For the people 

Everybody can get in on the act on public access TV

In 1896, an inventive Italian named Guglielmo Marconi arrived in England with a locked black box full of complex-looking wires and tubes, which he planned to show to officials in the British Post Office. Conscientious customs officers promptly smashed Guglielmo's box to bits, thus destroying one of the world's first functioning radios. They thought it was a bomb.

Since then, governments and big business have fought skirmish after skirmish with enterprising enthusiasts like Marconi, whose invention ushered in the age of broadcasting. The first two decades of the 20th century were a Golden Age for wireless. Almost anyone could afford to play with the new toys, and the airwaves were humming with the messages of amateur radiomen, known as "hams." They played instruments and records, and testified, gossiped and ranted on politics and the liberating power of radio to anyone and everyone who happened to be listening. Their reach was limited (puny transmitters), but their scope was broad.

By 1919, however, the Man realized the awesome tactical potential of wireless communications. Eager to put dibs on a chunk of the electromagnetic spectrum, the federal government hopped into bed with industry giants like AT&T and GE, eager to make wireless pay its own way by selling patent licenses and soap.

One of the last bastions of the fierce pioneer spirit of that Golden Age is Public Access Cable. Local, non-commercial and amateur activity was even rarer in the arena of radio's monstrous offspring, television. Before 1976, the dial was dominated by the Big Three networks, syndicated commercial stations and Public TV backed by the federal government and small businesses like the Ford Motor Co.

But when the FCC grudgingly began to grant licenses to cable providers in the late '70s, it inadvertently struck a blow for getting the voice of the Little Guy back on the air. In exchange for allowing cable barons exclusive permission to gouge the hell out of people who just can't live another day without "Iron Chef," local governments required cable companies to make channel space accessible to governments, school boards and hard-working schlubs like you and me.

A throwback to the good ol' days when amateur operators could create networks on the neighborhood scale, access television bucks the trend toward nationalization and even internationalization of media by putting cable TV back in our own backyards. Access TV, which reaches only those cable subscribers (and cable thieves, let's be inclusive here) within a given franchise area, tends to focus far more on issues and audiences closer to home. It's not just TV by the People and for the People, it's TV by the People and for the People Next Door. And in case you haven't been watching your own local cablecast, you've got some interesting neighbors.

Atlanta-area cable-ites can enjoy several access outlets on their cable dial, including county government and educational channels, but public access is where the action is. If variety is the spice of life, then public access is the real Spice channel. At PeopleTV (PTU), Atlanta's public access channel renowned for launching the career of cross-dressing celeb RuPaul, head honcho Alison Fussell says the station's 75 producers can do virtually anything they want, from political forums to unconventional sports and entertainment programming to religious shows dedicated to 31 flavors of God. Anything goes on PTV, says Fussell, provided it doesn't violate the station's LOAF law, which prohibits lotteries, obscenity, advertising and fundraising. At present, PTV is funded almost entirely by AT&T Broadband, which holds numerous cable franchises throughout Georgia.

So while producers won't find any censorious limits at PTV, they also won't find a paycheck. Free airtime does release burgeoning broadcasters from the need to kiss corporate ass for commercial sponsorship, but it also puts them in the position of using whatever materials are at hand, or even going out of pocket, to get their shows on-air. In fact, half the fun of access television comes from watching how these ingenious content creators try to make five plastic plants, two chairs and half a garden column look like a set. On the plus side, they usually make up for the threadbare production values with a superfluity of spunk. The shows you see on PTV and other access channels, such as Fulton Government TV (FBTV), run the quality gamut, but every one of them is a labor of love.

So how do these twisted affairs begin? What is it that drives an adult human to devote countless hours to produce, for free, a TV show that absolutely no one might see, lost as it is in the midst of the 60-channel overflow of modern cable?

"Producing seems to be in my blood," says Aron Siegel, who has been in the access game since 1992. His current project, "Film Forum," features movie reviews and commentaries as well as interviews with imported and local film folk. Many access producers see outlets like PTV as springboards for future growth. "We try to make the show as elaborate as possible. One of the things the producer should be responsible for is making the program appealing to someone flipping through the channels."

Other producers see public access as a way to fill a void in the media scene. Jaqueline "Sunshine" Smith, a boxing aficionado and protégé of Don King, started her "Sunshine Boxing Show" because "we don't have any regular boxing coverage in Atlanta." Many people who invest their time and resources in creating programming for programming's sake bring to their shows a degree of personal perspective hard to find among professional producers. "I'm an insider," she boasts. "I can take you to the gym where the fighter is training, to the press conference, then to see him fighting."

Fueled primarily by producers' individual obsessions and appetites for exposure, access television eschews the highly focused programming typical of cable and displays a refreshing eclecticism. From women's sports ("Nside HER Game") to drag queen extravaganzas ("Mouth of the South") to political punditry ("The Concord Coalition"), the shows on PTV have no unifying themes, ideology or audience, but are fueled instead by the producers' unbridled quest for exposure. "This medium is exploited mostly by people on a mission from God," says Thomas Tyler, another longtime member of the PTV team. "They get paid in self-satisfaction, in being able to communicate with their community." And if that community is small or exclusive or obscure, so what? "If only your aunt Sally watches what you do," says Tyler, "you can do it."

Although PTV shows the bizarre diversity of it's cable constituency, it manages to do so without being divisive. However disparate the people and their programs may be in terms of politics and peccadilloes, they are technically neighbors, and PTV fosters a sense of community by training producers and crews in-house. They'll put your mug on 10,000 TV sets, but only after you've taken their production classes (a steal at $40 for Atlanta residents; $60 for out-of-towners) and hauled cables, run camera and set up hideously unconvincing sets for some of your colleagues' shows.

The do-it-yourself TV allowed by public access creates an opportunity for empowerment all too rare in this age of 200 channel spoon-feeding that threatens to make sofa spuds of us all. "I'm a child of the '60s," says Tyler, "and we realized then that communication was the key to liberation." Public access serves as a valuable training-ground for new TV talent, giving them the skill to put their concepts in front of an audience in a small corner of the cable industry, where they are free to offend, free to annoy, free even to suck. "I saw a vehicle for me to use my own voice," says Jae Foster, whose "In the Mixx" provides a showcase for unsigned Atlanta acts to strut their stuff, " ... and I don't have to depend on anyone else. Self-sufficiency is best in any medium."

But with a constant drive in telecommunications to maximize revenue and minimize competition, what hope is there for nonprofit, small-scale productions like those found on public access?

Ironically, the dog-eat-dog nature of their business may encourage cable providers to keep the ball rolling, for the nonce. "Public access channels are a real asset to the cable company," says Don Hedden, director of operations and a 15-year veteran of PTV. "With competition from satellite dishes, cable needs to say 'we support the community.'"

According to Bunnie Riedel, executive director for the Alliance for Community Media, a D.C.-based group that represents the interests of public access television, it is important to watch cable's competition and adjust to the rapidly changing media scene.

"The Telecommunications Act of 1996 allows local governments to ... require cable providers to set aside channels," she says. "Instead of hard channel allocation, we want 10 percent of broadband capacity set aside, so our people can do interactive television, just like the big broadcasters will do."

Spoken like a true ham.

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