Free speech has always been a cherished aspect of San Francisco's political and cultural life, but apparently speaking your mind goes only so far at a local bastion of expression, the city's public-access cable station.
Longtime producer Ace Washington found that out last month when Channel 29 canceled his two programs — Ace in Your Face and CHS Presents — after he complained about the station's management, which he accused of, among other things, holding secret meetings and pandering to the city's queer community.
Washington, who is African-American, has produced programs for more than 20 years that focus on issues in the Western Addition and Bayview–Hunters Point. He says he had been at odds with the station's management since 2005, when he says programs began to be canceled without explanation. He also says a large majority of station employees and its board of directors are gay, and that it has become too gay-centric at the expense of other programming. "I have nothing against gays," Washington says. "I have gay people in my family and in my community. If they want to have a station that does all-gay programming, that's fine, but other communities need to have a voice, too."
Zane Blaney, the executive director of Access SF, the nonprofit that manages Channel 29, says he doesn't know if the majority of station employees are gay, and neither does Washington. "How on earth would he know how many employees are gay?" Blaney asks. "We don't ask that when we hire people, but I can assure you that our staff represents the diversity of San Francisco."
Blaney added that Washington's shows were canceled because he repeatedly failed to turn in program tapes one week prior to airing, which is station policy, and because he was showing too many repeats. Washington claims that's a ruse. The real reason, he says, is that he complained to the city's Department of Technology that the station's board of directors was holding too many closed meetings in violation of the San Francisco Nonprofit Public Access Ordinance.
The cancellation of Washington's shows came shortly after an Aug. 12 public hearing in which he expressed puzzlement about a transgendered employee at the station. "There's someone there who wears a dress one day and pants the next," Washington appears to say on a muffled recording of the hearing. "I'm confused."
After the hearing, several people reportedly complained to the city's Department of Technology — the municipal overseer of the public-access station — about Washington's comment. He later received a written rebuke from the department.
Left to sort out the politically charged mess is Ron Vinson, the chief administrative officer of the Department of Technology, which is investigating Washington's allegations about the secret board meetings. Vinson says Washington has provided a valuable service to the city's black community by covering important issues the mainstream media overlook, but adds that there are limits to what people can say: "We can't have public comments that incite high emotions. Station employees have rights, too."