GrassRoots Comes of Age

It reads like the birth of a religion:  A man with a vision joins forces with a technical wizard in a humble trailer park, and with the First Amendment in one hand and a cable connection in the other, the two created community television as we know it.

Of course the full story of the 42 years of Aspen's GrassRoots Community Network is more complex.

The plucky little station has evolved with time and technology, survived near-collapse time and again, and has been like the flame to the moths of Aspen visionaries, innovators, activists, artists, fundraisers and martyrs.

The Early Years

John Smith, a Kentucky native and on-again off-again Aspenite, was teaching journalism at UCLA in the 1960s when he observed that television coverage of the 1965 riots in Watts was one-sided, with no voice from people on the street.  An idea wedged in his craw.

"I realized that television did not really serve the small community," Smith said.

The medium was handed down from big corporations and political talking heads.  Why not build TV from the ground up, with the viewers themselves telling the tale?

In 1969, looking for an excuse to move to the place where he and his wife Katy first met, Smith took a job at The Aspen Times and the couple returned to the then off-the-grid mountain town.

"I realized that Aspen would be a ripe community for that sort of an experiment," he said. "I wanted to start a community cable casting system where everyone had access, and it was supported by the community and an outlet for the community."

With the support of then-Aspen Times publisher Bil Dunaway, who had connections with Canyon Cable, Smith went to work.

Smith put an ad in The Aspen Times asking for assistance and got a flood of responses.  He signed up volunteers and then received an important call from David Wright, a local iconoclast known for his backflips on skis and a style all his own, who said, "You can't do this without me."

"In a selfless and totally creative way he put together the entire technical side of this," Smith said of Wright.  "He was a genius."

With a prototype half-inch Sony videotape unit, and using Wright's trailer in the Smuggler Trailer Court as a base, they built a modulator and connected to the grid.  GrassRoots TV was on.

Smith's high-minded vision of participatory TV came across as chaos on screen - shaky cameras covering local theater and arts, zany local talk shows, risqué programs featuring Aspen's early '70s hippie community.

Smith admits that Aspen's community access station was not the first of its kind - rural parts of northern Canada had long been home to community-based media and there was a station in Austin, Texas.  But Smith's early skeleton crew was really making it up as they went. "And wonderful people were attracted to the effort," he said.

Richie Cohen moved to Aspen from New York in the summer of 1971. He connected with Smith -"We just had an affinity," he said - and soon became the finance man (and boom mic operator) for the fledgling station.

"It was my first experience with the counterculture.  And this was really the counterculture," he said of the town's wild parties and freewheeling lifestyles.

"Nobody knew what the hell we were doing," he said.  Apart from a focused Smith and techy Wright, Cohen said it was as laid-back as you could get. "They had no business sense."

Initial funding for GrassRoots came from a federal work-training-program grant, but Cohen also sold sponsorships, set up fundraisers, put together an organizing board and gained GrassRoots nonprofit status.  "We got organized," he said.

But who was watching?

The GrassRoots crew found out who when a voluptuous female camera operator got frustrated and decided to test that.  She stripped off her clothes to do what Cohen called "a clinical study of her body."

"We were hysterical," Cohen said.  "The phone started ringing, and we suddenly realized we had an audience.  It was 3 in the afternoon, and we got 50 phone calls.  That was a big moment."

Bare boobs on TV was not the only first for GrassRoots.  The station covered the inaugural Little Woody Creek Cross-Country Ski Race and Dope Smoke in 1972, for example, and had a unique show called "The Parade of the Food," which featured glassy-eyed restaurant workers carrying mini-buffets on palanquins down Main Street.

"Say It" was a man-on-the-street interview program that plumbed local opinion about Aspen issues.  And Old Weird Billy's Garden Show was a whole new take on the alternative garden.

Hunter S. Thompson was part of the GrassRoots scene and was featured in lengthy discourses about his popular novels and the use of controlled substances in America - his signature canvas shoes crossed in front of him, a cigarette burning in a long holder and a bottle of bourbon on the table.  You can even spy him gallivanting in the background of early 1970s footage of Jimmy Buffett and his band playing "Margaritaville" at the Aspen High School.

