ETV of the Lowcountry goes dark today. Without any fanfare or public notice. Two more loyal employees will be filing for unemployment and South Carolinians will lose one more piece of our democracy.
It isn’t surprising that WJWJ got the axe. It, like all PBS stations, has been under fire since the 90s when then Speaker Newt Gingrich launched his Contract on America. The “liberal” viewers of “elitist” shows like “The Local News,” “Steppin’ Out,” “Lowcountry Live,” “Coastline” and “Aerobics with Amy” were somehow draining the economy of private sector jobs. Back then, ETV’s commissioners fought to save the station and held a series of sunset hearings in the 90s. Those hearings at TCL, filled to capacity, turned into a community love-fest and WJWJ was spared.
This time around, ETV knew better than to give the public warning. Unless you consider cancelling the only locally-produced program, our half-hour newscast, due warning. Layoffs began in earnest and the skeletal staff was thinned down to just two people. ETV’s idea was to make the station “pay for itself” through studio rentals to private companies who need production services. The only problem with that idea is that we the tax payers already paid for ETV and private production service providers have a legitimate beef with that. They couldn’t compete against an entity that already had salaries, equipment and light bills subsidized by the taxpayer. Luckily that program was so ineptly conceived that ETV’s rental rates were higher than local competition so it never did hurt private enterprise. But it could have.
I think Mayor Billy Keyserling knew that, and that’s why he asked me to convene a group of industry types to see what uses we could come up for the station. Public uses. Uses that might build a sense of community again. The resources were just sitting there, a beautiful studio, state-of-the-art cameras, even field equipment and a very talented producer/editor.
We found there was no shortage of people who wanted to use those resources, especially since we the taxpayers were already paying for them. Jane Upshaw invited the ETV head honchos down to USCB to hear our ideas. Essentially we proposed turning WJWJ into a TV-and-independent film incubator – where people with ideas for programs and documentaries could make trailers and seek funding. If those entrepreneurs found an audience, they’d agree to use – and pay for – WJWJ services. You should have seen the blank stares. The ETV management was so set on the idea of making the station “pay for itself” that it wouldn’t even entertain the suggestions of this industry-experienced committee. We didn’t even get a reply.
So it doesn’t really surprise me that they’d quietly kill the station and its last two remaining jobs. What does surprise me is how readily we, as Americans, let things like this happen. We have arguably the strongest democracy in the world, and that democracy is what allows capitalism to prosper. Without that democracy, we get the 1% and the 99%. And yet we are letting the fundamentals of democracy slip through our fingers. Who needs newspapers when we can read like-minded-opinions on Yahoo? Who needs public libraries when those of us who are still employed can just download books? Who needs public education when we can plunder that resource in exchange for a voucher and teach our kids what we already believe? Who needs the postal service when we assume everyone has email? Who needs public transportation when we assume everyone can afford a car?
I spend a lot of time traveling in Third World Latin American countries (it’s the only place I can afford to travel) and the United States is not far behind. Argentina gave up its railroads. Nicaragua doesn’t have a postal system. You can’t get a phone line in Mexico. Places that have given up on public education rely on missionaries and charity to lift their children out of poverty. Yup – we’re following in their footsteps. Closing WJWJ may be a sign of what’s to come – democracy going out with a whimper.