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Cambridge cable station a soapbox for free speech

As it approaches its 25th anniversary, Cambridge Community Television, that city’s official cable access channel, has become known for many things — among them activism to close the tech knowledge gap between the city’s well off and poor, comprehensive training for would-be filmmakers, and the cable access tradition of serving as a community bulletin board.

But in recent years, the station, which airs on Channel 9 on Comcast Cable, has become best known for something it never set out to be: a model for First Amendment champions promoting the notion that free speech means that anyone can say whatever is in his heart.

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“Over the years, as our missions evolved, it was very intentional that we turned our focus to free speech and giving residents who’ll never make it to mainstream media a platform,” says Susan Fleischmann, CCTV’s executive director since its launch in 1988. “But I’m not sure we realized how popular it would become locally — thanks in large part to the “BeLive” series — and how much recognition we’d get from outside Cambridge for what the station and the series now represents: The doctrine that sometimes speech is squeamish and strange and even enraging, but when it is unfettered it is that much more beautiful.”

“BeLive” is about 50 shows that run 27 minutes each, Sundays through Thursdays 4:30 to 9 p.m. and Fridays 4 to 6 p.m. The shows, each hosted by a different individual, are operated on an anything-goes format. The hosts — including a black nationalist, a conservative Protestant minister, a self-described hippie, and a comedian — say what they want about whatever they want.

Danny DeGug is the longtime host of “Sunshine All Around the World” on “BeLive,” a show on which he often advocates for Native American causes.

“CCTV is an amazing home for my show, because [the hosts] are all so different, but in our own way we all want some form of peace,” DeGug says.

Not every “BeLive” host is as sunny.

On a recent Thursday evening in CCTV’s Massachusetts Avenue storefront studio, a seemingly angry man sits behind the broadcaster’s desk and shakes his fist as he speaks into the microphone and gives a no-nonsense stare at the camera.

The man, “Brother RA,” who refuses to share his full name, hosts a show called “Real Black Talk” and is on the tail end of a 25-minute lecture about how national holidays of European origin are used, in his opinion, to oppress black people and keep them from embracing their own cultural heritages.

The show is not for the faint of heart or anyone who believes racial tensions are a thing of the past. In this particular episode before Thanksgiving, he recommends viewers read a book titled “Christopher Columbus & the Afrikan Holocaust” (by John Henrik Clarke).

As his show concludes, Brother RA stands, stretches, and exits the studio. The self-proclaimed black nationalist then turns to the first person he sees — the white, Jewish Fleischmann — and gives her a warm hug.

“Thank you,” he says softly, before turning and walking away. His thanks, he would say later, were offered because, though he loves to talk — about racism, about conspiracy theories, about what he believes is an oppressive white “cultural regime” in the United States — until Fleischmann and CCTV granted him air time a decade ago, no Boston-area radio or TV station would allow him anywhere near their cameras or microphones.

The problem, Brother RA says, was not his lack of formal broadcast training, but rather the content of his commentary.

“My opinions aren’t popular,” he says, chuckling. “They’re not even popular with other black people very often. But it’s important that I say what I say, so the people know we’re not all in lock step with the reported history of this country and the direction we’re going.”

More troubling than Brother RA’s opinions though, is the fact that prior to CCTV he had no public access home on which to voice his opinions, says Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“There is a disturbing pattern in this country of broadcasters and even publishers, mainstream or corporate, if you will . . . being afraid to fully embrace free speech,” says Romero, who spoke at Tufts University last month on the subject of freedom of speech.

“The fact is we tend to embrace free speech when it involves positions we agree with,” Romero says in a later interview. “But it’s important that media outlets, big and small, demonstrate this by offering a variety of opinions and programming. And in that regard, this station is unique. They’re doing what many media outlets say they support but don’t follow through on. And that sort of openness and, in a sense, honesty and diversity resonates with viewers. They know when they’re getting unfiltered information.”

Steve Pearson, host of “The Psychic Fashion Show” on “BeLive,” says Romero touched on the heart of CCTV’s popularity in Cambridge.

“I don’t have hard figures to give you, in terms of ratings,” says Pearson. “Of course, we don’t even scratch the surface, when it comes to the big channels and networks and shows, but you can ask the management of CCTV and any of the ‘BeLive’ hosts. We have saturation. The people here in our tiny town know us. It’s not bragging for me to say that in spite of my content, I regularly have people stop me on the street and tell me I entertained them or they learned something from watching my crazy show.”