But "the crowning glory" of those early days was the homespun soap opera, "The Edge of Ajax," according to Cohen.  The show told the story of Felicia B. Wheeler, a miner's daughter, and the tongue-in-cheek chronicling of her life in the rural town featured local folks in modern-day Aspen.

"It really caught fire," Smith said. "People loved it."

Locals held "Edge of Ajax" parties, and Hollywood visitors and distinguished personalities, like writer Saul Bellow, contributed and made appearances as walk-ons on the show.

"It was really fun to do," said Buddy Ortega, who played local playboy Lance Boyle on the show.  "We would show up on the set, and there'd be 15 minutes to shoot and 'here's the script.'

"Aspen was like one big family," Ortega continued.  "It was just magic.  A happy, jovial, peaceful, loving time."

And the best fun was the postproduction parties that raged long into the night.  "We didn't have mock beer on the set," he stressed.

When a 1972 segment featured a group of topless women shaving the head of a women bereaved by a recent breakup - a statement of her feminist liberation - Smith found himself in the middle of community controversy.

"Our mission was not to say 'no' to people," Smith said.  And U.S. legislation leaves standards of decency up to each community to decide, so Smith decided to convene an on-air panel to discuss the controversial show.

Smith gave airtime to conservatives, who said the channel was too liberal, and countered criticism of programming with a challenge to start their own show.  "That was the kind of openness we practiced."

During the 1972 election, local candidates and pundits crowded into the Wright's trailer for the first Aspen election coverage. And later, with the help of Andy Stone, who would go on to be editor of The Aspen Times, Smith opened the lid on "The Unblinking Eye," a local news broadcast.

"It was wonderfully, wildly amateurish," Stone said.  A phone rang on the desk during his first broadcast and he answered, "'The Unblinking Eye,' may I help you?"  And he remembers calling color commentary for Aspen's first "Pothole Slalom" for drivers along Main Street.

"Nobody was doing this," he said of the GrassRoots experiment.  "Community television is sort of a 'no filter' thing and results in some really bad TV. "

Running the station was a tremendous amount of work, but when someone dropped a job, there was always another person to jump in.  Smith credits people like Candi Harper and Linda Maslow and groups of energetic (and unpaid) summer interns for keeping the chaotic operation alive.  "It was a miracle that it kept going."

"The equipment was totally crude.  We did not have a studio. We did not have anything except this patchwork that David Wright could somehow pull off," Smith said.  He realized that if the station was to last, it would have to graduate to a more sensible system.

In the mid-'70s, the cable company provided space at the Aspen Business Center, and GrassRoots undertook its first major overhaul.  With the help of Sony representatives from Denver, the station soon had an elaborate multiple-camera studio with switchers.

Soon after, Katy Smith started the County Video Project, and GrassRoots began covering local politics and filming county commissioners meetings - a mainstay of programming to his day.

Smith attended a number of alternative media conferences at New York University and learned that Aspen's community TV station was setting national standards and was a model for many others.

"I think it's incredible and unbelievable that GrassRoots is still going," Smith said from the farm in Oregon he now calls home.  After seven years as the director and driving force of the fledgling nonprofit, Smith gave up the reins in 1978 and left Aspen.  "I don't do media now, I do life."

"Whoever's running it today should consider themselves the founder," Smith said.  "I got to reinvent it the first time, and I think everybody is reinventing it.  It's like a shell that has to be filled out in each generation."

GrassRoots Evolves

Without its founder, GrassRoots followed a meandering path, but Smith's ideal of a community making TV about itself survived.

While content on network TV was "top down" and controlled by an elite few, GrassRoots sprang from viewers.  But maintaining that amateur ethic and keeping the station afloat has been hard to balance.

In a 1980 interview, Katy Smith said the station was "Like a huge baby elephant without a trainer."

