The Show: "First Thursday"; Your Host: City Manager Terry St. Peter
(from Maine Townsman, December 1992)
By Jo Josephson, Assistant Editor

It's 7:30 p.m. Thursday, December 3. Augusta City Manager Terry St. Peter has just arrived in the Augusta studio of State Cable TV, Channel 3. He's due to go on the air in 30 minutes. Not as a guest to be interviewed but as the host of a new monthly show that he also produces.

Called "First Thursday," the half-hour show is carried live to some 20,000 homes in the Augusta area. It's format is a combination of interview and call-in.

Tonight's show—St. Peter's third—will focus on the Augusta Police Department. Wayne McCamish, his guest for the evening, a 19-year veteran of the department who was recently appointed chief, arrives at 7:45 p.m., fifteen minutes before show time, in full uniform.

The two proceed to a small island of soft lighting, carpeting and upholstered chairs in the otherwise dark and cavernous studio. This is the "set" for "First Thursday" as one of the background panels proclaims.

The two talk softly and quickly in a dry-run of questions and answers. Community Oriented Policing, otherwise known as, "COP", is to be the focus tonight. It's just getting underway in Augusta and St. Peter and McCamish want to be sure the public understands it.

A shout from the control room: "Two minutes before you are on the air," puts an end to their "rehearsal." They and everyone else in the studio await the count down . . . four, three, two, one . . .

The show opens with music and taped scenes of Augusta. The city's landfill, a public works truck, City Hall are featured.

"Good evening. Welcome to First Thursday," says St. Peter looking into one of three cameras in the studio. After reviewing the format of the program, he sets the ground rules. The program is to be "non-political"; its focus is on the "delivery of services"; its focus is to be "on policy not personalities."

By 8:10 p.m., McCamish, prompted by St. Peter's questions, has finished his sketch of "COP"; he's now ready to take the first phone call. Twenty minutes later, he will have fielded a variety of calls, they will have ranged well beyond the COP program; they will include questions as well as complaints.

How often do police officers in Augusta go through psychiatric testing? How often are the radar units checked for accuracy? What does the chief thinks of family violence laws? What does the chief think about the use of force? Drivers are rude at crosswalks. Handicapped parking spaces are misused.

The calls are handled with honesty and humor. On at least one question, the caller is asked for his view. When questions can not be answered on the spot, St. Peter writes them down and says he'll check it out and get back.

By 8:30 p.m., with one break, it's over, save for one late, off-camera call, thanking the police department and the ambulance service for saving "Amy" last month from a near fatal accident …

It's been only two months since St. Peter sent a memo to his councilors updating them on his plans for "First Thursday."

In that memo he commented on the continuing "lack of understanding and trust of city government among the public at large." He went on to add, "this unfortunately, will always exist" . . . but that "shouldn't deter us from doing everything we can to mitigate the mistrust and information."

He admits in his memo that the undertaking is a "risk," an "experiment" but "we'll try it and see how it works."

Right now, St. Peter sees the show as "a work in progress." Noting that the school department has expressed interest in hosting a future show, St. Peter says he is more than willing to turn the show over to school officials for the evening.

St. Peter says one of his early concerns was the amount of time the show would take; another was the amount of mental energy it would take; a third was whether the program could be sustained over a long period of time.

As for the time commitment; St. Peter says, it's not much longer than the actual show itself. He doesn't do any real preparation save thinking up who his next guest will be.

While he is the first to deny it, the ease with which St. Peter conducts the interview and handles the incoming calls does have something to do with his background.

Before his career in public management, he had careers, albeit short ones, in both the electronic and print media, working as a reporter and copy editor on the Bangor Daily News and as news director and anchor man for the evening news on Channel 2. Clearly he is at ease on camera.

But St. Peter says his background could detract from the show. People might expect him to play the role of a professional "anchor person" when all he wants to be seen as is the city manager hosting a show. He says he strives for a "homespun" effect.

Whether his background adds or detracts, helps or not, St. Peter's advice to managers considering their own cable call-in show is: "Be absolutely sure."

"It takes a certain comfort level; it takes knowing your job, your community; it takes the feeling of confidence of knowing what is going on," he says.

