Chapel Hill: Opinion

Nancy Oates: From Town Hall, the sounds of silence

My husband always mutes the commercials when we watch TV, so I’ve had practice discerning the message without the words. But that hasn’t helped me when I’ve tuned into Town Council meetings broadcast on TV or live-streamed on my computer last month.

Ever since council returned to its chambers in Town Hall in September after the $1.6 million renovation, which includes $50,000 for a new sound system, many people who tune into council meeting broadcasts have been unable to hear the sound reliably.

And I use the term “many” loosely. The live broadcasts on Time Warner Cable channels 18 or 97.4 and AT&T UVerse channel 99 do not have a particularly high Nielsen rating. Still, the handful of us who do spend our Monday nights watching council’s antics have been frustrated this season by audio transmission that at its best is very soft and frequently fades out. It’s like listening to a David Letterman monologue only to find that the sound cuts off just as he delivers the punch lines.

At the most recent council meeting, on Sept. 29, Matt Czajkowski asked Town Manager Roger Stancil, during a discussion of the town’s proposed stormwater management plan, over what period of time the $1.2 million budgeted for stormwater improvements to Ephesus-Fordham would be spent. Stancil’s reply was inaudible to the home audience. A community member addressing council was drowned out by a well-miked sneezing fit from someone else in the room. Donna Bell weighed in, but unless you read lips, her ideas did not go beyond the studio audience.

Later on, shortly before a majority of council members voted to give the Hamilton Road fire station and the land it sits on to Roger Perry for $10 so he could build a 45,000-square-foot office building, providing he built a new fire station and leased it back to the town for $1 a year, Czajkowski asked the fire chief whether the developer helped shape the agreement. Those of us at home will never know, because the fire chief’s mike chose that moment to fade out.

Because the videotaped meetings provide a public record of what Town Council decides and why, these Rose Mary Woods-style gaps in the audio matter.

As the meeting wore on, I began to think maybe the audio problems weren’t random. Jim Ward’s mike worked fine until he objected to the town giving away land to a private developer. When it was clear he wouldn’t back down, his mike acted up. And what did Bell and Sally Greene do that their voices were silenced the entire night?

As part of the renovation, the town replaced its 25-year-old audio system because of popping, cracking and feedback in council chambers. The broadcast transmission with the original system had no problems. The new system includes additional speakers in the chamber, about 15 live mikes, two subwoofers, a user touch panel interface for volume settings and plug-ins for reporters who wish to record the meeting from council chambers.

None of which benefits those of us watching from home.

Catherine Lazorko, the town’s communications manager, initially said the sound system was fine and that, as I was the only one who had complained, the problem must lie with my TV and computer. Perhaps I didn’t have the proper bandwidth. Which leads to the unsettling implication that public access to broadcasts of town business is only available to residents with pricey, high-tech equipment.

After running some tests, Lazorko discovered technical issues partly due to the audio system’s interface with the Granicus server that puts out the live-streaming on the Web and partly due to operator error. She thinks the audio problems have been resolved, and the council’s next meeting at Town Hall, on Oct. 15, should be audible.

I hope so. Council’s punch lines, I mean, decisions, matter.

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