Photo: Lauren-Glenn Davitian, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Burlington's CCTV/Center for Media and Democracy, otherwise known as Channel 17. Photo by Randolph T. Holhut.
by Joyce Marcel, Vermont Business Magazine You may not know her name, but if you've ever watched your select board on public access television, you owe a debt of thanks to Lauren-Glenn Davitian. Or if you've watched Town Meeting, your fire department’s barbecue, your kid's dance recital or any other community event.
Davitian, 58, is the co-founder and executive director of Burlington's CCTV/Center for Media and Democracy, otherwise known as Channel 17. She has been a vital leader in the world of Vermont public access television for over 35 years.
Also, if you've ever become so passionate about an issue that you want to make a documentary about it, you've probably gone to your local public access or PEG (public, educational and government access) station to learn how. And you've probably showed the finished documentary on one of their channels. Again, thank Davitian for those channels.
Also, if you're doing opposition research on a certain presidential candidate who used to be mayor of Burlington. Just ask the Republicans, the Democrats and The New York Times, who are now mining CCTV's archives for Bernie Sanders gold.
“Lauren-Glenn is this visionary in terms of her work in the field of community media,” said former Burlington City Councilor Jane Knodell, who sits on the CCTV board. “It goes back to the early 1980s. Having this vision and then being able to execute it! She really got it all going and she’s kept it all going over the entire 35 years. It's an incredible accomplishment.”
Knodell calls Davitian “a social entrepreneur” who started a new organization “operating at the frontiers of the economy” in the nonprofit field.
“She was doing it before it became a thing,” Knodell said. “She’s had to do some serious battles. I would call her a warrior for fighting with the big guys, the cable companies, to secure the funding that is fundamental to the access channels. That involved communicating with state and federal regulatory entities – the PSB, the FCC — who make the rules. She’s always been a very strong advocate, with others nationally, around the principal that the cable companies need to take some of their earnings and put it back into community media. Without the advocacy and lobbying the officials, that probably would not be happening.”
Public access television is a truly strange beast. For most of our lifetimes, it has been an endangered anomaly, perilously balanced at the intersection of small-d democracy and late-capitalist commerce.
The idea, basically, is that the people own the airwaves. They also own the rights-of-way on the road where the poles stand that bring us power, cable, phone and internet. If a corporation — say, a cable company — wants to use some of these public holdings to make a profit, it reasons that they must give something back. Since the 1970s, that “giving back” has taken the form of funding for public access television: for staff, equipment, training and channels.
Photo: Lauren-Glenn Davitian, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Burlington's CCTV/Center for Media and Democracy during the interview for this article. Photos by Randy T. Holhut.
Davitian's life's work has been securing that funding using it to support public access stations across the state.
Davitian's work has been recognized and rewarded.
In 2013 she received the NTEN (Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network) Lifetime Achievement Award. She was also named one of Vermont's “25 most influential people” in the mid-1990s. In 2007, she received the highest award in her field, the Alliance for Community Media George Stoney Award for Humanistic Communication.
Aside from “visionary,” here are some of the words Davitian's colleagues use to describe her: “tireless advocate,” “passionate,” “caring” and “an accomplished professional.”
Some of the words that people from the other side of the negotiating table use to describe her: “straight shooter,” “no nonsense,” “always good on her word” and, again, “passionate about what she does.”
Davitian — passionately (ahem)— believes that free speech matters and that community media channels are essential to our democracy.
“It’s hard to separate me from the cause,” Davitian said. “We are very fortunate here in Vermont. There are news deserts in this country — places that don't have any public access. Without a diversity of ideas, we can't really have a functioning democracy. We can't rely on mainstream media to provide that diversity of ideas because the goal of mainstream media is not to inform, it's to generate revenue — straight up.”
Public access television, then, is resolutely noncommercial; it's about freedom of speech, voices, ideas, news and information.
“It's very difficult to find non-commercial space where people can actually have a conversation,” Davitian said. “YouTube is commercial. Facebook is commercial. It's all commercial real estate now using our personal stories to make money. I mean it's obscene, really, when you think about it. But public access television is an oasis in this world of corporately controlled media.”
In the digital age, Davitian said, “all of the wrongs of mainstream media are now writ large.” Who doesn't think the internet is full of fake news, too many advertisements and misleading stories?
One of public access's most important contributions is building community, Davitian believes.
“Public access television is one of the really important ways, especially in a place like Vermont, which is so small, to weave things together to provide a table for people of different ideas to be able to express them,” Davitian said. “And from that, to weave together a community and to make connections with each other. So that's why public access is important. Now, more than ever, it's necessary.”
In person, the woman behind these free speech battles is small, calm, earnest, devoid of makeup, self-assured, self-possessed and topped off by bright blue eyes and a fluff of brilliant white hair. She has an understated sense of humor. Her unusual hyphenated name comes from her parents. Some of her friends call her “LG”.
“Glenn is my mother's maiden name,” she said, “Lauren is from Bacall, who was really Betty.”
Over the years Davitian has her fingers in a lot of community access pies. Currently, she's the executive director of CCTV (which stands for Chittenden Community Television), which she co-founded with Nat Ayer in 1984. It was the state's first funded PEG access channel. CCTV/Center for Media and Democracy currently operates Channel 17/ Town Meeting Television, a/k/a Chittenden County’s Government Access Channel.
