With satellite television and interactive spacebridges Kim Link TV

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					 With satellite television and interactive “spacebridges,” Kim Spencer
                  thinks the tube can change the world.
         Todd SchwarTz                  source nations and perspectives       seen, interpreted, and reported in
           reed Magazine                that change all day long. By turns    the Mideast.
                                        it is educational, entertaining,          “The program is sort of a
    Sailing soundlessly at 7,000        uplifting, shocking, fascinating,     Rashomon,” Spencer says. “It’s
miles an hour through the hard          and scary as hell.                    remarkable how many ways the
light of the sun, a communications          Which is exactly what Link        same event can be seen. And I think
satellite holds position above an       TV co-founder and president Kim       many Americans are now beginning
often-tormented Earth. There, on        Spencer ’70 wants. “This channel      to realize how dangerous it is not
satellite TV, between the movies,       was created,” he says from Link       to know what other people think of
pro bull riding competition, and        TV’s modest San Francisco             you.”
ubiquitous Friends reruns, is           headquarters, “as a way for people        As well as broadcasting news
something as rare as reason on          to meet the rest of the world face    programs from around the world,
American TV: a decidedly and very       to face, and as an antidote to        Link TV also airs interactive
intentionally wide-angle view of        misunderstanding, insularity, and     programs like Global Link, Active
the world.                              the American-centric view that        Opposition, and the youth-focused
    This particular bandwidth slice     is pervasive on this nation’s TV      Chat the Planet. Spencer has seen
of digital cake is Link TV, the first   sets.”                                television as a two-way stream for
and only national network “bringing         Watch, for example, Mosaic:       30 years now, so it’s no surprise
Americans a global perspective on       World News from the Middle East,      that these series connect the Link
world issues and culture,” as reads     the Link TV program that has          TV audience with individuals
its press kit. What Link TV, against    attracted the most attention during
all odds, is beaming 24/7 into our      the war in Iraq. This daily program
living rooms is a breath of always      monitors news broadcasts from
fresh, sometimes frightening air.       16 nations, Egypt to Abu Dhabi,
Unlike the “world-as-packaged-in-       Israel to Iran, Syria to Yemen,
Atlanta” soundbites of CNN, Link        translating the coverage into
TV gives the planet a chance to         English and offering Americans
express itself in its own voice, with   rare insight into how events are
                                                                                                        FEBRUARY 2004

around the world through digital          went east to begin a master’s            everyone by garnering good ratings
video links.                              program in city and regional             and national media attention.
    While operating on a budget           planning at Harvard. When he heard           “We lucked out,” Spencer says.
totaling about 1/100th that of the        that the media department at MIT         “That launched my broadcast
niche channel Oxygen (which               needed someone to teach students         career—by chance, really. But we
debuted about the same time as Link       how to use the new portable video        were the hot new thing, and we
TV), Spencer’s network is available       equipment, he volunteered—which          began producing live events for
to the 21 million U.S. households         led to his joining MIT students at the   PBS.
receiving sa Kim Spencer, now 55,         New Hampshire primary in 1974,               It wasn’t long before he began
grew up in the heartland, outside         producing a video aboard Ronald          pushing the form, and his luck held.
of Chicago. He was one year into          Reagan’s campaign bus. Spencer           On Thanksgiving Day in 1980 he
engineering at Purdue when the            was hooked. He left graduate school      was producing a live PBS special
politics of the ’60s came calling.        and spent the rest of the ’70s as        called America at Thanksgiving. The
Spencer found himself wanting to          an independent video producer            program, hosted by Art Buchwald,
change everything, beginning with         making documentaries on clean            originated from six holiday dinners,
his education. He had heard about         water, the environment, and other        ranging from a Midwest farm family
Reed and when he asked one of his         issues. The programs were shown to       to sharecroppers in the South, from
professors, the answer was, “If you       local governments and community          a motorcycle gang gathering to an
can get into that school, you certainly   groups—narrowcasting           before    Air Force base mess hall. The plan
should.” It was the fall of 1968, and     narrowcasting had a name.                was for Buchwald to interview each
Spencer could and did. He quickly             “I was still focused on community    of these groups, but at one point the
became involved with the Reed             organizing,” says Spencer, “and          leader of the bikers started talking
community, working on the Quest,          video was simply a tool. It wasn’t       directly (the live feed meant they
which gave him dual grounding in          about mass media—there was no            could see and hear each other) to one
journalism and rabble-rousing. By         chance of ever getting these things      of the Air Force officers. Buchwald
the time of his graduation in 1970,       on the air, because there was such       let them go, and soon the others
he was a political science major with     a gap between what we were doing         joined in—and the first of Spencer’s
an affinity for local motion.             and broadcast quality.”                  groundbreaking and ether-spanning
    “Reed had a big impact on me,”            On March 28, 1979, Reactor           “spacebridges” was born.
Spencer says. “There was a real           Two at the Three Mile Island nuclear         “We hadn’t really thought that
sense of community there—and a            power plant suffered a partial           people would start talking two-way,”
feeling of responsibility. My politics    meltdown. Spencer was living             Spencer says with a quiet laugh, “but
were formed in that environment.          in Washington, D.C., producing           they did, and it was good stuff. Later
Trying to make a difference became        environmental documentaries, and         I was making an edited version of
my goal.”                                 when he heard that a large anti-         the program with my future wife,
    After graduating, Spencer stayed      nuclear demonstration was planned        Evelyn Messinger [they were
in Portland and went to work with         at the U.S. Capitol, he and his          married in 1983], and she said ‘This
the Multnomah County Community            colleagues realized the protest could    is amazing. Think what you could
Action Agency. And then it                be meaningful live television.           do with this! Imagine if you could
happened: Sony introduced the first           “I had read somewhere about a        link Russians and Americans’—this
small, mobile, and affordable TV          new satellite TV system at PBS,”         was when the cold war was still
camera. Spencer’s agency got one of       Spencer recalls, “and a law that         on—‘you could overcome political
the new cameras and he immediately        specified that any excess channel        boundaries, get real people who
began using it to help community          capacity on that satellite could be      are so-called enemies to talk.’ We
groups tell their stories.                used by independent nonprofits.          envisioned a program and took it
     “Video was so powerful, such         So we went in, plunked down our          to PBS, but we couldn’t get them to
a new media back then,” Spencer           501(c)(3) business card and asked        fund us. They didn’t think it would
remembers. “From the beginning, I         for time to cover the demonstration.     work. But we wound up producing
thought it was a great tool for social    The guy said ‘OK, I guess you            programs like that all through the
change. When the legislature would        qualify,’ and all of a sudden we had
start talking about shutting down a       the first national live TV broadcast
senior center or a day care facility,     not controlled by the networks.”
we’d make a tape of the people                The protest drew thousands
involved and go down to Salem             of people, including concerned
and show it to the legislators. It        celebrities and famous musicians.
worked—the centers stayed open.”          The live broadcast on PBS went
    After a couple of years Spencer       off without a hitch and surprised
                                                                                                               FEBRUARY 2004

