Today we’re gonna send a big, big shout out to the people that got us here, Doc. We’re gonna talk about CAN TV,” said Eugene “Geno” Matthews in his exuberant opening to a short-lived series, The Elders, that he produced in the studio of Chicago Access Network Television (CAN TV).
In the first episode, titled simply, “CAN TV Has Changed,” Matthews and his co-host “The Doc” laid out their concerns with recent developments at the public-access television station where they’ve been community producers for decades.
They claimed it has become more difficult for locals to book time at the station, rent equipment, take classes, and broadcast their programs.
The video, filmed on a black background with only a table and a couple of chairs for the host and guest—a minimalist style so associated with public-access television that it’s been parodied by the popular internet series Between Two Ferns—apparently struck a chord for CAN TV employees who had their own concerns about upper managers’ actions.
In follow-up episodes, internal disputes were broadcast after current and former employees relayed their negative experiences with upper management to Matthews, who reported their frustrations, including criticism of Executive Director Darrious Hilmon, on the show.
A third episode aired on YouTube before the station’s page was temporarily shut down. When the page went live again, The Elders had been removed.
The removal of The Elders brought up concerns about free speech and the extent of managers’ authority to moderate community members’ content, which overlapped with staff concerns about the overall direction they say CAN TV has been heading.
In interviews with South Side Weekly, current and former CAN TV employees said they battled upper management for years and faced opposition when advocating for redress on health and safety issues, harassment, budgetary cutbacks, decreased station access hours, favoritism, and poor staff retention.
Those interviewed said Hilmon, who was hired in April 2022, exacerbated long-standing problems at the television station, relaying incidents such as a near-electrocution, denials of bathroom breaks, and interrogations by upper managers.
CAN TV opened the airwaves to all Chicagoans under a public-access model distinct from public television outlets such as the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).
While public television stations provide professionally produced content programmed by a small group of directors, public-access television is dedicated to non-professional community members to create content or request coverage for broadcast.
The City Council chartered the Chicago Access Corporation (CAC) in 1983 to oversee public-access cable following years of advocacy work by community groups such as Citizens Committee on the Media.
The television station, which airs programs on channels 19, 21, 27, 36, and 42, is financed largely by a charter agreement requiring corporate cable providers such as Comcast to fund the community programming.
The station has aired tens of thousands of programs over decades of operation. The organization’s YouTube page reveals the most popular videos are from groups often marginalized by other media, such as particular religious perspectives, political orientations, identity groups, academic work, and government meetings.
Programs include political figures such as Angela Davis and academics like Michelle Alexander. ADAPT, a program discussing disability issues, and Perspectivas Latinas, which highlights art and organizing among people from Latin America, are two of the most popular recurring programs.
CAN TV programs are generally produced under the heading of a few groups: “community producers,” “community partners,” and “non-profit services.”
“Community producers” are residents who are trained by staff to use equipment, edit programs, and broadcast their work on one of the station’s five channels. “Community partners” are residents that make requests for CAN TV staff to film local events, such as meetings, concerts, sports, and parades.
Soon after starting as executive director in April 2022, Hilmon implemented a new category of TV shows titled “signature programs,” a group of shows produced by CAN TV staff members instead of community producers. In practice, Hilmon’s new content model more closely resembles a public broadcast than a public access model.
Station employees said colleagues Aric Ramirez and Rob Galletta quietly resigned from the station soon after Hilmon took over as executive director in 2022.
“Rob Galetta … quit because he had been tasked with producing the signature shows to the detriment of all the other historical work that the [community partners] department has done for a long time,” said a CAN TV employee who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.
Andrea Alberti, who resigned from CAN TV in March 2023, took over as manager of the Community Partners Department following Galletta. She was tasked with working on the signature programs after Galletta resigned.
“I was doing some pre-production to the weekly studio [signature] shows, directing and technical directing all of them, and then being post-production supervisor for all of them,” Alberti said.
Alberti said Ramirez was very invested in the expressed mission of CAN TV and unhappy about the new focus on signature programs. She believes he ultimately left because of pay issues after a decade at the station.
