The Edge of Ajax
The Unblinking Eye
1980 GrassRoots studio and control room at Airport Business Center
Red Brick Studio 2010
In 2006, with new fiber infrastructure, GrassRoots signal expanded to Snowmass Village and Basalt, and launched a rudimentary live stream on-line. In 2010, The City of Glenwood Springs and Town of Carbondale asked Comcast to add GrassRoots to their channel line-up. At the same time, Pitkin County added GrassRoots and CGTV11 to its free broadcast translator system throughout the county.
In 2018, a major technical retooling including remote control HD studio cameras and an all new HD master control, was funded by private philanthropy matched by civic grants. Now all GrassRoots programming was finally produced, broadcast, cablecast and streamed in HD. Over 4000 programs, including some content digitally restored from early 1970’s reel to reel videotape, are available through this website or on the GrassRoots Community Network Youtube channel.
This year thousands of GrassRoots programs will be watched by over 200,000 viewers world-wide, greatly increasing the reach and impact of locally produced programs of global interest. Most productions are live streamed on FaceBook. GrassRoots partners with The City of Aspen, Pitkin County, The Town of Snowmass Village and The Town of Basalt to record, air and provide VOD access to over 200 public meetings. Every year, over 100 non-profit organizations are either featured or are production partners on hundreds of GrassRoots programs.
Like the community energy it channels, GrassRoots Community Television has dramatically evolved over the past five decades. It has survived to remain the nation’s oldest community-operated media production and distribution network, excelling when staying true to its founding vision. GrassRoots’ future is entirely determined by our neighbors’ creative, philanthropic, emotional and philosophical commitment to being an authentic, inclusive and civically engaged community.
“GrassRoots is a resource for the entire community. It is inexpensive, flexible, inclusive and responsive. It is a forum for those issues that concern us. It is an opportunity for residents to participate in an exciting, creative endeavor. It creates a link between the individual and the community. It is a way for us to connect with each other and bind the community together. It is a most valuable tool which can be used to enrich and improve life in this valley, and on this Earth."
- John Smith, Founder, The Grass-Roots Network, 1972
John Smith 1975
In late 1971 John Smith, David Wright and Eleanor Bingham created
“The Grass-Roots Network” as the nation’s first not-for-profit
community-determined media network. Bil Dunaway, who gave
John Smith his first reporting job at the Aspen Times five years
earlier, donated a channel on his new cable system. The first
programming was cablecast the first week of January, 1972 from
Wright’s mobile home in the Smuggler Trailer Park. Most of the time
it was simply a shot of Aspen Mountain. At one point a young female
intern stepped in front of the mountain cam, took off her shirt and
wagging her bare breasts, yelled “IS ANYBODY WATCHING?”
With no way to measure audience, this became an oft repeated
quandary for the next four decades.
“The Trailer” was home to the first Grass-Roots studio, where on Monday afternoons, the crew would move Wright’s living room furniture out into the snow to make room for experimental poetry readings, short TV plays, jam sessions and community discussions. With Smith’s first edition black and white Sony Portapak camera, a donated security camera and a rudimentary switcher, community volunteers directed the first shows, using Wright’s telephones as intercoms between director and camera ops.
Conceived as a network of community-operated non-commercial TV and radio stations linking Roaring Fork Valley towns and unincorporated communities, radical 70’s Freak Power Aspen embraced the idea of an uncensored, non-conformist, communal media. In the fall of 1972, “The Edge of Ajax,” an eight part community-written and produced soap opera drew crowds of hippies without cable TV into the JBar, The Pub, and the Historic Wheeler Opera House to watch the week’s episode on bar TVs and the Wheeler’s movie screen.
In 1973 The City of Aspen donated the Wheeler’s attic for GrassRoots studio and office. Here future Aspen Times editor Andy Stone, along with future Aspen Mayor John Bennett, future major network reporter David Chapple, and others who would ultimately enjoy long careers in commercial television, produced “The Unblinking Eye” a counter-culture weekly newscast.
“Say It”, an opportunity for anyone to speak their mind, was shot on the steps of what is now The Aspen Public House.
At the same time, Grass-Roots Network was the first media in the nation to videotape, cablecast and broadcast county commissioner, city council and state legislature meetings when community volunteers simply showed up with GrassRoots cameras and started rolling.
Aspen City Council Meeting 1973
By 1976 Grass-Roots had industry standard production facilities, a community governing board of 300 volunteers and a staff of 12 funded by federal CETA grants. Katie Smith, John’ wife, described the unwieldly organization as “an uncontrollable baby elephant."
When John Smith left to start an Oregon farm in 1978, Grass-Roots lost its direction, devolving into a closed club of professional PBS expats, mirroring the industry it was meant to counter. The community was no longer welcome, and when the CETA funding dried up in 1979, there wasn’t enough community interest to replace the federal funding. The board and staff quit, leaving a depreciated facility and a camera locked on a sign “If anybody wants to run this thing, the door’s open.” Aspen and GrassRoots’ Riot Years were over.
A devoted group of long time citizens formed a working board, led by Nick DeWolf. Nick, a micro-processor pioneer and amateur photographer from Boston (Nick photo documented his entire adult life, leaving over 100,000 slides now archived on Flicker), redeveloped Grass-Roots in minimalist form and back in tune with Smith’s original vision as a citizen operated forum. The office and studio were now next to the Canyon Cable headend, way out at the Airport Business Center. With virtually no video programming beyond Nick’s personal slide show, in 1980 Nick invented the first “intra-net”, an open-sourced community bulletin board system whereby anyone could post messages on Grass-Roots from Nick’s home-built computer work stations scattered around Aspen.
GrassRoots’ simple equipment, volunteer staff, amateur content and out of town location did not attract contributions or producers from the rapidly upscaling Aspen, now an international resort town. Despite moments of brilliance, some radically experimental and important community programming, for the next two decades GrassRoots suffered a slow downward spiral from staff turnover, an indifferent community, and weak funding. After moving yet again, now to the new high school, an attempt in 1985 to raise revenues through standard TV advertising was disallowed by the cable company which wanted to retain control of all local ad sales.
With virtually no cable or civic funding, Grass-Roots limped along with sub-standard equipment and limited programming, led by a revolving door of nearly 20 station managers in as many years. At times, it had no paid staff or programming. GrassRoots Television, as it was now called, went off the air again in 1998 when production and master control equipment failed. The community was again confronted with a decrepit facility, antiquated and unusable equipment, and a demoralized staff and board.
Soon a new group of devout believers in public media access, forming a board led by Jim True, again saved and redeveloped what was now called GrassRoots Television. In 1999 Pitkin County committed $150,000 in funds from a new franchise agreement with AT&T Cable to purchase new production equipment. GrassRoots had just moved from the High School into its present location at the more convenient Red Brick Center for the Arts in Aspen’s West End. The successful Roots Jam, a televised fundraising concert using the new equipment, featuring all local music talent at the Wheeler, helped re-spark citizen interest in the potential of community television.
The present Director was hired in 2001 with the direction to run GrassRoots with a professional staff serving an amateur clientele using modern business practices while staying true to the founding vision. Since 2001 citizen initiated production has tripled, a committed staff and revenues have grown and stabilized, Community Government TV11 now provides government access, freeing much needed airtime on channel 12 for expanded public and educational programming.