It was a Thursday night, and most of the offices in the Thorp Building were getting ready to close down for the evening, but the lights were still on at the Minneapolis Telecommunications Network (MTN). Inside, a single microphone was painstakingly lit with soft lights and a blue backdrop, and cameras were set up from multiple angles. An audience assembled to hear “The Word,” the latest in a series of potentially recurring livestreamed shows featured on MTN as part of their ongoing attempt to rebrand after a complete organization overhaul last year. Hosted by MTN treasurer Mike Wade, The Word aired on November 29.
“The issue that MTN has always had is that no one knows we exist,” said executive director Val Lockhart, who took charge of the network after a major leadership turnover that left a lot of things in limbo. As things settle, she and other MTN leaders are working to revitalize the network by allowing neighborhood creators to air their ideas via livestreamed events, YouTube submissions, and programs through East Side Neighborhood Services (ESNS).
MTN has a few staples it still airs regularly on Minneapolis channels 16, 17, or 75. Somali Media Live has been running on MTN since 1999, and is the country’s longest-running Somali language variety talk show. “We the People,” a show sponsored by the League of Women Voters, has worked through MTN for 25 years. “Black Focus,” hosted by civil rights activist Ron Edwards, has aired for 28 years. And while it’s not an MTN production, “Democracy Now” has been a longtime standby (as it has been for public access channels nationwide for years).
“If [Democracy Now] doesn’t run at the exact time it’s supposed to, people call and start yelling,” said Lockhart.
Despite a relatively quiet year, there is still a tight-knit community based around MTN, and if the eclectic lineup of poets who gathered for The Word is anything to go by, they are dedicated to keeping it running.
A number of factors contributed to the near collapse of MTN in 2017. The station faced a lawsuit over bankrolling of an unsanctioned documentary. The lawsuit later went away when production was halted.
Until last summer, MTN was an institution of the City of Minneapolis; however, the city separated themselves from the network, forcing MTN to reclassify from a public nonprofit to a private one. Left without oversight from the city and a shaken management structure, the direction of the network drifted.
“I came onto the board and realized there were a lot of problems here,” said Lockhart, who had been working with MTN since 2014, and was named interim director in 2016, prior to their hiring of Tene Wells.
About two weeks after parting with the city, and with Wells gone, the board appointed Lockhart executive director again.
“[The restructure] left us in a state of limbo for a while because we had to become something new. . .The bag got left, and I was holding it, and I thought, ‘This place is too important to not exist,’” Lockhart said.
Technically, no one works directly for MTN. A volunteer board of directors oversees the network, but paid employees are contractors through other media companies. Most of their workforce are volunteers or interns working for school credit. Lockhart is an employee of a company called Ninja Media, but is also MTN’s executive director, so she sits in two roles. She and coworker Troy Peterson have been working to get the station back into shape, both literally and in terms of programming. There’s a lot of work to be done: MTN’s studio has been accumulating old equipment, film archives, and paint chips from the Thorp Building’s ceiling for years, and the network is trying to revamp the kind of content they produce.
A few decades’ worth of outdated equipment sits in a dusty backroom in MTN, shuffled out of the active studios as more modern equipment has replaced it during the overhaul. Amongst it, there are a few offices, but most importantly, broadcast archives line a room filled with shelves. VHS recordings dating back 33 years sit unused, and Peterson and Lockhart want to unearth all of it and digitize it to be aired. They hope for help from East Side Neighborhood Services, who has been connecting people with work opportunities at MTN via their Senior Employment Program, which pays seniors to work at nonprofits. Eventually, all of the old film reels will be available to view on MTN’s website, right down to the dusty old tape of “Norway Day, 1991” hanging off of the top shelf.
“We want to set up a way to bring all of this into the future,” said Peterson.
MTN has always accepted submissions for shows to air. However, in this age of YouTube and Twitch, they have had to adapt how they broadcast. Anyone can just go and post a show on YouTube, but unless they know the ins and outs of boosting their viewership, getting a show off the ground can be hard. At MTN, Lockhart’s crew has been moving toward accepting community show submissions directly from YouTube to be broadcast throughout the city of Minneapolis for all of their viewership to see at a scheduled time. According to Lockhart, it’s a good way to get a budding show out to an audience that wouldn’t normally see it; many people still rely on TV for their media connection. The station accepts CD and DVD submissions as well, formats a lot of broadcasters have been abandoning.
New to MTN’s community-submitted programming are livestreamed events, such as “The Word” from Nov. 29. A rotating schedule of similar semi-regular live shows air on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. MTN does a technology demonstration show on Wednesdays, and a talk show called “The Four Opinions” on Thursdays. “A Dose of Reality,” another current events talk show, airs every other Saturday. Other shows come in and out as the people who produce them are available; “The Word” may become a recurring segment, and other things such as magic shows and yoga workouts come on occasionally as well.
Anyone can submit their ideas for a live show to MTN, and people interested in working as crew for broadcasts can volunteer as well. Live shows are used as a training ground for interns coming through schools, and volunteers through a variety of programs. ESNS’s senior workers give MTN a ready workforce of industry veterans who can partner with younger student workers, and students can bring the older volunteers up to speed on new broadcasting tech. Classes training potential volunteers in on MTN’s equipment are also available.
“It’s nice to provide a different opportunity for seniors to use new technology,” said Lockhart. She went on to explain that a lot of public access channels are geared toward younger volunteers, but she likes to make MTN accessible to older volunteers as well. Everything in the studio is set up in a way to make the facility usable by all ages.
Given the nature of their unedited, community-submitted content, MTN warns that show producers are ultimately responsible for their own content. Live shows are broadcast over the Internet first. Before content can go on the airwaves, it needs to be screened. After 10 p.m., anything goes, but producers are reminded to keep their shows clean if they want to be put on the air before late-night TV.
People interested in submitting show ideas or joining livestream crews can sign up via MTN’s website, mtn.org/get_involved. An annual membership and certification from the organization is required to gain access to their broadcasting equipment. MTN broadcasts citywide on CenturyLink and Comcast, and can be accessed in the suburbs as well. To share a YouTube submission, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org. To look into classes, orientation meetings, and certifications, call 612-331-8575 or email email@example.com.
Below: MTN treasurer Mike Wade read from a selection of his own work in between readings from community members during “The Word.” Some performers were scheduled, and some were volunteers from the audience who wanted to share material they brought. “The Word” may become a recurring segment on MTN. (Photo by Alex Schlee)