Davitian has helped birth public access television stations around the state. In 1985, she started the Vermont Access Network, a statewide association of 25 Vermont community media centers that operate 75 or more PEG channels, produce over 18,000 hours of programming a year, employ over 75 people and use about $7 million of cable subscriber dollars.
In 1995, Davitian started the Old North End Community Technology Center, later renamed CyberSkills/Vermont, which she eventually spun off to the Burlington library. In 2010, she began Common Good Vermont, which she spun off to the Center for New Leadership at Marlboro College in 2018.
Davitian is on the Center for Digital Democracy Board and the Lake Champlain Waldorf School Board. And she serves as president of the Board of Center for Digital Democracy, a leader in digital rights activism.
The old days of wild-eyed radicals running public television — as well as the days of celebrating its lameness (think of “Wayne's World”) — have been over for a long time. CCTV has a full-time equivalent staff of about 15 people. The station's budget is $700,000.
“About $500,000 is for Channel 17,” Davitian said. “And then we generate about $100,000 through the video production company. We do video for hire. But it's consistent with our mission. We're not doing weddings. We're basically covering public events. So it's not unrelated business income. And then we do philanthropy. This year we're doubling what we raised, because we have to diversify.”
Channel 17 operates on both Comcast and Burlington Telecom channels and receives funding from both of them.
Photo: Lauren-Glenn Davitian, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Burlington's CCTV/Center for Media and Democracy, otherwise known as Channel 17. Photo by Randy T. Holhut
“Comcast is the dominant provider in the communities we serve — Burlington, South Burlington, Essex, Essex Junction, Winooski, Williston, Colchester and St George — and BT has a relatively smaller number serving Burlington only,” Davitian said. “Also on BT we have a high definition channel, Channel 217. We're also on YouTube. We have a website and we're on Instagram as of a couple of weeks ago.”
Burlington wasn't the first place in Vermont to see a nascent public access television station. That would be Brattleboro, where BCTV began organizing in 1976; it covered select board meetings. BCTV became a registered nonprofit in 1988. That station's executive director, Cor Trowbridge, calls Davitian “an inspirational leader” and “a champion of PEG stations.”
“She elevates the discussion of the issues we're facing,” Trowbridge said. “She led the charge at the State House and helped guide our Legislature to set up a summer study committee for public access funding. Vermont makes PEG access a priority, and Lauren-Glenn is one of the reasons why. She's also been inspirational to me as a community media activist. When I was new in this job, she helped me to understand the larger issues and bring Brattleboro into the fold of the state-wide network.”
For-profit cable companies have traditionally been unwilling to fund PEG television. Since cable is a monopoly, however, it is considered a utility. In Vermont, it is regulated by the Public Utility Commission (formerly the Public Service Board). The commission supports the belief that cable companies should support public television.
The Federal Communications Commission codified this idea in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Vermont's PUC codified it with Rule 8, (last amended in 2010), a 33-page document that lays out the ground rules for public access.
Davitian calls Rule 8, “One of the most important pieces of public access television legislation in Vermont.”
Rule 8 defines a public access channel as “a channel made available by an operator that is used to cablecast non-commercial programming created or acquired for public, educational, or governmental purposes pursuant to this Rule."
According to the Department of Public Service's website, “In Vermont, cable operators are required to support... PEG Access. The concept... cable operators must provide channel capacity, services, facilities, and equipment as partial compensation to communities for their use of public rights-of-way (streets, highways, and other government-owned property). PEG channels are run by the community and provide the equipment, facilities, and opportunity for community members to produce local programming, from covering government and local sporting events to educational shows and entertainment programming.”
Jim Porter, director of public advocacy for DPS, says the state believes “public access is critically important. It means that voices are heard that might not otherwise be heard.”
Under federal law, Porter said, a franchising authority is entitled to up to 5 percent of the revenues of the cable company.
“In Vermont,” he said, “the Public Utilities Commission has chosen to take its 5 percent and give it directly to PEG. Vermont is generally very supportive of public access.”
Cable companies have long fought back against this kind of tithing. They resent having to pay for anything that is not profitable for their company and its stockholders. They believe that it is unfair that they have to pay for public access when their competition, satellite companies for example, do not. Neither does the Internet.
Comcast has fought back in creative ways. Look at the testimony leading up to the renewal of its Certificate of Public Good, which was expiring on December 29, 2016.
At the hearing, Daniel M. Glanville, Comcast's vice president of Government and Regulatory Affairs for the Western New England Region, showed up with surveys showing that Vermont customers were 91 percent “somewhat, moderately, very or completely satisfied” with Comcast's cable service, while “82% of the respondents (in one survey) were “unable to identify any specific, cable-related community needs that are not currently being met.”
According to his surveys, Glanville said, 82.4 percent “of the respondents indicated the ability to watch PEG channels 'does not matter', was 'not important' or was 'not at all important' in continuing their cable subscription with Comcast.” And very few people cared if their PEG television came in high-definition.
Therefore, his reasoning seemed to be, leave Comcast alone.
