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With a $4.5 million channel, City Hall has discovered one more way to waste your money.

Councilman Roosevelt Coats says the city's channel isn't supposed to be as good as other stations. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Councilman Roosevelt Coats says the city's channel isn't supposed to be as good as other stations.

It was as if the money fell out of the sky.

Twelve years ago, cash-strapped Cleveland got a $4.5 million check from Cablevision.

The national company was buying out a local franchise, which had failed to live up to its agreement to retain a certain amount of minority ownership. Under pressure from City Hall, Cablevision sweetened the deal by offering to fund a minority-run cable channel.

Black entrepreneurs would have the chance to run their own station and design their own programming. They could create jobs, identify local stars, and educate an underserved population.

Yet a dozen years later, the station has become a model of why Cleveland remains one of the poorest cities in the nation. Not only has the station not lived up to its promise; it has struggled just to remain on the air. Last month, the channel was dark.

Says one former employee: "It's the continued mistakes and the continued waste of city dollars . . . and the horrible mismanagement that seems to be condoned by the city."

The problems began before the station even went on the air.

City council originally chose Karamu House, the oldest black theater in the country, to run the station. This made sense, since Karamu knew something about entertainment and had a proven record of success.

But before the theater could even get started, council changed its mind. A faction led by then-Councilman Bill Patmon complained that one group wasn't enough to represent the entire black community.

"This was not intended to be a subsidy to anyone, including Karamu," Patmon said at the time.

Instead, council opted to establish a gaggle of bureaucratic boards -- all featuring political appointees. One board, set up by the Cleveland Foundation, kept tabs on the $4.5 million endowment fund. Another was charged with staffing the station.

But progress was slow. It took the board three years just to find a manager to run the station. Finally, in 1997, it hired industry veteran Vince Hamilton, who'd previously run a successful public-access channel in Houston. He immediately set to work buying equipment and hiring staff.

But before the station could begin broadcasting, Hamilton accepted a job offer that took him back to Texas. Deprived of its leader, the staff floundered, eventually stumbling onto the airwaves in 1998.

The initial broadcasts featured the hodgepodge you might expect from a young station -- everything from music videos to day-in-the-life documentaries about black business leaders.

But staying in business wasn't easy. For the next four years, the station cycled through no fewer than four managers. In 2002, an audit revealed that its bookkeeping was a mess. The Cleveland Foundation board yanked its funding. The next year, the station folded.

Soon after, Councilman Roosevelt Coats and then-council President Frank Jackson decided to revive it. Their idea, Coats recalls, was "to take the politics out of it."

This time, they set up a committee to review proposals from a number of worthy operators. Seven groups, including public-broadcasting veteran WVIZ and the nationally known Urban League, applied for the job.

Yet none of the veterans won the contract. Instead, the reins were handed to a group of black ministers -- who just happened to be the most politically connected preachers in town.

The United Pastors in Mission, headed by Reverend C.J. Matthews of Mt. Sinai Baptist, are the rainmakers of Cleveland's East Side. For aspiring politicians, the road to City Hall leads straight through their churches' front doors. A blessing from the Reverend Dr. Otis Moss' pulpit at Olivet Institutional Baptist Church can make or break a campaign.

And the preachers' proposal for what they called "the Village Television" was exactly what city officials wanted to hear. It promised programs produced by a virtual who's who of black leaders, including Dr. Edgar Jackson, formerly of University Hospitals, Dr. Julian Earls of NASA, and former Congressman Louis Stokes. There would be TV internships in the schools, broadcasts of local theater productions, and televised political debates. Media-savvy businessmen such as Angel Ramos of Barrio Latino and Rick Crosby, publisher of the black newspaper CityNews, would ensure that the station prospered.

Except that most of it never materialized. Crosby bowed out. Board member George Forbes attended only two meetings. Stokes made occasional appearances on the air, but only to accept awards or give speeches.

Aside from shows like Enfoque Musical and Asian Variety Show, the station's programming now resembles an infomercial for Olivet. The church gets four hours of airtime on Sunday. On the Village's website, a prominent link leads to a page selling videos of Reverend Moss' collected lectures for $39.99. Another link goes to the pastors' website, Raisingthevillage.com, which features religious teachings and $95 fake flowers.

Meanwhile, the highly touted channel has struggled to stay on the air. In October, the Village suddenly disappeared from the airwaves. According to CEO Sam Tidmore, the station's office on East 40th Street was sold out from under it, forcing the staff to scramble for a new home. But Steve Burnett, its former landlord, says that he gave his tenants at least four months' notice of the potential sale.

The move left the station unable to broadcast for a month -- which didn't exactly engender goodwill among customers. In Beachwood, Russian Media Company complained that it lost ad revenue. The vice president of a local production company, Classic Worldwide Productions, says that Tidmore still owes him $6,000 from a canceled broadcast last year.

When Scene started asking questions, Tidmore first postponed interviews, then didn't show up for an appointment at his own office. He finally agreed to answer questions by phone.

When asked why a man with no previous TV experience had ended up running the city's channel, Tidmore said that his group was most reflective of the population they were trying to reach. "We simply represented the community better than anybody else," he says.

Tidmore referred Scene to his bosses on the board. They aren't eager to talk either. Reverend Matthews, the Village's board chairman, didn't return calls for comment. Neither did Reverend Moss. Cleveland Councilwoman Sabra Pierce-Scott, who serves on the board that funds the channel, says that she doesn't know enough to answer questions. Warrensville Heights Mayor Marcia Fudge has not been active on the station's board for a year.

Councilman Coats, president of the board that funds the station, offered a novel argument: The station's not supposed to be good. "We're not a Channel 3, we're not a Channel 8, we're not a Channel 5," he says. "We are a public-access channel."

Last week, the station returned to the airwaves. It's now broadcasting from an unmarked studio in a crumbling industrial complex near Chinatown. And the program schedules have mysteriously disappeared from the channel's website.

Meanwhile, critics are still waiting for city leaders to step up. Bob Anderson, vice president of Classic Worldwide, which helped the Village get off the ground three years ago, claims that because it can reach so many people through so many different media, the station has the potential to be more powerful and far-reaching than The Plain Dealer. But only if it gets its act together. "Otherwise," he says, "it's just another taxpayer debacle."

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