Where Amherst Residents Can Tell Their Own Stories

Daunting? It sure was. It was 2012 when Jim Lescault got the formal notice: He had to find a new home for Amherst Media, the cable access television station that had operated in an old electrical plant in Amherst since 1991.  Ten years later, guided by the dauntless executive director Lescault and the board of directors, Amherst Media is almost home.

But first, a bit of history:

Believe it or not, Amherst Media is the oldest nonprofit community television station in the United States. It formed shortly after the Federal Communications Commission decided that communities should have access to television channels with local programming.

Over the years, Amherst Media has delivered. It’s provided equipment and training to local people who’ve produced an astonishing array of their own shows, which the TV station airs on three cable access channels to about 6,500 Amherst households.

Amherst residents, subscribed through their Comcast cable service, can tune in to myriad offerings: A history lesson about the gravestone epitaphs at Amherst’s West Cemetery. The goings-on at the Senior Center.  The Amherst LGBTQ+ flag raising event. The Juneteenth fashion show. A “Difficult Dialogue” on faith and religion.  A pipeline resistance rally. Amherst government meetings — from the finance committee to the charter commission— get airtime, too.

Amherst Media interns produce a weekly news program, the “Amherst Weekly Report,” which covers local issues and events of interest. [2022 photo courtesy of Amherst Media]

According to Lescault, the programs produced and aired are grounded in a bedrock value: free speech. And the station is where the Amherst community can find a voice. “We don’t want someone telling our stories. We want to tell our own stories and cover our own news. We level the playing field for people who want to be active and involved locally.”

But about that eviction notice….

After an exhaustive search for a permanent home, Amherst Media bought some land on a bus route near Amherst’s downtown and near needed cable transmission lines. They wanted the location to be easily accessible, especially to area college students who seek internships at the station.

A protracted permitting and accreditation process followed. Forced to relocate this past spring, Amherst Media moved its operations into a temporary space on University Drive.

“We had 31 years of equipment to take care of or dismantle,” Lescault said.

This year, an architect finally drew up plans for Amherst Media’s new home. Construction is expected to begin on a new building in 2023. A flexible funding grant from the Community Foundation has helped the organization meet its obligations for posting local programs online, especially during the pandemic.

Among the many local residents who’ve benefited from Amherst Media are artists of all stripes. Since many could not show their work during the pandemic, the Amherst Cultural Council produced shows on individual artists and performers, including a montage of dances by Amherst Ballet. Ten local high school students started a film club using Amherst Media equipment and produced a full-length movie that premiered at Amherst Cinema.  Glenn Siegel curated “The Magic Triangle Jazz Series.”

Other residents have produced documentaries with Amherst Media resources and staff. One, “The House Built by Hope” chronicled the stories of families who immigrated to Danielson, Connecticut after experiencing the Holocaust, and the community support they received to build their house of worship, Temple Beth Israel.

Countless student interns have cut their teeth in film production and editing at Amherst Media over the years. Many have gone on to jobs in radio, television, news programs, and even Hollywood, Lescault proudly reported.

Reflecting on his 15 years at the station, Lescault said, “It’s been really nice to be a conduit for people’s ideas…I always want to live in a town where you can have an opinion and the opportunity to express it and debate it.”

Amherst Media has provided the platform for just that.