“These people were visiting from France, and they told me, ‘Oh, we have a saying in Europe: ‘C’est le Bronx,’ which is slang for ‘it’s messed up,’” says Michael Max Knobbe. As far away as France, it seems, the Bronx has become a symbol of urban decay and, at least by some, is used to refer to any dangerous place. “Well, no! It’s not, ‘c’est le Bronx, quel dommage’ (what a shame),” says Knobbe. “It’s ‘c’est le Bronx, vive le Bronx!’ We are proud!”
The executive director of BronxNet, a local, non-profit television network based out of Lehman College, Knobbe has dedicated his life to battling the perception that the Bronx is a synonym for “fucked up.”
When he talks about the Bronx, the borough in which he was born and loves with an old-fashioned fervor, he does so with a theatrical, gesticulating gusto. The decibel and clip at which he speaks ascends suddenly during fits of excitement. When he introduces you to a friend or local figure of significance, you may feel like a prizefighter entering the ring. Conversations always end with an invocation of “Bronx strong,” Knobbe’s trademark refrain. He is a fitness freak, a patron of Van Cortlandt Park’s cross country trails since age four, and prone to spinning around hallway corners as if he were competing against Daniel Craig for role of James Bond.
Knobbe, forty-four, has held the position of executive director since 2002. He is quick to tell anyone that the Bronx is home to more green space than any other borough. Or that the Bronx has had its own opera for forty years and is also—don’t you dare forget—where hip-hop was born. And that the Bronx is not a symbol of urban decay, but one of urban renewal. After more than two decades working in local television, the borough he loves is doing better than ever—and Knobbe wants to tell the world.
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It was in the winter of 1992, while studying painting, printmaking and graphic design in Lehman College’s M.F.A. program, that Knobbe, a native of Kingsbridge, stumbled upon a job listing for a graphic artist position posted by the then-nascent television station. BronxNet had just been founded with the support of then-borough President Fernando Ferrer and other community leaders.
Portfolio in hand, he marched on over to what is now BronxNet’s studios and entered a facility with two desks, no cameras and nothing on the air. At those two desks were the only two employees: executive director David Medina and program director Fred Weiss. Knobbe was offered a job doing branding and on-air graphics, which he soon parlayed into reporting and producing roles. A decade later, he was running the network.
“As a person who grew up in the Bronx, I saw an opportunity in these empty spaces,” Knobbe says, his voice softening with fondness. Knobbe saw the network as a vehicle to fill the gaping need for local news and empower individuals to tell the stories of the much-maligned borough.
“I started working here when there were two cameras and nothing else but an idea of a TV station. It was beautiful because everything was to be created,” production manager Marcelo Mendez says. “When you’re starting, it’s all a dream, and in the dream you don’t have any limits. If I go back and think about it, it wasn’t as big as what we have here. In my head it was a smaller TV station. This is huge. The amount of impact we have in the community is amazing.”
Today, BronxNet reaches 370,000 households and is watched in some capacity by sixty percent of Bronx residents. Funded primarily by Cablevision and Verizon, with grants from the borough president’s office, the Rockefeller Innovation Fund and other organizations, the network broadcasts a mix of in-house, professionally produced and public access programming.
The network now employs twenty-eight staff members and works with 250 high school and college students and 1,000 producers of public access programming. In 2009, BronxNet became the first community media center to broadcast on six channels. The next year, a contract negotiations with Cablevision sparked an outpouring of support. Knobbe explained that at a hearing that year, all but three of a hundred individuals testified in support of BronxNet.
Knobbe, however, isn’t satisfied. To celebrate their twentieth year in broadcasting, BronxNet is renovating and modernizing their Lehman College facility. Satellite capabilities, prompted by a community-needs assessment, are being launched at Mercy College in the East Bronx and Hostos in the South Bronx. They’ll be able to televise in high definition for the first time, and the network has acquired a small drone for capturing aerial footage. Knobbe doesn’t see a limit.
“Without Michael Max Knobbe, there would be no BronxNet,” says Justin “Baron Ambrosia” Fornal, creator of the channel’s most successful show, the Emmy Award-winning Bronx Flavor, which was transformed by the Cooking Channel into The Culinary Adventures of Baron Ambrosia. “It would just be like any old local television network.”
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On July 1, 1993, BronxNet went live with BXNY, the first daily news show dedicated to the Bronx. The following year, the network introduced performance arts programming with recordings from the Bronx Opera Company.
From the outset, BronxNet looked to partner with local community organizations, which has given the network access to a wealth of established resources and individuals, including the Hostos Center for the Arts and Culture, the Bronx Historical Society and the Hunts Point Economic Development Corporation, making the network vital to the borough in the way that an ordinary cable channel could never be.
“Through our partnerships, we leverage the best of what the Bronx has to offer,” Knobbe says. “It’s become a way for people to be aware of what’s happening in the community, and also to have a ear to the ground.”
