Watch This: Dispatches from Austin’s Public Access TV Past

Public Access Cable Television began in the early ’70s at the time that commercial cable television outlets began expanding their operations through the country. This system of allocating a certain number of channels for local programming was mandated by the FCC thanks to the advocacy of pioneers in the field of community media. The cable companies in their headlong rush for expansion agreed to not only dedicate channel space to the project but also to fund the creation and maintenance of production facilities.

This ushered in the golden age of Public Access Television with its mixture of City Council hearings, church services, shaky-cam gardening shows and, inevitably, late night anything-goes free-for-alls. Austin, naturally, had an active talent pool to draw from, and its CATV (Community Access Television) programs reflected the community well. Viewers had access to the usual municipal hearings and sermons, as well as the expected hours of guitarists cranking up sub-Eddie Van Halen eruptions of arpeggios and chaotic call-in shows offering psychic advice for the lovelorn or UFO abductees, or both.

In the midst of all of this, some community members were getting their hands on cameras or professional editing bays for the first time, beginning what for some would be an important part of their lives and careers. Here we should note that AFS administers Austin Public, which carries this long tradition of community media into the age of YouTube and podcasts. Austin Public offers classes, equipment access, and studios for live television, film, and podcast creation. There are still cable channels as well, one of them is the longest running CATV channel in the country in fact, which reach tens of thousands of Austinites.

One of Austin Public’s busiest producers is John Spottswood Moore. He has produced a six-part series called Our Town on TV about the history of Austin CATV. Here, in his words is a bit about the project:

“In this six-part series we have curated some of the weirdest and most touching moments from five decades of average Austinites making not so average TV. In “Famous Folks”, we see the likes of Allen Ginsberg, James Brown, and many other cultural legends who visited town. In “The City That Rocks”, we find out why Austin is a hub for live music. In “On The Street” we see the City’s many cultural shifts through 50 years of everyday people stopping to talk to the camera. So tune in, sit back, and enjoy five decades of guerilla television!”

The series launches today in the AFS Virtual Cinema, and there is a Virtual Town Hall featuring many of the creators featured in the series on November 15. (RSVP HERE)

In the meantime here are some clips of interesting, surprising, and sometimes just odd moments from Austin’s Public Access past: