A gadfly for the people in the video revolution

Attend any major civic meeting concerning cable TV franchising in many places throughout America and you are likely to spot a handsome, gray-haired man testifying on behalf of the public. He'll always be articulate in his determination that the people of this country should not be shortchanged in the telecommunications revolution now taking place.

It's Jacob L. Trobe, and you're bound to admire his unceasing energy if you attend a class he coordinates at the Institute for Retired Professionals at New York's New School for Social Research, or one of the seminars he helps organize as a research associate at the Communications Media Center at New York Law School.

Actually, Mr. Trobe has to force himself to take a front-row seat. He would prefer to be working silently for what he believes, just as he did in his career as head of various major human service organizations in the United States, Europe, and Africa for over 35 years until he ''retired'' in 1977.

Since then he has devoted most of his time to educating himself in all aspects of the telecommunications revolution and using that knowledge - speaking out wherever concerned citizens allow it.

''I retired to become a student - did a paper on the television wasteland, began to take every course available on the subject as strictly a layman, until one of my professors said: 'You can make a real contribution if you concentrate on cable at this point in the history of the telecommunications revolution.' ''

The idea fascinated Mr. Trobe, and from then on the idea of comfortable retirement was replaced by the obsession with the telecommunications revolution and the need for everybody to keep up with it.

''Somebody once said that the telecommunications revolution is more rapid and more pervasive than the industrial revolution,'' Trobe says. ''I'm convinced that's true. But unlike the industrial revolution, the telecommunications revolution is dependent upon technologies that have already arrived. What hasn't happened yet is the sorting out of the business and economic judgments.

''I think we have the opportunity now to do a lot of intelligent guessing. Who would have predicted the role of the paperback, for example, at the time of the invention of the Gutenberg printing press?''

Although Trobe is interested and involved in all aspects of the wiring of America, public access is a special area of concentration for him.

''I have seen very competent people being totally ignorant of what is at stake in the franchising of cable companies, and especially in the right of public access. I'm referring to members of city planning commissions and community boards.''

What must the average citizen look for in his city as cable franchising negotiations start?

''First you must inform yourself by reading and studying. Learn what the issues are. Then, you must participate in the hearing process. I've been very disappointed by the lack of civic participation in hearings on who will get franchise rights to cable. It's very taxing to wait for 10 hours before you get your chance to be heard, but it is important that you be heard.''

Although many of the issues are complex, Mr. Trobe believes the issue of public access is comparatively simple. ''There are different types of public access. There is the municipal access, where a mayor or other public officials want to reach a broader audience than they can through newspapers and public speeches. So when the franchise negotiations are going on, they make certain to reserve at least one channel for the city.

''But the basic public-access concept in the purest sense involves reserving a number of channels on every system on a first-come, first-served basis. Anybody in the public who has a message or a talent can come with their videotape already prepared or can come to a studio and be shown how to operate the equipment and be granted air time.

''The Federal Communications Commission originally mandated that there had to be public access on every system, but the US Supreme Court ruled on a narrow issue a few years ago that Congress did not give the FCC the authority for demanding that. Now, in a period of deregulation, there's no zest to reverse that decision, for Congress to give the FCC the authority to mandate.

''Public access is crucial. There are thousands of creative persons - violinists, mimes, cartoonists, information producers - who, given the use of a studio, taught to use the camera, can enrich the lives of all the American people.''

Is there any city with a good public-access system now?

''Yes, the city of New Orleans has drafted regulations in which the community creates what in effect is a little National Endowment for the Arts in New Orleans. The cable company gives grants, the money is put in the pot, they have a distinguished body to oversee it, and they have an ordinance that backs it up.''

Jacob L. Trobe - telecommunications gadfly, No. 1 cable kibitzer, probably one of the world's most active retirees - picks up his ever-present packet of papers and prepares to move on to his next cable hearing, his next New School class, his next law school seminar. . .

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