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New entity to take over WCTV

April 7, 2015

A long saga involving the town’s community television station will officially come to an end in a few months, with a planned consolidation and reorganization into what is intended to be a more accountable, efficient cable access entity.

Walpole Community Television will soon move out of its longtime East Street headquarters, and morph into a new Walpole Media Corporation, to be based out of Walpole High School. The new WMC will oversee the town’s three PEG community cable channels – public, educational, and government – and will be closely aligned with the high school’s existing television production courses.

The phase-out of WCTV, founded in 1985, marks an unceremonious end to three years of intense battles between the WCTV Board of Directors and the Board of Selectmen. In 2012, then-Cable TV Advisory Committee Chairman Matthew Fearnley began uncovering alleged improprieties in the organization’s spending, which is funded from PEG fees on Walpole cable bills. Selectmen began pushing for more oversight of WCTV’s funds, while criticizing WCTV for offering only minimal community programming and little support for the town’s technology needs.

Selectmen cut off WCTV’s lucrative revenue stream in 2013, totaling about $400,000 per year, and charged a task force with developing a new community cable access entity. Since the revenue stream was cut off, the town has diverted about $700,000 in total cable revenue that legally can not be used for any purpose other than community television-related expenses.

The task force, chaired by former Selectman Eric Kraus, was able to come to terms with the existing WCTV Board, which had little leverage due to the loss of revenue, and the two boards merged into a nine-member Board of Directors earlier this year to oversee the transition to a new entity.

The Board’s plan is to spend the next few months setting up WMC, and then hold elections in September or October for cable subscribers to elect a new Board. The makeup of the Board will likely be reduced at that time, and will also include permanent representatives from the School Committee and Selectmen. Subscribers will also vote to ratify a new set of bylaws in the election.

The Board plans to hire a new Executive Director before the summer, and the station’s two existing full-time employees are expected to stay on, at least initially. WCTV’s former Executive Director, and a part-time secretary, were both laid off last year as part of the organization’s efforts to conserve costs.

During the summer, the high school’s cable studio and an adjoining custodial room will be renovated into a larger multi-room production and classroom complex with its own secure access separate from the school. On a short-term basis, until the separate access is complete, visitors to the studio will be required to go through the school’s main entrance, and will have to obtain a visitor pass.

The renovation will cost about $130,000 and will be paid for through the PEG fee revenue. The work will be performed by the town’s Building Maintenance Department.

The Board plans to complete negotiations with Selectmen to obtain permanent control of the PEG revenue stream and also to take over the existing $700,000 pool of diverted revenue.

The Board is hoping to convince Selectmen to allow WMC to pay rent for the studio of no more than $1 per year, in exchange for the organization’s technical and financial support of the high school’s television production program and of the district’s technology needs. One component of the studio renovation project, for example, is to purchase brand new computers for the television production courses.

The Board envisions that the partnership between WMC and the school district would be similar to that in Norwood, where Norwood Public Access Television (NPA-TV) occupies space inside Norwood High School and shares staff and resources.

Although federal law prohibits use of PEG cable revenue for purposes unrelated to cable access, the money can be used for technology and services that relate to the core mission of community cable television. WMC may buy computers for the schools, as long as they relate to editing videos and are involved with the school department’s video production program. Similarly, the cable corporation may use PEG fees to subsidize some of the high school’s utility and personnel expenses if they are used in any way by the corporation. The director of NPA-TV, for example, also works for the Norwood schools, allowing shared salary expenses between the schools and the non-profit NPA-TV.

The new partnership with the schools will also allow WMC to cover more school-related extracurricular and athletic events. Perhaps in a reflection of how connected the entity will be to the schools, the nine-member Board of Directors is made up of five current school employees, one former school employee, and one former School Committee member. Three of those former school employees had come from the Selectmen’s task force before the two boards merged.

Fearnley, who had previously criticized WCTV for ending its scholarship program and for offering only minimal support to the school’s television production program, said he was “hopeful for the new WMC” but “saddened by the lost decade of opportunity that Walpole High School students experienced” with WCTV.

All three legs of the town’s PEG channels – public, educational, governmental – will be operated out of the consolidated high school location. Previously, WCTV had overseen the public channel from their East Street location, while the high school studio operated the educational channel, and Town Hall controlled the governmental channel. The consolidation will reduce the duties of the town’s IT Director, who had been running the government programming, and will also allow for more efficient use of the TelVue servers that are used to broadcast the channels, and equipment in general.

“We will eliminate a major duplication of effort, equipment, facilities, and particularly people, both paid and volunteer, which will allow us to make the best possible use of all our resources,” Board member Jim D’Attilio told The Walpole Rebellion last month.

In the long term, the Board hopes WMC will broadcast all elected board meetings on the governmental channel. Currently, only Selectmen and School Committee, along with select meetings of other boards, are aired.

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