Formed in 1987, Dakota Media Access is a North Dakota nonprofit, 501(c) (3) corporation that aims to give creatives a media platform to speak their voice. With a volunteer board of directors drawn from the community, the program is deeply rooted in the area and is supported by locals that are truly passionate about the cause. I sat down with Mary Van Sickle, Executive Director of Dakota Media Access, to discuss Dakota Media Access’ origins, what they aim to represent and the future of the organization.
Dakota Media Access allows any and all people in the community to use their facilities to pursue a creative passion or take advantage of their equipment for a multitude of reasons, including launching their own television and radio programming. Due in part to the wide range of freedom and opportunities that are available and offered to community members and groups, the organization is classified as “fully public access, educational access and government access” by Van Sickle. While it’s safe to say that Dakota Media Access has hit its stride in opportunities offered to the public, day-to-day operations looked much different decades ago for the organization.
“When I started in 2000, our operations here at Dakota Media Access were not automated and everything was operated manually. Our staff would take VHS tapes, put them on a deck and hit play. The channel was only on the air officially from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., then it went into a message board,” Van Sickle said. “Since we launched in the late 80s, we’ve grown considerably. We recently upgraded and moved into our new building on July 1, 2021. It’s a huge 7,500-square-foot facility that’s absolutely amazing for us as it’s been a historic structure in Bismarck. We’re right next to Laughing Sun Brewing Co., so it’s always very lively and fun being across the street from them. We’re certainly in an interesting district that’s seeing huge regrowth and rebirth in the area.”
With seven full-time staff members contributing to the cause, Dakota Media Access has been able to expand its media mission to multiple forms of entertainment. Today, Dakota Media Access comprises four primary pillars: Radio Access (102.5), Community Access Television, Government Access Television and the Dakota Film Festival. The Dakota Film Festival was first launched in 2012 with a film selection committee and a group of advisory committees. While the Fargo Film Festival is different in terms of range and expansion, the Dakota Film Festival highlights short films spread across two evenings.
“Initially, we had started more educational and incorporated workshops for local high school and college students. Now, one night is local films and then the next consists of international award-winning films from around the world on our short film list. We’re so glad that we can feature local filmmakers from across the region,” Van Sickle said.
Dakota Media Access’ Mission
- To foster free speech and public dialogue by making access to electronic media available to all citizens through media training, access to media tools and transmission paths on a nondiscriminatory basis.
- To enable, support, and promote the production and distribution of electronic media programs by and for education, government, charitable or other non-profit organizations, residents of, or members of a group that operates within the communities of Bismarck and Mandan.
- To strengthen our community by building partnerships and networks to leverage emerging technology for nonprofits, government, education and other organizations that would not otherwise have this capability
- To strengthen our community by using media to: • Facilitate the sharing of information and democratic involvement.
- Enhance community dialogue and freedom of speech.
- Encourage community involvement and civic pride.
- Create awareness of local interests, views and cultures.
- Promote artistry and creative expression
We’ve been live streaming our channels at our website (FreeTV.org) since 2015. Now, we’re also on Apple TV, Roku and other major platforms!”– Mary Van Sickle
On average, the Dakota Film Festival receives roughly 150 submissions per year. With only two days to showcase the best of the best, judges have to be selective when deciding which short films make the cut to be showcased.
“They have to be very discerning in their choices. It’s not a film festival that encompasses a whole week where you could put a lot of different stuff in there. They’re instructed to find the best of the best,” Van Sickle said.
While the Dakota Film Festival has grown in both size and popularity since its initial launch, the growth doesn’t come without its troubles. One of the biggest challenges? They don’t own a theater to host the event.
“We have to create a theater downtown in the Belle Mehus Auditorium, which is a beautiful, historic opera house from 1914. While it’s been very well cared for and looks flawless during our screenings, we have to bring in all of the equipment. This includes the projector, screen and cameras to record everything. We have a lot of technology that’s required for the Dakota Film Festival, so that’s one of the biggest challenges for us, but the end result makes it more than worth it,” Van Sickle said.
The Dakota Film Festival is just one of many ways that community members can get involved with Dakota Media Access. Whether it be a singular person, or an organization, Dakota Media Access has a plethora of equipment free to use by anyone.
“It starts with a simple orientation, where a group will come together and go over the rules. There aren’t many, but there is some basic training on how to properly handle the equipment. It’s not our role to judge the content that’s being created, as long as it’s not selling a product or having excessive violence or gratuitous sexual content, as it’s over the air and we comply with the FCC,” Van Sickle said. “It’s not up to us to judge whether a program or someone’s idea is not important. We’ve had a lot of different things that we’ve loved seeing over the years. In the past, we’ve had an individual that just did karaoke in his basement. We also go out in the community and our production staff capture as many entertainment-based events as we can to promote and air as well. We’re a public service organization, so we aim to serve the public as much as we can.”
The Advantages of Dakota Media Access
According to Executive Director Mary Van Sickle
- Dakota Media Access extends the arm of local government subdivisions and delivers content to the public in different ways. Our local news departments tell me frequently that they watch these meetings on our systems so that they can get their reporting done. They use it a lot to review meeting content and discussion. It’s our service to the community to deliver and allow government transparency.
