December 08, 2004 News & Features » Cover Story


Me TV 

Wild-eyed ranting. Raw entertainment. Earnest advice. The eclectic world of cable access.

It is the Everything Channel. About 200 different programs air every year on Comcast Channel 6, Richmond's public access channel. Anyone can produce a show, because the government says so.

Channel 6 is difficult to watch sometimes — the sound may be faint, the picture webbed with fine lines, the colors askew. But the hosts of most shows, whether live or taped, speak to the camera as fervently as if the world were rapt. They know that if they try hard enough, they can seize your attention in that second before you flip past on your way to familiar TV. They're the stars of the channel that nobody watches but everyone sees.

Channel 6 emanates from a small, shabby studio on the Boulevard, just north of Broad Street. Open the door to the storefront where you pay your cable bill and there it is, just to the left, behind a glass door marked "Public Access."

It's a cramped little space: one control room, one storage room, a small office and the studio. All the live shows are filmed here, on this gray-carpeted platform with a backdrop of turquoise panels and mauve curtains. A dozen fake plants in baskets provide camouflage for wires and, when artistically placed, a touch of class.

One man serves as station manager, producer, scheduler, mentor, professor and patriarch: Arthur "A.J." Johnson Jr.

Johnson, 41, presides affably over the tornado of activity that descends on the tiny studio during the live shows, which generally run from 6 to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday.

On a recent Wednesday, the live lineup begins with "Vea La Voz Latina," a Hispanic talk and music-video show, followed by "What's on Your Mind," in which friends Kenneth McMahand and Lawrence "Money" Macklin sit and laugh and give advice to anyone who phones in. Most of these seem to be friends and acquaintances of McMahand, who's a contractor, pastor, investor and seasonal "Soul Santa."

"From the barbershop, right?" he asks when someone named Calvin calls. He is right.

"I'd like to say happy birthday to my dad," a woman says.

"Happy birthday, William!" McMahand says, grinning. He exhorts his audience to bring toys to the station next Wednesday for a Christmas drive, sounding confident that they will hear, and the studio will be filled.

Johnson's son Tré, age 13, acts as operations manager tonight, cueing up intros and adjusting cameras as effortlessly as his father does. "I've been here ever since I was a little kid," he says.

Tré Johnson pokes his head around the door when someone calls into the studio and holds up his fingers to indicate which line they're on. During interludes, the younger Johnson routes his Xbox system onto Channel 6 so Richmond can watch him gun down squealing aliens in a game called Halo.

"Ready, Dad?" he asks.

"Yeah," Johnson replies. It's time for his financial education program, "Mind Your Own Business."

"Three seconds!"

"Tré, push the button," his dad says, sounding a bit aggravated.

"I got this," he shoots back.

A.J. Johnson introduces his friend, a real estate investor, and they discuss how to get started in real estate and how to learn from one's mistakes. A hesitant young woman calls. She and her husband just moved here, she says, and they're realizing they'll never get ahead just by working their jobs. "We're really wanting to do something different," she says, as a small child burbles in the background. Johnson gives her his personal cell number and tells her to call him. He'll give her advice, books to read. "We'll see how serious you really are," he says. And she thanks him, sounding hopeful.

When "Mind Your Own Business" is about to end, the doorbell rings and the invasion begins. The control room fills with hoodies, band T-shirts and experimental haircuts, as the cast, crew and guests of "Wednesday Night Karate Explosion!" swarm into the room.

The show features neither karate nor explosions, explains host Michael Raftery, a Virginia Commonwealth University freshman, like most of those assembled. Instead, it showcases local bands, indie art and movies, and plenty of talk.

Tonight there is no topic. "I don't care," Raftery says. "Call on the phone and start talking about drugs. I need some fodder." So they do. Co-host Brendan Ferreri-Hanberry shows Richmond his tattoo of a psychoactive psilocybin molecule. They play "a weird short film" someone handed them, then local band Cinema Sophia performs.

