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Celebrating all things Hamilton / Welcome Message
Judy Marsales
Made in Hamilton

Community Airwaves

From Bulldogs games to debates and TV bingo to local eating, for 52 years Cable 14 has provided a platform for Hamiltonians to tell their own stories on TV.

It’s a couple of hours before the Cable 14 mayoral candidates debate is due to start and Jonathan Freedman is on his hands and knees using duct tape to secure cables running along the aisle at the Westdale Theatre.

There is a young volunteer at his side and Freedman is showing him the technique for ripping the pesky tape off the roll.

This small moment defines the approach of community TV at Cable 14. Why?

Because Jonathan Freedman is the general manager of the station. His cable-laying days should be long behind him but this is an all-hands-on-deck kind of place where teaching is in the DNA.

The station produces hundreds of hours of original content each year, from studio-produced civic affairs and lifestyle programs (and more available on-demand) to live coverage of Bulldogs hockey games, city council meetings and local events like Santa Claus parades.

There are programs you won’t see anywhere else covering things like metal detecting, bridge, nerd culture, video games and poetry. The focus is hyper-local. It’s all Hamilton all the time. 

It does all that with a staff of just 12. 

It just wouldn’t be possible without the 30 or so active volunteers who show up to operate cameras and control boards, write scripts or produce or host community-based shows. Many of the volunteers are high school students or studying broadcasting at Mohawk College. The experience at Cable 14 has launched many careers.

Others work in the industry or are retired from and pitch in at Cable 14 because they love community TV. Still others have no connection to the media industry but are fascinated by it.

There is a rush to TV, especially live broadcasts.

“You can’t fix live. Live is live and that’s exciting because it’s on the edge,” says Freedman.

Host Mike Fortune, left, prepares while Jonathan Freedman, centre, gives instructions to mayoral candidates Andrea Horwath and Keanin Loomis just minutes before the Cable 14 debate began in late September. Photo: Meredith MacLeod

Back at the mayor’s candidate debate, he flits around testing mics, stands in for the candidates to check cameras, and generally quarterbacks the team of 20. Freedman is floor manager and executive producer of the broadcast and he loves every second of it.

He joined Cable 14 in April 2020. That was supposed to be a celebratory year, marking the station’s 50 years in operation. But like so many others, that milestone was upended by the pandemic. Plans for public celebrations were shelved. 

Freedman has a long resumé in the business. He started out as a second assistant director on DeGrassi Junior High (the original one) and then produced game shows on YTV. He then shifted to PlayStation Europe to be a studio director for a new internal development studio, overseeing a technical and creative team of 50 people.

He worked for Rogers in business development and then headed up an internal creative team. A former boss encouraged him to apply for the GM job at Cable 14. 

He was interviewed virtually and appointed by the board virtually. The first months were weird – no hockey, no community events, the studio was shut down. Freedman, who lives in Toronto (but is actively looking for a Hamilton home),  concentrated on getting to know the city. He spent countless hours in Zoom meetings.

But as the world has opened up again, Freedman has come to love what Cable 14 is all about.

“It’s like nothing I’ve ever been a part of. Six months in, I realized how powerful this place is in the community and outside of it,” he says.

“It has an amazing reputation in the business and a huge footprint in the community.”

He’s watched a groom light up at the mention of Cable 14. A speeding ticket on Freedman’s way to work turned into a warning when the officer shared he had been a volunteer as a young man.

“So many people have found their place here and have helped to shape this amazing place. It’s my mission to enhance it and move it forward,” he says.

“I’m the new guy but there is an incredible group of veterans here who are pulling together great TV.”

Freedman’s mandate is to grow the number of eyeballs on Cable 14 content across various platforms, increase its social media presence and continually enhance the quality and creativity of the channel’s programming.

Priorities include significantly growing the number of volunteers – COVID took a toll there – and to increase the community-generated content. 

Cable 14 relies on a roster of dedicated volunteers to deliver its programming. Photo: Submitted

As the ranks of cable subscribers shrinks, the challenge is to get Cable 14’s content out to viewers who want anytime access at their fingertips on any device.

“This is the world every broadcaster everywhere is facing,” says Freedman.  

Jocelyn McCaskell, who is in her first year of TV Broadcasting and Communications Media at Mohawk College, did a high school co-op stint and worked part-time as a production assistant this summer at Cable 14. 

“It was an amazing experience. You get lots of hands-on experience and you can find out what you really like.”

Learning the equipment of broadcasting has been a step up in college, too, says McCaskell, 19. 

