Pioneer Of Community TV Celebrates 40 Years

Downtown Community Television has served as both an educational video center for its Chinatown neighborhood and a pioneering independent producer for major broadcast networks. DCTV is marking its 40th anniversary this fall. Jon Kalish talks to its founders, alumni and current crop of students about why its work is still important.

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These days, you can shoot, edit and screen your own holiday movie with just a phone. These high-definition recorders, so small they fit in your pocket, are the culmination of the portable video revolution that can make just about anyone into a director or a journalist. But back in the 1970s, people were still carrying around bulky video recorders weighing more than 20 pounds. And that was considered cutting edge. The Downtown Community Television Center in New York was one of the first to embrace the latest technology. It's an independent group - both a media training center and documentary production house. And as Jon Kalish reports, this community institution has spent 40 years telling stories from all over the world.

JON KALISH, BYLINE: DCTV was launched in 1972 by a cab driver named Jon Alpert and a waitress named Keiko Tsuno in her Chinatown loft.

JON ALPERT: We lived and worked in a very little tiny place. In one corner, there was a group of senior citizens and they were learning how to make video tapes. In the other corner, a group of high school students at 10 o'clock at night on Sunday. People were ringing the doorbell to be able to borrow cameras.

KEIKO TSUNO: Sometimes, I didn't change my clothes because I knew somebody was coming, and I didn't want to meet somebody with my, you know, nightwear, so I went to bed just dressed up in there.

(LAUGHTER)

ALPERT: You had to stay dressed all the time because you just never knew when somebody was going to knock on the door and want to borrow a microphone or a light or something.

KALISH: When they started out, they had one black and white portapak, which recorded to half-inch reel-to-reel videotape. They eventually moved to an abandoned firehouse in Lower Manhattan where they continue to work and teach.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)

KALISH: In the 40 years in between, they've taught neighborhood kids to be videographers and covered wars from Southeast Asia to Central America to the Middle East for NBC, PBS and HBO, which commissioned the one-hour documentary "Baghdad E.R."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BAGHDAD E.R.")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: How many fingers?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I can't see nothing, man.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All right, you're blind. Can you see light?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Uh, yeah. So, it's like a big white cloud.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You can see light. OK.

KALISH: DCTV's work has always had a point of view, one that frequently challenges the political establishment, says Ron Simon, curator of radio and television at the nonprofit Paley Center for Media. Simon says Jon Alpert's career as a video journalist is remarkable.

RON SIMON: His work does have ideological underpinnings, but I don't consider him to be an ideologue. He does want you to think about tough subjects, but he does allow the viewer to make up his or her mind.

KALISH: "Baghdad E.R." won four Emmys in 2006.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)

KALISH: A glass case on the second floor of DCTV's firehouse holds 15 national Emmys, yet Alpert's approach has not always sat well with his bosses. DCTV worked for NBC for 13 years. It provided the network with the first TV images of the Cambodian killing fields. But Jon Alpert says they had a falling out over a story about civilian casualties in the first Gulf War.

ALPERT: We always try to call them the way we see them. And every once and a while, when you call them the way you see them, that gangplank gets run out on the side of the ship and you're going overboard.

KALISH: Alpert and DCTV also butted heads with PBS over a documentary about New York City hospitals. Yet, it was the first American TV crew to visit Vietnam after the war, producing the public television documentary "Vietnam: Picking Up the Pieces" in 1978.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "VIETNAM: PICKING UP THE PIECES")

ALPERT: The war left many reminders. Perhaps the most tragic are 800,000 orphans. At the Man Ha Orphanage nearly half the children had American fathers.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (foreign language spoken)

KALISH: Alpert and his team spend as much, if not more, time training young people from across New York. Maryann Deleo began as a college intern and went on to work at DCTV for 15 years. She won an Oscar in 2004 for her own documentary on children affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

MARYANN DELEO: One of the reasons it was so good to work there is I learned everything; how to be an assistant, how to carry the deck, how to do sound, how to shoot, how to edit.

KALISH: Every year, hundreds of high school students learn video production in the firehouse.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Zoom all the way in on his face. Don't tell me Bruno didn't teach you the rule of thirds.

KALISH: This past summer, one of the students was Jasmine Barkley. She produced a documentary in which she talked about her life and what it meant to have a father in prison. Barkley is now in college and says she learned more than just how to shoot and edit at DCTV.

JASMINE BARKLEY: I learned how to be independent, because a lot of people here encouraged me to do things that I probably otherwise wouldn't have done. And when you're here at DCTV they care about you beyond those red doors outside. They care about what happens to you when you leave here.

KALISH: The red doors of the DCTV firehouse will remain open for years to come, if Keiko Tsuno and Jon Alpert have anything to say about it.

ALPERT: We have transformed this building into a tool. And maybe it's one of the strongest tools we have.

KALISH: For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.

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