The surprising (and welcome) emergence of B-Channel

by Aaren Madden, January 2011

Victoria’s newest media source focuses on diversity for democracy’s sake. (They’re not in it for the money.)

The coffee shop is empty save for Andrew Ainsley and Chris Johnson, who are seated at a round wooden table concentrating on nearly-identical glowing white laptops that contrast with the knickknacks and scuffed pine and fir of table and floor. When I enter, they look up, fold their computers closed and slide them off the table in one smooth motion. As the main forces behind B Channel (http://bchannelnews.tv), they squeeze work in wherever possible. 

“We are all volunteers, so we have to find other ways of paying rent. This is something we are passionate about,” says Andrew Ainsley, who runs a moving and hauling company by day while doing most of the video production for B Channel. Johnson handed his previous venture, Pedal to Petal, a cycle-based composting service, over to friends so he could devote more time between odd jobs to handling the B Channel website, among many other roles. 

Ainsley and Johnson characterize B Channel as more than just an alternative to mainstream media. Johnson says their intent is to “add to the diversity of the media landscape. With a camera, you can’t just shoot through one lens. You have to have a series of lenses set up to get that clear shot. We are hoping to stack up some lenses and have people who are focused on different aspects of the community and different political perspectives to feed into a larger, diverse media system.”

Ainsley adds, “As we grow, too, it’s going to become even more diverse, because right now we have a limited number of writers [and videographers]. If there are a number of different media at one event, we would rather be at the event where there’s none. At least that way we can [give it coverage.] Eventually, if we had enough people, we’d like to be at both, at any kind of event that’s important to the people of Victoria.”

“We are providing a service to democracy,” Ainsley believes. “Our coverage of the by-election, from my research, is pretty spectacular in terms of the information available. We were lucky there were only eleven candidates!” he laughs. And until City Council fulfills their promise to install webcams, B Channel films as many council meetings as they can and posts them on their website.

B Channel allows Ainsley to combine his interests in documentary filmmaking and local issues. Shortly after arriving in Victoria, he filmed Love and Fearlessness, a 2005 documentary about homelessness and the right to sleep (outside included; see www.loveandfearlessness.com). A little later, while filming footage of the “tent city” in Cridge Park, he says he “learnt firsthand the insanity of a system that criminalizes those who have no place to sit, sleep, or cook food.”

Of B Channel’s launch with a story on harm reduction in spring 2009, Ainsley says, “It started out with a dissatisfaction with mainstream media. We weren’t very impressed with what we saw when we turned on the news; didn’t feel it was telling the stories that were important to people at the local level.” 

Ainsley studied film at York University, and during an internship with a Toronto newsroom realized the extent to which stories were decontextualized. “You don’t get to see the interviews. You get all the voiceover; you get the news anchor telling you the story,” he says. And a five or 10-second soundbite from the interview.

Johnson concurs, “You’ve got half an hour to cover all these things: floods, fires, murders, robberies, dog walking issues, just a lot of things that are interesting, but are not the priorities you need in order to have a functioning democracy. We have narrowed it down to a smaller set of issues that allows us more time to be comprehensive.” 

“That was always a big part of it too, not just providing our perspective,” Ainsley adds. Most of their stories link to other media’s coverage of the same events.

Johnson describes the B Channel crew as “a diverse group of artists and activists and small business owners, just regular people who are wanting to get involved in creating media and learning about media, and so while we are building this new platform to highlight our work and to collaborate, we are learning ourselves what media is and what it can become; what it needs to be. It’s part experiment, part cooperative, part applied education.”

So what have they learned? Replies Ainsley, “I think keeping the public informed is the big thing. Providing people with information means they will be empowered to make decisions and hopefully help change things on at least a local level. We find out there are a lot of sides to every story, [so we give] as much perspective as possible.” 

Ainsley experienced that firsthand: He recalls being arrested in 2006 for filming the mistreatment of food scavengers caught in a dumpster by grocery store security and police. He says he was then ambushed by A Channel’s Stephen Andrew, who echoed then-chief Paul Battershill’s accusations of a setup instead of getting Ainsley’s perspective of events. (Mischief charges were eventually stayed.)

More recently, Ainsley and news editor Lisa Nickol spent a year interviewing everyone from police to City Council members to beautification consultants, service providers and clients around the Pandora block. “There are 20 different people interviewed and highlighted in that feature, and I still feel like we only got a portion of the story,” Johnson laments.

So the whole concept of a dream city and media’s role in it is, for Johnson at least, complicated. The ideal of media as a service to democracy isn’t all that clear if you take all sides into account—including that of the Coast Salish, whose occupied territory Johnson acknowledges as a contested space. “I am new to this region and I am just learning what it is I think should be happening here; but it’s a colonized way of thinking to [presume] that I could come in here and set forth what I think should be happening based on my conditioning. So I can only be open to working together with people to create that vision,” he says.  

As he grapples with his own role, he believes in the collective approach to finding answers: “More public news events, open houses, public forums, town hall meetings on a variety of issues, in multiple places around the city, with multiple ways to be engaged in that process, whether through video streaming at home or going there. Building an informed culture.” Spaces where people can be online and in person, engaging in the city and making it the place they want it to be.

Ainsley adds with a pragmatic chuckle, “I think in our dream city we’d have a space. An office to work out of,” a place to conduct interviews. Johnson nods, “There would more likely be news coming to us too, people dropping in and collaborating on things,” a step in the ultimate goal to make the endeavour a self-sustaining non-profit.

“It’s two minutes to five,” Ainsley tells Johnson, who needs to catch a bus. Minutes later I wander down the sidewalk, thinking about space—creative space, contested space—and how much is required to contain all sides of a story.

Aaren Madden has learned, when telling any story, how inherently challenging it is to say all there is to say. To view, volunteer or donate to B Channel, go to http://bchannelnews.tv.