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Wired, weird, wondrous: How cable TV in Arlington came to be

Video iconInterview with Glenn Koenig, the guy behind the I-Net

Cable TV in Arlington has come a long way since 1981. It now has ACMI, a nonproft organization, running the Park Ave. station. Its Web site, Arlington Studio, has a fresh look. Comcast and RCN each offer three channels; Verizon, expects to do the same. Here's a history of cable TV in Arlington through the open eyes of one of its primer movers, Glenn Koenig.

Let's go back to 1975

An Arlington resident since the fall of 1975, Glenn Koenig has had something to do with local video communications since he arrived in town.

ACMi originalsAmong ACMi original board members was Glenn Koenig, in rear with beard in undated photo.

Koenig's introduction to the emerging portable video technology of the day was at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt., back in 1973. Then limited to black and white, on a Sony reel-to-reel Port-a-pack, he didn't let that restriction dampen his enthusiasm for chronicling the world of sight and sound. Even before officially graduating from Goddard, he settled in Arlington in the fall of 1975. Within a year, he had saved enough to purchase his own Sony reel-to-reel portable half-inch video camera and recorder.

Although he recorded a variety of subjects with the new machine, a good example of his interest in public video was his renting of a booth at Town Day in 1980 where, for 25 cents, you could have yourself recorded on video and then played back on the spot. At the end of the day, he grossed $25: 100 people had taken him up on his offer.

Around that time, Arlington was being wired for cable TV, one of the first communities — after Somerville and Lexington. In Somerville, Time-Warner was the cable trailblazer in the late 1960s. It offered the classic two-studio system for locally produced programs. Its local-origination studio was staffed with cable company employees, while their public-access studio was provided strictly for volunteers.

Equipment SNAFUs

But the employees had the latest color cameras and ¾-inch recorders to work with, while volunteers had only half-inch black-and-white machines available. Editing on these machines was not user-friendly, and so public-access productions appeared unprofessional. Although the cable company could not censor public-access program content, equipment glitches made it difficult to get programs produced and on the air.

Of course, most of the Arlington viewing public was interested in the arrival of cable TV as a longed-for improvement in signal quality. In East Arlington, where the land is relatively flat, TV reception was decent, but in the Heights, with its hilly terrain, the snowy, ghosty reception picked up with standard antennas left residents highly motivated for something better.

The town engaged a Cable Advisory Committee, which evaluated six cable companies and made its recommendation to the Board of Selectmen. When it came to local programming, Arlington was asking for better-than-second-class treatment for the public-access side of the equation. American Cable Systems, with its single-studio concept, emerged the winner. Employing three staffers, it hoped to make a showcase of Arlington's operation in order to enhance its appeal to other local markets.


Now, with local origination and public access production combined in one studio, the ACS staff trained volunteers on the coveted ¾-inch color video equipment. The original staffers were Ed Fiddler, studio manager/IT specialist; Nancy Bicknell, program director; and Rika Welsh, production coordinator.

So it began -- cable TV in Arlington.

American Cablesystems' effort

So, by 1981, Arlington's first cable company, American Cablesystems, became fully operational.  An antenna tower at the 81 Mystic St. building, along with satellite dishes mounted in the back, brought not only a clearer signal but new channels.


Along with this came the new studio, with volunteers starting to produce programs about Arlington for cablecast. However, by this time, Koenig, excited about the promise of local programming, had saved even more of his money and obtained a new portable video recorder, which recorded on ¾-inch U-Matic cassettes. This was the same tape format used in the new cable studio, which allowed him to record on his own, yet edit and cablecast at the studio. So, in addition to personal and "art" video recordings, Koenig began to produce a few news-magazine pieces for cablecast.

One of the programs produced in the studio was town election returns. Originally, the studio staff mounted a big production and attempted to switch back and forth from the action in the town clerk's office to interviews in the studio. Only townwide races were covered.

However, in 1986, the election had few contested townwide races. So Production Coordinator Welsh asked Koenig whether he would produce coverage from just the clerk's office that year. Koenig agreed, so with one camera, one modulator and one microphone, he and a crew of two others began the tradition of live coverage exclusively from the clerk's office.

