We are the world: Link TV's Stephen Olsson films a Turkish flute maker. (Photo courtesy Stephen Olsson)

Stephen Olsson and Link TV

Michael Fox August 17, 2008

Nestled in a quiet office between Telegraph Hill and the Embarcadero in San Francisco’s Waterfront District, hard by the advertising agencies and KGO, Link TV provides a wide-angle antidote to the standard television news mix of hit-and run stories and doltish commercials. The free public-interest channel, founded in 1999, aims to inform Americans about corners of the globe, notably the Middle East, that tend to be oversimplified or ignored by other broadcast media. Link TV’s programming encompasses international documentaries, music, news, and culture, from works that might be familiar to regular film festivalgoers to pieces that never received any U.S. exposure. Its lineup of original programming includes the highly respected "Mosaic," a daily digest of news from the Middle East, and "Global Pulse," a three-to-five minute daily segment. Link TV flies under the radar hereabouts because it’s only available to San Francisco cable subscribers on weekends. (The educational access channel, Comcast 27, is the place to find Link TV beginning midnight Friday through 7 a.m. Monday. Check out the Web site, www.linktv.org, for more information.) The core audience of five million weekly viewers gets the channel via satellite, on channel 375 on DirectTV and 9410 on Dish network. We sat down with Stephen Olsson, a veteran Bay Area documentary maker and Link’s senior director of original programming, to get the scoop.

SF360: What’s the mission of Link TV in a 500-channel, 24/7 world?

Stephen Olsson: Essentially to connect Americans with the rest of the world. It became so obvious that Americans were so isolated and out of touch around 9/11. I joined Link TV 10 days before 9/11. I have a strong international background; most of the films that I’ve made have been outside of the United States. I have a graduate degree in anthropology, and I’m interested in human cultures and behavior and points of view, and I have made several films along those themes. When this television channel opened in San Francisco, I was called by Kim Spencer, our president, who I’d worked with in the Ukraine and Russia and Kazakhstan. He said, ‘Come in and consult with us, we have the opportunity to get a national, 24/7 television show.’ I consulted for the first year of Link TV on getting the license and bringing in good people that I knew. As a documentarian, there wasn’t a lot of production immediately on the horizon. There wasn’t necessarily funding for films of the type that I’d made before.

SF360: What was there money for?

Olsson: News and current affairs from the Middle East. 'Arabs, Muslims, who are these people? What do they want? What do they believe? Are they all the same? The Shia, Sunni, what’s the difference?’ We’re talking about the America of seven, eight years ago. National consciousness of the Arab world, the Muslim world, was extremely low. So I think in some ways 9/11 fueled [Link TV’s] legitimacy. I was asked to develop a format for a daily news digest with a Palestinian producer named Jamal Dajani, who was a news junkie from the Arab world, very well connected in the Arab world, [but who] had no real television production experience. My job was to design a format and produce a daily show on budget and present a spectrum of Muslim viewpoints on world events and regional events. There are Egyptian points of view that are so different from Lebanese, so different from Iranian, Turkish, Iraq. Anybody who’s traveled and watched television in these countries—as all the founders of Link TV, being basically internationalist television producers and filmmakers—knew this. But the people next door certainly didn’t know it. Here was an opportunity for me to work full time in television, and not leave for New York City or London, the two big places for an English speaker to work in international television. I started in 2001 with ‘Mosaic,’ worked with the show for the first few months and then stepped back and Jamal Dajani and his team did fine.

SF360: What gap does the original programming fill?

Olsson: About 94 percent of what we [air] is acquired. Some of what we produce is totally original; that is, we script from the get-go. I’m doing a couple of series like that now. The other thing we do is aggregate original programs and news and bring together and combine news reports, not just from the Middle East but from Latin America and now with ‘Global Pulse,’ all over the world. As a filmmaker and as a storyteller I’ve been mostly producing full-length documentaries but also live link programs. We linked to an Afghan Women’s Conference in Brussels when Afghanistan was becoming independent from the Taliban. Women here were talking to Afghan women there. The whole notion of live television to a filmmaker, where you’re used to having an incredible amount of editorial control in the edit room—I was asked to produce live 90-minute television programs, like one with Peter Coyote called ‘The Active Opposition.’ This was a whole different world for me, you know. Everything is prepared in advance as much as possible. The program unfolds. It gets really woolly. You’re pulling your hair out in the control room. Good things happen. Good things are said. And then it’s over. And it’s totally over. You literally walk away from it. It’s such a different relationship to the media. Films I’ve made in the past, where you work two or three years on a film, you tend to give yourself a few months off or six months off, you travel, you inhale, you think about life and what you’re planning next. This is a 24/7 world where it never stops. So you have to pace yourself.

SF360: When you made your own documentaries, sometimes they were meant to stand the test of time and sometimes they were of the moment. What’s it like producing for television?

