Berkeley Community Media to lose its 20-year home at Berkeley High

Robin Silver takes a seat in front of Berkeley Community Media’s green screen, as David Flores edits. The studio and other infrastructure will have to move out of Berkeley High by June 30. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Berkeley Community Media (BCM) is scheduled to lose its longtime headquarters at Berkeley High School this summer, taking its television stations off air for the first time ever, and for as long as it takes the organization to find a new home.

BCM has provided media production classes, equipment and studio space to community members for a nominal fee out of its Berkeley High home for more than 20 years. The nonprofit, whose operating budget comes mostly from the city of Berkeley, uses the Berkeley Unified space rent-free in exchange for broadcasting School Board meetings and offering training to students in the district.

At least that is the understanding, as nobody can find documentation of the original agreement, says school district staff. In any case, a productive partnership between the organization and the school where it’s situated has never materialized, according to all involved. Now, BUSD has plans to repurpose the space, likely for new career technical education programs, next fall.

Real estate is at a premium throughout the district and especially at Berkeley High, where performing-arts programs will be displaced during construction projects slated for the “A Building” in coming years. BCM has been given notice to pack up by June 30, which means moving a green screen, lighting grid and headend (the device that receives the incoming TV signals) — altogether a huge undertaking.

“We’ll have to shut down the station completely,” said BCM Director Brian Scott. “These two Panasonic monitors have been on for 20 years.”

It is unclear where the cash-strapped organization, looking for thousands of square feet in an expensive and crowded city, will land next. The city has suggested BCM is a contender for a spot at the old Premier Cru site, though proposals for the coveted space there have not yet been collected.

Ruben Perez welcomes visitors to Berkeley Community Media at 2239 Martin Luther King Jr. Way inside Berkeley High. Perez is one of the multiple interns who have become staffers there. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Like the school district, the city relies on BCM to broadcast its public meetings, including those held by City Council, the Zoning Adjustments Board and the Rent Board. BCM’s headend connects to Old City Hall and the School Board meeting room at West Campus, and it has a fiber feed connected to Longfellow Middle School, where large City Council meetings are sometimes held. The city allocates almost $240,000 annually to the nonprofit. BCM also gets funds from Comcast as part of an agreement, but they must be used on equipment.

During its tenure at Berkeley High, BCM has built up a dedicated constituency of both amateur and professional media-makers. One class and a $60 membership yields access to up-to-date cameras, editing software, studio time and an analog-to-digital conversion system for old home videos.

Everything produced at BCM is aired on its 24-hour public access channels, 28 and 33 on Comcast cable and 99 on AT&T U-Verse, and online. Nothing can be censored, which means an eccentric array of programs has made its way on screen. BCM also airs University of California lectures, NASA TV and Democracy Now! Some of the longest-lasting community shows filmed in the studio include “Wee Poets,” a youth poetry broadcast, which has existed since the 1980s, and Edmound Broussard’s “Education in Our Community,” which has aired upwards of 1,000 episodes.

“Years ago, we gave him a key to the place,” Scott said.

Brian Scott, executive director of Berkeley Community Media, with the organization’s new 4K HD camera. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

David Flores, who works part-time as BCM’s facilities technician, started at BCM as an intern and Berkeley City College student.

“I hadn’t had any kind of experience with broadcast,” said Flores, who also does public affairs for the Coast Guard, where he’s a reservist. Now, Flores knows his way around a TriCaster (a video production system) and gladly imparts his knowledge onto those who walk through the doors.

“Berkeley Community Media offers a space for people to make their creative visions a reality,” Flores said on a recent afternoon in the studio. He was working in the green screen studio with Robin Silver, a community member who said he has been “embedded” with a local homeless encampment, making a documentary about the residents. Silver has professional audio engineering experience and donated microphones and other equipment to BCM.

Flores’s colleague Ruben Perez, who was working the front desk that afternoon, said he first wandered into BCM one Christmas. He became an intern, then produced his own cooking show.

While plenty of BCM members have moved up the ranks to intern, employee or media professional — one alum is a producer on the Dr. Phil show — surprisingly few have been Berkeley High students. In fact, many, if not the vast majority, of students make it through their four years at the school, attending classes along the same hallway, without even realizing there’s a green screen behind one of the doors. BCM has a door that opens from inside the Berkeley High building, but its main entrance is at 2239 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way.

“Over the last 20 years I have tried to get people in the school district interested in using the facility,” said Scott, who directed BCM from 2000-2007 and again since 2013. “I’ve tried to do outreach with the superintendent, principals and teachers. Literally three teachers” have ever taken him up on his offers, he said. A teacher in BHS’s Communications Arts and Sciences small school, which has an emphasis on media production, has sent his class to record news broadcasts from the BCM studio for a few years.