Town election reporting on cable

For the first time, a phone number was given out over the air so that viewers could call in and have results that had been missed read to them. Having been a Town Meeting member since 1979, Koenig began reporting the results of town election races on the program for the first time, and those reports have become part of the program since then.

In 1985, American Cable Systems was awarded the license in Cambridge. The city opted for the two-studio system, but with a difference. This time the public-access studio was managed and operated by a community-based nonprofit organization, or access corporation, known as Cambridge Community TV, with funding provided by ACS revenues.

But next-door neighbor Arlington did not adopt this arrangement when its license was extended for five years, from 1990 to 1995, and for another 10 to 2005.

In the late 1980s, American was bought by Continental Cablevision, thus beginning a string of ownership and name changes. After winning a fresh 10-year license in Arlington (1995-2005), Continental sold to Media One, who sold to AT&T Broadband, who sold to Comcast.

The single-studio concept remained in place then as it does today, but, under the 1995 license, the Town of Arlington was to provide space for the studio for the first time. Deciding where to house it proved difficult. In 1998, AT&T Broadband closed the studio at 81 Mystic St., packed much of the equipment into storage and told volunteers to "go to Cambridge" to produce programming.

Few did, of course, so for two years, very little was produced for our local channels.

RCN customers denied local programs

Finally, the town and AT&T agreed to use the former Dallin Branch Library, at 85 Park Ave., Arlington Heights. By 1999, AT&T began renovations to the building. The work proved difficult and expensive, as the building had been empty for more than 10 years by then. It needed to have its historic exterior preserved, while at the same time had to be made compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.  After a reported $300,000 investment in renovations a new studio finally opened there on Jan. 1, 2000.

Meanwhile, RCN had come to town, licensed as an Open Video System provider, which required no studio, but merely a pass-through of the AT&T Broadband signal. AT&T, however, was not required to share its local-origination programming with RCN, so RCN customers were denied local programming, even if they volunteered to help produce it.

Back in 1980, when the first license was signed with American, a small nonprofit organization was created, known as Arlington Cable Access Inc. (ACA). The ACA was given a modest budget, funded by the cable company, with which it could purchase supplies and a bit of equipment, but it had no power beyond that of recommendation.

Need for community-access corporation

ACA, as much as it desired to represent Arlington residents' access, had so little power to do so that its member base dwindled. In 1998, just after the studio at 81 Mystic St. had been closed, Koenig joined the ACA board to work on a solution to the problems the town had been experiencing with the company-run studio. Kathy Colwell, a longtime volunteer and community activist, was on the board, and soon others got involved for much the same reasons.

They saw clearly the need for a community-access corporation with the power and funding to truly represent community interests on the cable. As the millennium came to a close, they began planning for and establishing Arlington Community Media Inc. (ACMI), the nonprofit, community-based organization that now manages and operates Public, Educational and Governmental access programming for Arlington under contract by the selectmen.

Meetings to decide how to go about creating ACMI were held in Colwell's kitchen; the group later moved to other spaces in town. By late 2002, the issue of acceptance by the town still lingered. Some wanted the selectmen to approve of the idea of an access corporation before moving forward. Others felt that the corporation should be created first, then approval sought.

ACMi incorporated in 2003

Koenig felt strongly that creating the corporation first was crucial to acceptance by selectmen. So he held a public meeting at the Robbins Library in February 2003 and enlisted fellow ACMI founding member, Julie Kuhn, to help. At the meeting, he gave a presentation detailing how little time was left before the license was due for renewal in 2005.

Founding members of ACMI are, from left, John Leone, Jim Clements, Kathy

Colwell, Julie Kuhn, Glenn Koenig and Paul Berg. Barbara Costa was not present.

He stressed how action was needed immediately to push forward if ACMI was to be ready to assume management of the studio by then. Enough public officials and members of the public who attended the meeting agreed, so work focused on creating a corporation.

In April 2003, ACMI was officially incorporated as a not-for-profit corporation and later obtained tax-exempt 501(c)[3] status. Koenig was the first president, with Arlington attorney John D. Leone as vice president and clerk, Colwell as treasurer and Kuhn and Paul Berg as directors. Berg resigned in 2004 to become part of the Cable Advisory Committee, which hired outside counsel, William Solomon, to negotiate the October 2005 license with Comcast.