Olsson: Regional current-affairs documentaries are always challenging. It’s incredibly nerve-wracking because things are changing all the time. It took me two-and-a-half years to make Our House in Havana. Fidel could [have] die[d] at any moment. Any time you’re working in the realm of current affairs, the clock is ticking. At Link we have access to news coverage, so we are able to ingest and repackage and turn around breaking news. The original productions that we do, we tend to choose issues and stories that will have a longer shelf life. Not evergreen, but enough of a shelf life that—like a lot of cable and satellite channels—we have a lot of repeats, a lot of reruns. Personally, I’m not coming from a news and journalism background. I’m coming from a film background. So I tend to always be thinking of the timeless, universal elements and aspects of the story.

SF360: Do you see Link as a rebuttal to the short-term perspectives of the cable news channels and their shallow pundits?

Olsson: Absolutely. We stay interested in an area of the world, a region, long after all the other commercial channels have come and gone. Our interest in Latin America, in the Middle East, in the former Soviet Union, in Asia, is constant. We are not following the big searchlight because we don’t need the audience numbers they need in the commercial world. What we need to do is provide a service. We need to open people’s eyes. We need to touch people’s hearts, really, and if you look at most of our acquired films they tend to be character-driven stories which tell a much bigger story. So they tend to have a longer shelf life. Sometimes we pick up things that Sundance or PBS has already aired and give it a longer life. We wrap such a program with an interview, with a guest, with a protagonist, with a filmmaker, and go a little bit deeper. We try to create, in some ways, a kind of film festival experience with context. Context is so important to people’s understanding.

SF360: Kim Spencer uses the word ‘progressive’ to describe Link TV’s programming. How do you define ‘progressive,’ given that you’ve said the channel is nonpartisan.

Olsson: What’s called ‘progressive’ in the United States is really humanitarian in my mind. We are interested in the human condition. We’re interested in human problems. What is a liberal? A liberal is someone who cares about humanity. I think that’s really where we are philosophically. If you look at our programming across the board, we are telling human stories. When we see them domestically, we say, ‘Oh, that’s progressive.’ In fact we have a lot of viewers in the red states because of our international focus. Now, when they look at programs that we show from Jamaica or Kazakhstan, they don’t call us progressive. They call us eye-opening. When we look at ourselves from a humanitarian point of view, from a public-interest point of view, because we’re a public-interest channel, when we look at ourselves through that lens, sometimes you can label that progressive.

SF360: The commercial channels use ratings to tell if they’re succeeding or failing. How do your foundations and other supporters measure success?

Olsson: There are measuring devices for satellite. It’s not Nielsen ratings. It’s another type of measurement. But we do know that we have over five million viewers, people who are watching us on an average two-and-a-half hours a week. We have a committed audience that’s still growing. One of our challenges is that we’re only on satellite and not on cable. What we ask people to think about is decoupling their information package and moving away from the media conglomerates who are offering you Internet and television and long-distance telephone for a single price, because what you’re really doing is giving up your freedom of choice. I mean, Link TV doesn’t exist on Comcast.

SF360: You’re saying give up cable and move to a satellite dish.

Olsson: Every channel that you’re watching on cable will be there. Plus channels like Link TV. And Free Speech TV, who’s kind of a domestic counterpart.

SF360: What are you working on now?

Olsson: Producing two series. One is called ‘Global Spirit.’ Season One will be 13 programs which explore human consciousness. I call it the internal travel series. It’s about philosophy, science, faith, It’s a studio format with original segments that I’m shooting many of in places like Turkey, Vietnam, China. It’s built on 13 different themes like forgiveness, death and the beyond. It’s a pilgrimage, looking at things cross-culturally and trying to really understand some of the deeper connections between people of different societies as they go through very similar human endeavors. The other series, ‘Bridge to Iran,’ we’re buying Iranian documentary films, many of which are not shown in Iran because they’re too critical of the government. We are following the films with context and interviews with the filmmakers. This is part of what Link does, trying to build bridges. We know so little about Iran, yet we’re talking as though they are a kind of monolithic enemy. What about the people in Iran? [In one film,] female filmmakers go into all-girl schools and talk to the students. You won’t believe what they have to say. One of them wants to be a boy, and stands up in front of the class and says, ‘As soon as I get old enough, I want a sex-change operation.’ I mean, you couldn’t imagine 16-year-old girls in Iran being so forceful or articulate. What we like to do is kind of shine a light on different countries and regions, and go a little deeper.

SF360: A wild-card question: We’ll have a different president next year. As an internationalist, what’s your take?

Olsson: I think clearly one of the candidates is promoting the importance of listening to the rest of the world. And I think if that candidate and that party win this election, we’ll be hearing a much more nuanced and respectful approach to other cultures and other philosophies and other traditions. I can only hope that our programming will be discovered by more people who realize what a rich world we live in. And that no culture and no ideology has a monopoly on the truth. And, in fact, it’s a richer life to be exposed to and think about other cultures’ visions of the truth.

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