Richmond says goodbye to its cheesiest — and most fun — TV station. Can its successor succeed at being (gasp!) serious? 

The Last Days of Blab

There's good television, there's bad television and there's TV so awful that it teeters on greatness. The kind of TV where pieces of a set crash down during a live broadcast, where eccentric callers retell stories of coughing up pieces of their tonsils. The kind where a show about irritable-bowel syndrome is a big hit.

A place like BLAB-TV, until recently Richmond's only live, call-in cable station.

Anybody with cable, and maybe a poor social life, has probably channel-surfed smack into BLAB in the course of its 13-year run. You know it. It's home to the Ben Franklin Crafts hour, to those three strange men who proudly cook everything with lard, to automotive and air-conditioning guys and countless other beloved local business owners with no stage presence whatsoever.

At the very least, you've probably marveled or howled at the infomercials for nonsurgical face-lift machines, crud-blasting contraptions you can strap on to clean your bathroom, and sunglasses that Bruce Jenner, inexplicably, is convinced will improve the colors you see.

But all that B-rate TV genius may be a thing of the past. Because BLAB-TV (long advertised as "Where the Yak Lives") was quietly led to slaughter two weeks ago by its owner, who is — surprise! — Michael Morchower, Richmond's charismatic criminal-defense attorney.

What he has in mind is this: Keep all that was debatably great about BLAB and kick it up a notch to create RICH-TV. New tag line, please: "The station that is all about Richmond all the time."

Will it be — could it possibly be — any better?

Maybe you have to be a little nuts to work in live TV. After all, it's a lot like being a NASCAR driver, accomplishing a crazy feat while viewers (and bosses) watch hungrily for the fateful mistake — no sound, wrong promo, a collapsing set.

Still, for the production crew at RICH-TV it's the chance to be the Evel Knievels of the small screen. With only four full-timers and an assorted treasure box of moonlighters that includes everything from pizza-delivery guys to accomplished documentary producers, they manage to do 12 to 14 shows live every week with "talent" who are as familiar with how to do television as they are with the Mir space station. It is, frankly, a miracle the shows look even as good as they do.

Style visited BLAB on a typical Wednesday night just before the format change. The night goes like this: six live shows, back to back. Three cameras and their operators in headsets are squeezed around a set no larger than the average kitchen. For 30 minutes the show guests speak amiably, sometimes to the wrong camera, as they try to interpret signs for "break" and "wrap it up" that — oops — the crew had no time to teach them. A guy leans over the top of a marker board writing callers' names upside down.

No sooner does the director say "wrap" than the studio looks like a shark feeding frenzy. In just three-and-a-half minutes the next show goes on, so every second is precious. Audio people charge out of the control booth, vaulting over cables and around monitors, to clip mikes on the next stars. Camera guys maneuver their lumbering, wheeled beasts to the next set and make sure they're in exactly the right spot. The guy with the marker board gets in place. All the while, the next intro is already rolling, a countdown is playing over their headsets and then, "Hello, welcome to …"

By 9:30 p.m., David Collins, the burly operations manager, is a heart attack waiting to happen. Filling in for an absent director, his shirt is untucked, he's got an acute case of bed head, and his pale skin is shiny with sweat. The bags under his blue eyes look enormous. He is huffing and puffing.

(Stephen Salpukas / Style Weekly)
Ken Mincz, owner of Mincz Tire, demonstrates an encyclopedic knowledge of wheels on "Tire Talk."
"There is nothing like the accomplishment of doing the show, especially when things go wrong," he explains after a much-needed bathroom break. "Nothing gets my blood pumping more than trying to mike a client when somebody is yelling '3-2-1' in my ear."

There are a million mistakes, large and small, to be sure. The crank callers who sneak by the operator's "idiot radar." The glass of water tipped over, the handicraft that falls apart on the air, the production person who walks in front of the camera. The kind of stuff that would make a slick network executive cringe, but for the rest of us is hilarious and beautiful in a homespun, Ed Wood way.

"I can't really explain it," says Collins, struggling to articulate the allure of even the worst talking-head show. "But you know, sometimes it's like a train wreck. It's horrible, but you just can't take your eyes off it."

That's great news for folks like Tommy Graziano, owner of Charley's Stony Point Café. The concept of a rehearsal is virtually lost on him. He, along with his brother David — a chef — Henry Reidy, owner of Strawberry Street Vineyard, put on the newest comic darling of the station, "Cooking with Fat," the Wednesday night show whose new bluesy theme song (composed by another fat-loving friend, Tray Eppes) coos: "Come on brother, just throw in another stick o' butter."

Only three weeks ago, while attempting a flambé on the show, they ignited a fireball that singed the mirror on the ceiling — all to the muffled hysterics of the production crew.

"I've actually seen bigger fireballs," explains David Graziano. "Just not inside a TV studio."

So why would a local business owner risk looking like the village idiot? And what does a powerful attorney like Michael Morchower — already well-known and relatively wealthy — want with this station?

The answer is that (1) this hybrid of advertising/public service actually works, and (2) Morchower isn't the only attorney backing this type of programming.

From a sales standpoint, doing a show on BLAB is a no-brainer. For 30 minutes a merchant can sit comfy and cozy in your living room and numb your mind with more than you ever wanted to know about stuff like car filters, wheels, craft glue and medication.

Until now, it has cost the client only $600 bucks for a half hour, and most of that has been paid by sponsors. That's cheaper, minute for minute, than network TV, radio or print ads. And the credibility is almost instantaneous, not to mention the star quality that catches everyone by surprise.

Take Eddie Knapp, host of "The A/C Doctors," who says he and his straight-man partner, Greg Cabe, "stand in front of a garage door and talk like Mutt and Jeff" about compelling topics like air-conditioning coils and compressors.

"It's the most dumbfounding thing you can imagine," he says. "I thought people would tune us out. At first, when people used to say, 'Oh I saw your show last night,' I'd say 'What, you couldn't sleep?' But they do watch, these sick people, and it's the best advertising we can do."

Jump to Part 1, 2,Part 2


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