The argument did not fly with the PUC, which imposed new conditions on Comcast, including expansion of access in rural areas and the inclusion of PEG programming in its program guides.
Comcast opposed the new conditions, claiming that public access television was making unjust claims that — in a little bit of irony here — infringed upon Comcast's rights of free speech. It took the decision to federal court. It lost that argument in 2018, according to a story in VtDigger.
“One of Comcast’s particular objections is to requirements in the Renewal CPG that it extend its service to areas in Vermont which are currently without cable access... expanding access to cable is not itself an interest that is related to suppression of free speech,” wrote Geoffrey W Crawford, chief judge of the US District Court for the District of Vermont. “To the contrary, expanding access to cable would seem to promote rather than suppress free speech.””
Davitian didn't buy Comcast's argument any more than Judge Crawford did.
“For the last public service court proceeding, Comcast didn't like the end result,” Davitian said. “So now we're in federal court, spending thousands of dollars. We don't see that that's actually in the public interest and we don't really understand why we have to keep litigating. But it's because Comcast has a different perspective. They don't like precedents that they have to support all over the country, and they don't like to be told what to do by the utility regulator. So their interests are different. Their goal is to keep as many cable subscribers as they can. That's important to them and that's important to us. So we actually share that goal. If the 25 access centers in Vermont pool our resources, the cost is at least $150,000 to do legal work together.”
Still, Davitian refuses to condemn Comcast.
“Comcast's interest is to provide the best possible service to their subscribers and to be responsive to their shareholders,” Davitian said. “So their goal is to generate revenue by providing what they consider to be good service. You'd think we'd overlap, because we provide public access, and public access actually is something people rely on. They subscribe to cable — or used to subscribe to cable TV — to have it. But I think, with a company as large as Comcast, it's very hard for them to look beyond the bottom line to the public good. And so we don't always agree. I don't have anything bad to say about them. They're formidable. We have to spend thousands of dollars of cable subscriber money in court proceedings because they don't agree about us. And that's regrettable, because those are subscriber dollars we could be spending to provide service to the community.”
The case is on-ongoing. According to Davitian, the parties are in mediation.
In contrast, when Burlington Telecom was bought by Schurz Communications earlier this year, its contract with CCTV was successfully renegotiated. And according to former BT general manager Stephen Barraclough, Davitian did it with panache.
“I've always found Lauren-Glenn to be a straight shooter,” Barraclough said. “She's no-nonsense and always good on her word. The local service provider always tries to maintain a supportive and positive relationship with local players. We try to work cooperatively with them whenever we can. Our negotiations were long and detailed. They were really based on what the public access channels that Lauren-Glenn represents want to do, and how to transition forward with what they want to do in the next five to 10 years to deliver their services.”
Burlington Telecom was there to help CCTV, Barraclough said.
“Our approach is always, if we have infrastructure, we're happy to make it available,” he said. “We always try to be positive and productive when we're dealing with parts of the community, because we're local players. If we have the infrastructure and they won't adversely affect us, we're more than happy to make them available.”
The negotiations involved two main things, Barraclough said. The first was giving CCTV access to its city-wide fiber network. Since BT has “load of excess fiber,” Barraclough said, that was not a problem. Also, CCTV wanted more than three channels so they could broadcast in high-definition.
“Where Comcast would struggle, BT has an infinite number,” Barraclough said. “That's a way we were able to help them. Lauren-Glenn is an unusual person. She's always straightforward. She's passionate about what she does. And what she says to me is what she's always done. There's a level of trust there. Where we disagree, we'll have an honest conversation. We negotiated contacts back in 2016 and in 2017. Knowing BT was going to be sold, and wanting to make sure that when it was sold we didn't have a long negotiation, the new contract was pretty much identical with the one Lauren-Glenn negotiated with BT. They simply took what they had in place. It was constructive, positive and mutually beneficial.”
With cable television, it's important to note that other factors are in play. It's no secret that cable companies are threatened. Young people have moved away from cable and towards streaming. As Comcast loses subscribers, its profits shrink, and so does the 5 percent available to public access. It is possible that Comcast might be looking forward to a future of diminished responsibility towards PEG funding.
When asked to discuss Comcast's relationship with Davitian, Glanville checked in with his superiors before providing this comment: “Lauren-Glenn Davitian is a dedicated servant to the Public Access Television in the state of Vermont. Her energy is commendable. Comcast has had a long relationship with Lauren-Glenn Davitian and her partner members of the Vermont Access Network. We wish them continued success as the many new distribution outlets for PEG and other programming beyond cable, like YouTube and online streaming, continue to evolve in the future.”
“Diminished financial support is going to be an issue,” Porter said. “The Legislature is going to study it this summer. Everyone is interested in looking at the funding future for public access.”
This year, the Federal Communications Commission floated the idea of cutting off public access from cable funding entirely. The FCC is also facing a fight.
