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Access for the masses

Public-access television, whose future may hinge on a bill before Congress, is TV's public square - a community outlet for the civic minded, musicians, and even bonsai lovers.

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The offices of Cambridge Community Television are lit up with neon and klieg lights, a beacon to passersby who pause to peer through the wall of glass. A CCTV sign glows pink. Winking monitors flash the station's three channels.

In front there, that's David Stern, hard to miss in a red T-shirt and straw hat. He's about ready to go live with "Shootin' the Breeze," his off-the-cuff weather-cum-humor show. And over in the corner room, the "drive-by gallery," those are Cambridge residents planning their monthly public-affairs news magazine.

It's a typical and bustling evening here at this public-access TV station, where aspiring entertainers and concerned citizens congregate daily to put their messages out to the city. An idiosyncratic patchwork of programming, public access encompasses everything from quirky call-in shows to religious services to live music.

For many viewers, local-access channels are mere speed bumps on the dial between ABC and HBO. But for the people here tonight - and countless others at over a thousand stations around the country - these airwaves, available to all for a nominal fee, have become what Anthony Riddle, executive director of the Alliance for Community Media in Washington, calls "the public square in the electronic age."

That square could soon shrink. Congress is looking at legislation which, while opening cable to competition and greater options, may erode the main revenue stream for CCTV and many of its sibling stations across the country.

But that takes a back seat tonight. On this Monday evening, Jamila Newton is firmly focused on her 30-minute show. Through a small window in CCTV's Edit Room Two, the back of her long, dark braids just visible, she can be seen reviewing footage from "Bandwidth TV," a showcase for local musicians.

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