George Stoney, public-access television pioneer, dies at 96

By Rhys Heyden

George Stoney, a pioneering documentarian widely regarded as the father of public-access television, died July 12 at his Manhattan home, days after celebrating his 96th birthday.

George Stoney in April 2010. (Photo: Mike Oniffrey/Full Frame Filmfest)

Stoney was a prolific filmmaker and longtime New York University professor, and was active on the boards of Manhattan Neighborhood Network, a public-access channel, and the Alliance for Community Media. He co-founded the Alternate Media Center, the organization that gave birth to public-access television.

“A catalyst, that was the word for George,” said Barbara Abrash, former director of public programs at the Center for Media, Culture and History at NYU, and a longtime colleague and friend. “He inspired people to do what they could do best and was full of ambition, but only for worthwhile pursuits.”

Stoney was born July 1, 1916, in Winston-Salem, N.C., and his career ran the gamut: In addition to his work as a filmmaker, professor, and journalist, he served as a photo intelligence officer during WWII. He made more than 50 documentaries on multifarious subjects, including All My Babies (1953), an educational film documenting midwifery in the South that was inducted into the National Film Registry in 2002; and The Uprising of ’34 (1995), about a nationwide textile strike of some half-million workers.

Stoney’s activism on behalf of community media took off in 1971, when he and Red Burns co-founded the Alternate Media Center, which trained citizens in video-production techniques for the fledgling public-access television and lobbied Congress for its support. He was instrumental in persuading the FCC to mandate that cable operators fund equipment, training and airtime.

In a 2005 interview with Democracy Now!, Stoney spoke of the importance of citizen involvement in media, saying that supporters “look on cable as a way of encouraging public action, not just access. Social change comes with a combination of use of media and people getting out on the streets or getting involved. And we find that if people make programs together and put them on the local channel, that gets them involved.”

Fittingly, Stoney’s Aug. 6 memorial service was broadcast on the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, the borough’s public-access station. Applications for organ donations, another cause that Stoney had championed, were distributed at the memorial. “He was always an organizer, right to the end,” Abrash said.

“George has been a wonderful mentor and role model to several generations of journalists, filmmakers and free-speech advocates,” said Sylvia Strobel, executive director of the Alliance for Community Media.

Each year, the alliance presents its George Stoney Award for Humanistic Communication to an organization or individual who has made an “outstanding contribution to championing the growth and experience of humanistic community communications.” Working Films, an independent documentary-film organization co-founded by Stoney protégée Judith Helfand, has offered paid fellowships (“Stoneyships”) in his honor since 2000.

“George was always a pragmatic optimist, so he could inspire people to make change without losing sight of the obstacles,” said Patricia Aufderheide, a professor at American University and a friend of Stoney’s. “He had a powerful and effective trust that people can tell their own stories, and that telling untold stories will contribute to a more just and equitable world.”

“Ultimately, he inspired people to tell their stories, and to listen and respond to them, and to create platforms that would enable that work,” she said. “I think his most lasting contribution is a human one; it is his investment in generations of people who share his commitment to storytelling for justice and equality.”

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