D.C. TAKES TO THE AIRWAVES


By
Laura Wolff Scanlan
Laura Wolff Scanlan is a writer in New Berlin, Wisconsin.

   

SCHOLARS IN WASHINGTON, D.C., are taking to the air­waves to bring the humanities into the community . "How do you educate your community? That is a challenge," says E. Ethelbert Miller, a poet, scholar, and host of a one-hour interview show Humanities Profiled, which airs on DCTV , the District's public access cable station.

    The humanities council of Washington, D.C., has turned to broadcast media, " to preserve the District of Columbia's cultural legacy while transforming the nation's capital into a commu­nity ", says executIve director Joy Ford Austin. For a third of the cost of a tradtional humanities event, which may bring an audience of fhirty   to seventy-five people, the council can produce a television show that has the potential to reach all cable subscribers in the District-currently 400,000 households. The council currently airs four shows on DCTV

     ."I see the Humanities Council of Washington as playing a key role in helping the city understand itself. Our city is chang­ing and we need to be aware of what is happening to our neighborhoods. We need to examine our values and beliefs, Miller said  in a recent interview.

To feature shows and viewpoints of local interest-which

often do not find a place on commercial television-DCTV provides programming to anyone who wants to produce and air a show. "People of different professions and different eth­nic backgrounds are watching the show and learning and enjoying," Miller says. He regards public access television as a way to spark dialog on issues of local interest. ll'When we talk about humanities in our community and when we talk about building citizenship and training young people here is an effective way--we know they are watching
TV ."

      
In anyone month the council has thirty to forty hours of television programming" much of it in primetime. Although there is no ratings system for noncommercial television, a sur­vey by the cable company found that approximately 11,000 viewers visited public access channels each hour .Each show is broadcast for two to three months, in different time slots. "We are getting a lot for our money over time," Austin says.

 

     For Humanities Profiled, Miller selects guests whom he believes are important to Washington" D.C." and who have experience with a range of humanities disciplines. For a recent show on Duke Ellington, he assembled a panel consisting of a jazz musician, an archivist of the Duke Ellington collection at the Smithsonian, and a poet, to discuss how Ellington's musical legacy, genius, and humanity inspires poets, students, and musicians in the District today.

     A show featuring Scholar Dr. Sulayman Nyang, taped in N ovember 2001 , explored the fundamen­tal beliefs and history of Islam, as well as its future in the global environment. To extend the educational, value of his show beyond its air ­time, Miller hopes to place copies of this interview in prisons.

      Other shows have fea­tured local figures such as Delores Kendrick, the poet laureate of Washington, D.C.; Ann Lowe, an award-winning fashion designer; and Barbara Franco, the executive director of the Washington Historical Society .
 

    To produce quality shows, Austin says, "I knew enough to know we had to have two cameras and we had to have a director, and we had to have the opportunity to do some editing and research afterwards. To create its own look and distinguish it from other shows taped in the DCTV stu­dio, Humanities Profiled is shot on location throughout the city. Locations are chosen for their relevance to either the guest or the subject. The Ellington show was shot at Bohemian Caverns, a historic jazz club in the U Street neighborhood, where Ellington lived and played.

     Although Miller has a gentle demeanor and cracks jokes to put his guests at ease, he is not afraid to ask tough ques­tions. "In society, it's in the humanities where we have to have dialog," he says. "So when I bring people on my show, I am going to ask them the key questions. If not, I feel I com­promise myself and do not provide the viewers with the type of program they should receive. Because if you don't have people talking and feeling passionate, then you are not engaging your citizensl". And that becomes key for the protection of our democracy."