Pearson has interviewed a hip-hop clothing vendor he stumbled across in Central Square, a hula-hoop performance group, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology students involved in the annual rooftop piano drop.

Pearson has also spent his entire 27-minute show playing with his new puppy, a black Labrador-German wire-haired pointer mix. He has interviewed guests, usually total strangers from other countries whom he allows to crash on his couch during their travels through the United States. And he has played his guitar while strippers danced with decreasing “coverage” around him.

“Yeah, that stripper thing got people joking around here that I’m the Howard Stern of Cambridge,” Pearson says. “But I’m a free spirit. I am curious about everybody and everything, and my show is meant to reflect it.”

According to Sue Buske, a cable television consultant who has advised Cambridge on managing CCTV, the station has been a free speech trailblazer since it launched. “Susan Fleischmann is much too humble about this, but CCTV was one of the first two or three stations to aggressively pursue free speech as a programming mission,” she says. Based in Sacramento, Buske has consulted with municipalities including Los Angeles, Tampa, and Montgomery County, Md. “Others are working on it. CCTV has always led the way.”

Ron Williams, executive director of cable TV network Free Speech TV, which reaches 37 million US households through DISH Network, DIRECTV, and Burlington Telecom, calls CCTV’s free speech stance “righteous.” Based in Denver, Free Speech TV hosts Al Jazeera English News, the left-leaning Thom Hartmann Program, and documentaries and investigative specials by filmmakers such as activist Michael Moore.

“There aren’t many stations or channels — either national or regional or local in scope — that really mean free speech when they say they support it,” Williams says. “It’s easy to proclaim support for the notion, for the right. But really putting it into action takes guts. What they’re doing in Cambridge is very impressive.”

Williams echoed Romero in citing CCTV’s openness to shows and hosts that could be considered liberal or conservative, religious or nonreligious, moral or amoral.

“Of course, I believe it’s important to have outlets for progressive voices,” Williams says. “But it is a real test of your intentions when you can offer air time to someone whose beliefs might not align with your own or with the majority of your audience.”

Jon Stout, Free Speech TV’s general manager and cofounder, says CCTV is well known in cable-access circles for its free speech advocacy.

“What Susan Fleischmann and her team are doing there in Cambridge is amazing,” Stout says. “They have a reputation for their commitment to openness.”

Such comments are music to Fleischmann’s ears, she says, given the amount of criticism she gets over the “BeLive” lineup.

“I get dozens, hundreds of calls regularly — probably thousands per year — from people telling me they’re appalled at what Brother RA said or what someone else did,” she says. “And it’s tough to hear sometimes, but we just feel it’s important to offer that platform. Besides, not everything we do or everyone we broadcast says harsh things. Some are so mild you wonder what in the world they’re doing in the same programming list with some of the tougher hosts.”

Nerissa Clark, pastor of the Cambridge Community Outreach Tabernacle, hosts the conservative-leaning “The Word,” in the “BeLive” series.

And while she voices her opinions on topics of the day, such as gay marriage and abortion rights (she’s not in favor of either), she believes she opines compassionately by expressing disagreement without being judgmental.

“I’ve been on for about four years,” Clark says. “It was intimidating at first, because you find that a lot of people are uncomfortable hearing about religion. Some just don’t want to hear it, period.”

Clark says it amused her, when she first launched her show, that friends and family warned her that religion was too controversial for an opinion show, considering all the programs about partisan politics, race relations, or sexual topics.

Her shows are often framed in prayer. Whether the subject is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the recent presidential election, parenting, or getting along with one’s neighbors, Clark tends to describe the conflict and then lead viewers in a prayer asking for peace and resolution.

“Like the others, I regularly get stopped on the street by people who are struggling, saying that it wasn’t just that they appreciated my words, but they appreciated I was in their neighborhood — literally, that I live here,” she says. “It makes them better relate to me.”

And as for her place at CCTV?

“I found, though, that the atmosphere at CCTV was welcoming, even from other hosts who might be atheists or who talk about things that I wouldn’t approve of,” Clark says. “They’ve all been so supportive. And I think that says more than anything else what free speech means to the people running this place.”

James H. Burnett III can be reached at james
.burnett@globe.com
. Follow him on
Twitter @jamesburnett.

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