The budget was out of control, the station had no business management, and without Smith as the benevolent dictator, the lunatics took over the asylum, said John Masters, the current station director.

By the late 1980s, the board gave up and the staff quit, leaving the cameras running on an empty studio.  In stepped Nick DeWolf, a transplant from Boston whose vision for the station was to stay small and community-based.

"We're avoiding being ... a half-ass PBS station," DeWolf said in a 1981 interview.  He thought GrassRoots had become too professional, a dumbed-down version of network television or PBS, and had lost its community access mission.

"We have stubbornly insisted that our role is to provide community access and community material," he said at the time.

DeWolf worked hard to keep the cameras in the hands of amateurs and locals.  And he created a unique community bulletin board with computer kiosks in sites around town where citizens could type messages - an eerie harbinger of the Internet, it became like an Aspen chat room.

"He was 10, 15 years ahead of his time," said Greg Poschman, an Aspen filmmaker who took over for DeWolf for a short time in the mid-'80s.

DeWolf left, burnt-out like most nonprofits ship captains, and the station went through a succession of leaders - and two location changes - as it struggled to stay afloat for the next two decades.

But in the late 1990s, change was on the horizon.  GrassRoots director Damian Panetta moved the station's office and studio to Aspen's Red Brick Arts and Recreation Center - which he said re-engaged the station with the community.  Soon after, director Sean Sunkel secured vital funding from TCI Cable and city and county governments to upgrade equipment and modernize the operation.

"It would've definitely died ... if we hadn't done what we did," Sunkel said of his and Panetta's efforts.
There are two ways to get your stuff on GrassRoots TV:
    1. Use your own camera to shoot a video. Edit it yourself — maybe even on a desktop editing system — and bring it to the station. They’ll air it twice for free; you can pay to have it air additional times or during certain hours.

You can also borrow a camera (mini-DV) and the staff will train you how to use it.

    2. Hire GrassRoots staffers to help you make your project. You can hire a camera crew by the hour to cover an event, or you can rent the studio by the hour to film a show and the staff will run the equipment for you. You can also shoot your own footage and pay staff hourly to edit it for you. (Note: GrassRoots is currently looking for donations of an editing system that people in the community could use.)

For more information and costs, contact the station at GrassRoots TV, 110 E. Hallam St., Suite 132, Aspen, CO 81611, call 925-8000, or log on to

GrassRoots Today

"If you're a character in Aspen, you've been on GrassRoots," said Masters, a veteran TV producer from California who was named GrassRoots' director in 2001.  "It's a crazy quilt made of bits and pieces of stuff not intended to be on television."

With 800 new shows produced by locals each year, GrassRoots is "amateur, messy, out-of-control. And my job is managing anarchy," he said.

But something is most definitely working.

GrassRoots' budget is on track. Revenues come from viewer contributions and user fees, plus nearly $100,000 each year from city and county government and cable franchising fees.  But Masters said the real contributions come from volunteers who help out and those who generate programming.

"We want to make it as easy as possible for people to make TV," said Masters, adding that he simply brought his years of experience and modern business practices to the organization and opened the doors wide to the community.

Working with area governments, Masters set up CGTV-11, which airs local government meetings (GrassRoots is on Channel 12), and GrassRoots programming is now available online as streaming video.

"Ninety percent of the programming is initiated, produced and created by individuals and nonprofit organizations," Masters said.  In fact, the station's staff simply helps individuals and local nonprofits overcome technological barriers to make their own TV.  "We do not determine content."

And while some programming, like high school sports coverage and political discussions and debates during election season, are staff-generated, that type of programming is limited.

With a few large companies controlling the bulk of media, Masters believes community efforts like GrassRoots are essential to a healthy democracy.  "And we are passionate about the First Amendment," Masters said.

Thus is seems John Smith's 1971 vision of community television is still alive in Aspen.  Shows like "Ski Bum Theater," "The Local Show," "Art Matters" and "Medicine in the Mountains" give voice to the community.  And if you have the gumption to speak up at City Council or you're a star on the local stage or athletic field, you're already part of the action.