Bernard Schoenburg Column

 

Illinois Channel offers some context for state politics

The still-fledgling Illinois Channel is chugging along, giving Illinois viewers in more than 70 cities the opportunity for long looks at their government officials, candidates and people talking about them. And that's a good thing.

Based on the C-SPAN concept, the channel continues to provide, as trumpeted on its Web site, Illinoischannel.org, "unedited, nonpartisan coverage of Illinois state government and public affairs."

The "unedited" part is a two-edged sword. This is where the political junkies or policy wonks may be separated from the regular Joes or Janes in their living rooms. An upcoming program will feature, for example, a panel discussion on the Illinois state budget. That may be a snoozer to some.

But other programs have included interviews with candidates like AARON SCHOCK, R-Peoria, who in November was elected as the youngest member of the General Assembly (he's 23). Illinois Channel also has interviewed other candidates in closely contested races, as well as sitting members of Congress. A recent program showed U.S. Sens. DICK DURBIN and BARACK OBAMA at one of the morning gatherings they periodically have in Washington, D.C., where they invite the public and take on all questions. And selected arguments before the state Supreme Court have been shown.

From the scholarly to the politically interesting to the fun to watch, the channel's fare can help provide context on what's going on in Illinois.

I'd love to see more coverage of candidates in action. It's not fair that reporters are nearly the only ones who generally are at news conferences, watching candidates or officeholders respond without a script to read.

Even scripted campaign rallies can give people a good look at someone's policies.

Last year, for example, Illinois Channel televised tapes of Republican U.S. Senate candidate JACK RYAN at a Statehouse news conference and his eventual replacement on the ballot, ALAN KEYES, speaking to and answering questions from a Springfield-area crowd. Truth can emerge from such shows.

I'm a newspaper guy, but I do not dispute the power of the televised image. Even the 10-second sound bites put on local TV can tell a lot about the politician in the picture, and I understand the constraints under which local commercial newscasters struggle.

Talk shows with politicians and reporters are good formats for those interested, and in Springfield WSEC-TV, a PBS station, provides such monthly half-hour local shows.

Still, what C-SPAN does nationally and what Illinois Channel should do even more of is to give that complete view of an event.

TERRY MARTIN, who worked for C-SPAN before moving to Illinois and working for a time for Decatur-based WAND-TV, is the executive director of the Illinois Channel and its driving force.

He headed a study of the idea starting in 2000, and the first programming aired in the Champaign market in the spring of 2002.

The station is based in office space contributed by the Illinois Municipal League at its Springfield headquarters. KEN ALDERSON, executive director of the league, is also chairman of the Illinois Channel board. Recently added members to that board are former U.S. Sen. ADLAI STEVENSON III, Springfield consultant GREGG DURHAM and JEFF MAYS of Quincy, a former state representative and president of the Illinois Business Roundtable.

"The consolidation and trivialization of commercial media is cutting Americans off from community and their roots," Stevenson said in a statement.

Others on the unpaid board of the not-for-profit operation are BARBARA FERRARA, acting director of the Center for State Policy and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Springfield; MIKE LAWRENCE, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University; former state Rep. TOM RYDER, now a lobbyist; ZACK STAMP, lawyer and lobbyist and president of the Pleasant Plains School Board; and Dr. NEIL WINSTON, immediate past president of the Chicago Medical Society.

Martin, 50, of Chatham, is also on the board. He said he contracts for production people and gets some programming from other sources, such as copies of political debates. The distribution system involves sending tapes to the cable systems or stations that run them. The coverage now includes 71 Illinois communities and all of St. Louis County and Jefferson County, Mo.

Illinois Channel programming in Springfield is seen on educational channel 22 at 5 and 9 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays; and on municipal channel 18 at 6:30 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and at 10 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays. The programming is seen in Chicago but misses many suburbs. It is not yet in Quincy, Joliet or Peoria.

The channel's Web site also allows people to see programs on their computers. Some programs available recently included an interview with U.S. Rep. BOBBY RUSH, D-Chicago; a news conference in which Secretary of State JESSE WHITE discussed driving laws; and tours of the Old State Capitol and Lincoln-Herndon law office in Springfield.

Another recent program was a panel discussion about the governor's first two years in office. I was among speakers there.

Grant funding underwrites much of what the channel does, and the board recently decided not to seek state funding at this time, Martin said.

The channel has clearly had some lean times. Martin said that when a check for $130,000 from the Joyce Foundation arrived - part of a two-year, $260,000 commitment made last summer - only $1,000 was left in the channel's checking account.

Boeing also gave a $50,000 grant in the fall, and the Illinois Coalition for Jobs, Growth & Prosperity gave $25,000. The Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau donated $10,000.

Martin says he seeks funding from groups that may have an interest in underwriting some topics. For example, the convention bureau grant helped with a series on Springfield historic sites that Martin said he wanted to do anyway. And the jobs coalition money helped pay for interviews with candidates on the topic of the state's business climate.

While funding groups can specify general types of programming they are interested in, "They don't dictate at all the specific coverage," Martin said.

Information sources, on TV, radio and the Internet, are everywhere and often changing. Here's hoping that the public - and more of it over time - gets the chance to get a long look at the policy-oriented presentations on the Illinois Channel.