Public-access television inspires a strange kind of love.
It isn't love of fame. Public-access purists frown on self-promotion.
It isn't an ironic love of the lo-fi. Nor is it geek love of technology, because public access has precious little of that.
True believers love public access because of what it is: Public. Weird. Angry. Irrepressible. It is free speech in its purest form. As long as it isn't commercial, obscene, libelous, threatening or violating a copyright, public access can be anything you want it to be.
Richmond's public-access television station once was a force to be reckoned with. Elected officials such as former mayor L. Douglas Wilder and former councilman Sa'ad El-Amin, and local luminaries such as August Moon, were regulars on the air. Seven years ago demand for airtime was so high that the station ran more than 200 different live and taped programs.
With the advent of YouTube and on-demand cable, the golden age of public access faded. In Richmond it's being kept alive by a tiny handful of volunteers and the grudging generosity of a behemoth cable company — though the station's former director says Comcast intends to close its live studio in four years.
Does it matter? Is anyone watching? In an age of infinite digital entertainment, does the city need people squawking and preaching and singing on Channel 95?
One thing is certain: It'll take more than love to save public access.
Arthur Johnson Jr. (call him A.J., everyone does) was the longtime don of public access programming in Richmond. For 23 years Johnson presided over the region's single public-access studio. Housed in one side of Comcast's service center on North Boulevard, the small studio is available for use by any resident of the Richmond area — free. Despite having ancient equipment and a budget of $0, Johnson and a loyal corps of volunteers held the place together.
Johnson was known for his unflappable approach to managing chaos. When Ku Klux Klan members wanted to produce a program, he helped them. When one man demanded his show air every day, forever, Johnson listened politely. The man did six shows and disappeared. When people called for Gorgeous George Yarid's variety show to be canceled after he let some F-words fly in an on-air meltdown, Johnson refused.
In all his years with public access, Johnson never kicked anyone off the air. "Because I believe that public access is for the public," he says, "and everybody has a right to express their opinion."
But some volunteers thought he was permitting a lax atmosphere. At a meeting in October they told Johnson they wanted the authority to penalize show hosts who showed up just five minutes before airtime, forcing technicians to scramble. Johnson told them to relax. "The fact that I said this is just public access — that infuriated them," Johnson says.
"His attitude was, 'It's just public access,'" longtime volunteer Andwele Gardner says. "Man, that really set me off."
The battle began. Gardner and other volunteers complained to Johnson's boss and began holding clandestine meetings. When Johnson found out, he decided to shut down the entire volunteer program. The volunteers retaliated with a Facebook campaign and complained to Comcast officials. Johnson was difficult to reach, Gardner says, and delegated too many of his responsibilities to volunteers.
Johnson says he worked diligently to improve the station, hounding Comcast for the money to paint the studio and even scrubbing the bathrooms himself when the company wouldn't provide cleaning services. He never got a bad review, he says, and received only one raise in the 12 years he was a contract employee.
On Jan. 13, Comcast's manager of production, Derek Seibert, called Johnson and told him his services were no longer required.
"I said, 'Wowww,'" Johnson recalls.
Johnson, 48 and a father of six, later asked if he could get three months' severance pay and free cable for two years. He says Seibert agreed to pay him for February.
The volunteers got what they wanted. Comcast replaced Johnson with Martin Stith, head of the Chesterfield County public access channel, which airs only prerecorded shows, and turned the station's operations over to the volunteers.
Will that save public access in Richmond? Or kill it?
"'P Show.' You have a question or comment?"
It's 6 p.m. Tuesday, and Gardner mans the phones and switchers for "The P Show." Host Pumpkin Green and co-host Anthony Turner are talking about sex and open relationships. It's a hot topic. The phone keeps trilling. Gardner picks up again.
"You have a question or comment?"
After Johnson was fired, new station manager Stith gave Gardner and the other volunteers free rein. "He's really letting us make the improvements," Gardner says with satisfaction.
That freedom didn't come with a budget. But they say they're doing the best they can. Gardner has put up a Producers' Wall of Fame, showing the faces of the six senior volunteers who keep everything running. One volunteer paid to have the giant backdrop curtain cleaned. Another donated some carpet.
None of this has helped the station's fundamental problem: It looks awful.
The mauve curtain. The dowdy office chairs. The fake ficus tree. Together they scream amateur hour. And every live show looks exactly the same.
"Oh my God," host Green says. "The props. This station needs a makeover."
