Five, four, three, two, one --
"Now," says television producer David Aponte.
Richmond band the Milkstains strike a few ominous chords and launch into full-speed surf rock, instruments silhouetted on the screen. Off-camera, "86 Reality" co-hosts Michael Raftery and Leo Heinzel bob their heads. "Woo," someone says.
With stacked amps, colored lights and thrashing hair, the Milkstains generate enough energy to fill a club. But they're playing in a space the size of a bathroom — you could call it the green room, if you were feeling generous — in the Comcast public-access television studio on the Boulevard.
This is "86 Reality." In an unusual move for Richmond public-access programs — most of which are live talk shows or taped religious shows — Raftery brings bands into the studio on Tuesday nights. After the show wraps at 10, the musicians head to the Nile Ethiopian restaurant to play a free concert.
It's essentially loud music and local art "presented in an unpretentious way," Raftery says. The idea is to create a trail head for Richmonders to begin exploring their city's sounds, he says.
Is it working? Maybe. About 50 people come out to the Nile on a good night. They also watch the show at Xtreme Pizza on Broad Street and Bogart's in the Fan. The studio gets lots of phone calls. And hey, it's fun.
"It's our dream," co-creator J.K. Kassalow says. "Our dream as teenagers to take over the TV station."
In 2004, Raftery — then a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University — and Kassalow ventured into public-access programming with "Wednesday Night Karate Explosion." It had neither karate nor explosions, but was a loosely organized talk show featuring local bands and filmmakers. And once, a mayonnaise-eating contest, which was won by consuming an entire jarful in 45 seconds — no hands allowed. "It was pretty goofy," Raftery says.
But it also gave him and his cohorts the experience they needed to make "86 Reality" work. He originally planned to have bands perform at the nearby Slave Pit, Gwar's headquarters, and run a 600-foot cable from there into the public-access studio. But when they tried it, "a fucking fire truck" ran over the cable, Raftery says. The plan was abandoned.
Instead, they brought groups into the tiny green room at the studio, setting up a few VHS cameras to film them. Why VHS? They're cheap, Kassalow says, and expendable: "We've had shows where they've been thrown over and stuff." Raftery, while working as a janitor at the Children's Museum of Richmond, salvaged an early-'90s Videonics digital video mixer that was destined for the trash.
Before the show begins at 9 last Tuesday night, Raftery and the crew embark on what must be the fastest switch-up the station's ever seen. Amps arrive. A striped sofa goes out. In just 15 minutes, the green room has become a performance space and the studio has been redecorated. A golden cat figurine waves gaily from the hosts' desk, above a large red banner that says "We're cool with it."
"It's kind of an organizational mantra," Raftery explains.
Patty Conway, Raftery's girlfriend, scans the setup on the control-room monitors: cat, banner, fake ficus trees. "Yeah. That looks great," she says. "That's so 'Wayne's World.'"
After the Milkstains perform, Raftery rolls video of live performances from local bands, including Boney Loner and the Nervous Ticks. Many of these were shot in the last few weeks by Raftery or Kassalow, who works as a sound engineer at Strange Matter. They're trying to build a substantial collection of local band footage, from every genre, Kassalow says: hip-hop, punk, metal, experimental. Recording, watching, processing and editing the footage — all on videotape — takes a tremendous amount of time. But it's a worthwhile investment in local music, Raftery says. The payoff "is to keep doing it."
After the band videos play, the Milkstains step into the studio for an interview about their new album. The phone in the control room rings and rings while viewers dial the number on-screen.
"Hello, '86 Reality,'" Raftery's girlfriend Patty Conway says sweetly. "You want to talk to them? Sure, just a second."
"Yeah. Uh," the caller says. He asks why the drums are so loud.
"Because rock 'n' roll music is loud?" Milkstains drummer Raphael Katchinoff says. "I don't know, man."
"86 Reality" broadcast its last live show of the year Sept. 11; Raftery expects to continue the show in late winter or early spring 2013 on Comcast channel 95 and Verizon channel 36. Full episodes can be seen on 86reality.com. The Milkstains play Strange Matter on Sept. 14 with the Turbo Fruits (see page 36)