed to restore some funding to keep the organization afloat. Prior to the partial restoration, Bishop told CityBeat the cuts would be a “meteor” to his organization’s budget.
City officials back then defended the cuts to Media Bridges, citing city surveys that ranked the program poorly in terms of budgetary importance. For the surveys, the city used meetings and mailed questionnaires to gauge public opinion.
But Bishop claims the surveys’ demographics were lopsided against low-income Cincinnatians, the income group that benefits the most from public access programs like Media Bridges.
For both the meeting-based and mail-in surveys, Bishop’s claim checks out. His concern is even directly acknowledged and backed in the documented survey results for the meetings: “Twenty-two percent of meeting participants earned less than $23,050 per year, compared to 40.8 percent of the population at large who earn less than $24,999 per year. While this is not representative of the population at large, the data does indicate strong participation from low income residents.”
Meanwhile, wealthier Cincinnatians were much better represented, with 11 percent of meeting participants making $150,000 or more per year despite only 6 percent of the city at large belonging to that income group, according to the survey results.
The same issue can be found in the mail-in survey: Only 22 percent of respondents made less than $25,000, while 10 percent made $150,000 or more.
“It’s ridiculous that they would call that representative of the city of Cincinnati,” Bishop says.
Instead of using its skewed survey results, Bishop argues the city should have looked at the 2010 Spring Greater Cincinnati Survey from the University of Cincinnati’s Institute for Policy Research. In that survey, respondents were asked how important it was to provide equipment to citizens and neighborhoods so they can “produce educational and public access programs for cable television.” About 54.3 percent called it “very important,” 33.9 percent labeled it “somewhat important” and 11.7 percent said it was “not too important.”
For his part, Johnson says he will confront city officials about the cuts in the remaining time he has to produce and host his shows. In the past, council members told Johnson they supported Media Bridges, but that support dwindled once funding came to a vote.
Still, Johnson puts some of the fault on Media Bridges. He argues nonprofits like Media Bridges should have back-up plans for funding instead of relying on a single source.
Johnson acknowledges that Media Bridges has been trying some of those avenues, particularly through membership fees and promotions for private contributions.
“If (the attempts) had been successful, we wouldn’t be shutting our doors. That speaks for itself,” he says.
Although Media Bridges is closing down, the city is still funding CitiCable, which broadcasts City Council meetings, through franchise fees from Cincinnati Bell and Time Warner.
Johnson praises CitiCable for much of its programming, but he says its services won’t do anything for producers like him. Most of all, Johnson says he’ll miss the accessibility and visibility available through Media Bridges.
But with the backing of Internet tools and services, some of the people who, like Johnson, were trained and supplied at Media Bridges will still have the opportunity to get their content out there. In the coming months, Johnson says he will continue building his image in such outlets to keep on doing what he loves. For now, that may be his only chance. ©