City of Angels: Speak Easy

Of course everyone is entitled to an opinion—but you have to be a Bill Gates for that opinion to make it to prime time. Until now.

From a three-story loft on Venice’s Electric Avenue, Lisa Eisenpresser and a band of couch-sleeping, jeans-wearing, self-professed start-up junkies have launched SaysMe TV, a company they insist will “democratize” television one cable ad at a time, taking paid speech out of the mouths of the wealthy few and making it available to the majority. Or in other words, give the average Joe the chance to get on a televised soapbox and say what he wants for 15 bucks.

SaysMe calls itself “a media broker for the people,” geared toward offering individuals—as in, you-and-me kind of people—the possibility of adding their two cents to the public discourse. How? By purchasing (via advertising spots on the cable-TV networks of their choice in the local markets they want to reach. That two cents ends up costing a minimum of $100, or about $15 an ad for a block of seven.

Although prime run times on some channels in big markets can cost 10 times that amount, other spots go for as little as $4. Upload your own ad or choose from SaysMe’s library of political and public-service spots. Say you’re a local cookbook author—you can shoot your own spot and promote it on the Food Network in West L.A. Or you can run your own pro-Obama ad on Fox News in Dallas-Ft. Worth just because.

While ads can be used to promote the bake sale at your kid’s school or give a shout-out to your favorite sports team (go, Angels!), the real emphasis of the start-up so far has been political—for both practical and ideological reasons. “The elections were the way we thought we could establish a brand. When people hear they can be on TV, their first question is, ‘Well, how much is that going to cost me?’ When you tell them it’s cheap, the next question is, ‘What would I say?’ Politics is just such a natural answer—especially this year,” Eisenpresser says.

It’s clear that for Eisenpresser, this isn’t just about making money. She talks with all the passion of a true believer about the ideal of common citizens being able to sway the political machine. Although the preproduced spots in the SaysMe library lean toward progressive causes and liberal candidates (read, “Obama”), antiabortion platforms and McCain ads are there, too.

“We strive hard to be a neutral platform—we realize that is the only way we can offer our service in good conscience. As a mission, we promote free speech above all else,” she says. However, ads still have to meet broadcast-cable standards and be paid for by sources that can be verified, which are then reported by the company to the Federal Communications Commission. The company itself works as the first gatekeeper and will reject ads that have no way of passing standards and practices.

A graduate of Brown University with a major in comparative literature and a minor in semiotics (the study of symbolism, in case you’ve, uh, “forgotten”), Eisenpresser started her career in television production at the news show South Africa Now. She came to L.A. in 1991 with the well-worn hope of making it in the film biz but quickly decided the burgeoning world of what was then called “interactive media” more suited her desire to “take people off the couch and put them in the driver’s seat.”

She freely admits to a career history of “always being a couple of years ahead of what has been commercially viable,” as well as to a bad call now and then. (Passing on that CD-ROM project of Martha Stewart’s? Yikes. “What I said was, ‘Who would want to mix and match linoleum tiles for their kitchen? Boring!’ ”) But now she thinks the stars have aligned—and it seems SaysMe investors, which include Intel Capital and Ashton Kutcher’s Katalyst Films, agree.

“I can’t say enough about the Internet in terms of its ability to bring like-minded people together, to mobilize them around causes, to give them tools to express themselves,” says Eisenpresser. “But if you want to rise above the noise, it is very difficult, because the Internet is horizontal by nature, broadcast many to many. If you really want to highlight something, you have to broadcast one to many, and TV is still the big stage. No matter what we say about TV going the way of the dinosaur, it’s not true. It’s just evolving.”

You could argue that the airwaves are brimming with people who think they owe the world their point of view, but SaysMe is banking on the public’s desire to get a word in edgewise. As that other presidential candidate from Illinois, Adlai Stevenson, said, “The sound of tireless voices is the price we pay for the right to hear the music of our own opinions.”