Keeping Keep’ N It Reno
A persistent adventure host squares off with the city of Reno for uncut footage from the defunct last show
Jon Epsteyn is nothing if not determined. The city of Reno didn’t give him the title of “extreme host” for nothing on the now defunct adventure show Keep’N It Reno.
He and the city had a falling out over the public access television show and parted ways this past summer. But ever since then—like that kid trailing John Cusack in Better Off Dead: “I want my two dollars!"—he’s been calling the city or someone associated with the program nearly every day for the past four months asking that his not-yet-fully edited last episode be released to him.
But does he have a legal right to that footage?
The city says no. “Our office would argue it’s not yet considered a public record because it’s a draft, incomplete,” says chief deputy city attorney Tracy Chase.
Epsteyn, of course, thinks otherwise. Citing the $285,000 in taxpayer funds that went for KNIR’s production, he says, “For them not to show what that money went to is stealing from us.”
Here’s where the city and Epsteyn are in relative agreement:
Epsteyn, a 28-year-old Reno native with dark hair, blue eyes, a clean-shaven face and an attitude so full of energy and persistence it can be overwhelming, came up with the idea of an adventure show called Keep’ N It Reno in late 2004. He knew a lot of athletes in the area due to his years as a downhill mountain biker and a lifetime of outdoor sports. (His dad strapped him into his first skis when he was 3 years old.) He recorded a half-hour pilot episode with a friend and, in June 2005, took it to the city of Reno to see if it might be aired on the city’s Channel 13. The city told him they’d give him a film crew from SNCAT and funding for the show—everything but a salary.
So he began covering everything adventure in the Reno-Tahoe area. He interviewed wakeboarders competing at the Sparks Marina; kayakers on the Truckee; bicyclists with the Tour de Nez; a Reno-based, world champion weight lifter; he ran his first marathon in Marathon de Mayo and huffed and puffed through a triathlon at Donner Lake.
“I’m participating in every event I do,” says Epsteyn, seated in a coffee shop with sun glasses pushed atop a ski cap. “It’s like, ‘Anybody can do this! Come on out.’”
Keep’N It Reno aired twice a day, seven days a week on Channel 13. He was doing it voluntarily, working at outdoor sportswear outfitter Helly Hansen to pay the bills. After the show’s first three months, he asked the city about getting a contract so he could be paid.
Here’s where things begin to get fuzzy:
A contract proposal came in June 2006. While it said he could receive half of the money from any sponsors he could attract (not to exceed $25,000), parts of it had him concerned.
He showed the contract to some friends, who warned him it would strip him of any entitlement to the show.
“Basically, it said the city of Reno is going to take everything you’ve worked for and make it their own,” says Epsteyn. He’d just be a host, and a disposable one at that.
He decided to incorporate the name Keep’N It Reno and trademark its logo. Then he went back to the city for what he thought would be the bargaining table.
“At that point, things got pretty ugly,” he says.
He claims that Sharon Spangler of the community relations department threw the contract on the ground, telling him the city owns the show.
After six completed episodes, with no contract or copyright, Keep’N It Reno was off the air.
“The bottom line for me is he went into it knowing it was owned by the city, and he went behind our backs and did a whole bunch of stuff that was totally inappropriate,” says Steven Wright, then director of community relations. “I told him if he wants to do that, he needs to go somewhere else and use his own money, not taxpayer dollars to do the show.”
Epsteyn called SNCAT, saying he’d pay to finish the last episode himself, but he found that the city ordered that it not be released.
“Near as I can tell, we’ve never released raw footage to anybody,” says SNCAT executive director Les Smith. But he can’t recall anyone ever requesting it, either.
Epsteyn isn’t too worried about the existence of KNIR. He says he already has a cameraman and is seeking sponsors to pay for the roughly $50,000-$70,000 he’ll need to produce 10 episodes a year and buy space on a different channel.
What he wants is his last episode. He thinks he deserves it not only as the show’s host and co-creator, but also as a citizen seeking a copy of what may or may not be a public document. He says he’s willing to go to court for it. With both sincerity and the flair of a former drama student, he says, “I would die for my show. I will not rest until this show is in my hands.”
“Not everything the city does is available to the public,” says Chase. “This is not a public document like the minutes of a meeting … It’s an unedited videotape, and they don’t know for what program they’ll utilize it. But they will use the footage, and when it‘s used in final form, [Epsteyn] is welcome to have a copy of it.”
Chase says the city would apply the Donrey v. Bradshaw balancing test if it came to litigation. She says case law throughout the country—Yacobellis v. City of Bellingham, which indicated that drafts or works-in-progress are not yet public record, and Hess v. City of Saline, which found that an unedited videotape was not a public record—supports the city’s view.
Jennifer DiMarzio, an attorney with Lionel Sawyer & Collins, thinks the Donrey balancing test is an odd choice for this case. But she explains that Nevada is one of only three states that doesn’t have a clear definition of the term “public record,” so Donrey is about the only option for dealing with public records issues in the state.
“You wouldn’t get to the balancing test unless it was a public document in the first place,” she says. “Basically, that test balances the public’s interest in having open access to the government with whatever factors would give the government an interest in keeping something private, like with a police investigation. But here, I think it would be very difficult to make that argument.”
Epsteyn says that while he wants the footage for his personal use, those featured on the episode were also counting on it. Battle of the Rattle adventure race owner Johnno Lazetich and the race’s benefit organization, the Nevada Diabetes Association, want the footage of the race’s debut to show to national sponsors for support next year.
“I don’t want to go in [to sponsors] with a packet and a smile,” says Lazetich. “I want the DVD to show what we did.”
Also hoping the footage will help gain sponsors are the organizers of the Pyramid Lake Sprint Triathlon and Ted Moore, a Reno-based, senior race walker, who’s trying to get to a championship race in Italy this summer. The episode also features fly fishing with Reno Fly Shop and the annual Journal Jog.
But, as the city says, footage from the episode will likely be used somewhere. It’s just unlikely to feature the face of John Epsteyn.
“It’s good material,” says city spokesperson Chris Good. “But it’s not going to be a Keep’ N It Reno show.”