“We've been active in the campaign to convince the FCC to adopt pro-PEG policies in the current rulemaking FNPR 05-311,” Davitian said. “Vermonters submitted hundreds of comments and our political reps, especially Rep Peter Welch, have been outspoken directly to the FCC. We are also working to diversify revenue on an on-going basis. This is true of CCTV, Town Meeting TV (which we operate) and the 24 other community media centers across Vermont. Most recently, we were successful in the passage of a Vermont Legislative Study Committee which will meet over the summer to discuss options for PEG access and state control of its rights of way — from which PEG funding is derived — going forward.
Davitian has many supporters in the public access world.
“She is a tireless advocate for the work done at Vermont community media centers,” said Jess Wilson, the executive director of another Burlington public access station, Regional Educational Television Network. RETN is an educational community television channel serving Chittenden and Addison Counties. Before taking this job, Wilson worked for Davitian at CCTV for close to 13 years.
“She's the institutional memory for our movement, as well as a fighting force,” Wilson continued. “It's taken the form of being involved in supporting contract negotiations, testifying before the Legislature, working through the process with the Public Service Board, now the Public Utility Commission. Lauren-Glenn's biggest legacy is being out there in front and being an advocate for free speech and public access to the cable system. She's one of the smartest people I know. A tireless advocate. She's worked very hard to build everybody's capacity, to raise all the boats.”
Davitian is well-known in Burlington for her parties, said her long-time friend Paula Routly, the co-founder, publisher and co-editor of the weekly newspaper Seven Days.
“She was the first person I met when I moved to Vermont,” Routly said. “We met by a copy machine in 1983. Bernie was mayor and she was volunteering. There was a neighborhood planning assembly and she was working on graphics to inform people about these meetings. We argued about the graphics. She's a pretty forceful person, I stood up to her and we've been friends ever since. She's an incredible hostess and connector of people.”
Routly said the most “extraordinary characters” would show up at Davitian's parties.
“They came from all walks of life,” Routly said. “She would cook and make everyone feel conformable, and eight hours later you would think about going home. She kind of introduced me to everyone I know in Burlington. Artists, politicians, everyone. She lived in the Old North End back then and was very committed to political action.”
Davitian is “a woman of the people,” Routly said.
“She's a nonprofit entrepreneur,” Routly said. “She's super-organized. She's confident. There's a certainty about her that's unusual. She was always precocious, able to articulate at a young age. If there's self-doubt, it doesn't show. She's been like that since she was 25. She's incredibly generous. She picks up the tab. She's thoughtful, She helps people preemptively. She's a very warm and generous person. And she definitely grew an empire. These public access stations all over the state are a result of her activism.”
Davitian is part of a media power couple, although she'd probably dislike that description.
In 1999 she married journalist Mark Johnson, who she met while he was a reporter at the Burlington Free Press; CCTV was interviewing him for a show. (“It was one of the cutest little interviews you've ever seen in your entire life,” said Davitian.) He is now with VtDigger. They have a daughter entering Skidmore College in the fall.
Davitian was born in Manhattan and raised in Queens, NY. She is the only child of adventurous parents.
Her father's parents were Armenian refugees who came to this country to escape the Turkish genocide. Her father grew up on the Lower East Side of New York City. Her mother was a socialite who grew up in Buffalo.
“My mother's grandparents were part of Buffalo's society,” Davitian said. “Her father was not part of that. But his father was an oil guy in Ohio. And he created this product, a petroleum product, that went on every piece of equipment that went overseas in World War I. They lived in Lima, Ohio. Then the bankers basically bankrupted them. So they had a bunch of money and then they got sort of screwed by the bankers. So my grandfather moved to Buffalo and created a company that made cleaners and polishes and waxes.”
To satisfy his artistic leanings, her grandfather found land outside of Buffalo and built an “amazing” house, Davitian said.
“That was his artistic legacy,” Davitian said. “And it's extraordinary. So my mother grew up there with her brother. Her mother's family were debutante people. So there were these balls, debutante balls, and my mother came out.”
Davitian's father's story is quite different.
“My father is a cross of Frank Sinatra and Mel Brooks,” she said. “He was a stockbroker, but he really was a bookmaker first. He ran a bookie parlor. But he became a stockbroker when he had to get legitimate in order to marry my mother. Basically, he went to a legalized form of gambling. My mother was a debutante who fled Buffalo and got to New York City as quickly as she could. She met my father the first day she was in New York, he proposed the same day, and she married him a few years later”.
According to Davitian, her mother had been sent to Russell Sage College and then to Bard but decided not to stay at either. She had once met a man who told her, “If you ever come to the city, call me.”
So she gathered her money and got on a New York-bound train, where she was promptly robbed. She landed in the city with no money. So she called the man.
“He says, 'Meet me at the Imperial Bar on the corner of Second Avenue and 30th Street,'” Davitian said. “She walks into the bar and he's happy to see her. She's sitting on the barstool and in walks two men. One of them is very tall and handsome and one of them was very short. And I'm not sure if she thought he was that handsome. But he went right up to her and said, 'Do you want to go out for dinner tonight?' And then he went home and ate, because he didn't have enough money for the two of them to eat out. Then he took her to Chicken Delight, watched her eat and proposed. That same night. She said no. So it took a while, and needless to say he was pretty dark skinned for her side of the family. No one was a big fan of him, because they were very white people.”
Her father had just come back from the Virgin Islands, where he and some partners had put money into gambling machines. Then his group had paid the locals to vote in support of legalized gambling. And they all voted against it.
