Local public-access TV stations don't often get much respect, and many view them as a relic of the past. But during the pandemic, many rural communities have harnessed and expanded access to such stations to help the public stay informed and connected, a critical function especially in areas without a local newspaper or radio station, Patricia Aufderheide, Antoine Haywood, and Mariana Santos 

report

 for The Daily Yonder. Aufderheide is a communications professors and Santos a PhD student at American University in Washington, D.C. Haywood is a PhD communications student at the University of Pennsylvania.

Public-access stations, also called public, educational and governmental (PEG) access media, "exist in perhaps 1,500 communities across the U.S. They exist wherever local governments have made them a condition of granting right-of-way access to cable companies. They hark back to the 1970s, when grassroots movements demanded access to mass media," Aufderheide, Haywood and Santos report.

The researchers wanted to find out how PEG-access media responded to the pandemic, so they issued a survey in late May through early June with the help of the PEG national association, the Alliance for Community Media, and the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors. About 20 percent of PEG stations in the U.S. answered the survey, and a quarter of those respondents were in small towns or rural areas, they report.

The researchers saw many of the same patterns in both large and small communities:

  • PEG-access media became more valued and more accessible in their communities overall.
  • PEG staffers frequently helped community members with tech support for programs such as Zoom.
  • Many PEG stations began carrying educational programs.
  • More PEG stations began hosting and broadcasting meetings (or more meetings) for local government and education officials as they tried to figure out how to respond to the pandemic. Local residents "showed up in record numbers and used new interactive functions to participate in the proceedings."
  • PEG stations created or expanded local news shows to aggregate and report important pandemic news and cover local meetings and press conferences.
  • With people so isolated, PEG stations became "a virtual public square" that helped communities stay connected. They hosted school graduation ceremonies and holiday celebrations, and encouraged local residents to share video diaries or tips on coping strategies.
But, the researchers note, PEG-access stations often have few resources, especially rural ones, and depend heavily on volunteers who could not help during the pandemic. "Staffers reported working around the clock, with demands only increasing," the researchers report. Also, the broadband gap often made it more difficult to host interactive content in rural areas.

PEG stations could build on this success in rural communities, but local governments "need to prioritize PEG when they give cable companies franchises, and when they renew them," the researchers write. "They need to build PEG expertise not only into crisis planning, but into the daily information flow of the community. And we all need broadband policies that treat broadband like the essential utility service it really is."