Access Sacramento's Ron Cooper leaves small-screen legacy

Published: Tuesday, Jul. 23, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jul. 23, 2013 - 7:00 am

Television has colored Ron Cooper's life.

Cooper, 65, retiring next week after 21 years as executive director of Access Sacramento, first watched the small screen in 1952, as a boy in Amador County.

Though the Coopers' TV picked up only three stations, "it was a window on the world," he said. "Television told me there was a life other than Sutter Creek."

Cooper has helped widen that window as a founding employee of Access Sacramento, the nonprofit that operates two 24-hour cable public-access television stations, an Internet radio station, two websites and offers, at nominal fees, workshops at which media neophytes can sharpen their skills.

Under Cooper's management, Access Sacramento has helped thousands of people find and express their voices, whether they were cheering for their hometown football teams or expressing alternative political views.

Kindly in manner and soothing in voice but fierce in his commitment to free speech, Cooper, as Access Sacramento's ambassador to the community, has helped Sacramento understand the power of technology.

It's an idea that's fascinated him throughout his life, he said.

In the 1970s, he worked as a mental health counselor in a Bay Area hospital psychiatric unit where patient therapy sessions were videotaped.

On-screen images often reached patients more directly than human counselors could, Cooper said. "It was another cognitive level" that talk therapy could not reach, he said.

It was an effective therapy tool, but so was "just being there" for patients, he said. "I would just listen to people, and that's what they really needed."

Being there, as anyone who has met him or watched him preside over Access events knows, is a Cooper specialty. Cooper brings a steadiness to whatever he does, whether it's addressing a full house at the Crest Theatre for Access Sacramento's "A Place Called Sacramento" film showcase or speaking to a reporter at his sparsely furnished office at the nonprofit's east Sacramento headquarters.

Such calm comes in handy in running Access Sacramento, which is expansive in its reach but modest in its budget. The nonprofit operates its stations and programs on a $1 million annual budget, and with a staff of nine, some of them part-time.

"What I am good at is untying knots to smooth out rough waters and get past a difficult point and on to something else," Cooper said.

He could deal with the rough waters in the psychiatric unit, but he had majored in social science, not psychology, at Sacramento State, and did not see a career path there. Instead, he followed his fascination with moving images to San Francisco State University, where he earned a master's in broadcast communication arts.

He later taught English and filmmaking at McClatchy High School. The teaching job suited him, Cooper said, because he then was married and father to a baby daughter, Jennie. But Proposition 13 and state budget cuts intervened. He had too little seniority and lost his job.

He worked for a small production company before getting in on the ground floor of Access Sacramento when cable came to Sacramento in the 1980s. Cable's arrival meant funding for a public-access station – local governments collect franchise fees from cable companies and then grant a portion of that to community programming agencies.

Cooper began as training and operations director, becoming executive director in 1992. The job combined, Cooper said, his "skills as a counselor and as a teacher and the deep-held belief that we are all small-town at heart."

Small-town yet broad-minded, Cooper takes pride in Access' Sacramento's coverage of Fourth of July parades and also in its airing of political viewpoints that do "not take the Democratic or the Republican line," Cooper said.

Access Sacramento offers programs in 10 languages.

"Freedom of speech isn't just freedom of speech in English," Cooper said. "It's freedom of speech in Hmong."

Gary Martin, a longtime Access Sacramento board member and Cosumnes River College video-production professor who will replace Cooper as the nonprofit's executive director, said he long has "marveled at Ron's passion for, and commitment to, this idea that the people not only have a right to speak, but have a right to be heard, and to use technology to get that message out."

Though an ardent booster of the Sacramento region, Cooper cares about community media everywhere, Access Sacramento office manager and show producer Michelle Barbaria said.

"A lot of people look to him from other 'access' stations," she said of Cooper, a western-region officer for the national Alliance for Community Media for more than two decades. "He is the champion for keeping us alive."

Cooper values creativity as much as message. Access Sacramento enables untried volunteers to envision and produce shows with the help of other volunteers and through technical training.

"Community media is a working laboratory," Cooper said. "If we think something is worthwhile, we can just (make) it. We don't need to sell car ads to do it."

Embodying this idea is the "A Place Called Sacramento" filmmaking program, which each summer pairs budding screenwriters with volunteer actors and crews to make 10-minute movies.

Cooper's obstacle-overcoming spirit rubbed off on his children, Jennie Church-Cooper, 35, and Joel Church-Cooper, 32. Jennie is a Los Angeles talent manager for comic writer-performers. Her client roster includes Joel, who has written for NBC's "Up All Night," among other shows.

Jennie and her brother, from whose mother Cooper later was divorced, once played elves to Cooper's Santa in the Access Sacramento studio. Now Jennie helps her clients develop their own network shows.

She has "a sense through our dad that there is not a mystery behind it – if you have an idea for a TV show, you can find ways to create that," Church-Cooper said.

Cooper does not have direct contact with every Access Sacramento volunteer, but "he coaches the rest of us" on how to train newcomers, Barbaria said. "He doesn't leave any detail uncovered."

Cooper will "often come and do a little pep talk to the classes," said Patrick Hall, who has taken filmmaking workshops through Access Sacramento. "He is always supportive."

Day-to-day Access Sacramento business and constant outreach efforts to other nonprofits – "I will go to your chicken dinner and you come to my chicken dinner," Cooper said with a laugh – have meant 12-hour work days.

In August, Cooper will be eligible for Social Security. After years of untying knots, he now can relax into his retirement.

He is proud of the role he and Access Sacramento have played in giving local residents a window to their community and to the world.

"We've helped in developing the culture here," Cooper said.

HOW TO WATCH

Access Sacramento appears on channels 17 and 18 on the Comcast and SureWest cable systems and on Channel 99 on AT&T U-verse. For information on Access Sacramento, go to www.accesssacramento.org.

Call The Bee's Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @carlameyersb.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Carla Meyer



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