Why have all these computer-literate young folk seized onto the technologically backward medium of television? "Public access is immediate," Raftery says. "It's completely live." And they love getting phone calls — 75 to 150 per show is typical, he says — pranks, insults and incomprehensible utterances included.

The show goes on late into the night. Johnson stands and watches over all the chaos, unperturbed. "I'm used to it," he says. This is Channel 6, after all.

A.J. Johnson believes in public access. "The nature of it is for everybody to have access," he says simply. That means you're welcome to put on a show no matter what language you speak, no matter what beliefs you hold. He once assisted some Ku Klux Klan members who wanted to do a program. "Nice guys, off-camera," he says with a shrug.

Johnson began volunteering here 15 years ago, when Richmond public access television was still in its infancy. He had recently bought a video camera for filming business weddings and parties and needed to use some editing equipment. When he showed up at Channel 6, he was told he could use their facilities only if he helped out around the studio. He did, and never left.

When the former community access coordinator left in 2000, Comcast asked Johnson to take over. He was amazed when they said they'd pay him, he says — he would have kept doing his job free. "I just love people, and I just love the diversity of programming that's here," he says.

At one time, the channel was known only as a religious station, Johnson says. Programming still leans heavily toward the spiritual, because so many churches deliver tapes of services they want to be broadcast. But in Johnson's tenure, he has made it a priority to seek out different voices. Latino music videos and talk are recent additions, as is a show featuring the latest Indian movies and music.

Johnson's official job is, as he describes it, "to facilitate public access, to make it fair and equitable for everybody." But he also takes it upon himself to recruit as many new show hosts as he can. "I tell everybody. Everybody I meet," he says. He approaches students at VCU and Virginia State University. When he hears an unusual radio program he tells the DJs they ought to start a show. "People call in and complain about shows, and I offer them a show."

It's not that Channel 6 is hurting for programming. The demand for airtime for live shows is so high that Johnson schedules them only for six-week runs. Three shows per day, three days per week, in eight batches per year, equals 72 different live programs. Johnson reserves the last two weeks of the year just to do scheduling — already he has live shows lined up for every available slot in 2005. "It's amazing," he says.

Some longtime public access hosts hate the rotation system, Johnson says. If their show has been on the air for five years, they argue, why shouldn't they get more air time than novices? But Johnson believes firmly that public access means equal access. He could be on the air every night, if he wanted to. "But I won't do that."

Johnson also has a list of 134 groups and individuals who submit taped shows with varying degrees of regularity. Some are national groups, such as the Nation of Islam, the Assemblies of Yahweh and the Nation of Yahweh. "I like it more local," Johnson admits, but he runs the syndicated programs when Richmond representatives of those groups request them.

There are hardly any rules defining a taped show. Hand Johnson a tape or DVD of your dog catching Frisbees, of your UFO sightings, of your Saturday night pub crawl. He'll put it on the air and call you to let you know when it's scheduled.

The free-speech nature of community access was mandated in 1984, when Sen. Barry Goldwater wrote the Cable Communications Act. The act allowed local governments to require cable companies to provide public, educational or government channels. More significantly, it stated that cable operators did not have the power to censor, alter or ban material on public access television, and were freed from responsibility regarding what was aired.

A later U.S. Supreme Court decision ruled that cable operators could refuse to transmit programs that contained obscenity. On Richmond's Channel 6, you may not promote a business, or air profanity or nudity, although occasionally a breast or two may slip through in a music video. Elsewhere, things are different.

For example, the late-night offerings on public access Channel 15 in Akron, Ohio, include "Illmatic TV," a variety show featuring music, interviews, strippers and porn clips, and "The 5 Dolla Half Hour," which consists of a local guy and his buddies smoking marijuana.

