Austin’s Oldest Film Incubator Happens To Be a Public Access Channel

Tucked away on an unassuming residential street in East Austin, you’ll find one of the best television studios in the city. Over the last 40 years, it’s been called Austin Community Television, the Austin Community Access Center, Public Access Community Television, and now, simply Channel Austin.

“We channel all that is Austin. We’re the mothership for everything that keeps on keeping Austin weird,” said Linda Litowsky, Executive Director.

In the age of YouTube, Channel Austin keeps public broadcasting relevant by providing top-notch equipment, high-quality studio space, and most of all, affordable classes on every aspect of video production.

At $120, a basic membership costs less than a pocket-sized HD camera. With it, you not only get access to technology and facilities well outside the means of your average person, you also get training. The two biggest differences between Channel Austin and a film school are price and accreditation. If you want to make something more sophisticated than a webcam video, Channel Austin offers classes on everything from industry standard software to how to block a shot. People pay thousands of dollars for similar training at film schools, but you can get it on a budget, on your schedule, without any pretense or pressure, and with the total freedom to make whatever you want. The only thing they don’t offer is an actual degree.

“We try not to use the term ‘public access’ because it has such a negative legacy attached, but by law, that’s what we are,” said Litowsky. “We don’t want people bogged down in the Wayne’s World mentality. Instead, we prefer to call ourselves Community Media.”

Rebecca Campbell, Executive Director of the Austin Film Society, refers to Channel Austin as the minor leagues of local filmmaking.

“It’s like an incubator,” said Litowsky. “It’s the truest form of media democracy while also facilitating creativity using the newest and latest technology.”

A full-featured studio at your fingertips. (Image courtesy Channel Austin.)

According to Litowsky, around one third of the people who create content at Channel Austin eventually land careers in media. “It’s addictive. After you try it out for fun, a third will keep it going just for their community, and another third will become media professionals.”

That’s a better rate than most film schools or journalism programs. Famous alumni include directors like Richard Linklater ("Slacker," "Dazed and Confused," "A Scanner Darkly," "Before Midnight") and Robert Rodriguez ("Desperado," "From Dusk Till Dawn," "The Faculty," "Sharkboy and Lavagirl," "Spy Kids," "Sin City," "Machete").

While spawning internationally known directors is nice, Channel Austin’s actual mission is to give everyone in Austin a voice. This means you’ll find everything the long running The Atheist Experience to practical advice for the local disabled population on The Gene and Dave Show to Christian vacation advice from JCI First Coast Travel and Tourism.

A sampling of Channel Austin offerings.

“The thing about public access is that we’re content-neutral. No matter what, as long as you meet the legal things, you can air anything you wish - and we encourage that you do. It’s your voice, it’s your story. We’re the electronic soapbox, your home to free speech,” said Litowsky.

Channel Austin’s soapbox spans three channels of cable television (10, 11 and 16), three live streams of content available on the Web, and an upcoming YouTube channel where they’ll host over 60 shows.

Channel 10 has the unusual honor of being the longest continuously running public access television channel in the world. It first hit the air on August 3, 1973, and Channel Austin is eagerly planning how to best showcase their 40th birthday in 2013. Despite a 39-year legacy, Channel Austin is still entirely first come, first served both for studio and equipment space and for live broadcast time slots.

“There’s no way we could afford to do this without Channel Austin,” said Gavin Stone, creator of the weekly geek pop culture program Fanservice. “We are so fortunate to have a full-featured studio at our fingertips.”

For people interested in making their own television programs or music videos, Channel Austin offers three studio spaces. The 14’ tall 30’x40’ main studio has three cameras mounted on pedestals, a control room with two Final Cut Pro studios running, and a telephone interface so callers can dial in during live shows.  The 16’x24’ mini studio has the same basic setup but with only two cameras. If you don’t have a crew but do have an idea worth broadcasting, the 9.5’x10.5’ micro studio is designed so one person can run it alone.

In addition to the video studios, they also have a stand-alone audio production booth where musicians can create their own albums or people can record their own podcasts.

In addition to the studios, Channel Austin also offers a wide variety of cameras and equipment people can check out in order to make their own videos offsite.

“The only rule we have about the equipment is that you air whatever you produce on one of our three channels first,” said Litowsky. “That way we have good local programming that’s constantly fresh. Once you share the content with all of us, then you can sell it, put it on YouTube, put it on commercial spaces, do whatever you wish.”

Getting started is as simple as showing up at their weekly orientation program at 7 p.m. every Monday night. After the hourlong session, you pay a membership fee, take their mandatory TV 101 class, pass a quick test to make sure you won’t break all the expensive equipment, and you’re free to start making programming.  “We pride ourselves on the fact that we can make anyone from age 8 to 80 feel comfortable and confident using the resources we have available to the community,” said Litowsky.

Their most expensive yearly membership is $960. That’s only $11 more than taking the Final Cut Pro class at the Austin School of Film. Instead of one class, the membership gets you every class Channel Austin offers (including Final Cut Pro), plus 18 tech support sessions and use of the studios and check-out equipment.

For $480 per year, you get half-price classes (which normally range from $30-$200), tech support sessions, and the same use of studios and check-out equipment.

If you already know what you’re doing, the basic membership is only $120.

“If you’re just starting out and want to learn everything, we recommend you start as a premium member, if you can afford it,” said Litowsky, “But your second year? Get the basic membership. Once you’re certified on the equipment, just go out and use it.”

For Channel Austin’s next 40 years, Litowsky said she can’t wait to see the next Robert Rodriguez or the next Atheist Experience. “It’s an amazing, inexpensive, hyperlocal academy. We’re about our community, for our community, and most importantly, by our community. You can’t get this anywhere else.”

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