“There’s all kinds of things that space could be used for, and over the years they’ve done nothing,” Scott said. “Put the jazz band in there one day and train kids to shoot that.”

BCM’s two monitors have been going 24/7 for 20 years straight, even staying on air when the system was rewired and digitized. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

But some district and school leaders said BCM has never reached out to them or made a noticeable effort to connect with the Berkeley High community. This issue of the disconnect between the organization and the school was noted way back in 2008 on a School Board document. That staff report said there hadn’t been a relationship between the entities in years, and advised them to figure out a set-up that would provide “long term educational benefits” to students before the School Board approved another contract the following year.

“Somehow the high school and Berkeley Community Media still haven’t been able to get together,” said BUSD Facilities Director Tim White. “I would love to see our kids take advantage of that. But if they’ve been there 20 years and you haven’t worked out the relationship with the principals, whose fault is that? I don’t know who takes responsibility at that point. The status quo of being separate became acceptable. At some point it was going to blow up. If not this, I can’t see that kind of relationship remaining in perpetuity.”

Meanwhile, White noted, other Berkeley High programs have been pushed off campus and teachers have been forced to share classrooms, due to extremely limited space.

“We’re giving away 4,000 feet of space with no quid pro quo in terms of compensation,” he said. “You can’t, to the detriment of educating kids, support adult functions.”

White did offer BCM a new spot at a West Campus site that has been out of commission for some time. BCM turned down the space because it was half the size of the current spot and, according to Scott, not wheelchair-accessible.

The band GAYmous records a performance at the Berkeley Community Media main studio, which is a Berkeley High classroom by day. Photo: BCM/Facebook

Scott said he looked around the city for a new space after BUSD told him about a year ago that BCM would likely have to move, but couldn’t find anything. In recent years, the organization has only just stayed afloat financially and has cut staff and open studio time, Scott said.

Some district staff have said they are comfortable with the idea of simply streaming their meetings on Youtube rather than broadcasting them, thus severing ties with BCM. The city is not eager to follow suit.

“There’s the issue of all the television viewers, people who don’t have access to streaming,” said City Clerk Mark Numainville at the recent 2×2 Committee meeting, where representatives from BUSD and Berkeley convene. “There’s an impact to the broadcast of the legislative bodies, but what will also be the impact to all the community programs that Berkeley Community Media operates? And just the simple fact that it will be difficult, if not impossible to move all that infrastructure out by June 30.”

Numainville said the city is seeking “more contribution and partnership” from the district during the move, to “minimize those disruptions.”

At the same meeting, the School Board’s Karen Hemphill said she thought city staff might understand where the district was coming from if they heard more about the plans for the space and the high school around it.

While the principal has the final say on the distribution of classes around the campus, the current idea is to place both existing and new “career technical education” (CTE) programs where BCM is now.

Hemphill said BUSD wants to “create a different kind of high school experience for the 21st century,” which requires expanded CTE offerings. There are current CTE tracks in biotechnology, digital media, fire science and other professional fields.

It is easy to walk by the external entrance to BCM on Martin Luther King Jr. Way without noticing it. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

According to the CTE coordinator, Wyn Skeels, the robotics classes currently meet in a tiny, windowless room. That program would likely be moved to the BCM space, along with a new stagecraft program that will encompass lighting, audio engineering, set design and theater rigging.

Scott, whose background is in both theater and television production, has questioned why the district would replace a higher-tech broadcast studio with a theater program, if the goal is to prepare students for careers of the future.

Skeels said the stagecraft program will round out the district’s performing arts offerings, from music and web design classes to plays students can fully produce themselves. Eventually, the district plans to renovate the Community Theater so it can once again serve as a top performance venue, and staff envisions students running the show when possible. Additionally, Berkley High already has a well-developed media production track in place, with equipment of its own, Skeels said, and even stagecraft involves highly technical processes.

But it all boils down to the issue of space, whether CTE programs will be filling it or not, Skeels said.

“Nobody has any ill will toward Berkeley Community Media, but we just have major programming needs on campus. Berkeley High School is a large urban campus and we’re bursting at the seams,” he said.

It will take time and money to modify the space in question so it can accommodate new programs or classes, so the district is eager to get going as soon as possible. Part of BCM is set up as a large lobby surrounded by several offices and editing spaces, which are too small to work as regular classrooms.

Scott believes there is a way to reorganize the space so it’s shared between the school and BCM. That already happened several years ago, when the district converted the main studio into a classroom. By evening, the desks and chairs are pushed away, the curtain drawn and the stage assembled.

But what will be lost if BCM has to shutter or downsize, in Scott’s mind, is not just the infrastructure, but a rare platform for expression.

“Berkeley is where it all started, and if you take away one more conduit…free speech will suffer,” he said.