Today in Tedium: If you were given a golden ticket of sorts, what would you do with it? What would you build? Would you quit working for a while, or perhaps not work as hard? Or how would you leverage that opportunity, that windfall, to make your little slice of the world just a little bit better? Recently, I had a chance to talk to a longtime social media pal who is doing something really ambitious and awesome, the kind of thing that makes me wish that more people like him were out there taking big swings. And it comes down to putting a 2022 spin on an old idea: Making a TV station for the local community. Today’s Tedium dives into a creator who’s taking an ambitious idea on the air … along with the rest of his small town. — Ernie @ Tedium
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The makerspace in the middle of a mountain town—and how the pandemic and random luck put it there
I know that the biopic Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is coming very soon thanks to Roku, but you ever watch the movie UHF? It was Weird Al’s debut as a cinematic lead, and it still carries a warm place in my heat.
UHF was amazing. It was a movie about a down-on-his luck guy who inherited a low-rent TV station and used the sudden windfall to air whatever shows he wanted. The movie flopped, but not because it was terrible. It was released in the middle of a very tough summer movie season.
But I always loved the conceit of that movie. It reflects a universe unlike any in the modern day. YouTube is kind of like it, but it doesn’t have quite the same feel of a local community coming together to entertain itself. It was the perfect vehicle for Weird Al.
What would it look like if someone ran a TV station like that today, where it was totally community-oriented, where it reflected the sensibility of the town, and where it carried that ramshackle DIY kind of feel?
There’s a guy I know who’s actually doing just that. And it’s a model that I’d love to see take off in other places. But before we get there, we have to explain how he found himself in a position to help to create a UHF for the internet age.
Andrew Roach, a tech-head and makeshift entrepreneur in Ellijay, Georgia—a North Georgia town about an hour and 20 minutes away from both Chatanooga, Tennessee and Atlanta—has brought together a team of fellow creatives around a maker space. And they’re using that space to build a live-on-the-internet television station called New Ellijay TV.
Roach, a guy I met through a mutual interest in vintage culture along with offbeat and interesting tech (he has a pretty solid collection of vintage TV sets, for one thing), found a bit of personal nirvana in Georgia after a pair of stays in the Washington, D.C. area for work. In Georgia, he lived in a small, cramped home of about 500 square feet, but much preferred the mountain vibes. (As we were chatting over Zoom, he took a second to point out the sheer beauty of the view.)
He wasn’t a fan of moving to the District from Ellijay, but he found solace in a number of diverse hobbies—reflected in the wide array of equipment he collected, from 3D printers to laser cutters to cameras.
“That was my compromise—if I was going to have to live somewhere I didn’t want to be I was going to indulge in all of these side projects that I wouldn’t have had room for at home,” he said.
The pandemic changed things up a bit, and after hearing that a favored local coffee shop was in danger of closing, Roach and his wife made the decision to move back to Ellijay in an effort to save it. That meant some tough financial decisions at the time—including putting all the hobby-supporting equipment that Roach had collected during his time in the D.C. area into storage.
“I hated that all of this gear was sitting around not getting used,” he explained. “And so I started like looking for a way that I could get it out to the community.”
The idea, initially, was the library. But then, something interesting happened. Roach’s employer (a company you’ve heard of) went public and had a big debut on the stock market, and suddenly he had a bunch of extra funds, which gave him the opportunity to actually do something about that himself. So he ended up buying a sizable building in the city that had a lot of space to work with, about 8,000 square feet, but needed some work to get up to shape. This became the Ellijay Makerspace, a hub for screen printing, video and audio production, laser cutting, 3D printing, and weekly classes. If you’re nearby, you can access the maker space for a fee of $25 a week—and you get a lot for your money.
But it was a lot more than that, too. By sheer chance, this unusual set of circumstances—a pandemic, then a windfall—had given Roach a chance to dive back into some theories about education that he and a friend had been playing around with for years, particularly the concepts around Third Space Theory championed by Ray Oldenberg.
“In researching that, what we discovered was that this was a solved problem,” he said. “The problems of education were solved problems, the problems that continue to exist in education are social and political ones, and that we weren’t going to be able to solve the social and political stigma around education and education reform.”
But with the third space, people were allowed to congregate and have a place to explore ideas without judgment or hierarchy, and that’s something that Roach, a former record store employee, was able to help build at first through a record store he helped to start called Analog Revolution. The record store, originally existing as part of a punk venue, quickly became a testbed of third-space ideas, ways to better connect to the community.
But then the move to D.C. happened, and the ideas ended up being put on hold for a few years. But the desire to revive the coffee shop brought them back to town, and the IPO made it possible to manage a whole bunch of third spaces. The Analog Revolution brand lives on today as a series of shows, a pop-up record store in the coffee shop, and a zine. The ideas are on a bigger scale than ever, though—while still remaining grounded to the small-town community.
“When we had the opportunity to come back here, finally, six years later, all of these ideas that had been percolating for forever, just kind of came together all at once,” he said.
Between the coffee shop, the makerspace, and the antique mall, Ellijay now has a small DIY-supporting empire. But the truly ambitious thing, of course, is New Ellijay TV.
The year Lanesville TV, known as the first pirate TV station, launched. This station, which was effectively a real-life UHF, was built in a small town called Lanesville, New York, nestled in the Catskill Mountains. Active for about five years, the station was able to operate thanks to a $40,000 grant from the Rochester Museum and Science Center. The station was built by members of a notable collective of video creators called the Videofreex, who explored the artistic and countercultural opportunities of some of the first portable video cameras built for consumer use.
