Grand Rapids Media Center

At Grand Rapids, Mich.'s high-tech Community Media Center, apple pickers' children produce short films on "Breaking the Cycle of Migrant Workers," area residents design World Wide Web pages, and nonprofit groups receive technical training.

Not your typical community hub, the $1.2 million operation is the first in the country to provide local cable TV, radio broadcasting and a community computer network - called Grand-Net - all under one roof.

Dirk Koning, the executive director of the center, describes its mission as simply, "building community through media."

The center has evolved over nearly two decades, having opened in 1981 as a small public-access TV center. Last spring, it reopened in a stately, 1925 building that formerly housed a library, to offer Grand Rapids citizens access to an integrated suite of communications equipment, including three studios, three edit rooms, eight camcorders, three computer graphics "Creation Stations," and a quarter-million-dollar mobile media lab for remote work.

An Internet lab that maintains the former Grand Rapids Free Net now houses 10 computers with CD-ROMs, a scanner and a printer, and offers citizens classes on basic computer usage, Internet training and Web publishing. The center also is the Internet service provider and Web host for 25 nonprofit organizations and 1,000 clients. Its users are supported by a network operation center equipped with a dozen servers that also offer Integrated Services Digital Network connectivity and Internet access via two T-1 data lines terminating in Chicago. On the TV side, the center operates two public-access cable channels and an FM radio station.

Grand Rapids Mayor John H. Logie, who called the Community Media Center, "a very positive force in our community," said the center is based on a model that can be "emulated anywhere [and] provides Grand Rapidians with the finest opportunities to learn skills, learn career-type training and for the community itself to share information on a firsthand basis."

An initial capital campaign of $1.2 million was used to renovate and relocate to the new facility. Now, with a staff of 20 paid workers and 80 volunteers, the center is funded through membership fees ($25 per person), $20 class fees and donations by more than 150 public and private contributors.

According to citizens, the center provides tangible business benefits to the community. "It is an incredible asset," said Beth Dilley, president of the Public Education Fund, whose Web server is hosted at the center. "With multiple technologies being increasingly critical, the marketplace can put a very high value on [services]. The center provides us, as a nonprofit organization, with very high-quality work and resources in a way we can afford."

The center is providing 24-hour support for the organization's "Pathfinder" Web service, which allows schools, employers, students and parents to go online to match students with internships. The fund also relies on the center for Web page designing, training and trouble-shooting.

The center also gives citizens access to more traditional communications media. Corrine Carey, a retired Grand Rapids teacher, hosts "Speaking Out: Grand Rapids and Global Issues" each week on Grand Rapids TV, the media center's public-access TV station. "I feel very strongly that [GRTV] is the voice of the people," said Carey, who attends meetings focusing on issues of peace, justice and the environment. "It is important for people to know these issues are out there and to begin to think about them."

Calling himself the "Pied Piper of community media centers," Koning is working to promote the idea behind the center globally. He has traveled, by invitation, to a dozen countries and three dozen U.S. cities in the past three years to meet with technology gurus, civic leaders and special-interest groups. "People are very interested in some form of replication of our model," Koning said. "They call us up and say, 'How did you renovate the space? How did you raise the money?' A big part of our mission is to share, so I get out and talk about what we did and how we continue to do it."

In London, Koning helped launch the TransAtlantic Information Network, an initiative of the European Union and the U.S. Information Agency to foster better communication between countries. The network, which will be hosted by the Grand Rapids Community Media Center, created a Web index of more than 20 exchange programs, involving business, journalism and youth services, that are available in participating countries.

Koning, who estimates there are plans "for at least 500 community media centers in the countries I've been in," believes high technology serves the community interest equally as well as the profit motive. "It's taken off," he said. "People are really interested in using this technology toward other than purely commercial purposes."

Joyce Kelly is a free-lance writer based in Chicago.


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