The Real Wayne and Garth: Public Access TV's Eccentric Survivors

The Internet should have killed their medium years ago. But these self-made television hosts have no plans to go off the air -- even if nobody's watching.

public-access3.jpgMoby Theobald records an episode of his show "Watch This!" for the Berkeley public access station BeTV. (Adam Grossberg)

Spotlights shine down on a small stage raised a foot off the ground, illuminating a pink shag carpet, two fake plants, a stuffed teddy bear, and a crumpled pirate flag. In the shadows immediately offstage, a red-caped performer quickly applies a layer of makeup to his cheeks and forehead.

"I don't wear makeup in real life," he says. "But on camera I look so hideous if I don't have a little bit of makeup on, and I only look kind of hideous if I have a lot of makeup on."

"You've got a great outfit," an audience member tells him. "But, what's going on here?"

"I don't know, I'm dressed like a pirate for some reason," the performer answers, looking down at his own costume. "It was either this or a Viking, and I just really couldn't justify the Viking. You know, pirate -- I can kind of go pirate."

As the clock inches toward 7 p.m., the middle-aged operators start their countdown behind a pane of glass. "Bring it up, okay, go to studio," commands Steve, the long-bearded director. There's a pause. A black screen flickers. "I am -- it's not going!" insists an equally long-bearded man named Marcel sitting to his right, pressing one button after another. At last,the image of Moby Theobald, the made-up pirate, flashes onto the screen, and Steve and Marcel exhale deeply.

"Welcome one and all to episode 128 of 'Watch This!'", Theobald says, bounding onto the stage. The lone audience member, sitting at the back of the classroom-turned-studio, claps his approval.

This is public access television, beamed into thousands of homes across Berkeley and the East Bay. Watch This!, an hour-long variety show, is one of dozens of programs airing on Berkeley Community Media, a public access stalwart and one of the last of a dying breed. On any given night, Channel 28 (BeTV for short) plays host to a range of local programming--from the politically charged talk show "Stoney Speaks" to "Frank Moore's Unlimited Possibilities," which features a naked, quadriplegic host and a series of equally naked guests engaged in what can only be described as softcore porn. A typical '80s Wayne's World aesthetic generally prevails.

"You're always picturing some guy dressed in a wizard costume with a blue screen in the background," Jeff Kimmich, BeTV access facilitator, says. "We put on what you give us. That's kind of the best and the worst part of the place."

The idea of public access television is simple: government-funded non-profit TV stations like BeTV typically provide training, equipment, and studio space for citizens to produce their own television shows. The shows are then broadcast on a channel designated solely for local programming. The principles behind these stations emerged during the infancy of cable TV in the early 1970s, when media advocates argued that local communities should have access to this powerful communication tool.

Today, the Internet has replaced most of the functions of public access television--community engagement, self-expression, voyeurism -- and cash-strapped cities throughout the country have slashed funding to community stations. But in Berkeley, this antiquated relic is still hanging on: Berkeley Community Media remains a bubbling community of creative eccentrics eager to "be TV."

"Stoney Speaks"

In the smaller of two studios at Berkeley Community Media's office -- a series of converted classrooms on the vast Berkeley High School campus -- longtime public access producer Stoney Burke finishes taping the most recent episode of his show, Stoney Speaks. Burke has been producing the show since 1985, years before BeTV went on the air. (A short-lived community studio was open in the mid-70s, but a series of disputes between the city and the cable companies kept local programming largely off the air until the launch of BeTV in 1994.)

Burke uses his monthly time slot to rant about local and national politics, and to give voice to local Bay Area characters. "I like putting people on TV that have never been on TV," Burke says, sitting next to tonight's guest, "Bishop Joey," of the First Church of the Last Laugh, a satirical, faux-religious group.

Burke, 59, has a strip of dyed green hair ringing his otherwise bald head. Tonight, he's wearing a tattered burlap sack that covers his whole body. Next to him, Bishop Joey wears an ersatz clergyman's cloak and a fez and wields a 12-inch plastic bone like a wand. They sit in front of a set decorated with political posters, slogans, and drawings. They call themselves "broke-butt clowns" and do a sort of Laurel and Hardy give-and-take. "When people have the remote in their hand and they're switching channels, they stop, and go, 'What the heck was that?'" Burke says. "That doesn't look like anything you've ever seen on a blog or something like that."

Before there was quality streaming video, says BeTV programming coordinator Arielle Elizabeth, public access was the most viable option for distributing and watching independent content. "People watched TV to see what their community was doing. Now, things have changed." These days, Elizabeth says, people "go looking to YouTube to learn things, and to hear different ideas and thoughts. They don't flip through TV."

