Monday, June 14, 2010

Save ETV. Or else...

Our friends over at ETV's The Big Picture asked us to post something about the plight that South Carolina's ETV finds itself in. Ok...Quinn didn't ask us. He threatened us. But only because in times of peril, one has to get a little tough. And with the tough economic times that are facing our state, not just today, but also tomorrow, the future of a vital 50-year old South Carolina institution is in jeopardy. We say "vital," because as Quinn has so eloquently written, it's important for someone to observe and report things outside the 75-second window most news programs are restricted to.

We enjoy tuning in to ETV programs. We're not ashamed to say, even as history majors, we've learned quite a lot of history from Walter Edgar's journal while riding in the car. We readily admit to sitting in the parking lot an extra 10-minutes one day to listen to a Big Picture program about, of all things, SC rice and other grains. But we can't do a better job of arguing for ETV than Mark Quinn did in a recent post to his Facebook page.

So, please take a few seconds to read Quinn's plea and then give whatever you can to help keep this piece of South Carolina going.

Why ETV matters

For nearly 3 years, my job in public television has forced me to explore many of the crushing effects America’s Great Recession has had on our state. Now, it appears, the economic tsunami which began to wash over the land in 2008, may wipe away 50 years historic and pioneering television produced by ETV. The Great Recession has arrived on ETV’s doorstep, and I am forced to report on what may be the demise in vitality of a treasured state institution.

I work as the host of a weekly radio and television program entitled, The Big Picture. The premise is fairly simple, and almost ancient in its origins. Barry Lopez, the prolific novelist and essayist, summed up my job thusly: “it means to go out there and look and come back and tell us, and say what it is that you saw." For millennia, this has been an integral part of the human experience. The earliest cave drawings were nothing more than one person’s reporting of the world that existed over the mountain or across the river. And it has always been so.

And while it’s deeply gratifying to travel our state to find the stories that give expression to the lives we lead today, there’s equal satisfaction in being a conduit to help serve another timeless need that we all have, the need to be heard. There is immense power in the connection with ordinary, everyday people and the dignity they claim when they are allowed to tell their story. The brilliance of ETV hasn’t been its coverage of the powerful or the popular, as essential as that may be. It’s been thousands of collective glimpses into the lives of everyday people doing extraordinary things. Or peeks at places you never knew existed. It’s the story of South Carolina.

For me, public television is taking you somewhere you will never go you’re your local newspaper. Nor will you ever go there with your local television station.

For me ETV is sitting in the Sullivan’s Island living room of best-selling author Dorthea Benton Frank, laughing riotously at the random acts of calamity life will throw at you… knowing if you don’t laugh, you will likely cry.

It’s thumbing through a scrapbook and shedding a tear with Dale and Ann Hampton in their Easley home, remembering their daughter Kimberly who was killed in the war in Iraq. This is where divine grace lives.

It’s being completely captivated by the force of nature known as Darla Moore. Her bank account is impressive, but her resolve, wit and determination are much more so. The first woman to conquer Wall Street still lives in Lake City.

It’s sitting down with 5 former first ladies of South Carolina, and hearing what we all assume; that life inside the Governor’s mansion is for most, a pretty grand affair.

It’s Mrs. Iris Campbell, recounting the thick fog of cigar smoke that surrounded the pool of the Governor’s mansion, as her husband hosted a group of German businessmen and wrote out the plan for BMW’s move to South Carolina on a series of cocktail napkins.

It’s the terrible misfortune of Mike Burgess, staggering as best he can through a life that includes a wife who contracted Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 46. Another day when it’s tough not to cry.

It’s spending a day with the resolute Mayor of Marion, Rodney Berry. The city has been in an economic funk for 20 years. It’s on the rebound now thanks to a fierce pride and stubborn resolve to remake its image in the absence of textiles and tobacco.

It’s hiking to see the rare rocky shoals spider lilies on the Catawba River, knowing the river itself has been named America’s most endangered. I’m not a naturalist, but the lilies are regal and captivating.

It might be a boat ride down the Pee Dee River with a group of unlikely activists. They are hunters and fisherman who opposed the building a coal-fired power plant on the river’s banks. They won.

It’s standing in Arlington National Cemetery on a gray, cold November day with Colonel Charles Murray, recipient of the Medal of Honor. He’s a World War II veteran who calls today’s soldiers America’s Greatest Generation.

It’s a long walk through the Harvest Hope Food bank in Columbia with Denise Holland. She saw the Great Recession first. The number of people they serve is up 250%. Denise Holland is scared, but grateful to tell the story of the down and out, and the dispossessed.

It’s 82 year old Laura Spong, now a best-selling artist. Her paintings fetch as much as $10,000. She took up serious art at the age of 62. Anything is possible.

It’s Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, trembling in anger when he produces a small picture of a teen-age boy, shot dead. Mayor Joe wants better supervision of people on probation and parole. Some of his pleas are now being heeded.

It is the absolute decency of former Governor Richard Riley, and his pleas for civil political discourse as we talk about leadership in the 21st century. This one will take some work.

It’s conversations with Dr. Walter Edgar about the complex history of the south, and why it’s meaningful traditions are an endless source of fascination for people all around the world.

And it’s the passion of Charleston chef Sean Brock. His seed-saving campaign to bring back South Carolina grains and vegetables that are almost extinct, is the biggest revolution in lowcountry cooking in a half century.

Chances are, unless you watch ETV, you probably haven’t heard much about any of these stories. And let me be clear, these stories will not be told, will never see the light of day if our institution is starved of its support.

Think about this: the average story on your local television news station is 75 seconds. Imagine that. I worked in that world for many years and can tell you that most all of these stations are truly committed to their communities. But how effectively can they tell you about our collective condition in 75 seconds?

I represent a very small part of the overall efforts of ETV, and its deep connection to the many thousands of people in South Carolina. And yet, I know that my enthusiasm is matched and even exceeded by many of my co-workers. What we do, everyday, is collect the patchwork pieces of stories that make up the fabric of our life here in this state. Public media is an incredibly important resource in a noisy and sometimes polluted information environment.

Bill Moyers, dean of public broadcasters said, “the most important thing that we do is to treat audience as citizens, not just consumers of information. If you look out and see an audience of consumers, you want to sell them something. If you look out and see an audience of citizens, you want to share something with them, and there is a difference.”

More than 50 year ago, in the advent of a ground-breaking experiment that came to be known as ETV, the mission of public broadcasting was to create an alternative channel that would be free not only of commercials, but free of commercial values, a broadcasting system that would serve the life of the mind, that would encourage the imagination, that would sponsor the performing arts, documentaries, travel. It was to be an alternative to the commercial broadcasting at that time. And guess what, it worked… and it still works today.

Can South Carolina survive without ETV? Absolutely. Will she be as rich? Not a chance.

What will you do to keep the story going? What will you do to help save ETV?

Mark Quinn
Host, The Big Picture

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