Part of the problem is the technology, or lack thereof. Between taped shows, the colored-bar test pattern flashes on screen. The control room communicates with the studio with hand signals or handwritten cards.
Comcast has provided some recent upgrades, including two tripods (they wobble). "It's hand-me-downs, but it's better than what we had," Gardner says. Comcast has promised him the equipment salvaged from the next local television station that closes, he says.
"Within the past year and a half, Comcast has continued to make improvements to the studio, including updating equipment and lighting, repainting, and will continue to invest in improvements to the studio as needed," says Alisha Martin, senior manager of public relations for Comcast, in an email.
Gardner has a wish list. "We need tripods," he says. "We need one camera, to make a total of three. We need a teleprompter. We need an intercom system. With that, we could put on some quality programming." He estimates the cost of that equipment, minus the camera, at around $16,000.
Another problem is people. At a normal public-access station, Gardner says, producers would schedule shifts of well-trained volunteer technicians. "But here you have permanent volunteers. A permanent schedule." The six producers manage three live shows per day, four evenings a week. If they don't show up, the show doesn't go on.
They need more volunteers, training and fresh-faced hosts. They need new shows that aren't religious.
"It's really been a struggle," Gardner says.
But he won't give up.
"I do it because I support freedom of speech," he says, "And this can really be a powerhouse if used correctly."
Gardner has a vision. If the station could get new equipment, the programming would look more polished. That would help the station attract more show producers and more volunteer technicians. And if it could hit a certain number of new shows each week, "we could get another station."
The phone rings again.
"Caller, you there? Hey caller, you there? Helloooo, caller?"
Public access was born in the '70s and came of age in the '90s. Now it faces a midlife crisis.
In 1972 the Federal Communications Commission ruled that cable companies in the top 100 U.S. television markets had to provide access channels for educational, local government and public use.
Then 1984's federal Cable Communications Act allowed local governments to negotiate franchise agreements with cable companies, in which they could require companies to provide facilities and channels for public, educational and governmental programming, known by the acronym PEG. Richmond and Henrico County, among other localities, have such franchise agreements. The contracts say Comcast shall provide PEG channels, but providing a live studio is purely voluntary on Comcast's part.
In the 1990s, public access was — dare we say it? — popular. King Salim Khalfani, now executive director of the Virginia state conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, had the very first live show on Richmond public access: "African Perspectives," which began around 1990 and ran for seven years. Public access launched political careers and provoked lively debate, Khalfani says: "Some shows had a lot of viewers that I think even competed with some of the regular fare that might have have been on."
In the early '90s, Johnson met Chuck D. of Public Enemy, who was fond of public access TV. The rapper said he always watched public access: "He said, 'I love it, man, because it lets me know what the mind is and the thought process is in the city.'"
During the last decade a few things changed. The addition of hundreds of channels and on-demand programming added competition and made it less likely viewers would stumble upon an unknown station by channel surfing. Locally, public access got bumped from Comcast Channel 6 to Channel 95.
And oh yeah, the Internet. With a cheap video camera and a computer, anyone could have a show.
Now public access is losing ground nationwide. Los Angeles, the media capital of the world, turned off all its public-access channels in 2009.
Three years earlier, the state legislature had voted to release cable television providers from their obligation to financially support public-access studios and channels. Instead, the law said, local governments would bear the costs. Los Angeles wasn't about to pay the bill. The city decided to close all 12 public access studios and 14 community channels.
The decision injured the community, Leslie Dutton says. She's the producer of Full Disclosure Network, the only public-access show ever to win an Emmy for public affairs programming. Dutton and other advocates formed the Public-Television Industry Corp. and presented a detailed plan to the city to restore four channels. Nothing happened. The group is searching for a lawyer to mount a legal appeal.
Without public access, the city has lost "the free discussion of issues involving the community," Dutton says. The government can operate without scrutiny.
"It's dark days," she says.
In a time of limitless media options, does Richmond really need public access television? It's difficult to say.
Comcast doesn't track public-access ratings. Never has. The best way to gauge its relevance is to ask a few questions, says Walter J. Podrazik, consulting curator for the Museum of Broadcast Communications.
How many people produce local shows? (Maybe 100.) Do other local media outlets refer to the shows? (No, unless you count this article.) Do Richmonders recognize people from public-access TV? (Sometimes.)
"There's still a growing interest in it," says Johnson, who hopes to continue hosting his own show. (He's currently working as a family counselor and looking for another part-time job.) During the last two weeks of 2011, when he took requests for new shows, he received about 70 calls.
