Significant Community Program Viewers Voice showcases local and national entertainers for more than 25 years
At the 18th Annual Best of the Midwest Media Fest in April, WCM honored a program with a Significant Community Program award that began production more than 25 years ago in a different time. Viewer’s Voice started out as a project of Viewer’s Quality Television, an organization whose mission was to save critically acclaimed television programs from cancellation due to low ratings. It became a separate non-profit in 1992. Over the years, the show has evolved to showcasing mostly local talent and covering major events like the annual Wisconsin Area Music Industry (WAMI) awards. The future of the show is very uncertain, however, because Milwaukee’s MATA Community Media is expected to close in 2017. In the early years, Viewers Voice organized letter-writing campaigns to pressure broadcast networks to keep good shows on the air. Viewer’s Voice was “bicycled” to access centers (mailed from one to another) all over the country to build interest. Founder, producer, co-host, and co-editor, Sharon Rhode says that for years she and her crew traveled to California to interview stars like Ray Romano of Everybody Loves Raymond, and Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly of Cagney and Lacey (the first cop show to feature two strong women leads and their complicated personal lives). “The networks were more than happy to let us on the sets,” Sharon said. “We never had any problem getting permission.” Rhode credits Viewer’s Voice as being instrumental in saving Party of Five, a TV show about five siblings’ lives after the loss of their parents, in 1996.
As times changed, the focus of the show shifted to covering the entertainment industry closer to home. Her long-time crew (her husband, Jim, camera; Murray Pyant, director and editor; Marc Ferch, audio; Rollie Krieger, camera; Barbara Wagner and later Cindy Huber, co-hosts) now regularly covers the entertainment at the Wisconsin State Fair and the annual WAMI awards. Over the years, you may have seen performances and interviews with stars like Glen Campbell and Billy Ray Cyrus, but you would have also seen upcoming homegrown talent like Hannah Mrozak, an American Idol contestant, Nora Collins, who won the WAMI “Rising Star” awards in 2012 and 2013, and the Burie Family, a singing group composed of two brothers and two sisters from Milwaukee that Rhode has been following for eight years – ever since the youngest was eight.
Rhode began producing the first of 450 Viewer’s Voice programs at the West Allis Community Media Center, but when WACMC lost its funding in 2011 (due to 2007 Act 42 that outlawed PEG fees), she began producing the program through MATA Community Media in Milwaukee. Now MATA will run out of funds in 2017 due to the same law that closed WACMC. “I’m worried,” Rhode said. “Where else can a person do something like this and speak their mind?”
She said she still sees people around West Allis who recognize her from Viewer’s Voice and she still gets calls asking her what happened. Residents there no longer have a public access channel and they can’t see MATA’s programming on Time Warner’s cable system.
“I have been so lucky. It’s been a real trip for me. It’s so much fun, you just don’t want to stop. When a show comes out nice, you get such a good feeling,” Rhode said. “Taking local access away from people – it’s a tragedy. I’m very worried about MATA. If MATA closes, I’m done.”