“It can be really intimidating. All the cameras and boards have so many buttons. But every single person at Cable 14 has helped me. If you make a mistake, they help you learn for the next time. And you get to do something different every single time if you want to.”

On this election debate night, there is relief among the Cable 14 team because the mayoral candidates’ square-off between Andrea Horwath and Keanin Loomis (Bob Bratina tested positive for Covid that day and stayed home) is the final one of 16 pulled off in nine days. 

It’s been an exhausting stretch wrapping up about a year of planning and preparation. But for senior manager Bill Custers, these debates are at the core of the mission of Cable 14.

Custers, who grew up in Niagara, is on his third stint at the station. He started out as a volunteer during high school, initially motivated by the chance to get into hockey games for free. He unexpectedly fell in love with community TV and with Hamilton.

So he returned after finishing college and worked at Cable 14 for 10 years. 

He left and commuted to Toronto to work for Western Coaxial, then helped to launch Pay-Per- View TV before heading up programming and marketing for Viewers Choice Canada.  

Custers, who lives in Stoney Creek, returned to Cable 14 12 years ago. It’s where he’s meant to be, he says.

“I love interacting with politicians, athletes, and public service leaders. You have to be a part of the community. It just gets in your blood.”

Those early years at Cable 14 were “baptism by fire.” He remembers hitting the streets as a mobile producer and learning on the fly. From there, he was a studio producer, volunteer coordinator and programming director. He was GM for a bit, too.

“Every job here, I’ve done.”

He returned as technical operations supervisor, heading up the station’s transition to high definition. But then he got more involved in content because he understands the community and is passionate about programming. 

The control room at Cable 14's headquarters on Dundurn Street South. Photo: Submitted

“We are a specialty TV channel just like The Food Network or The History Channel. Our specialty is Hamilton. If it’s relevant and interesting to our community, we want to be involved in it.”

But unlike traditional local TV stations, community TV allows the public to pitch, develop and create its content. In fact, about 70 per cent of Cable 14’s programming is generated by the community.

“We provide the facility, the equipment and the mentors for the community to come in, learn about TV and tell their own stories. We are almost like a public library but we help people produce TV,” Custers says.

“When people first start out, it requires a lot of handholding and teaching.”

Anna and Olivia Fasullo appreciate that approach. The mother and daughter, who own Bella Mia bridal shop on James Street North, just completed the first season of Beyond the Veil. The show features interviews with wedding industry professionals in the region, covering such topics as venues, catering, décor, favours and flowers.

“This wouldn’t be possible at all without the team at Cable 14. The producer is your guide and teacher but they gave us the space to create our own vision,” says Olivia, who has produced her own independent films.

“Cable 14 gives the spotlight and voice to the community. That’s incredibly important.”

Custers says Cable 14 also has an important role as a distributor of documentary content produced by local independent creators. 

“They might put their stuff on YouTube, but how does a viewer interested in Hamilton find that in such a wide social media landscape?” 

Custers sees a place for the contribution of Cable 14 in a city seeing a resurgence in pride on all fronts, the kind of pride folks literally wear on their sleeves. 

There are many things he’s personally proud about, but for Custers, the role Cable 14 played in informing the public during the pandemic stands out. 

The station, which was closed to volunteers, broadcasted media briefings held at City Hall and created an online platform when those briefings went virtual. 

“We worked to help the City get information out to keep people safe and balanced that with keeping our own team safe. It maybe wasn’t the sexiest TV in the world but it was vital,” says Custers.

“We know we saved lives.”

Cable 14 has also helped to launch an unknown number of careers. They include that of Sue McDonald, who recently became executive producer of CHCH News. 

She did a placement at Cable 14 while she was a broadcast Journalism student more than 20 years ago.

“Cable 14 had much more advanced equipment than what we had at the college. It was where I was introduced to editing and that’s where I got my first job.”

Jocelyn McCaskell says time spent at Cable 14 has given her plenty of hands-on experience. Now in her first year of TV Broadcasting and Communications Media at Mohawk College, she did a high school co-op stint and worked part-time as a production assistant this summer at Cable 14. 

Learning the equipment of broadcasting has been a step up in college, says McCaskell, 19. 

“It can be really intimidating. All the cameras and boards have so many buttons. But every single person at Cable 14 has helped me. If you make a mistake, they help you learn for the next time. And you get to do something different every single time if you want to.”

Did you know?