“But, really, what that department was meant to be for was to cover important community events … what we had been doing up until that point, was shooting things at the library, shooting city council meetings,” Alberti added.
Hilmon’s new model required significantly more time from staff to produce and edit, compared to the usual community partners program. The station was getting significantly fewer hours of community partners programming as a result of the transition to signature shows.
“Our department, Community Partners, is supposed to be in charge of pretty much all content that’s on Channel 27,” Alberti said. “That channel was in desperate need of content. It was really running out of content, and Lesley [Johnson, the programming director] was just replaying things over and over.”
Hilmon hired outside contractors from Big Shoulders Digital Video Productions to support the transition. But the move only fostered more frustration among the staff, as contractors were paid significantly more than the regular employees. Meanwhile, the operation that previously ran with thirty non-management employees was reduced to fifteen by July 2023 due to resignations, firings, and staff positions going unfilled.
“[Hilmon] tried to argue to me that it’s cheaper for them to outsource this work than to hire an employee,” Alberi said. “They worked for five to six hours. I think they make $900 a day.”
Despite the price tag, CAN TV staff said they found themselves consistently cleaning up the contractors’ mistakes, which they could spot as Big Shoulders’s work needed to be passed back to station employees before going in air.
“If it’s coming in late, or with problems, [CAN TV employees] can see it,” Alberti said.
On top of the staffing issues, employees said they often had issues with faulty equipment that money wasn’t allocated to fixing and the issues were exacerbated by rushed production setups. In one extreme case, Alberti claimed an employee was nearly electrocuted by faulty wiring.
“It was kind of hilarious the things that were chosen to spend money on … things were going wrong pretty consistently, but the chief engineer chose, instead, to put a lot of his money, a lot of CAN TV’s money and time, into a rooftop camera to go on top of the station so you could see a shitty, live version of the city skyline,” Alberti said.
Employees said money was spent on gear like music equipment that was never used for production, and upwards of a million dollars were spent on studio cameras instead of field cameras which they say should have been a higher priority.
CAN TV representatives did not reply to requests for comment.
The issues with signature programs are no secret.
Keith McDonald is a community producer who has helped produce around 9,000 shows both for himself and other CAN TV members since 1995. Starting last August, McDonald heard complaints from other producers who couldn’t book a slot at the studio for the whole month. The same issue came up the following month.
He found three-fourths of the time slots historically reserved for community producers were being filled up by signature programs. Without notice, “there were only fifteen slots, and not sixty slots, available to producers,” in a month, McDonald said.
The prop room at the station, which had previously been available for community producers to furnish the studio for their programs, was also made off-limits to community producers even when studio time became available, Matthews said.
“Now most of the stuff is the signature shows’ property, and you can’t touch it,” Matthews said.
McDonald brought concerns to the CAC board in December 2022 and met with Hilmon in January 2023. At the meeting with Hilmon, McDonald laid out concerns that had been raised by community producers about the opaque process in which they were being denied access to the station.
“We just know we can’t access the studio, and that people we haven’t seen before, people who aren’t part of the community as we know it, they’re coming in,” McDonald said.
He said Hilmon explained the new programs were supposed to be a way to generate new revenue for the station.
Since then, some time slots have been reopened for community producers, but they still don’t have the same level of access they had before the introduction of signature programs.
Multiple community producers, and current and former employees, said they took issue with apparent favoritism in the prioritization of signature programs over other productions. The signature programs, like on In The Arena With Darrious Hilmon and Can Speaks, often featured Hilmon and a group of people he’s close to as hosts and guests.
“People that were hosts of these shows were all people in his personal, professional network,” Alberti said. “You can draw a direct line from Darrious to almost everybody who was hosting, and probably half the people who were guests.”
Andrea Zopp, host of Chicago Newsroom 2.0, Tawanna Streater, host of DIY DEI, and Melanie Sillas, who was a guest on In The Arena and Generation Flex, worked with Hilmon at the Chicago Urban League, a non-profit that promotes Black education and business growth through corporate and civic relationships.
