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From AJR,   August/September 2007  issue

Adding Al Jazeera   

How the Qatar-based news channel made its way onto the airwaves of Burlington, Vermont


By Shakuntala Rao
Shakuntala Rao is an associate professor of communication and journalism at the State University of New York in Plattsburgh.     

Cobbled Church Street in Burlington, Vermont, with its eclectic mix of cafés, art studios and boutiques, is worlds away from the dusty and chaotic streets of Damascus or Cairo. It seems an unlikely place to find Al Jazeera English on the local cable-channel lineup. Yet Burlington was the first American city to offer cable access to the Qatar-based news channel, joined months later only by Toledo, Ohio.

While Toledo has a sizable Arabic-speaking population, Burlington is predominantly white, with a tiny Muslim population, a handful of resettled refugee families from Bosnia and Somalia who have little interest in Middle Eastern politics.

Few on Church Street know that Al Jazeera has arrived in their city, and fewer still subscribe to Burlington Telecom, a city-chartered and privately financed cable company. Known locally as BT, its small, experimental operations launched last year to compete with cable giant Adelphia (which has since been acquired by Comcast). Why — and how — Al Jazeera came to Burlington is less about Al Jazeera than about a city that has always defied norms, even in its media.

A few blocks from Church Street stands a modest, two-story brick building, BT's nerve center. When you enter, you are greeted by a giant poster with an apropos logo, "Act Locally, Connect Globally." BT's origins help explain Al Jazeera's journey to the heart of New England.

In the early 1980s, many city residents were frustrated by Adelphia's monopoly and the ever-increasing costs of cable. As mayor of Burlington for eight years in the '80s, Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed Socialist, set the stage for visionary change: a municipal fiber-optics information roadway that would connect every local household, library, school, government and business.

But it was Sanders' successor, Peter Clavelle, a Progressive, who, following two referenda, decided to turn that dream into reality. After surmounting several financial and regulatory hitches and Adelphia's many attempted roadblocks, BT went on air in February 2006. It has grown quickly, providing residents with Internet, phone and cable services for some of the lowest costs in the country.

BT's mere existence, some claim, has allowed Al Jazeera to enter the city's media landscape. "A publicly owned cable company like BT does not have to answer to shareholders," says Lauren-Glenn Davitian, executive director of the Burlington-based Center for Media and Democracy. "They are simply fulfilling their public-interest obligation by providing the community a range of views."

Burlington has "an educated elite who are aware that local and global issues are connected," Davitian adds. "They are more tolerant of different points of view."

Al Jazeera's arrival also can be attributed to the fiercely independent and free-thinking spirit of the state and to the left-leaning sentiments of its citizens. At last count, about 40 communities in Vermont had passed resolutions demanding President Bush's impeachment. The Vermont State Senate also approved a resolution asking Congress to initiate impeachment hearings against the president and vice president — the only state legislative body to have done so.

Such politics are coupled with a deep resentment among many Vermonters toward global media giants perceived as unchecked behemoths. Sanders, now an Independent U.S. senator, has organized two town-hall meetings focusing on media consolidation and cross-ownership. These gatherings are often standing-room-only affairs in which people lament media monopolies and their adverse effects on journalism and democracy.

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that Al Jazeera's arrival on BT's cable lineup generated little controversy. While unavailable in most of the United States (see "Broadcast Views," February/March), the news channel has attracted large audiences in Asia, Australia, Africa, Europe and Israel.

"At first it was a simple competitive decision," says Richard Donnelly, BT's sales and marketing director. "When we heard that Comcast and Al Jazeera's talks had failed, we decided to look into getting the channel."

Jenni Moyer, senior director of corporate communications for Comcast, which has 24 million subscribers nationwide to BT's 1,800, wrote in an e-mail to AJR: "While Comcast had preliminary discussions with [Al Jazeera English] about local carriage opportunities, we did not reach an agreement." According to Moyer, Comcast looks "at a variety of factors when considering new channel additions, including local channel capacity and alternative programming that's already carried."

BT staff downlinked Al Jazeera in November 2006 and previewed it internally for three weeks. "I was just stunned at the quality of the coverage," Donnelly says. "It was fantastic. There were some amazing, eye-opening news stories about world affairs, women's issues and stories about what we call the 'Third World.' "

The content also dovetailed with BT's mission: countering the trend toward media consolidation and creating more diversity in news and information. Al Jazeera English was added to BT's standard cable lineup on December 6.

Donnelly says several BT customers have thanked him for adding Al Jazeera. Among them was longtime Burlington resident Jan Schultz, a software developer who admits he's never had much patience with television news because it's "all sound bites." Yet he gradually found himself drawn to Al Jazeera. "The stereotype of Al Jazeera that they are a pipeline for Middle East terrorists to get their message out is wrong," Schultz says. Impressed with its coverage of world news, particularly its focus on Africa, he enthusiastically recommends it to others.

Not everyone is a fan. Republican City Councilor Paul Decelles has written to Donnelly and others expressing his anger that Al Jazeera is in the mix. "Some of my constituents are Iraq war veterans and men and women in the armed forces," Decelles says. "Like me, they are patriots." Decelles, who says he "will not subscribe to Burlington Telecom for this reason alone," has not watched many of Al Jazeera's broadcasts.

But Nigel Parsons, managing director of Al Jazeera English, hopes that cable providers in other U.S. cities will decide to carry the channel, which also is available online through live-streaming and on YouTube. He says it has gotten "tremendous feedback" in the U.S. "We firmly believe that the more consumers see Al Jazeera English, the more demand there will be for cable operators to provide viewers with the opportunity to watch us."

Says Donnelly: "Ultimately, it is about giving consumers a diverse choice in news and letting them decide what they want to watch."

Shakuntala Rao

Rao (raos@plattsburgh.edu) is an associate professor of communication and journalism at the State University of New York in Plattsburgh.