Arguably the most popular program is "The Gorgeous George Show," a variety show helmed by George Yarid since 1994. Yarid, resplendent in a red satin robe, and his co-host, Kevin, perform skits and monologues, sing and dance, and rarely pick up the ringing phone. Yarid disdains the "idiot callers," most of whom are dedicated hecklers.
"If they had ratings, I know that I would get the ratings," Yarid says. "I don't say that to be arrogant or cocky. It's just that I know." Yet he acknowledges that viewership has declined.
Public access can make you famous, Yarid believes. For 18 years, he's been waiting for the call to move up to the big leagues. Specifically, "taking away Jimmy Kimmel's job."
Public access is the public square, says City Councilman Marty Jewell, who co-hosts a live program called "If I Had a Hammer." As an elected official, Jewell says, he's been influenced by what he sees and hears on the channel. "Public access is important," Jewell says, "and to let it go into utter disrepair to me is problematic. The public deserves access to their own airways."
Public access can change lives, says Anthony Johnson (no relation to A.J. Johnson) a former crack addict who's now a minister. During the 10-year run of his "Substance Abuse Ministry" show, Johnson invited viewers to call his personal number. They did. One was Magnus Jenkins Jr., a heroin addict for 35 years who quit when he saw the show on TV. "Got delivered," Johnson says. "Set free from drugs."
"I believe in the community access channel," the minister says. "I really do."
A lot of people do. But Comcast doesn't, A.J. Johnson warns. He says that after he was fired, Comcast's Seibert told him, "Well, we're trying to shut them all down." The cable company wants to close the studio or get the city to take over, Johnson asserts.
"Comcast is committed to our local communities," says Martin, the Comcast spokeswoman. She points to local features the cable company offers, such as its Newsmakers segments and "Get Local" content on demand, which showcases pet adoptions and local most-wanted criminals.
The station volunteers started the Public Access Producers Association in January to rally the faithful and get more people involved. Gardner says volunteers plan to go as a group to City Council to ask for what they need: more money, more equipment, more support.
Residents already have asked the city to support the studio financially, city spokesman Michael Wallace says in an email. The city has no authority over the channel, Wallace says, and "operation of the channel and studio is a Comcast business decision. Comcast provides the public access channel and studio to its subscribers in the City, and several surrounding counties, but it is not mandated to do so by the City of Richmond and may cease channel operation and close studio facilities as it so desires."
The city has collected more than $1 million in fees from cable providers since 2007, which Wallace says can be used only for capital costs related to a government-provided television channel or studio. The city plans to build a new studio for its own Channel 17, the government-access channel that airs announcements and City Council meetings.
Public-access advocates might have more luck with Henrico. The county's contract with Comcast is up for renewal next year. As part of its franchise negotiations, the committee will consider asking Comcast to reinvest in the studio, says Paul Proto, an adviser to the committee and former head of Henrico's Department of General Services.
In the meantime, it looks like public access will have to save itself.
To get people to watch, Channel 95 will have to win a place in people's hearts — and remotes. "Public access has to be able to sell their niche," Podrazik says, and reach a high enough level of quality to be attractive to viewers. In other words, he says, "the plastic plants better look good." If they can't improve, he says, perhaps the emphasis will switch from maintaining a public studio to people producing shows with their own equipment.
Johnson, despite his firing, wants public access to succeed as much as anyone. What the volunteers should do, he says, is make it so big Comcast can't shut it down.
It's just after 7 p.m. Tuesday, and the hosts of the raucous "P Show" are leaving the studio. The host of the next program arrives: Hasan Zarif, a chaplain who's wearing a gray suit, lavender-striped tie and weighty silver cross.
Zarif also is a convicted murderer. After receiving a life sentence in 1973 for fatally shooting a woman, he was paroled in 1989. Then-Gov. Tim Kaine pardoned him in 2007 because of his exemplary behavior and efforts to turn his life around.
Now he works as a chaplain and re-entry specialist for Goodwill Industries, and serves as host of a motivational public-access show, "God's Intervention Ministry." Tonight his guest is another former inmate who served 37 years in prison and has turned his life around.
"That's what the show is about tonight," Zarif says. "Proving the naysayers wrong."
Isn't that what every public-access show is about?
Despite the shaky cameras, the shabby plants, the mauve curtain, Zarif is amped.
"It's almost show time," he says to himself while he paces in the studio. "It's almost show time." S
Correction: Style incorrectly listed the age of Arthur Johnson Jr., who is 48.