“So he had totally lost his shirt,” Davitian said. “So he was back in the city with no money. He marries my mother. He gets a job for $35 a week on Wall Street. And then he works his way up to being a stockbroker. He was a very loving, very funny guy. I grew up in Midtown and then we moved to Long Island City.”
Davitian's mother was a homemaker and an artist.
“It was the '60s, so women didn't have to work,” Davitian said. “I mean, you could afford to live a life without two people working. So she cooked. She was busy. She was an artist and a creative person. She made everything beautiful. She was a lovely mother. It was a great time to be in New York. We had really interesting friends and dinner parties all the time. It was wonderful. I had great family and I went to great schools.”
Davitian was put to work when she was young.
“My first job was as a housekeeper in Kennebunkport,” she said. “My mother inherited a house there from her aunt. This is way before Kennebunkport was Kennebunkport. It was in the '70s and she inherited a house that her aunt had basically created — it was a beautiful home. So I worked there in the summers when I was a teenager.”
Davitian started her first business when she was 19.
“I started a lunch company called The Good Lunch Company,” she said. “I would make brown bag lunches and take them on the subway and hawk them in different neighborhoods in the city, So I'd go to the antique district. I'd go to Wall Street. I'd go to Midtown. Every day I'd go somewhere else and sell these brown bag lunches.”
Davitian went to Catholic schools; she graduated in 1978. After that, she decided to go to the University of Vermont.
“I went to UVM because Vermont was so beautiful,” Davitian said. “I had that moment that most people have, where they drive through Vermont and the sky is blue and the grass is green and the sun is yellow. I turned to my mother and said, 'This is where I want to be.' So I applied to schools and got into UVM. I was very lucky to land here at the time that I did.”
She studied anthropology; her coursework included spending her junior year in Edinburgh.
“That's where I learned the history that led to public access television,” Davitian said. “I learned about John Grierson, who started the British Film Board. It was started during the Second World War to offset Nazi propaganda and kind of boost everyone's sense of shared identity. Then he was hired by Canada to start the Canadian Film Board, to do essentially the same thing: Create a unified sense of being Canadian in this country that was 3,000 miles wide.”
Some Canadians objected to his coverage of certain aspects of Canadian life.
“So the Film Board started a project called Challenge for Change, where they sent people out with video cameras to use video as an organizing tool,” Davitian continued. “For example, they went out in the neighborhoods in Montreal and interviewed people. 'What would make this better?' This was very novel in the late '70s and maybe early '80s. People see they have common cause and decide to organize.”
Davitian uses a quote from Grierson as her rallying cry: “Once good feelings and good ideas move like wildfire across the democratic sky, we are half-way towards building a community worth living in.”
At UVM, Davitian worked on photography as well as anthropology. She did her thesis on social and cultural change in Winooski.
“They were renovating the mills,” Davitian said. “They had renovated them into housing and retail. And I was really interested in the impact of that gentrification on the community, and on what people thought. They couldn't really tell you what they thought without talking about their history. So it was a really interesting way to get to know the people in that community and interview them and do this fieldwork. And then I wrote that thesis. I became friends with some families in Winooski who took me in. And that, along with the combination of Bernie being mayor of Burlington, kept me here. I stayed because I thought I would have more political agency, rather than going back to New York. I felt located and grounded in this place, and so I've been here ever since.
Davitian graduated Phi Beta Kappa from UVM in 1982. But graduation presented her with a problem.
“I knew pretty quickly that I wouldn't have access to the video and film equipment at UVM after I left,” she said. “But I also knew there was a thing called public access television.”
She supported herself by buying a falafel cart with a friend and selling falafel in downtown Burlington.
“Then I went to a company run by a guy who had bought lunch from us,” Davitian said. “I went to him and said, 'Hey, I'll be your intern now.' And so I worked for them for about a month and they said, 'Well, we guess we'd better pay you.' It was a commercial media production company.
Public Access Begins
In 1983, a group of community activists with a keen desire to bring local stories to light convinced state utility regulators that public, educational and government (PEG) TV channels were fair compensation for cable companies’ use of public rights of way. One of those community activists was Nat Ayer, the now retired co-founder of CCTV. He remembers the time fondly.
“My wife and I were left-leaning,” Ayer said. “There were several parties which were fundraisers for Bernie, and I had a video camera. So I started following Bernie around. Lauren-Glenn had started doing some kind of media and my wife knew her. A friend said we could put these Bernie videos on TV. I thought that was pretty neat. There were several other people who Lauren-Glenn had picked up. She wanted to start a channel in Burlington; she was involved with people nationally who were doing the same thing. But I was the one who had the camera. So we started doing more and more together.”
Ayer remembered that he had had time on his hands “and a camera in the other hand.” So he and Davitian tried to figure out how to start a public access television channel together.
“We worked out of our homes,” Ayer said. “And we would go to press conferences, where Bernie would show up. Lauren-Glenn got more and more interested in breaking down the commercial media – things people are trying to sell. Then Lauren-Glenn convinced the president of the cable company, which was locally owned, to give her the channel. It was important to provide places where people could go — places that didn't exist back then at all. We were all pretty committed.”