  • You can learn all about the history of Cable 14 in this documentary video.
  • Cable 14 is jointly owned and operated by Cogeco Communications Holdings Inc. and Rogers Communications Canada Inc. 
  • Cable 14 is available to about 130,000 subscribers served by Rogers and Cogeco in Hamilton and Haldimand 
  • Cable 14’s livestream can be watched by anyone
  • Kiwanis TV Bingo is Cable 14’s longest-running show at more than 50 years
  • The program has raised millions for Kiwanis causes, including more than $1 million during the pandemic
  • It takes a crew of 15 to 20, seven cameras and a mobile production unit to pull off broadcasting 30 home Bulldogs game a year
  • It takes four to six hours in set up for the game and just about as long to tear down
  • It takes about six to eight hours in planning, shooting, editing and post-production to put a half-hour show together
  • Cable 14 takes community program proposals all year long and makes choices in the spring and fall for the following seasons
  • New volunteers are welcomed three times a year in January, July, and October. No experience is necessary
  • Independent TV and short film and documentary producers are welcome to contact Cable 14 any time to explore opportunities to showcase their work

20 years on, Mike Fortune has done it all

It’s been exactly 20 years since Mike Fortune first appeared on Cable 14, hosting the long-running Kiwanis Bingo. He has done just about everything since – calling hockey and basketball games, hosting talk shows, moderating debates – and he’s become a Hamilton fixture in the process.

When he looks back at tape from those early days, he wonders why they ever kept him on air.

“I didn’t even listen as an interviewer, I was so worried about my next question.”

Mike Fortune. Photo: Submitted

Over the years, he’s studied others, asked countless questions and developed his own style. He trained himself to listen and ask follow-up questions.

“The people at Cable 14 were so understanding and so willing to work with me. I was a sponge and was so grateful for the opportunity,” he says.

“It’s helped that I’m curious. Because it’s about Hamilton, it’s easy for me to care about it.”

Fortune lobbied to get to host the station’s Bulldogs hockey broadcast and was eventually given his shot. He was terrified and overwhelmed by the commotion of live TV. He had studied everything there was to know, but his mind went blank when he went on air. 

He shares plenty of embarrassing stories, including the time he spent the entire first period in the washroom with a stomach bug and barely got through his four-minute segment before running back there again. He’s lost his voice on air, had beer thrown on him and had coaches and players yell at him.

Fortune, who grew up on the West Mountain, says his real home is in civic affairs programming and he’s hosted several programs over the years. He’s now host of The Hamilton Network

Though he lacks any formal broadcast training, Fortune comes to it naturally. His dad Brian, a financial advisor, was a fixture at Cable 14, hosting a show called Doctor of Money in the late 1980s and serving as a volunteer on a TV auction by the Rotary club. He often took young Mike with him.

“I knew the station inside and out. Community TV was a part of our life.”

Mike Fortune, right, is interviewed by CHCH-TV's Matt Ingram just before the mayoral debate began at the Westdale Theatre in late September. It wrapped up an exhausting stretch of 16 debates in nine days. Photo: Submitted

Now Fortune says he can’t imagine his life without Cable 14 and all the opportunities it’s given him to meet people, connect with leaders and take part in community events. He’s proud of the quality and professionalism of the station’s work and the platform it offers all Hamiltonians to share their stories. 

Fortune, who’s had a career in sales, marketing and business development, has raised a son and daughter with his wife Tracy in a house a stone’s throw from his childhood home. He hosts all kinds of fundraisers, galas and awards nights and always donates his fees. 

He’s been asked if he’s done with moderating election debates. His answer is to sign him up now for 2026. 

“I love every minute of it. It’s an important role for community TV to bring all the candidates to viewers’ living rooms.”

Cable 14: A Timeline

The control room in the former Hester Street location. Photo: Submitted

1970: The local specialty channel takes to the airways as Cable 8, with studios located on Hester Street on the Hamilton Mountain. Cable 8 produced programming on behalf of six cable companies.

1971: The station receives its first licence as an independent community programming network, approved and licensed by the CRTC. This remains the first and only licence of its kind in the country.

1975: Cable 8 celebrates its fifth anniversary with a shift from black and white to colour.

1982: Cable 8 changes to Cable 4 and relocates to its current location at 150 Dundurn St. S.

1986: At the request of the CRTC, Cable 4 transitions to Cable 14. 

2013: Cable 14 begins transmitting in high-definition to Cogeco, Rogers, and Source Cable subscribers in its viewing area in October.

2015: Cable 14 launches a new service that lets subscribers watch live and on-demand video content. 

2020: Cable 14 celebrates its 50th broadcast season. 

Arts for All

Judy Marsales