It started with a Highlander game.

It started, in 1973, when, Bob “Smitty” Smith documented a hockey game that he taped and then played at the local cable office.

Warner-Amex, the new cable station, was to give space to local producers who wanted to get something on air. In exchange for the ability to string cable on our city streets, the company was to give back in part by making a space available for those who wanted to produce their own programming. In Somerville, where our claim to fame is the hill where George Washington ran up a flag to snub the British, there were plenty of producers who wanted their say and didn’t ask for it politely.

The relationship between the company and the producers was a rocky one. Of note was Dead Air Live started in 1974 on Tuesday nights literally going live from the Warner-Amex cable office. The shows were about everything from the Cott Cola factory closing to politics, and the programs weren’t always complimentary to its cable hosts. In return, the cable company that by law, was to provide equipment to volunteers, often offered up the worst possible equipment when it was available at all. Tensions were high.

Eventually, police were called by Warner-Amex staff, and while on air, one of the public access producers was arrested during a live program. That’s right, his arrest was live and on the air.

In 1982, the agreement between cable company and city was expiring. As the city negotiated with Warner-Amex over the new contract, Dead Air Live covered the proceedings, it became clear an independent place for the artists and producers of Somerville was needed.

That’s how in 1983, Somerville Community Access Television was born as a nonprofit corporation known as Channel 3 in Somerville. Irwin Hipsman was named executive director, with two staffers and a location called “Somerville Media Action Project.”

By the end of 1984, 75 artists became SCAT members. They created classes, and $200,000 in equipment was purchased so two nights of programming could be produced.
This idea was revolutionary in a time where broadcasts on television were controlled by a few networks. Producers in Somerville were suddenly using television to share local ideas, in English, Portuguese and Spanish. Local events were posted to the station’s bulletin board. Channel 3 started to win statewide and then national awards, and other access stations copying Somerville’s model began to open around the state. In 1989 SCAT was named best access station in the country. It has since won that award 7 times.

No one at SCAT shied away from controversy in those years. Legislator Vinnie Piro had been on trial for bribery, but was running unopposed on the ballot for re-election. The Monday before the election, Somerville Producers Group members Charlie Tesch and Claire Beach pulled members of the community together in SCATV’s main studio. They were going to read the transcript of the trial of State Rep. Vinnie Piro. Piro was given time to speak, but when he objected by coming to the studios, that made all the local news stations.

He lost the race.

In 1996 the HOT set was built, creating a second live studio, this time needing less of a crew (HOT means Host Operated Television). In 1999, MIT donated power Macs that allowed producers to digitally edit their programs. By 2000, it was recognized that Dead Air Live was the longest-running access program in the United States. See our archives online.

In 2006, SCAT finally escaped the cable and started streaming its programming online. Channel 3 can still be seen by cable subscribers today, but the majority of its viewers are online.

SCAT was founded on the belief that independent artists deserve a place to produce and share content accessible to all of Somerville. The survival of nonprofit community resources is urgent as ever as the rich culture of Somerville prompts rapid change. SCAT relies on the support of the community in order to remain in the Union Square firehouse and to continue to function. To support SCAT, contact your city councilors and say you support SCAT and free speech in the SCAT Building.

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