When Davitian first went to locally-owned Cox Cable to ask for support, they opened a closet marked “closet” and showed her some antique camera equipment.
“They said, 'Well here's the equipment,'” Davitian said. “So I walked out that door and immediately went from being a documentary filmmaker, which was really my goal, to being a political organizer. I talked to everyone I possibly could about this idea of public access television, where the cable company would set aside channels and they would set aside equipment and they would set aside money for the public to use these channels. I was lucky to hook up with a guy who was a young lawyer who was willing to do pro bono work for us.”
In 1984, the Public Service Board required Cox Cable Co to fund PEG access in Burlington, Montpelier, Rutland and Middlebury. CCTV's first program went on the air in June of that same year.
“We didn't even have editors,” Davitian remembers. “We did deck-to-deck and we made little programs. And then the cable company hired a staff person. Then CCTV produced all these programs. We did the housing show. We would do a show weekly called 'Burlington This Is You' where Nat Ayer would read the Free Press and say what's happening. And 'Oh, there's a quilting festival.' 'Oh, there's a demonstration.' And he would cover that.”
From 1985 on, CCTV covered Bernie Sanders, public protests and community events.
Sanders was an enthusiastic supporter from the beginning.
“So we started to do a lot of work with him to document what was happening in progressive Burlington,” Davitian said. “We have reams and reams of that footage. All the community institutions that were started at that time are now, you know, 35 or 40 years old.”
Ayer remembers Davitian as a remarkable interviewer.
“In one of these protests, Lauren-Glenn was talking to someone outside city hall,” Ayer remembered. “He was the father of a son who was overseas fighting. And Lauren-Glenn, after a minute, said, 'How are you going to feel if your son died?' And I was pretty bowled over by that. And the guy answered! Lauren-Glenn is able to elicit information from people. We had a long audio cable, and Lauren-Glenn would go around talking to people. What we were doing was important. And it was really popular in the community, with regular people and even with the standard media. We were just a little success story.”
CCTV did a program called 'The Media Makers,' which was “our way of introducing ourselves to the media and talking to them about the influence of money and journalism,” Davitian said. “And then we did 'The Decision Makers.' These were hour-long interviews, which no one had done before. Hour-long interviews with people like former governor Phil Hoff. It was a very novel thing. That was how we became known for what we did.”
Soon Davitian was able to quit her day job and work for CCTV full time.
“So it's been paying us since 1990,” she said.
This June, CCTV celebrated its 35th anniversary on the air.
A Life in Public Access
Being a natural entrepreneur, Davitian has started many projects, some more successful than others.
“In 1987, I put together a Technology Trade Show and Conference, which featured 40 vendors, workshops, the works,” Davitian said. “I invented the idea and put it together on my own. This was before the business expo or Tech Jam or any of those events. The day came and we had two feet of snow. All of the vendors came, but absolutely no people.”
Besides being ahead of its time, it was also a costly error.
“I learned as much as I would have had if I had gotten a business degree,” Davitian said. “I called it my 'masters.' And I learned never to plan a major event between November and March.”
Davitian and her cohorts wanted to belong to a network of state-wide PEG television stations. So they went about starting more stations.
“Bennington's been going for 25 years,” Davitian said. “Bellows Falls, Springfield, St Johnsbury, Newport, we helped a lot of them start because creating a network was as important to us as the work that we were doing.”
Photo: Offices at CCTV headquarters. Photo by Randy T. Holhut.
The cable industry has proven to be more unstable than the public access community. First Cox Cable was sold to another local company, Green Mountain, for $37 million.
“And they were all local, and they were your friends,” Davitian said. “And then two years later they sold it for $170 million to Adelphia. And our friends disappeared. Then Adelphia went on this massive acquisition campaign. Then they went bust. Comcast and Time Warner split the Adelphia properties. And we've had Comcast ever since.”
By 1987, CCTV was producing enough programming to ask Adelphia Cable for an additional government access channel.
“The head of Adelphia at the time, who was also a founder of C-Span, said no,” Davitian said. “We went to local officials in the region and said we were going to go advocate for this second channel in the region. 'Do you support us,' we asked. They said 'OK, fine.'”
It took three years, but the Public Service Board finally granted them the second channel.
“So we went back to the local officials and said, 'Ok, this is your channel. This is your asset,'” she said. “It's like the solid waste district. I mean, it's a regional asset. 'What would you like to do?' And they said, 'We don't want to run it, but we'll set the policy and you'll hire someone to run it for us.' So they hired CCTV to run it for them, which is us. We started the government access channel and Town Meeting television.”
Channel 17 has archived all of its programming, which is becoming increasingly more valuable.
“We have 35,000 programs that go back to 1984,” Davitian said. “We're in the midst of digitizing this collection. So we have a full time archivist and he does about eight hours a day of digitizing. We think we might be done in about five years.”
Back when former governor Howard Dean was running for president on the Democratic Party ticket, Republicans came to CCTV for opposition research.
“The Republicans bought all the tapes, ”Davitian said.
By the time Bernie Sanders decided to run for president in 2016, CCTV's archives had turned into a gold mine.