- Dakota Media Access is a way for people to express themselves by producing their own creative programming. We’ve seen a large number of community producers step forward through our radio operation, as radio is oftentimes a lot less intimidating than being on camera. A lot of really creative people want to do their podcasts and radio programming with us, so it’s been really interesting. Most of them are people who love music, and we have some amazing DJs.
We also have some very interesting talk-oriented radio programs. One of them is called The Red Gaze, brought to us by the Executive Director of the Sacred Pipe Resource Center. She brings a group together primarily Native Americans from the area, and then they critique and analyze films with Native American components to them. Whether it’s written or produced by, acted in or any other component of filmmaking, the group dissects and observes it from their perspective. It’s really interesting and I’ve learned a lot from listening to them.
We also have another program that’s being produced by Heartview, an addiction counseling service in our region. The host, Shannon Huber, interviews people in recovery and discusses their journeys and experiences very candidly.
I believe that radio has opened that door to discussion, as many of these people most likely wouldn’t want to be on camera. Huber also hosts talks with other addiction counselors and people in law enforcement about how they handle addiction within the community. The radio operation has exploded and our new building has allowed us to create a really nice studio that people enjoy being in.
- Dakota Media Access makes it as easy as possible for the community to be creative. The equipment is completely free to use! People interested just have to sign it out, be a resident of the community and take good care of the equipment. We have a lot of experienced individuals in the Bis-Man area that will come and get our equipment as well, which greatly demonstrates our position as a nonprofit. Furthermore, we can’t sell any of our services to the community for a profit, or else we’d be competing with private businesses in the community.
- Dakota Media Access is focused on positive relationships. We work very closely and we’re part of the beginning of the North Dakota Film and Media Association. They’ve also worked with the State of North Dakota about opening up lines of communication regarding filming in the state. So we kind of are that comfortable central place. We don’t compete with them, so they’re okay. Different professional organizations and groups are all in contact with us as we support and lift one another up. We all learn from each other and that’s a nice position to be in when others are all kind enough to help us with the film festival. We are undoubtedly lucky to have positive relationships with one another both here and across the region.
Dakota Media Access’ New Office Space Combines Elements of old and New Across Their Decor.
Even though we’re our own nonprofit, we aim to serve a lot of other nonprofits in the area. We work with a wide range of unique organizations, such as the Humane Society.”– Mary Van Sickle
While community members have the freedom to create as they please with freedom of guidelines or judgment, there are still a few setbacks within the company. However, none of these setbacks should be considered permanent, as they can all be worked through with community support. One of the biggest setbacks that Dakota Media Access faces is funding as a nonprofit.
“[Funding] is always going to be front and center in our needs because of all the shifting in technology and how people access their content. We ask ourselves often, ‘How do we stay relevant and how do we stay funded’? Some cities and states have passed legislation to tax streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu based on the usage there in their community, which is often how they come up with funds. However, we’re always open to donations and help from those around us that we can make an impact on locally,” Van Sickle said.
As they look for support in the community to continue the mission, they also look ahead at the future within the organization. In 2023, Mary Van Sickle will be exiting her position as Executive Director on the Board of Directors within Dakota Media Access. The group is currently mapping out an exit strategy together as she looks to move on to her next adventure, leaving Dakota Media Access in a strong, stable position.
“We’re just starting a strategic planning process with our board and the community to talk about the upcoming transition. We went through a huge move last year into the new building and we have this great facility now. We’re in the process of finishing off our new studio, so now it’s time to figure out what exactly we’re gonna do with this moving forward,” Van Sickle said.
As Van Sickle begins to move forward, she appears to be confident that Dakota Media Access will be left in good hands, as she can count on the rest of the staff to uplift the organization’s reputation and legacy.
“Our staff is the biggest we’ve had for quite a while. They’re so reliable and support and understand the mission and, because of that, we’re able to do what we do. The staff is critical to this operation and by far the most important thing here. I think our relationships are probably the other big thing that we strive to perfect and take pride in,” Van Sickle said. “We have an intimate relationship with city departments, including the City Administrator and Assistant City Administrator. We also certainly have to have positive relationships with the arts community, the other nonprofits, as well as the schools. If you don’t have relationships with those groups, it’s really tough to do what we do and be a service to them. We’ll continue to work with all of them for as long as we can, as we enjoy giving back to them and being able to support one another in our projects.”
Donations are always welcome by anyone to support Dakota Media Access’ endeavors and success in the area. While the organization could always benefit from further donations and assistance as a nonprofit, Van Sickle appears to be happy as long as the community’s various groups are receiving the necessary support from its citizens.
“We always love when people support us in the area. Whether it be through donations or by supporting us through engaging with our platforms, we’re just happy to be involved in the community. While we greatly appreciate the support from community members, we’re always just as happy to see other nonprofits and organizations in the community receive support from people far and wide. It’s good to see the community giving back to businesses and groups that are there for them,” Van Sickle said.
CONTACT DAKOTA MEDIA ACCESS
Email: [email protected]
Address: 1101 E Front Ave Bismarck, ND 58504