    In 1982 Spencer and Messinger
co-founded Internews, a nonprofit
media production company. They
spoke with Gosteleradio, then
the official Soviet radio and TV
committee, and proposed a two-
way satellite link that would allow
Soviet and American scientists to
discuss the effects of nuclear winter.
Through a combination of skilled
negotiation—and the fact that the
Soviets believed the three-person
Internews was much bigger than it
was—the program came together
and produced landmark agreement
on both sides: nuclear winter would
ravage the planet. It drew a national
audience in the U.S.
    “Suddenly,” Spencer said in
a 2001 online profile by Kaitlin          Spencer meets with LinkTV’s director of development Kathy Pace on his right, and Link
Quistgaard, “we realized we were          TV co-producer Toni Whiteman, left.
not just making TV, we were shaping
the relationships between these two       to the George Soros Foundation,              Foundation, so off they went with
countries.”                               so off they went with their 4-               their 4-year-old twins, Sam and
    By 1987 the relationship among        year-old twins, Sam and Kate.                Kate. Spencer’s ability to make
Spencer, Messinger, and the Soviets       Spencer’s ability to make his own            his own luck continued: friend and
was strong enough that Internews          luck continued: friend and French            French television producer Patrice
was able to coax members of the           television producer Patrice Barrat           Barrat had just been awarded ten
U.S. Congress and deputies of the         had just been awarded ten one-hour           one-hour slots on France’s Channel
Supreme Soviet to talk with each          slots on France’s Channel Four               Four and associated European
other live via satellite. Spencer co-     and associated European networks,            networks, with the only mandate
produced the resulting series, Capital    with the only mandate being to do            being to do something different and
to Capital, with ABC News and won         something different and interesting.         interesting.
two Emmy Awards. Within two                   They soon conceived the Vis à                They soon conceived the Vis à
years, Spencer, a decade removed          Vis series of unique transcontinental        Vis series of unique transcontinental
from making grassroots videos             dialogues using the newest portable          dialogues using the newest portable
that he knew didn’t have a chance         videoconferencing equipment—the              videoconferencing equipment—the
of being broadcast, was a senior          conversations between people that            conversations between people that
producer for ABC News PrimeTime           used to have to take place between           used to have to take place between
Live. Big budgets, big news stars,        two television studios were now              two television studios were now
big stories—and after three years,        possible between people’s living             possible between people’s living
big frustrations.                         rooms.                                       rooms.
    “People said, ‘Man, you’ve                People said, ‘Man, you’ve made               Later that year the mandate
made it! A senior producer at             it! A senior producer at ABC!’ They          of creating different interesting
ABC!’ They couldn’t believe it            couldn’t believe it when I quit,”            television put Spencer and his Vis
when I quit,” Spencer remembers.          Spencer remembers. “It was 1992,             à Vis crew in a battered Jeep at a
“It was 1992, and I left because          and I left because the kinds of stories I    makeshift checkpoint in Somalia. It
the kinds of stories I wanted to do       wanted to do just didn’t interest them       still will be several months before
just didn’t interest them any more.       any more. The conventional wisdom            U.S. troops arrive. Someone has just
The conventional wisdom was that          was that international stories didn’t
international stories didn’t sell, that   sell, that the ratings would go down
the ratings would go down when            when an international news piece
an international news piece ran on        ran on PrimeTime Live. Stories
PrimeTime Live. Stories about OJ          about OJ played better.”
played better.”                               Messinger had been offered a
    Messinger had been offered a job      job in Paris as electronic media
in Paris as electronic media adviser      adviser to the George Soros
                                                                                                       FEBRUARY 2004