“About a thousand of the programs feature Bernie,” Davitian said. “So we have a big Bernie Sanders collection from the ‘80s and the ‘90s that's proving to be pretty valuable, particularly this election time. First the Republicans came, and then the New York Times came in and was here for three days watching them. We're not selling to opposition research, but Fox News is airing some of our old programs. And NBC and Politico. So they're getting some reach.”
In 2015, CCTV put together a special DVD called “Positively Bernie” with choice cuts from their archives. The liner notes say, “In this special edition of 'Positively Bernie,' you'll find a unique mayor intent on improving the lives of Burlingtonians while connecting them to the larger world.”
“We license commercial use of our footage,” Davitian said. “But we have programs that are digitized that anyone can watch. Not all our programs are digitized, so people can come here and look if they want. Mostly the press comes.”
Running a Company
Being a serial entrepreneur, Davitian has had to learn management by the seat of her pants.
“I've never really had a boss, which is actually interesting,” she said. “If you've never had a boss, it's really hard to know how to manage people. You sort of figure everyone's fine. That they can do things just like you. But I've learned a lot about management and yes, they're not like you. No one's like you. You just hope they are, but they've not. That's my biggest blind spot. I think everyone thinks the way I do.”
Davitian has always been concerned about the shifting of potential PEG funding.
“We've been concerned about the diversification of public access revenue since 1990, when the phone companies started to get into the video business,” she said. “When we started this channel, there was this thing called a video dial tone. The phone companies were starting to get into moving video on their lines. As soon as we heard that, like, 'Wow! You know this environment is gonna change really fast.' There wasn't even internet, really. Public internet was just barely starting. One of the real strengths CCTV has brought to the movement is our visionary and entrepreneurial focus, because we knew that we were going to have to think about this problem then. And so we started to prepare. We started to look at different models of what public access in a digital age would be. We looked at different models because we wanted to explain to regulators what public access in a digital age was. We wanted them to support those initiatives in a regulatory and legislative environment. But first we had to show them.”
In 1995, CCTV worked with the city of Burlington on these issues.
“Burlington received this giant enterprise community grant,” Davitian said. “It was a multimillion dollar grant from the Feds, and we got a half a million of those dollars to start a Community Technology Center. So we started the Old North End Community Technology Center, which was meant to be a demonstration of public access in the digital age. It was also a job training site. We had the first public access computer terminals. We did job training. We taught people to use the internet. We helped nonprofits figure out what to do. It was a huge undertaking.”
CCTV was able to attract other big grants as well, and it ran the program for more than five years before deciding that social service was not in its purview.
“We spun off the access center to the library,” Davitian said. “We realized that we were not in the social services business, which was really what job training was. Job training was not about skill building. There were people who were long-term unemployed for reasons that had nothing to do with their skills. This was not our expertise. It was really a human services undertaking.”
Photo: Offices at CCTV headquarters. Photo by Randy T. Holhut.
CCTV went back to focusing on nonprofit communications.
“We started supporting the strategic communications of nonprofit organizations and we did that through the very late 1990s and early 2000s, and that became Common Good Vermont in 2010,” Davitian said.
Common Good Vermont came about due to the closing of a number of Vermont nonprofits. The Community Foundation was looking for a new way to support this fragile part of the Vermont economy. It put out an RFP asking for good new ideas.
“We said, 'Oh, we have this idea. We're good at party planning. We're great at network building. This is one of our strengths. And we're also good at packaging up information,'” Davitian said. “So we saw Common Good Vermont as a new channel, a different channel of getting information to people to help build community and to create a statewide network. We wanted to create a statewide network of nonprofits so everyone had a network that they could mobilize when their issues came up. It was free speech. We wanted to have this network beyond public access.”
Starting in 2010 and running until last year, Davitian worked on Common Good Vermont. Then she spun it off to Marlboro College.
“They had the Center for New Leadership in their graduate program, which is a little more financially stable, I think, than their undergraduate program,” Davitian said. “We worked very closely with the Center for New Leadership. They did what they did, and what we did was close enough to create this ladder. So we've merged the two and that staff went to work there. We don't run that project anymore.”
These projects were all part of Davitian's exploration of how to accomplish her mission of free speech for all.
“The mission Is to increase the tools and means of production and distribution,” Davitian said. “Then people can say what they need to say. You can generate a diversity of ideas. You can make the community a better place. So how you do that? You have to always be open to new ways of thinking about it, especially as the technology changes, right? Here's how you can help lead the community together, using these tools so that nonprofits can make the world a better place. It doesn't matter what kind of work a nonprofit does, if they can't talk about it effectively. And they have nothing to talk about if they're not being efficient and effective. So that became an important part of what we were trying to promote: effectiveness, efficiency and communication.”
The next big project for Davitian and CCTV is to expand the audience.
“How do you promote engagement with the content you are producing?” Davitian said. “We're producing a thousand hours a year of television here, but we don't think enough people get to see it. We're trying to figure out different formats and ways to make it easier for the community to engage in the content that we're producing.”
For example, if a city council meeting lasts three hours, how can you navigate the video so that you only see the parts of the meeting that you're interested in? The answer is a “clickable agenda,” said Davitian.