Akron citizens recently organized a group called Actively Reviving Ohio Communities to get the offending programs pulled. But officials with the city and Time-Warner Cable said there was nothing they could do besides scheduling such programming from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. and filtering the channel from the homes of people who opted out.

Richmond's public access shows seem to be far more sedate than Akron's (who would have thought?). But Channel 6 does boast an abundance of eccentricity.

A man wearing a yellow jumpsuit and executing tae kwon do moves in a park, while a boom box on the ground provided background music.

A local plumber donning white robes covered with red paint and toting a wooden cross around Richmond for his program, "The World for Jesus."

One guy just saying to the camera: "Give me a call. You got questions, we got answers. Give me a call." And on it goes, until blessedly, someone calls.

"I think that for some people, public access is like therapy," Johnson muses.

His favorite was "an older guy who had no teeth in his mouth. ... He used to bang on the podium and sing Christian songs." That was the whole show: banging and singing. Johnson loved it. He'd air them again, he says, if he could; when the man died a few years back, his family came and collected all his tapes.

There's no accurate way to measure how many people watch public access. A lot, Johnson thinks. "I know people who have basic cable just for this channel," he says. About 150,000 Comcast subscribers in Richmond, Henrico County and surrounding areas receive Channel 6.

Nationwide, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Community Media, about 1 million public access volunteers produce more than 20,000 hours of new local programming each week — more than all the programming produced by NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX and PBS combined.

Why throw your message out into the world, borne aloft in the ether, when you have no idea if anyone's listening? Why fuss with your set and press your best clothes when, chances are, anyone who sees you is merely clicking past on the way to "Monday Night Football" or "Best of Best Week Ever"?

It's "a sense of community — a sense of doing something," says Andwele Gardner, a station volunteer who spent many years working on public access in Hawaii. "It's the opportunity to put your mind out there."

Fred Wyatt, sometime-host of "Mind Your Own Business," describes the impetus as having "something that feels as if it's great information for others to know." Wyatt, a 27-year-old mortgage broker with a penchant for percents and proverbs, felt he needed to share his financial knowledge.

"Ninety-eight percent of everybody that works a job cannot be financially independent by the time they retire," he says. "Ninety-eight percent basically die broke." That's ridiculous in a country brimming with investment opportunities, Wyatt says. "Being broke in America is like starving in a grocery store." So on his show, which Johnson began and also hosts, Wyatt offers advice on books to read, buying real estate and getting started in business.

Dyane Pergerson, who owns Kanawha Medical Supply, says she was encouraged by Johnson and friends to host a health show. On her four-year-old program, "The Better Way to Health," Pergerson and her co-host, Dr. Theodore Watkins, discuss health topics and take viewer calls. "It's just a burden on my heart that most of what we suffer from is preventable," Pergerson says.

One young woman called Pergerson, she says, to thank her for a recent show on diabetes. "She said, 'I know that it was not by accident that I tuned in and watched that, because I know that it's going to save my fiancé's life.'" The couple joined Pergerson's free weight-loss class and told her it was a decision they knew would change their lives.

More and more people call all the time, Pergerson says, and she feels it's because they sense the "spiritual purpose" of the show. "When people call us," she says, "there is a connection that is in place already, and I believe it really is the hand of God, directing all of us."

Many show hosts say God nudged them toward public access TV.

Bertha Phaup Hinson, 77, met a psalmist a few years ago at a conference of a Christian group called A Company of Women International. A psalmist, she explains, is someone who hears the word of God and "will sing it forth in a prophetic voice." He asked her name, she says, and "the biggest old smile" grew on his face. He sang to her and said she would "berrrrthh" something great. That turned out to be her Christian interview show, "Beauty From Ashes."

When she started six years ago, Hinson says, she scarcely knew how to set her VCR. Now she's on three local public access stations and has converted her front bedroom into a taping studio, complete with a computer and editing equipment that can produce VHS tapes or DVDs. She interviews veterans, ministers, healers and friends. "I get so excited I can hardly stand it," she says.