Lengthy negotiation with Comcast

Solomon and the CAC did well by the town and set up the license to support an access corporation to manage and operate cable-access programming for Arlington residents.

Negotiations with Comcast extended beyond the end of the previous license, but by the end of the summer of 2006, it was a done deal. Comcast relinquished control of the studio, the ACMI Board of Directors signed a contract with the town to operate the studio for the next 10 years (and likely beyond), and moved ahead to search for and hire an executive director. They found Norman McLeod, who occupied the same position in a cable-access system in the southern Berkshires.

It had been almost eight years and countless hours of meetings since the first serious discussions about forming an access corporation were had by ACA board members, meeting in the basement of the Fox Branch Library back in 1998.

Koenig steps down, steps up to I-Net

At this time, Koenig made what for many was an unexpected choice at that critical juncture in the organization's history. He decided in June 2006 to resign as president of ACMI just as it cleared its ultimate hurdle and won the hoped-for contract.

By his own assessment, Koenig had completed his mission and was not the right person for what was needed next -- the financial management of the corporation and its production studio. So Leone stepped up to assume the presidency, while Colwell continued to hold the financial reins as treasurer.

Was Koenig like Moses, who arrived within sight of the Promised Land but was never to actually set foot upon it? No, he says he is pleased and delighted by how things have proceeded since his departure and feels he made the right decision.

Moreover, he became free to take on a new assignment, for which he was uniquely qualified, of overseeing the conversion of the town's old coaxial-cable institutional network, or I-Net, to a newer digital fiber-optic network. In the process, 85 Park Ave. has now been made the hub of the upgraded network. Arlington High School's basement provided that function for the coaxial network until the end of February 2007.

Those who've been watching closely the past couple of weeks will surely have noticed the difference in resolution and clarity on Comcast channels 8 and 9, and on RCN channels 3 and 13. But, wait, there's more.

3rd channel activated for government programs

On Tuesday, March 13, ACMI's Arlington Studio began cablecasting on a third channel for each network. On that day Comcast Channel 10 and RCN Channel 15 began carrying the Town of Arlington's governmental programming for the first time. Now all local programming related to town, state and national government will have its own home on these channels.

On March 26, the selectmen approved a license for Verizon, as Arlington became among a handful of U.S. towns to have three cable providers. Verizon is wiring the town for FiOS, which is faster than cable. It remains to be seen what channels this carrier will have or the impact of FiOS on studio programs.

On March 29, student members of the Ottoson News Network helped broadcast the League of Women Voters' Candidates' Nights from Town Hall.

Koenig sees Arlington's 20,000 households break down this way: 9,000 have Comcast; 6,000 have RCN. He wrote on the Arlington list on March 29:

"That leaves another 5,000 households, of which probably 2,000 have some kind of 'dish' service, perhaps another 2,000 watch TV from an antenna and another 1,000 don't watch TV at all.

"There is a certain amount of 'churning' of people who keep switching from dish to RCN to Comcast to get the best deal.

"After over 25 years of heavy promotion, it's likely that most people in Arlington who want cable have it. We've watched the numbers over the past few years, and when RCN's total goes up, Comcast's goes down and vice versa, so the total has remained at about 15,000 households with cable.

"That means that Verizon is not likely to sign up very many of those other 5,000 customers that don't already have cable.  Instead, they'll probably take business away from the other two cable companies.

"I don't expect RCN and Comcast to sit still either, so you'll probably see some kind of additional promotions from them as well. Arlington isn't the only place to get Verizon's FiOS service, so you're seeing lots of regionwide advertising (it's Comcastic!).

"In any event, the total 'pool' of cable TV (or fiber TV?) customers is likely to stay constant or increase only very slightly."

As we tune in over time to increased cable coverage of municipal meetings and events, our thoughts may return to a committed nucleus of thoughtful town folk who passionately believed back in 1981 that a connected and informed citizenry is a good thing.

Koenig, who runs OpenEyesVideo, is grateful for the opportunity to be part of bringing to his favorite town greater public and institutional access to its new cable network. He acknowledged many times during this interview that this was a team effort; none of this would have been possible without the diligent and dedicated efforts of many others who he wishes time and space here allowed him to thank individually. Since it does not, he says in closing, simply: "Welcome to a new day in Arlington community media."


This news feature was published Friday, March 30, 2007.

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