Zopp, Sillas, and Christina Steed, host of For the Culture, worked with Hilmon during his time at Chicago State Foundation, a fundraising arm of Chicago State University. Zopp, Sillas, and Melissa Donaldson, host of Generation Flex, are also connected to Hilmon as members and boosters of NGO Chicago United.
Current and former CAN TV staff and community producers pointed out that employee use of station resources to create their own programs during work hours has long been against station guidelines.
“It was understood that [CAN TV staff] could not use equipment on their time,” a standard that McDonald said was in place to avoid even the appearance of a misuse of station resources.
The staff utilizing the time, space, and equipment at the station for signature shows put them in “direct competition” with community producers, Matthews said on The Elders podcast.
“If the aldermen eventually get wind of this, if the cable channels actually focus on this, CAN TV won’t exist because we are not paying them to be the competition,” Mattews said in an interview.
Community producers brought their concerns to yet another public board meeting in March 2023. Elma Lucas, the producer of Elma and Company, said she’d been creating shows at CAN TV for thirty-one years and couldn’t book a slot at the studio.
“I’m speaking up for some of the producers who are not here,” she said.
Staff members also expressed concerns internally about the lack of promotion of community programs.
An audio recording of an all staff meeting from January 2023 that includes the voices of Omari Nyamweya, the former manager of nonprofit services, Hilmon, and other staff members, was recently added to YouTube by user @iloveCANTV (the video is no longer public). A portion of the audio was used in an episode of The Elders.
In the recording, Nyamweya pushed back against Hilmon’s assertion that the community producers are consistently highlighted on social media.
The anonymous CAN TV employee said upper managers turned to intimidation tactics after the audio was released in a search for whistleblowers in the organization.
“There was kind of a witch hunt to find out who recorded that meeting and who shared it with The Elders,” the source said. “It was extremely hostile. It was extremely intimidating.”
The video also featured a counter displaying the number of social media posts promoting signature shows versus community produced shows in January 2023: there were eighty-seven posts promoting signature shows, and one post promoting community producers.
The same YouTube user, using the display moniker Can’t TeeVee, also uploaded the removed videos from The Elders podcast.
At the March board meeting, CAN TV employees also described their own negative experiences, including poor communication, safety issues, intimidation, and discriminatory discipline.
Madeline Carl, who said in the meeting she worked at the station for three months and resigned before the board meeting, described being admonished in an employee review. “I was told that I needed to soften my dialogue, and I was told that I slammed my notebook on the desk when I walked in,” Carl said. “I was told that twice.”
Alberti, who also resigned before the meeting, described being suspended without pay for apparently closing a door loudly. “This decision, from what I understand, was made from the executive director, and him alone, which I interpreted as a clear act of intimidation meant to push me out of my position,” she said in the meeting.
In a letter to the board dated March 9, 2023, Alberti described a “toxic workplace” in which employees were routinely asked to work at an unsafe and logistically untenable pace, and gaslighting from upper management.
Eric Torres, a senior trainer employed at CAN TV for twenty-three years, said in the March board meeting employees were “disturbed” by the treatment of station staff, who had been under a lot of pressure with little in the way of compensation.
“I think I feel invisible here for the most part, and I think a lot of us do,” Torres said. “We’ve all asked for raises. We have the right to ask for a raise in our contract and… to my understanding, none of us have been given a raise.”
Lucas and McDonald expressed their own concerns about the apparent mistreatment that led to Alberti’s and Carl’s resignations.
“We want to give compassion to up-and-coming staff because once they come in, they are part of us, and we need to start being more respectful [to] each other,” Lucas said. “We can’t do anything without the staff.”
Following the meeting, the CAN TV board appointed a lawyer, Charlie Wysong, to investigate employees’ allegations of mistreatment and wrongdoing by Hilmon and upper management.
In the middle of the investigation, on April 7, Nyamweya was fired after working at CAN TV for twenty-two years. Managers promoted Julianna Gurdal, who started at the station about a year ago as an intern, to Nyamweya’s position.
