Public Television in Pittsfield, Massachusetts

Pittsfield is a small city located in Western Massachusetts on the Housatonic River, bordering close to Connecticut. At one point in time, this small-scale Rust Belt city could boast a population of nearly 60,000 residents back during the 1950s and 1960s, but has since declined to a population of around 44,000 residents.

From the early 1900s to the 1970s, General Electric operated a large industrial plant in Pittsfield where they manufactured and serviced electrical transformers. Employing nearly 14,000 people at its peak during the 1940s and 1950s, General Electric manufactured and serviced these electrical transformers through a process containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that led to the contamination of the local environment. By 1977, testing conducted by the EPA  had revealed that not only were the Housatonic River and the town’s groundwater heavily contaminated with PCBs, but the chemical was also present in the soil and materials of the schoolyards and backyards of the very families living in the city.

Since 1977, there has been a ban on fishing from areas of the Housatonic River. Since 1997, Pittsfield has been designated an official SuperFund site by the EPA.

In this context,  Pittsfield Community Television was formed in 1986. A public access television station, PCTV allows anyone from the Pittsfield area the ability to make a program or broadcast of their own. PCTV is also the only locally based source of regular television programming for Pittsfield, making it an important democratic hub for a city in decline.

Broadcasting from the environmentally and economically degraded Rust Belt, these voices were unleashed upon the airwaves. Since PCTV is not supposed to impose restrictions on content, creative freedom was rich in the decade before the rise of internet media. Thankfully collected for posterity in video tapes from the 1990s, the results are bizarre and surreal.

By 1992, General Electric had reduced its workforce in Pittsfield to 530 employees and one small GE Plastics plant.

In 2000, the states of Massachusetts and Connecticut won a settlement with General Electric for $250 million dollars to sponsor a clean up of the Housatonic River area.

It continues. In 2014, the EPA deemed that the most bare minimum clean up would need to continue for at least 13 more years. The most extensive would take 52.

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