“In the mid-2000s, we pioneered this thing called clickable agenda,” she said. “So you actually could watch online and pick the item that you wanted to watch. Well, now we can excerpt parts of meetings and we can put those sections up on YouTube. We've been experimenting with Instagram for the last couple weeks. That's one of the benefits of working with young active minds. They're taking our archives, which are of great interest, and excerpting parts and putting them on Instagram. People can actually watch these little excerpts and engage with the content. Maybe it will drive them to the full collection, or to know more about what we do.”
Getting the archives online is another project.
“At our web site, CCTV.org, and on YouTube, you can find bunches of them,” Davitian said. “A lot of our content is on YouTube now because our meetings are live. So that's what we're trying to figure out now. What are the ways to make it easier for people to engage with this content, so they can use it as a tool for change? Whether they want to think differently about ideas or share the content so other people can be mobilized.”
The role of public access television hasn't changed, but in this era of rapid technology advances, the way to view it has changed dramatically.
“You're no longer confined to a cable channel to watch it,” Davitian said. “You can watch it online. You can watch it live. You can bypass all of the cable. You can just go to the websites of all the access channels and watch their content. Some channels will stream their channels live. Some of them you'll just see in a programmatic way. We also have a statewide network with which we share content. So something that's really neat in Brattleboro gets posted to file sharing, and we can run it here. Or the governor's press conference, or the inauguration. We run those live and share them across the state. So we work very closely as a statewide network.”
Fighting the FCC's proposed funding changes will occupy a significant amount of Davitian's time in the future.
“One of the recommendations that they're considering is that cable subscriber dollars for PEG could be subtracted from the in-kind services that a cable operator gives,” Davitian said. “So there's some discussion that the cable operators might be able to attach a value to the channels, and then say, 'You have to pay us for these channels.'
“We're all worried about that. But I'm not sure how likely that that aspect of the rule-making will happen.”
Another goal is developing even more revenue sources.
“Right now we're an enterprise with multiple sources of revenue because we've been working on diversifying,” Davitian said. “So we have production services. We have philanthropy. And we have the contract to run Channel 17. So CCTV has some diverse income. But we are all reliant primarily on cable company cable subscriber revenue.”
Davitian sees a few significant threats. The first is that people are “cutting the cord” on cable.
“So less people,” Davitian said. “Less people are relying on cable as the gatekeeper for their video content. They're using the internet and end up subscribing to multiple services. I think a lot of them are going to come back to cable because it gets very expensive very quickly. So cable-cord cutting is one factor.”
Another threat is Comcast's unhappiness with its Vermont deal.
“Them going to federal court is another threat to us,” she said. “We have to spend money on legal fees. We don't have a place on the interactive program guide. They don't want to have to provide it. So another threat is being ghettoized on the cable lineup. People can't see you in high definition. They can't find you.”
Cable companies regard providing PEG access as a competitive disincentive.
“They find it makes their service more expensive, because there is this requirement that they support PEG because they use the public rights of way,” Davitian said. “So those are the threats that all the access centers are facing. And so we're thinking about this. We've written a lot about it. We've put handbooks together. We've tried to help everybody move along. Now everyone's actually getting pretty serious about diversifying their revenue.”
Hence, the Legislative summer study committee.
“Because the Vermont Access Network works together, we hired a lobbyist and we worked to get a summer study committee to look at the future of funding public education on government access,” Davitian said. “The state has supported us for 35 years as a public policy goal through regulation. But what's happening is that the state's ability to regulate cable is being threatened by things like the FCC rulings.”
The FCC ruling is also threatening the state's ability to manage its rights-of-ways, Davitian said.
“So we want to figure out if the state still thinks that it's important that PEG access is a public good,” Davitian said. “And if regulation through the Public Utility Commission isn't the way to achieve it, are there some other ways to look at how we fund PEG access? So that's the study committee. So that is about to be signed by the governor. And that's big. It helps for us to be able to move the ball forward.”
Advocacy is now Davitian's main job, especially since the station is being well-run, she said, by a young and dedicated staff.
“Advocacy and fundraising are probably the biggest part of what I do right now,” she said. “My job has changed over 35 years, from being the front person and the program scheduler and the relationship builder and the hirer, to doing advocacy and development. All this work that you see people doing here in the studio? You know, I did all those jobs. And now I'm not doing whatever format it takes, I'm still going to do this kind of work. those jobs. They don't need me. In fact, they'd rather that I just stayed in my room. I'm not mission critical to that work. Institutional advancement probably is the best way to say what I do. And that's the part I like to do. I like the big picture stuff. I'm happy there.”
In a story last year, Seven Days announced that Davitian was getting ready to retire.
“I was misquoted,” she said. “I really love this work. I feel very passionate about this work. I would like to continue doing it. And there will always be many, many things to do.”
Joyce Marcel is a journalist in southern Vermont. In 2017 she was named the best business magazine profile writer in the country by the Alliance of Area Business Publications. She is married to Randy Holhut, the photographer who took the photos for this story. He is also the news editor/acting operations manager of The Commons, a weekly newspaper in Brattleboro. The couple have been living in a Windham and Windsor Housing Trust shared equity home for more than 22 years.