“They had only offered me the full time position because they had no one else,” Gurdal said in a June interview. “For over a month they left me as the one person in a department that’s supposed to have like four people.”
Nyamweya is a plaintiff in an employment discrimination lawsuit against CAN TV filed July 20.
Gurdal said she was concerned she may be the next person fired, because she’d assisted in the production of The Elders podcast, though podcast production was a regular responsibility in her position.
Managers restricted Gurdal’s access to parts of the station in May after the podcast was taken down. Managers tasked Gurdal with training them on duties in the non-profit services department, and turned the office she shared with a coworker into a storage area.
Seeking some level of protection, Gurdal asked General Manager Dave Tainer what her union membership status was, since she’d been at the station for a year. Tainer told her the probationary period under the contract with the union, during which time new employees are not protected as full union members, restarted when she was moved into the full-time role, she said.
On May 10, the board held a closed-door emergency meeting over Zoom, in which they reviewed the findings of Wysong’s investigation and decided against firing Hilmon. Instead board members opted to form a supervisory committee and hire someone as a management coach.
Matthews, after talking with a board member who attended the meeting, said the decision was made because the group didn’t want to deal with the negative optics.
Gurdal expressed her concerns about the firing of Nyamweya at a June 13 board meeting.
“The decision to fire Omari was irrational not just because it was abrupt, but also because it followed a year of remarkable work. It’s an achievement in and of itself that the department didn’t collapse when there was a clear lack of support for it,” Gurdal said in a statement. “The department has still not recovered.”
Gurdal was fired on June 16.
Current and former employees contend the treatment of staff fits into a longer-term pattern of staff suppression and union busting to the financial benefit of upper management.
Jannelle White, now an organizer for AFSCME, was a CAN TV employee for sixteen years and one of the members employed when the staff elected to unionize in 2015.
“We were met with a lot of resistance. Early on, they wouldn’t voluntarily recognize the union, so we had to have an election through the NLRB. We had to file a handful of unfair labor practice charges, which were found in our favor,” White said. “The anti union sentiment at CAN TV was prevalent almost immediately.”
White was eventually terminated for her role in union organizing, she said, though the official reason was not wearing an employee lanyard.
“That was a grievance arbitration. Unfortunately, we did not prevail,” White said. “We probably should have asked the arbitrator to recuse himself because he did disclose that he had some limited involvement with CAN TV.”
The anonymous CAN TV staff member said the stance against union employees has continued, and even worsened. They said managers have broken down the bargaining unit variously by pressuring employees to leave, moving employees into management positions, keeping wages low, and doing little to fill open staff positions.
“We can definitely function without all these managers,” the staffer said, pointing to an imbalance where there are about twelve managers working at the station and about fifteen other staff members. “Omari did that work before they made him the manager. There was no manager for a long time in his department… probably a couple of years.”
In the previous union contract, which covered bargaining unit employees from 2016-2020, and was extended through into 2022, the starting wage for employees was $15 per hour. The top pay rate for employees with fifteen or more years of service was a bit over $20 per hour.
In the time between 2016 and 2021, former Executive Director Jim McVane’s salary increased by $66,000, to $189,442 a year; Associate Executive Director Mary Stack’s salary increased by $42,000, to $165,500 a year; and Chief Engineer Jason Byant’s increased by $20,000 to $123,806 a year. General Manager Dave Tainer’s salary in fiscal year 2021 was listed at $102,000.
Hilmon’s salary is not available in currently accessible tax documents.
“Leadership is too busy adding their own pocket with these exorbitant salaries when a) the money should be allocated back into the organization, and b) the staff should be able to afford to work there,” White said. “You can’t really afford to work at CAN TV.”
As station executives solicit donations ahead of a 40th anniversary celebration, CAN TV staff and community producers are wondering: who is CAN TV for?
Jason Flynn is a gig worker based in Chicago writing about working-class issues and organization. This is his first contribution to the Weekly.