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Trouble on the soap box


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From The Herald-Times
Bloomington, Indiana
February 12, 1993

Trouble on the soap box

Community station confronts conflicts

By Brent Christensen
H-T Staff Writer

As the Indiana-Penn State game ended Tuesday night, Jim Massung began flipping TV channels looking for something to watch. But as the Bloomington resident landed on the community access channel, he instead found something he absolutely did not want to watch.

There, on Massung's television, a young man calling himself Eric Indiana was doing a show called "Pots, Pans and Pot." Just your average cooking show at first glance, until a recipe for "Alice B. Toklas' Hashish Brownies" appeared on the screen.

"It just struck me that this is not appropriate programming, at least in my opinion," said Massung, who objected to the show's "depiction of illegal behavior and promotion of it."

Enraged, Massung called the community access station to complain.

"I think that people need to be more aware of what they're paying for as cable subscribers," said Massung, noting that a portion of cable franchise fees go to support access television in Bloomington. "I certainly don't want to be supporting that type of programming."

Michael White, director of Bloomington Community Access Television, handled Massung's call, sending him a form with which to make a formal complaint.

Although he said he handles up to six calls like Massung's per week, White said he is more concerned with making sure that community access television remains "the equivalent of that soap box in the park."

"Like these people, I don't like everything I see," said White. "But I support the right of the individuals to produce what they feel is important to them."

That does not mean, however, that White will allow any program on the air without a prior viewing. He screens programs for content that might be considered obscene, contains "fighting words" such as racial slurs, or depicts child pornography.

But then there is the final test: that of "community standards," which covers anything from indecent speech to sexually explicit material.

It was just that final test that another community access program failed to live up to in January. Two episodes of "J&B on the ROX" were held by White recently because of material he considered too sexually explicit to live up to "community standards."

The shows in question contained close-up shots of male genitalia, said Joe Nickell the "J" of "J&B."

"To my mind, this is sexually explicit stuff, a violation of our policy as well as state and federal law," said White as he viewed a male masturbation scene included in one of the held shows. In the other show in question, Nickell and Bart Everson -- the "B" of "J&B" -- write "J&B Erotica" on their penises in an introduction to a recurring segment.

"Call it what you will, but it basically amounts to censorship, " said Nickell of the withheld shows, which he claims are not obscene. Nickell said that he and Everson are "not out to offend anyone," but hope to "speak to an audience we know is out there."

"If somebody is offended by what they see on television, they often forget they can just change the channel," said Nickell. "But there are people in the community who would like to see community access TV taken off the air... that don't like the idea of democratized television or free speech."

And, although White put the shows up for review by a panel of Monroe County librarians, Nickell is sympathetic with the director's predicament.

"Michael is in a precarious position: he is one of our biggest fans, but he also must protect the station," he said.

Still, after receiving fan letters urging the duo to fight to air their withheld shows, Nickell and Everson plan to do all they can to have the shows on for their audience to see. They envision appealing a negative decision by the librarian panel to the library board and even enlisting the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Nickell.

In the meantime, White will continue to handle complaints from people like Massung, all the while hoping to keep his "mirror of the community" intact.

"People will see some things in the mirror that they don't like" he said. "But they're undeniably there, and it's our job to facilitate their expression.

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