For Burke, though, the allure of television remains strong. He's a Berkeley legend who has been performing his political clown act on U.C. Berkeley's Sproul Plaza since the late 70s. His television show is an extension of his street performance, a way to reach a larger audience. "This is cheaper for me to do than buy a bunch of giant computers ... work at a keyboard or some stupid thing. That's not TV," he says. "Here they give you a technician. All you have to do is do your thing and fill your space, and it goes right on the air, reaches about 20,000 people."

Twenty thousand is a stretch. BeTV's Channel 28 -- along with Channel 35, which is reserved for government programming -- reaches about 17,000 homes throughout Berkeley and parts of neighboring Albany, Emeryville, and North Oakland, as part of Comcast and AT&T cable packages. But, clearly, not every cable subscriber watches BeTV. It is impossible to track the exact viewership because BeTV isn't included in any Nielsen rating programs. "They say with cable access, take it down to about 1,000 [viewers per show]," Burke acknowledges. By comparison, Burke uploaded about 20 videos to YouTube last year and has had a total of 2,700 views. Sixteen people subscribe to his channel.

The exposure public access provides is vital for Burke, but he holds out hope for greater notoriety. "I'm still looking for my William Hung moment," he says, referring to the American Idol's star turn, "that one moment in media history where they go, 'Did you see what that guy did? It was the funniest thing.' I'm still looking for that moment."

"Watch This!"

On one 1999 episode of Stoney Speaks, Burke interviewed a local comic book artist who had never been on television. On March 24 of this year, that guest, Moby Theobald, aired his 128th show on BeTV. "I was just blown away by the whole idea," Theobald recalls. "A person can put on their own show. This is amazing!"

Shortly after appearing on Stoney Speaks, Theobald decided to produce a variety show like the ones he grew up watching. In May 2001, he filmed his first episode of Watch This! Eleven years later, the show's format is remarkably similar -- a mix of comedic monologue and pre-filmed sketches, which Theobald writes, shoots, edits, and acts in, playing most of the roles in various costumes and disguises. His makeup kit includes about 20 different mustaches.

Theobald, who produces a show every two or three weeks, sees it as "a way of being validated, a way of saying, 'Oh, you have meaning.'" He just wishes he could get paid for it. "I guess the dream would be somebody saying, 'Hey kid, I'm gonna make you a star! Come over here, sign this, sign this," Theobald says in his gruffest agent voice, pantomiming a cigar in hand. "A bunch of cast members on Saturday Night Live got discovered through Internet sites. But that's not a plan, that's like saying, 'My retirement plan is I'm going to win the lottery.' Yeah, work on that luck, buddy."

For now, Theobald is sticking to his day jobs as a caretaker and as a day manager at a Berkeley pizzeria. After finishing a shift one recent weekday, he used the restaurant as the setting for a sketch. Changing out of his dingy T-shirt and customary brimmed hat, he donned an all-black leather vest that showed off his bare chest. He pulled out his camera, set up his tripod, and got to work. Borrowing a few empty beer glasses and pitchers for set decoration, Theobald issued directions to Steve, the bearded director, who is his friend and neighbor and often hangs out helping film sketches and directing the live shows.

Theobald took a seat in a booth and Steve stood behind him recording. Theobald then reached up and pretended to strangle Steve, who made gurgling noises and wriggled about. The scene was for an upcoming skit called "Inside the Music's Behind," a riff on VH1 specials and ASCAP music rights.

After the scene wrapped up, one of Theobald's co-workers asked, "When's this going to be on? Can I see it?"

"Friday, Channel 28," he replied. "Do you have cable?"

"No," she said. "Can I get it on an antenna?"

"I don't know. But it streams live on our website."

The irony seemed lost on both of them. Theobald is in his 40s, younger than Stoney Burke, but he still resides firmly in the pre-Internet generation for whom television possesses an aura unmatched by streaming videos online. "I haven't figured out how to post videos on the Internet," Theobald confesses, even though he is skilled at Photoshop, iMovie, and other complicated software. So why doesn't he just learn how to upload his videos? Why does he need an entire television station at his disposal?

In response, Theobold recounts an interaction another producer had with a guest on his public access show. "The guest said, 'I want my friends to see that I was on television. I know it's on a disc or YouTube, and I can watch it anytime I want. But it's not the same." For Theobald and other public access enthusiasts, "the thrill of television is it's somehow out of your hands." When a show airs on BeTV, "somebody else is saying, 'This is good, we're going to put this on.' Or, 'This is terrible, we're going to put it on anyway because that's how we roll.'"

Next page: How soft-core porn gets on the air

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Adam Grossberg is a reporter and documentary filmmaker living in the San Francisco Bay area.

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