Public Access Queen

Lower Merion’s champion behind the camera.

Even on a night that’s supposed to be about her, Irene McNeil is behind a camcorder, headphones on, handing a microphone to guests. It’s as if she has five legs—her own, plus the tripod’s three. 

It’s a chilly evening in late March, and more than 100 people have gathered at the New Tavern Restaurant in Bala Cynwyd to honor McNeil’s nine years of support and service as president of Lower Merion & Narberth Public Access Television, which she also founded. 

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Propped behind the gift baskets and prizes for the night’s raffle are two photos. In one, a young McNeil is sitting behind an Underwood typewriter in her native Québec. In the other, she’s behind a camera—evidence of her courageous campaign to pave the way for local access to federally mandated public television. “My life in two pictures,” says the 67-year-old McNeil.

At one point, as she meets PATV patrons, McNeil is wearing headphones—and they’re still connected to the camera. “I’m going to choke myself,” she quips.

By the end of the night, she’s suitably choked up. There’s a cake. There’s dinner with her husband, Clarke Glennon, who grew up in Narberth and Merion. There’s an interview. “It’s been my privilege to be welcomed and trusted, and to serve,” says McNeil. “Tonight was very embarrassing. Everyone was coming on camera and saying nice things about me.”

McNeil has left the station (Comcast XFINITY Channel 99 and Verizon FiOS Channel 34) with an unbelievable catalog of material—one her successor, Tim Isle, says will be even more important 50 years from now. She’d devote 20 minutes to a local event larger media outlets would barely acknowledge, shooting up to an hour of footage. “She’s a good filmmaker, and she has the eye,” says Isle. “She’s always known what’s important to this community, and she’s shot it with such a level of integrity, respect and love. The million-dollar question is, ‘How did she do it?’”

A tireless volunteer who never made a penny for her endless work, McNeil has been “a one-woman band,” says PATV board member Jill Frechie. “Our vision is for it to be a community channel. It’s always been about the community, but now it will also be by the community.”

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Indeed, PATV is in transition, with brand-new office space at Bryn Mawr’s Ludington Library and the arrival of Isle—whose background is in commercial TV and film—from Los Angeles. His wife’s family calls the Main Line home. “Here, you have people who are vested in their community,” Isle says. “They attend community meetings and civic associations—and with such turnout. In L.A., people go their own ways. Here, they say, ‘This is my home. This is where I grew up, and this is where I’m going to stay.’”

Irene McNeil couldn’t have been more of an outsider when she made her commitment to the Main Line. She left a great career in Canada, where she was the government’s chief of information and public affairs, to join her husband in Philadelphia. The two moved to Merion Station to help Glennon’s mother, who had Alzheimer’s. Soon after, in 2000, McNeil had her own medical scare: a brain hemorrhage. It took her two years to recover.

Depressed, she moved back to Phila-delphia with her husband, all the while asking herself, “When was I the happiest I’ve ever been?”

“I thought of that photo with the typewriter, when I was a journalist,” she recalls. “I knew I had to get back to something like that. The first week of January 2005, I called the township.”

McNeil envisioned a show on the vast history of Lower Merion Township, which had its government-access station. McNeil asked for programming space, but she was refused. Lower Merion suggested Radnor Township, which had a public-access station. “I could’ve done it there, but there was no one in Lower Merion who would’ve seen it,” she says. 

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A lawyer friend of her husband suggested that she look at the local cable franchise agreement. She discovered that, if the township agreed there should be a public-access channel, Comcast (then the only cable provider in Lower Merion and Narberth) had 60 days to activate it. “I thought, ‘Goodness gracious! Look at that,’” she says.

McNeil aligned herself with local politicians, making trips to talk with other communities with public access. She also discovered the Alliance for Community Media and its instruction book, How to Start a Public Access Television Channel. She launched a nonprofit, selecting a board of established community types.

By federal law, cable operators must activate local public, education and government television channels at the municipality’s request. The municipality receives two cable-operator contributions: a nonnegotiable 5 percent of the operator’s gross revenue (the franchise fee), which goes to the general municipal fund, and a negotiable grant that varies widely around the nation. 

In Lower Merion, Comcast and Verizon’s combined gross revenue is over $20 million, and the 2014 budget has $1.38 million in franchise-fee revenue. Other  unicipalities give a majority of funds to public access. But in Lower Merion, the PEG grant is used mostly to support the government channel. Isle would like to get the township to up its current $10,000 annual franchise-fee allocation to $150,000. “With that, we could be a minor station,” he says.

To that end, he plans to bring in more volunteers and interns, and he’s looking for bona fide station sponsors. “My job is to convince others that what we do is relevant and beneficial,” says Isle, who will continue operating his own nonprofit production company, Audio581. “It’s not a Hail Mary, but it’s a tough road. Public access everywhere is at critical mass because media is overwhelming our lives.”

McNeil’s own source of motivation harkened back to her journalism days. Quite simply, she felt there was an injustice. “The township (and schools) had a voice, but the people had none,” she says. “Public access would be their channel, but who was I? A nobody. I’m not a blue blood of the Main Line. And I don’t know why, but I never think I’m going to lose.”

McNeil’s focus was always underserved communities. “I was literally walking the streets with a camera,” she says. “I was shooting the parades, the Boy Scouts.”

While letting go isn’t easy, she’s confident the PATV board will know what to do—and she’s ready to help. “I don’t want it to fail,” says McNeil, who’s quietly been the nonprofit’s largest private donor. 

And she’s still talking about editing video and long-term projects. “It won’t be an overnight retirement, but it’s the beginning of it,” McNeil concedes. “I began getting afraid there wouldn’t be time to do everything I want to do.”

Projects include kayaking and writing books—the first about the state of public-access TV nationwide. The legislation, McNeil says, needs amending. She’ll lobby, blog—whatever it takes. “I’ve just worked extraordinarily hard all my life,” she admits.

McNeil’s high school years were spent in private education at a Catholic convent, Collège Sainte-Anne, on the banks of Lachine Canal in Montréal. Days began with 6 a.m. mass and a serious cleaning of the convent, all before a communal break-fast. If anything, the regimen produced strong women. 

In the midst of those repressed years, she walked down Saint Catherine Street, a main thoroughfare in Montréal, and into a bookstore. She bought J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. “I’d never read a book in English before—or books like that before,” says McNeil. “We learned French literature from the Middle Ages at the convent … I’m not kidding. I said right then (in the bookstore) that I wanted to be a writer.”

Being bilingual helped McNeil land her first job in journalism, with A Propos, a Québec City morning newspaper. Turned away at first, she sat outside on a park bench until she was needed. A day later, she was translating news service photo captions and interviewing an English-speaking source who owned a bus fleet where drivers were striking.

Thankfully, when McNeil took a swing at equality around here, she hit a home run. Evidence of that is displayed on the modest four-panel canvas dedicated to all her volunteers that hangs on the office wall at Ludington Library. “All of these people have done what they’ve done out of friendship for me,” she says. “They had no other reason to do it. They saw me working hard, and they just did it, too.”

For more information about PATV, visit www.lowermerionandnarberth.tv.

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