Content that flows up: The thinking behind New Ellijay TV
Next month, New Ellijay TV will take the elements of these ramshackle parts and turn them into a starting point for homegrown culture.
You need creative and well-versed people to do something like this, and Roach, for one, fits the bill. He’s a font of cultural knowledge and one with a piece of relevant ephemera always in reach. He makes his own action figures, which he sells online. At one point he referenced a book during our call that, to show me, he pulled out from under his laptop, because it just happened to be his laptop stand for the Zoom call. During our call, he basically could physically show off everything he was referencing in his office—a rare feeling in the digital era.
At the heart of this effort, according to Roach, is a desire to build content and ideas from the ground up. In his view, DIY media is a radical act—one that can help revitalize communities.
“DIY media is our future and the biggest reason that I believe that is because we’ve got four or five companies, four or five giant corporations that control the vast majority of the things that we watch, and a different four or five corporations that control the vast majority of the things that we read,” he explained. “And between their board of directors, there’s a lot of overlap.”
This consolidation of media has taken a lot of forms, some of which you might be familiar with because you’ve been watching the mess around HBO Max and Warner Discovery, just as an example. But in a small town, where it might be your big outlet to the world, it can feel a little crushing.
“That consolidation of media power has led to a homogenization of these things that we watch influence the way that we think they influence the decisions that we make,” Roach added. “They influence the people that we empathize with.“
If there’s a phrase that perhaps describes the way that he thinks about all this stuff, it might be this: “Scale is a trap.”
This line, from a 2016 Medium article by Netflix engineer Jesse Kriss, is used in its original form as a way to encourage software to be right-sized for a normal audience, as well as how information can play fair in a system of gigantic technology companies. But Roach has extended this ethos to the way he thinks about culture, and how the internet can drive that culture.
This channel he and his friends are helping to build will not use YouTube, but hosting that he pays for and supports. If it goes down—entirely possible given the sometimes pokey internet speeds found in North Georgia—fine. He’ll just whip it back up again, to ensure people can keep watching rock concerts or original content or movie shows based on old videos. If it reaches outside the community, great. But that’s not the goal.
“Trying to scale for a million users or 10 million users is going to cause you to make decisions that are actively detrimental to serving 100 users,” he said. “For our communities, like yeah, if I can get to 20,000 people, great, awesome. If I can’t, okay, cool.”
Following through on Andrew’s mindset of scale being a trap, one of the big ways that said scale becomes a trap in rural communities is because of the influence of mass media. A great example of this is MTV in the 21st century—despite having a reputation as being the vanguard of mainstream pop culture, the network is dominated by episodes of Ridiculousness. Now apply that approach to political news, where this churn is more pronounced, and you see the problem.
Building something like New Ellijay TV is a bet on bottom-up culture leading to better results, because after all, toxicity flows down, not up.
“If we can get these communities actually talking and building a sense of community, then maybe we can avoid the allure of NRA TV or whatever it is that Alex Jones is pushing these days.” Roach explained. “Because those things ostensibly are about the kinds of people who live in this community, but they’re not, you know. I mean, they’re about the worst aspects of a small subset of the kindest people who live in these communities. But if that’s the only option, then that worst subset gets bigger. ”
If you know the people making the TV shows in your community, you can more likely trust them. And if they’re the ones running the servers, likewise.
So what might seem whimsical and fun in the hands of a Weird Al movie suddenly seems a lot more useful in the hands of people who care about their communities.
The percentage of rural residents surveyed who somewhat or strongly agreed that they don’t see their fair share of government resources. The 2020 study, highlighted in The Washington Post this week, also found that 75 percent of respondents in rural areas agreed that politicians don’t pay enough attention to rural voters and 65 percent said they felt that urbanites looked down on rural people. The piece was written to highlight a perceived Democratic blind spot, but the data points more generally speak to a broader cultural divide.
In some ways, New Ellijay TV is Roach’s way of helping a small town explore the idea of its own creativity, to focus on the collective, to help find something genuinely valuable and important that isn’t just trying to serve tourists who aren’t even around three quarters of the year.
He’s not the only one doing this. He gave shoutouts to fellow experimenters, like Buffalo vintage movie maven Captain Isotope and the live streaming channel OSI74 as well as cultural forebears that inspired this bold approach to getting local, like Lanesville TV. Roach is trying to do everything as close to the open-source ethos as possible. When I asked him for photos to share, he shot me a NextCloud link.
Given the opportunity of a once-in-a-lifetime windfall, Roach seems to have made a call to make his community stronger, rather than using it to merely benefit himself. He ended up investing heavily in his community, even with the added cost.
“That’s the point. The point was always I didn’t earn any of the money that I made,” he said. “I got lucky. You know. I’ve worked hard for my entire life but so has everybody else around me, and nobody else around me got that break.”
He mentioned that, while not wanting to make a big deal out of it, he went out of his way to buy homes for employees of his businesses to help them afford places to live in a town where the rents are creeping ever higher.
“You know, if I can’t take that and give it back to this community and help keep some people safe, and get them off the ground and just make a small corner of this little village in the Appalachian Mountains a little safer and more pleasant to be at and you know, then what’s the point? Why bother?”
The cultural investments backing Ellijay are in many ways bets that the town can find a future beyond its aging or seasonal communities, that not everyone who is young wants to live in a big city, that tech can give small towns a voice of their own, separated from the propagandic influences of mass media, even in rural towns.
The small town deserves to have a cultural renaissance, and Andrew and his friends and neighbors have built a template for such a renaissance to happen in a small town near you. One hopes other towns can run with it.
Thanks again to Andrew for taking the time to chat with me—and best of luck bringing this ambitious little project out into the world. Check the project out over this way.
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