Free Speech TV

"We are a voice for activists working independently of large media companies, to some degree in opposition to them," explains Free Speech TV founder John Schwartz. "We champion work that presents an explicit point of view, which means we do have a distinctly different vision than most television channels."

This distinctly different vision encompasses not just program content, but program distribution. After all, an engaged audience is the primary element of media democracy, and how much good can challenging programs accomplish if no-one can see them?

Free Speech TV traces its origins to the 1989 launch of The Nineties Channel, itself a visionary form of bringing television to the public. Realizing that few outlets would be eager to program political, often controversial work, Schwartz was able to create a home for activist media through leased access cable, which he used to offer the Nineties Channel full time in several markets. However, after media giant TCI bought out the original cable operator, they made it clear they weren’t comfortable with the program content—and when the lease came up for renewal, they priced the Nineties Channel off the air by raising rates to an impossible level.

Schwartz and his colleagues shifted their attention to developing the nascent Free Speech TV. At the outset, FSTV licensed and packaged four hours of programming each week, distributing the package to 50 community and educational access channels. This allowed smaller community channels to program high quality, topical work, and to benefit from common promotional and outreach materials developed by FSTV. Each station used the material according to local needs: some ran only selections, others ran the package intact. The national schedule was completely random, which made it difficult to efficiently promote broadcasts or build educational activities or national actions around screenings.

Concurrent with packaging programming and working with local channels, FSTV also kept track of two rapidly developing forms of media: the Internet, and Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS). In fact, Free Speech Internet Television was one of the earliest companies to serve streaming media in a major way. The FSTV Web project is based on the theory that individuals use the Internet for entirely different reasons than television. It started streaming in 1998 and today hosts over 300 non-commercial sites and the internet’s largest collection of progressive audio and video content.

Free Speech Internet Television staff helped develop the open source architecture that now forms the basis of dozens of international Independent Media Centers ( When media activists helped organize the original Independent Media Center at the Seattle WTO protests in 1999, the television and internet departments of FSTV collaborated to make history by helping to coodinate daily satellite feeds and video streams of independent reports from the streets and receiving hundreds of thousands of visits. Free Speech also collaborates on special projects such as providing live, alternative coverage of the 2000 presidential conventions, and has an ongoing relationship with Democracy Now .

On the traditional television front, FSTV was monitoring a provision of the 1992 cable act that required DBS providers to set aside 4-7% of their spectrum for non-commercial educational uses. In 1998 the FCC required operators to make good on this provision. With the track record of years of programming and bicycling tapes to cable channels, as well as a public support campaign led by celebrity champions such as Ralph Nader and Michael Moore, FSTV was able to demonstrate it was up to the challenge of delivering both content and audience, and secured a spot on the DISH Network.

Today that channel brings FSTV’s content to five million subscribers, 24 hours a day. With this national reach the channel has been able to increase the volume of weekly programming to over 30 hours (which repeat eight to ten times a week), including original content such as the recent World In Crisis series, a current affairs program developed last fall to supplement the often superficial coverage by corporate media, and weekly "Action Alerts."

"To advance progressive social change, we need to do more than just feed informative programs to enlightened couch potatos," says Program Director Jon Stout. "We want to provide viewers with the tools they need to be more socially responsible and civically engaged."

Weekly programming remains eclectic within five thematic series that lend coherence to the schedule. The series do a good job summing up what type of programs you’ll see on FSTV: Just Solutions (human rights programming), Earth Actions (environmental concerns), Unconventional Wisdom (documentaries that offer new ways of looking at our past and envisioning our future), American Voices (showcasing the diversity of our cultural experiences), and TV Guerillas (media literacy, culture jamming and using video for progressive ends). FSTV currently pays most producers a small (but symbolically important) licensing fee of $12.50/min. for non-exclusive rights over a six month window.

FSTV has recently worked to streamline operations and better integrate the sister Web and Television projects, and has expanded its staff. It continues to supply programing to local cable channels, now using a satellite delivery system rather than shuttling tapes. They are working with Jon Alpert and Downtown Community Television to develop a "cybercar" that will be able travel to communities for production and broadcast: a poignant marriage of the information and interstate highways.

Working with Indymedia Newsreal (, FSTV plans to sponsor public screenings and discussion of work circulated on home video or downloaded via DISH Network and screened by community groups in a variety of nontraditional spaces such as coffee houses and independent theaters. The goals are to employ all of the varied resources of FSTV to support activists and mobilize audiences, and to begin sowing the seeds for an alternative distribution network.

Original programming, cable and satellite broadcast, community outreach, and a platform for unlimited progressive voices on the web: FSTV is working on four fronts to advance progressive social change. "TV usually works from the top down," says Galatas. "If we’re going to build a better world, it’s going to be from the ground up."

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Elizabeth Peters was director of AIVF and publisher of The Independent.