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Shawn Serre, executive director of Pittsfield Community Television, said it was a "challenge" operating a community access TV station during the coronavirus pandemic, especially during the early days. "At that time, there were more questions than answers about COVID ..." he says. "So, we did a rotation on our staff ... so we could get these programs on the air. ... We found ways. We made it work. We kept our members engaged."

PITTSFIELD — Shawn Serre received a tape recorder as a gift when he was a young boy. It sparked an interest in recording that never has abated.

By the time Serre attended Drury High School, the North Adams native knew that he wanted to pursue recording as a career.

Not everyone gets to achieve their childhood dreams, but Serre did. He is the executive director of Pittsfield Community Television, the city's community access television station. Besides operating public, educational and governmental access television channels for city residents, PCTV also runs Pittsfield's community radio station, WTBR-FM (89.7).

PCTV's other function is enabling people with little or no television production experience to create their own programming, a task that it accomplishes by training individuals. PCTV takes this task seriously.

"This is a primary objective of our staff," according to the station's website.

We talked with Serre recently about his early fascination with recording, how PCTV survived the COVID-19 crisis, and how community television stations in general are dealing with the attempt to cut the funding they receive from cable companies for programming, a procedure that has been approved by the Federal Communications Commission but that is under appeal.

Q Why did you decide to pursue broadcasting as a career?

A As a kid, I was always into recording. I loved music. I loved media in general. So, at some time in my high school career I said, "You know what? I want to do this as a career."

I went to Syracuse [University] and went to communications school there, and that sort of reinforced for me that I made the right decision. I actually really thought that I would be into music recording and music production. That was my first thought.

Q So, how did television enter the picture?

A A strange thing happened when I graduated from college [in 1988] and came back home.

I saw a newspaper article in the old Advocate in Williamstown about this new television station in Pittsfield that was starting up but didn't have a location yet, and had just hired its first executive director. They had been in existence for a couple of years, with all volunteers. It was PCTV before there was PCTV.

I found some contact information in the newspaper, called the executive director and started volunteering. That was my start to this. At the time, I was thinking, "Well, I'll do this for a while and then I'll find a job in music recording and I'll move to the big city and that will be that."

Q So, why did you stay?

A Honestly, I didn't understand at the time what the concept of community television was. I was trained in how to make public television and commercial television, the things they do when they prepare you for a career. Then I go to this organization and the focus was completely different.

There was a focus on the local area and a focus on training local people who maybe had never touched a camera or a microphone in their lives, and to pass that information on to them, to empower them to create their own programs. So, that was a totally different concept for me.

Q What was it like operating a community access television station during the pandemic, without having the public around to participate?

A That certainly was a challenge, and we were asking ourselves that when this all started breaking at the very beginning, what that would mean for the viewing public and also our members at PCTV and WTBR,  because those are folks who are dedicated volunteers.

We were concerned that we weren't going to be able to serve them and let them do what they wanted to do and that also they wouldn't be able to reach their constituencies with their programs. We also had to make sure our meeting coverage got on the air, or if there was any local stuff from the governor or the mayor. ... So, we tried to find a middle ground in those early days.

Q How did you do that?

A At that time, there were more questions than answers about COVID. So, we did a rotation on our staff that made sure we had at least one or two [employees] in the building, some of the most technical in nature, so we could get these programs on the air. ... Our programming never went away at that time. ... We kind of again found that middle ground. By June of last year we were allowing solo radio programs on the air. We found ways. We made it work. We kept our members engaged.

We also had member-engagement events where we brought people in by Zoom or some similar technology and we would do some training workshops. One of them was with the Town Players, who produced the "Christmastime in the City" program [which recently received a national Hometown Media Award from the Alliance for Community Media]. That was well-deserved.

I guess the upshot of this was, we never stopped doing what we had always done. We had to limit it in some ways to keep people safe, but we kept the tap on.

Q What's the status of the legislation co-sponsored by Sen. Edward Markey that would allow community television stations like PCTV to continue to receive adequate funding for programming? 

A The Markey bill is still in play. But, probably the two biggest challenges that we're facing is the FCC's third order on franchising [the ruling would allow cable companies to reduce the amount of franchise fees they are required to give community television stations]. It went through, the FCC approved it and it was immediately appealed. A decision just came out, but for community access stations like we are, it was a mixed message from the court.

They upheld the idea that the FCC said that if the cable companies feel like they're giving more services to a local municipality, like free cable drops or senior citizen discounts or live connection points throughout the community, and it costs the cable companies something, that they can take that money back from the money we get to operate PCTV. That's the bad part.

The good part is, the court said that the cable companies cannot just decide for themselves what those things are worth and charge them back against us. That was part of what they were going to do.

Q Has anything happened with the structure of the franchise fees since the court's ruling?

A I think the cable companies have been laying low while this has been going on. I don't think there's a cable company in the country that has taken any franchise fees back yet, based on this order. I think they're really waiting for this to play out.

So, it's unknown now going forward what they might do. We're just keeping an eye on that and seeing what kind of budget ramifications it may have on us. Maybe there is a negotiation that has to happen with the cable companies about this. I don't know. Certainly, the franchise funds that come to us are extremely valuable. It's what allows us to do what we do in the first place. ... A little bit of a cut means a lot to us.

Q What have you done to make up for the funds you might lose?

A We've certainly taken some steps in the last four years or so to find other pathways to bring in money. We've ramped up our underwriting with our corporate partners. We've done a number of production service gigs over the last couple of years. ... Those are things that we're going to keep doing.

Q This issue of cutting the franchise fees first came before the FCC during the Trump administration. Do you think things will change under the Biden administration?

A It might. I don't know if [the FCC] will go back on an order that they've already passed. I guess you have to have some strong support for that, and I don't know if the FCC has the stomach for that right now.

Q How much of a threat are streaming services to community television stations like PCTV?

A We don't know where that's going to end up, either. Will people come back to cable after they realize they're actually paying more to buy all these different streaming services, or will they keep their cable subscription and also a few streaming services? I guess the market really hasn't decided on that yet.