St. Peter further notes that in addition to being sure, it also takes "a sense of candor." What you are doing is straightforward but don't be afraid of the debate. "In a democracy, discussion, debate and disagreements do and should occur," says St. Peter.

St. Peter says his prime objective for hosting the program is to show the viewer "that we are human beings that are approachable and can be trusted."

St. Peter does not take credit for the show; he says he was approached by the cable company after hosting a one-time call-in show on an upcoming referendum. Ned Lightner, the director of community programming at State Cable TV came to him and proposed that he do a monthly show. St. Peter mulled over the idea and agreed.

St. Peter and Lightner explain that "First Thursday" is unique in at least two aspects. St. Peter points out that despite the fact Augusta is the state's capital, it does not have its own TV station, missing out on coverage of local government. Instead, it gets signals from Portland and Lewiston and Bangor. "The cable show fills in the cracks," says St. Peter.

Lightner further notes that "First Thursday" is a special breed of cable programming; it differs from "public access" programming found in most communities in that it is produced by the cable company's staff.

"Local origination" programming is part of our corporate public relations work," explains Lightner.

"First Thursday" is not the only community programming the station produces. In addition to covering the Augusta City Council meeting, the company produces "Our Towns," a weekly program, airing from 7:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., covering the issues in the 18 communities served by the cable company.

Nor is "First Thursday" the only cable call-in show featuring local government. There is at least one other: "Call in Portland." It airs for one hour the first Friday of every month on Portland's public access channel, and is hosted by the mayor; to date more than 50 programs have been aired.

Then there is "Community Update" which comes out of South Portland once a month. It is a talk show featuring the mayor and the city manager and invited guests.

For a complete rundown of who in Maine is doing what when it comes to cable, contact the Community Television Association of Maine (C-TAM) for their latest directory. (See sidebar)


Sidebar:

C-TAM and Public Access Programming

Not every community is in the unique situation that Augusta finds itself in. Most communities must rely on public access programming, where they are the producer and director and cameraman and host, to name a few of the jobs it takes to produce a show like "First Thursday."

To help them make sense of the often complicated game called community television, be it franchises or programming, legal or technical, the Community Television Association of Maine (C-TAM) was established three years ago.

Twenty communities are currently members of C-TAM, which hosts four meetings a year, each one at a different "access" site around the state. The meetings offer training and information, a tour of the host site, which is usually a public access center, and an informal setting for the exchange of ideas with other access professionals and volunteers.

The next meeting of C-TAM is scheduled for Thursday, January 28, 1993, from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in Westbrook. C-TAM, which is chaired by Randy Visser, is affiliated with the national organization, The Alliance for Community Media (formerly the National Federation of Local Cable Programmers) in Washington D.C.

C-TAM publishes a directory of access operations in Maine, profiling not only the programs produced by each of its members but how it is funded, how it gained access and much more. (The next one is due out in the Spring of 1993). It also publishes a newsletter called "Tele-Visionary" keeping readers updated throughout the year on who is doing what in Maine be it negotiating new franchise agreements or developing local access channels.

In its fall 1992 issue, "Tele-Visionary" noted that while much of the access activity in the southern part of the state has been spearheaded by municipalities, much of the access activity in the western part of the state is happening through local school systems.

For example, it notes that the town of Jay is working with the Livermore Falls school system, while Buckfield looks for ways to fund a channel through Buckfield High School, and Mt. Blue Junior High School is hoping to set up a channel which would serve the towns of Wilton, Temple, Chesterville, Weld and New Vineyard.

C-TAM has also developed a documents library where people can get copies of print material dealing with a variety of community television subjects, including such titles as "Community TV Policies and Procedures Handbook" and "Cable Committee Ordinances."

Visser says that as cable franchises are being renewed, many municipalities are trying to negotiate stronger provisions in their contracts for community television programming.

"Essentially, those provisions can be negotiated without impacting finances," says Visser. However, he warns that the negotiations are complex and advises that before you begin you should be very clear about what you want.

To get to that point you will have to conduct a survey of the wider community, says Visser, who recently completed one for South Portland which operates out of the Spring Point Community Television Center at the University of Southern Maine.

For further information, contact Randy Visser at 799-1212.