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Will S.L. get a community TV channel?

Television veteran Job Matusow is a man with a mission.

Matusow, who saw age 70 slide by some time ago, operates Utah's only community-access television channel out of a converted garage in Glenwood (near Richfield). He used to operate out of an old bus.Matusow calls himself a "Mormon monk" who has happily taken a vow of poverty for the public good. "It (his community-access TV channel) is the most beautiful thing that's ever happened in my life."

His gospel of community access is spreading. A group of true believers is trying to get community-access television into the largest U.S. metropolitan area still without it: Salt Lake City.

"We think we're a mature enough community," said Steve Erickson of the group Salt Lake Community Access Television. "It would be informative and entertaining. There are many organizations along the Wasatch Front that have very good messages to impart to the public."

Before Matusow's SCAT (Six Counties Access Television) went on the air in southern Utah on Pioneer Day 1996, Utah was the only state in the union without a community-access channel.

"A lot of people are gun-shy about community access because they can only think of things like `Wayne's World,' " Matusow said. "People are not aware of what it is. It can be right-wing, it can be left-wing - if it's honest debate it's what democracy is all about. If it's a viewpoint on a subject that's legitimate, it will get an airing."

A community-access television channel is one operated by the city or a nonprofit contractor who puts on the air basically anything organizations or individuals in the community come up with, as long as it meets telecommunications decency standards.

SCAT airs programs ranging from independently produced dramatic shows to reruns of Mormon Tabernacle Choir broad-casts to small-town holiday parades. Matusow is trying to get more clubs and nonprofit organizations to come up with programs.

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the right of communities to require cable TV companies to provide community-access channels.

Salt Lake City, like many cities along the Wasatch Front, already has a government-access channel (channel 39), which is distinct from a community-access channel. It serves primarily as a bulletin board - static screens of civic announcements and information. Some cities put such things as city council meetings (live! in color!) on their government-access channel, though viewership has generally been, er, somewhat disappointing.

"What you could say is, we've implemented the governmental piece," said Salt Lake budget analyst David Ion. "Now we're working on the public piece."

The community-access channel is likely to happen, though nobody knows exactly when. City officials are still trying to figure out where to get the $100,000 to $150,000 it would take to start it up, as well as the estimated $100,000 in annual operating costs.

Whatever it takes, Erickson said it will be worth it.

"We see this as an opportunity for the community to get to know itself," he said. "The support is really quite strong, the timing is right - I don't see any downside to it."