stuck a gun in the driver’s window                                                just figuratively,” Spencer insists.
and fired, the bullet going out the                                               “Throughout my career I’ve tried
passenger window far too close to            “When we launched the                to focus not just on the movers
Spencer’s nose. He and his crew                                                   and shakers, but also on the moved
are paying $100 a day—to seven                  channel people said               and shaken. Now that we have the
terminally stoned, lethally armed            ‘Television’s a dinosaur,            channel, we want to use it to get
Somalis, ranging in age from 12 to                                                people involved in their world.”
50, who had stolen this Jeep from          man, streaming on the Web                  As it has since Multnomah
the U.S. Embassy, bolted a rocket                                                 County bought that first Sony video
launcher on the back, and hired           is the thing.’ Well, those [Web         camera, new technology helps
themselves out—to prevent exactly          broadcast] companies went              draw the arc of Spencer’s career.
this kind of unpleasantness.                                                      With two-way teleconferencing
    It occurs then to Spencer that,          through a couple billion             equipment getting better and
even though he has somehow                dollars and now they’re gone.           cheaper all the time, Spencer and
convinced a Canadian cargo plane                                                  Messinger are working toward the
to fly him, his crew, and a two-and-      And here we are. We believe             day when Link TV viewers can
a-half ton satellite dish into a remote                                           watch a program on any given issue,
desert location in Somalia, had his        it is possible to have a true          then simply go to the nearest school,
$20,000 video camera stolen at                 citizen’s TV channel,              library, or mall, even a local café or
gunpoint, purchased it back for $700,                                             coffeehouse, and add their voice—
and was now deep into producing             connecting people face to             and, importantly, face—to a live
one of his innovative, interactive                                                follow-up conversation.
dialogues linking a United Nations
                                                        face.”                        “The amazing thing is that
official in New York City with a                   — Kim Spencer                  TV still has a role to play,” says
Somali woman who ran a local                                                      Spencer. “When we launched the
U.N. food program. . . . it occurs                                                channel people said ‘Television’s
to Spencer that things just might be      have less than five weeks until they    a dinosaur, man, streaming on the
getting a little out of hand....          must be on the air 24 hours a day,      Web is the thing.’ Well, those [Web
    Over the next six years, Spencer      seven days a week. And he realizes      broadcast] companies went through
would co-produce more than a              that, at least for the foreseeable      a couple billion dollars and now
dozen of these programs, including        future, he has traded the cameras       they’re gone. And here we are. We
the occasionally life-threatening         and endless adventures of the globe-    believe it is possible to have a true
Somalia show and dialogues between        trotting producer for the phones and    citizen’s TV channel, connecting
two black cops, one in Philadelphia       endless pitches of the deskbound        people face to face. And it’s possible
and the other in Soweto, South            fund-raiser.                            around the world, even on the most
Africa; two schoolteachers in Iran            Today, Link TV has overcome         basic videoconferencing gear. As
and Washington D.C. (Spencer was          perhaps the most difficult barrier:     long as you can see a smile, a tear,
the first American TV producer            simply getting on the air. Television   a blush—as long as you can see that
to work inside Iran since the 1979        isn’t known for its love of high-       expression and emotion. That face-
Islamic revolution); two teenage          quality, meaningful-content TV. But     to-face contact is something that was
girls growing up in war-torn Bosnia       Spencer is confident that, as long as   always promised to us, since people
and Northern Ireland; and two young       FCC regulations hold (and as long       first imagined picture-phones! I
men, one an Israeli and the other a       as he can keep raising the several      continue to believe it is one of the
Palestinian.                              thousand dollars per day it takes       tools we have to connect people and
    In 1999 Spencer and Messinger         to stay on the air), his network is     find a better world.”
returned to the U.S., and after more      secure.
than a year of planning, applications,        Which leaves Spencer free to
proposals, and presentations, their       continue using Link TV to do what
brainchild WorldLink TV (now              he resolved to do all those years ago
called Link TV) has been awarded          at Reed: make a difference. As his
one of the highly coveted satellite       friend and co-producer Barrat has
spots made possible by the FCC            said of Spencer: “In the back of
guidelines requiring DirecTV and          his mind, he always has a secret
DISH to allocate four percent of          agenda, which has to do not with
their channels for non-commercial         television but with the real life of
public      service      programming.     the people around.”
Spencer realizes they have actually           “We want to connect the
pulled it off. He also realizes they      people of the world literally, not

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