Public access television as we know it began in 1972, when the FCC decreed that all cable companies in the top 100 U.S. television markets would be required to provide access channels for educational, local government and public use. Anyone was guaranteed at least five minutes of free airtime, and the cable companies had to provide the facilities and equipment needed to produce a show. Town and city governments later worked out franchise agreements with the cable companies, in which the companies agreed to provide funding and facilities to support public access.

The city of Richmond has such a franchise agreement, but nowhere does it say how much money or what equipment Comcast must provide.

"Never had a budget," Johnson says. The equipment is mostly 10 to 15 years old and as basic as it gets. Two small sound boxes atop the monitors are labeled with masking tape: "out there" and "in here." In the studio, there are two lights and two cameras. There's no intercom system for the control room to communicate with camera operators, so they resort to frantic hand signals and flashing laminated sheets of paper: "Line 2" or "Five Minutes."

Recently, Comcast provided two new cameras. "Fantastic, if you ask me," Johnson says of the new equipment. Station volunteer Gardner is less impressed. Using the new cameras with the existing equipment, he says, is like driving "a brand-new Mercedes with an old engine." He shakes the dollies that hold up the cameras. "These are ancient," he says.

"From the city's perspective, it's a matter of image. How does that channel reflect the city?" says Michele Quander-Collins, communications director for the city of Richmond. Quander-Collins says she's seen public access channels in many other cities and Channel 6, though full of good material, just doesn't look as professional. "This is truly a very low-budget investment in public access," she says.

But that's going to change.

In mid-November, the city of Richmond organized a public hearing on public access, after Comcast filed a request to renew its franchise agreement with the city. Its current 15-year agreement will end in December 2006.

At the hearing, Quander-Collins says, "most of the comments were complaints — about the equipment, the condition of the equipment, what they saw as a lack of investment from the company in the public access operation."

The city doesn't have the authority to compel Comcast to sink thousands into public access, but Quander-Collins says, "I believe we got sort of a tacit commitment from Comcast" to improve operations. Better than that, Johnson says, the company just gave him the green light to start pricing and ordering new equipment.

In the meantime, Johnson has some ideas for improving Channel 6. Next year he plans to make a training course mandatory for would-be producers, to standardize show quality. That could teach people to look at the cameras, not the monitors in the studio (which gives them a curious heavenward gaze) and not to scream into the microphone. The course might also help those who submit staticky, barely audible taped shows.

Johnson hopes, too, that those who become accomplished hosts will move on to greater things — like Channel 7, RICH-TV, which boasts sponsors and more professional-looking sets for its informational shows. "There's no reason for you to be on here for 15, 20 years and not perfect your craft," Johnson says.

Of course, even the most experienced studio techs can't keep everything going perfectly. On the most recent broadcast of Pergerson's show, a guest pastor appeared to be moving in jerky slo-mo. "It's the strobe, somebody hit the strobe," Gardner said, and hastily switched it off. Other times a camera cuts off someone's chin, or theme music starts playing suddenly, or colored bars flash across the screen. The host just shrugs and talks on.

Hecklers and pranksters are common, and usually the hosts ignore them — except for the "Karate Explosion!" hosts, who revel in insulting calls, and Tré Johnson, who occasionally hosts a kids' show, "Who Dat Is." People call in and talk about issues, "and then we'll just hang up on them in their face," he explains. "Adults call in and they were getting smart with us and then we hung up on them too."

There's one man with four personalities who's fond of several shows, including Johnson's. "He would call two or three minutes before the start of the show and say, 'I'll hold.'" The man speaks his piece, hangs up, then calls again with a different name — Howard, or Mike, or sometimes Giovanni — unaware that caller ID and a distinctive stammer reveal his game. But neither Wyatt, nor Johnson, nor anyone else tells "Howard" they know it's all the same man. He's their biggest fan, after all. And on Channel 6, audience is a precious commodity. S



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