Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

I’ve logged a few hours in the unpretentious Clarendon studios of Arlington Independent Media (AIM), pontificating on community radio or TV — once joining a pick-up chorus to record a YouTube production of the “Arlington County Song.”

But the time I put in is dwarfed by that of Jackie Steven, AIM’s director of community programs and ever-present comforting resource now in her 33rd year on the staff.

Piqued by county budgeteers’ threats to cut spending for AIM, I persuaded Steven to look back and share highlights and lowlights under the studio lights.

Since its launch in Virginia Square’s old Kann’s Department Store building in 1984, public-access AIM (until 2004 called Arlington Community Television) has placed nearly 20,000 volunteer-produced programs on cable, radio and live streaming. There’s music, documentary, taped community events and talk. There’s 50 classes of instruction in audio and video production and desktop publishing.

This February’s proposal from county manager Mark Schwartz to cut 5 percent of AIM’s $415,000 subsidy did not blindside anyone, Steven said. Due to consumers becoming “cable cutters,” Comcast is trimming support and AIM has been weaning itself and “constantly fund-raising.” As executive director Paul LeValley says to prospective donors, “Don’t be quiet. Get up. Get involved. Raise your voice!”

AIM’s full-time staff of six, plus part-timers, puts in “hours all over the place. All are responsible for community outreach,” Steven says. “None has the luxury of just one job.”

The D.C.-born Steven came to Arlington in the early ‘80s with a degree in art history and photography. She saw a cable ad for “make your own television show” about this new Arlington channel and signed up for classes and volunteering. “I fell in love with the vehicle of empowering people through media,” she says. A job opened up in October 1986 for the branded cable Channel 33.

The biggest AIM success stories she names are the call-in show “No Dogs or Philosophers Allowed,” which logged 100 episodes and went onto wider distribution. Another standout is “Slumber Party,” an arts talk show featuring hosts and guests in pajamas in a bed. A third is the documentary series on Arlington by local high school kids. “People perceive us as more `Wayne’s World’ quality, but this was incredibly substantive,” Steven said.

“Our alumni list is long and star-studded,” Steven added, naming volunteers who went onto to brighter lights: WETA on-air fundraising executive John Begeny and Hollywood cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard.

Notable guests over the years include Karen Pence, Ralph Nader and local state lawmakers.

Any screwups she cares to mention? Now and again “a director or producer forgot to hit the record button, and we went through the process with no audio,” she says. Before she was on staff, technicians in the “quirky” studio at the old Kann’s watched as the sprinkler system unexpectedly turned on. The nozzles above caused the 1000-watt lights to light up, and, “there was a mad dash to get the cameras out, and people were pushing water into the freight elevator while waiting for the fire department.”

I asked Steven her secret for putting inexperienced guests at ease. “I tell them to be calm — it’s always easier than they think.” She suggests they arrive at the studio early to adjust to the lighting. And she makes jokes. “No lives ever lost their life making bad TV or radio.”

An intergenerational good vibe permeated the May 3 gathering in Ballston celebrating the fifth anniversary of Arlington Neighborhood Villages. That nonprofit now with 200 paid members matches the household needs of senior citizens desiring to age in place with volunteers seeking to give to causes larger than themselves.

County Board chair Christian Dorsey joined former colleague John Vihstadt to stress the value of creating a community hospitable to all demographic groups. Board member and volunteer driver John Richardson explained that he pitches in “for selfish reasons — It makes me feel good.”