BronxNet’s identity as a local television network evolved over the mid-’90s. From 1995 to ’98, Knobbe produced Mike Robles’s show Comedy Rhumba, a fast-paced comedy show with a freewheeling structure that Knobbe says broke new ground.
“We were doing street comedy before Punk’d was doing disruptive celebrity engagement, or Tom Green was doing disruptive street interviews, or Jay Leno was doing Jaywalking,” he says. Throughout his tenure, Knobbe has continued to bring original, culturally oriented programming in shows like Bronx Flavor. There’s also a wide range of public access programming, most of it produced by and for specific ethnic communities, such as Honduras New York, Albanian Culture In The Bronx and more recent additions like African Union Profile, for the borough’s burgeoning West African population, plus The DJ Cool Clyde Show, a talk show from the first DJ to put live scratching on a record.
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Knobbe’s office in the basement of Carman Hall is organized, if outsized: His desk is neat but bursting with folders, and there is no room to move in the cabinet behind his swiveling chair. There, an unopened bottle of Johnnie Walker Red stands out as the single luxury. A slew of awards adorn the cabinet’s ceiling, like a crown.
Freshly caffeinated, Knobbe is gearing up to show me some of the channel’s original programming. He summons a few clips from hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Melle Mel’s show Grand Master Fitness; one featuring borough president Ruben Diaz Jr.; and a promo for Art and About with Danny Hauben, a new monthly show about the Bronx artist’s creative process. Afterwards, he shows off aerial footage of Van Cortlandt Park that they captured earlier this autumn with their new drone.
BronxNet’s mission is at once to promote civic engagement, to document the rich cultural tapestry of the borough, to raise awareness about health issues and to empower voices that have otherwise been given no platform to share their stories. But Knobbe’s overarching mission remains to disrupt the negative stereotypes of the Bronx as a symbol of urban decay, and encouraging engagement, both civic and cultural.
“There’s a sensationalism that the mainstream media often focuses on that doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality, or is based on stereotypes and myths of the past,” Knobbe says, his typically enthusiastic, gonzo tone taking on a sharper, indignant edge. “If we look at what’s happening now, this community building that’s been going on because of the hard work of the leaders, organizations, and people of the Bronx, you can see it across spaces and places where there were these true challenges and problems, places that became iconic across the world. There is now housing where there were empty lots and buildings decaying.”
He complains about the decade-old HBO documentary about the Hunts Point neighborhood, Hookers at the Point, like it is a still festering wound. In response, BronxNet produced a trio of documentaries on the area that showed progress and offered reason for optimism. One dealt with the Hunts Points Produce Market, which is the world’s largest produce distribution center. Few people, Knobbe points out, know how important this place is to the foodways of the Northeast.
“It’s really about the community coming together, and telling the story of how quality of life has improved,” Knobbe says with earnest conviction, his arms ascending. “There’s a rich cultural commitment in Hunts Point and other parts of the South Bronx, and a vibrant business community there that’s alive in the wee hours of the morning. You have a model for the world.”
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In the BronxNet studio, minutes before Diálogo Abierto goes on air, the room is quiet, but the interns and fellow who linger around the stage make their excitement clear. Producer Victor Palin, a self-assured student, walks past us to greet a guest.
“Local communities have become invisible, and it’s a major problem,” explains the show’s host, Javier E. Gomez. He speaks excitedly, the joy he feels to be on this set spilling out of him. “We have lost dialogue at a very local level, and that is essential for our survival.”
The program, which he took over two and a half months ago, aired a show this month devoted entirely to diabetes. Devastating health statistics continue to plague the borough, which is statistically the unhealthiest county in the state. The show’s topic was prompted by a flood of responses to another recent program that dealt with how to eat healthy while living with diabetes. Devoting this much attention to overlapping topics, Gomez argues, would not be possible in commercial media.
“BronxNet is a vital institution for the empowerment and well-being of our local communities,” Gomez says, the clip at which he speaks now slightly slower. “We have to interrelate and that is what BronxNet does. This is television that reflects the community. We’re talking here about what people are experiencing out there.”
With Diálogo Abierto set to air in just twelve minutes, Knobbe walks back through the studio control room, where he says everyone present either was or is a BronxNet fellow or intern. He continues through the network’s editing rooms, where there are several independent producers busy at work. He explains the changes that will be made with the renovations, and how the increased studio space will create more opportunities for Bronxites.
“It’s fulfilling to work with these great people that are a part of the BronxNet team. When you see the students from across different high schools and colleges working as a team, the independent producers making programs, neighbors working together to produce programs,” Knobbe says, his cadence accelerating as he continues, his words project a booming pride that he is hopeless to contain. “You see that this is the result of positive transformation. This is aligned with the symbol of urban renewal of the Bronx, which is a model for the world.”
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Chris Crowley is a freelance journalist and the author of a longstanding column about food in the Bronx for Serious Eats: New York. You can follow him on twitter @chrisecrowley.
Emon Hassan, Narratively’s Director of Video & Multimedia, is a New York-based filmmaker and photographer. He is also a contributor to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook & Google+.