Image: Loris Lora

When Justen Harn first laid eyes on the Portland Community Media Center on NE Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in early 2016, he thought it resembled a David Cronenberg set: dark and dusty, covered wall to wall with dirty carpet and old paint, and filled with strange, antiquated TV equipment. Since 1981, the center had ploddingly populated Portland’s cable access channels with city hall meeting coverage and local church shows. Now Harn—who became PCMC’s executive director in 2016 and had previously helped turn the Hollywood Theatre into a bona fide city institution—recognized potential for a face-lift, and a chance to double down on the mission.

“The [original] goal was to document the lives of folks that were oppressed or marginalized,” says Harn of the late-1970s community media movement, from which PCMC emerged. “But, in general, it fell away from that. There was great stuff, but there were a lot of vanity projects, too. It was first come, first served, and when you’re in one of the whitest cities in America you know what your clientele is going to look like.”

An Open Signal filmmaker

Fast-forward to 2018: the once-musty nonprofit has been reborn as Open Signal, and it’s thriving. Yes, it still produces and schedules TV shows for the city’s five cable access channels, reaching about 400,000 Portland homes. But, in addition to new flooring and paint, the center is making strides in education and equity. Today, its cable channel content producers regularly air content in Spanish, Russian, and Farsi. In 2017, more than 900 Portlanders took one of Open Signal’s low-cost classes, about a third of them under 18, while 51 low-income students also received scholarships.

The best part, however, is access. Once students complete a class, they are free to use Open Signal’s massive, modern equipment library. Need an HD camera for a web series? Come grab a camera with studio-grade lights and a pro mic setup. Want to edit that film you just shot? Reserve a Mac with a full suite of pro editing and postproduction tools. Need access to a professional TV studio with a giant green screen for a variety-show idea? Just reserve the main studio. For free. The nonprofit also recently launched a grant-funded incubator program for African American filmmakers, led by Emmy-nominated producer Ifanyi Bell, which will “graduate” its first class next June.

“We’ve been humbled by how many amazing, creative, brilliant ideas folks have for this place,” says Harn. “We’re just at the very beginning of a larger movement in the city.”


Do you know other nonprofits, organizations, or volunteers doing incredible work? Nominate them for our 2019 Light a Fire Awards—submissions are open now!

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