A unique local-national hybrid talk show on Southern Oregon Public TV proves that a passion for bridging philosophical divides and a (sometimes shaky) Skype connection can lead to Immense Possibilities.
The Jan. 10  episode of the half-hour weekly roundtable introduced four local activists, two from the Tea Party on the right and two from the Occupy movement on the left. They found common ground on the air and are now working together on the ground.
Funders, too, have pitched in. As the show starts its second season, it has already brought in nearly $50,000, close to what SOPTV sees in an entire pledge drive. That includes two $5,000 individual gifts — a rarity for the small station, which serves the 140th Nielsen market. One recent episode credited 39 supporting individuals, businesses and organizations.
“This is a good example of a dynamic, fundable local production,” Brad Fay, director of content services at SOPTV in Medford, told Current. “Of all the local productions we’ve attempted since I’ve been here, over six years, this one really resonates with the audience.”
The producer is Jeff Golden, an educator, activist, former county commissioner, who was host for 10 years of Jefferson Exchange, the news program from Jefferson Public Radio at Southern Oregon University. When he was production manager of SOPTV, he created The Downstate Gazette, a monthly series on environmental issues.
Golden is also involved in the burgeoning “transpartisan” movement working to heal the now-cavernous divide between the right and left ends of the political spectrum. “The center of my work is citizen activism and bridge-building,” Golden told Current.
His objective is “not to persuade listeners to a particular point of view but to inspire people with ideas and introduce them to people who are changing the world,” Golden said. He aims to “make engagement attractive” by choosing intriguing topics and personalities and using what he calls “intergenerational interplay” to engage young adults, middle-agers and seniors.
SOPTV signed on as partner in Immense Possibilities LLC in May 2011 and provides studio space and a tax-deductible account for donations. So far, 19 half-hour episodes have aired on Tuesday nights, and 13 will run this season.
Immense Possibilities tackles tough issues: eldercare, juvenile justice, hunger, substance-abuse treatment, the environment. Local guests are in the studio and distant guests brought in via Skype. “So it’s a local show with a national component,” Fay said. The station is too small to afford Nielsen ratings but, based on anecdotal evidence, Fay believes the show is popular. He receives good feedback from viewers and gets plenty of calls if Immense Possiblities is preempted.
The program is also inexpensive, Golden said. He declined to provide numbers but termed its budget “modest” and production costs “very frugal.” Backers include the Whole Systems Foundation in Jacksonville, Ore., which funds environmental education and sustainability efforts, and the Community Foundation of Sonoma County, Calif.
“We’re using the media in an innovative way, and the fusion of technology makes it cost-effective to do this,” he said. Golden said he makes use of “a cornucopia” of videos available through guests from various organizations for B-roll, to minimize talking heads. And Skype is free — although, Golden admits, it poses challenges: Frozen images, out-of-sync sound and pixilation. “Some shows have driven us bonkers,” he said, because quality hinges on the guest’s Internet connection. Viewers also see a difference between Skype and in-studio images. “But people have become used to seeing Skype used on TV, so that’s more acceptable now,” Golden said.
The “Tea Party Meets Occupy” episode grew out of an op-ed Golden wrote in Medford’s Mail-Tribune on Nov. 6, pointing out five premises that both sides might embrace, such as, “There are times when government itself becomes a special interest, putting the privilege and authority of its insiders ahead of the public good.”
“Occupy is unlikely to do much unless it finds linkage to people with similar feelings on the [political] right,” Golden told Current. “If it can do that, it’ll be a situation we’ve never had before, and it will become a critical mass that the system can’t ignore.”
For the taping on Nov. 6, Golden sat between representatives of the two populist movements. He read aloud nasty statements each group had made about the other; the guests discovered that there’s a lot of misinformation about both movements. The four debated the role of the federal government and tax policy. They watched a video from an Occupy event at which a protester spoke passionately about the importance of states’ rights: “It’s much easier to influence governors and mayors than presidents and vice presidents,” the protester said.
“Seeing that video really enlightened me as to why the Occupy movement is important,” said Joseph Snook, a Tea Party activist from Grants Pass.
Since the taping, the four participants have begun a regular email conversation, met in person twice, and have plans to appear together on an online political channel. Snook told the local Daily Tidings newspaper that they’re developing future joint efforts.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Golden said. “They’ve started going to one another’s meetings and speaking at the gatherings. There’s a progressive network meeting once a month here, and I brought one of the folks from the show. The warmth and receptivity from both directions there was pretty striking.”
And that spark might ignite on a larger scale. Golden said a national commercial television production house contacted him and is now working on background pieces on each of the four participants. It was too early for him to provide further details.
“It’s not realistic to expect people to change if there are no alternatives for them to change to,” Golden said. “What we’re trying to say is, there may be a front page full of bad news, but there are also amazing innovations popping up all over. We want to generate realistic hope.”
Video: “The Tea Party/Occupy Wall Street Conversation” episode of Immense Possibilities.
More about Immense Possibilities, a weekly series of public TV and web conversations produced and hosted by Jeff Golden in southern Oregon
Copyright 2012 American University