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

public-3.jpgA public access director prepares a set at the Berkeley Public High School campus. (Adam Grossberg)

"My Naked Truth"

"Anything can get on the air," Arielle Elizabeth, BeTV programming coordinator, says matter-of-factly. Anyone with a membership -- $60/year for Berkeley residents, $100/year for non-residents -- can reserve studio time and equipment. Once the show is completed, the creator simply turns in a DVD. Elizabeth slots it into BeTV's schedule, and the show airs. That's it. Currently, BeTV's mainstays include the food show Cooking with Ruben, the long-running youth literacy program Wee Poets, the counterculture explorations of Bay Area 51, the spiritual ponderings of Crystal Mind, and the nude discussions of My Naked Truth.

"We do not censor anything based on content," Elizabeth says. In fact, BeTV staff members are expressly prohibited from watching any show before it airs. "You can have practically soft-core porn, or you can be doing something very insightful and meaningful. There's sort of no real boundary." Well, there is one: "adult programming" can only air between 10pm and 6am. Other than that, anything is fair game.

But even that restriction is vague. Public access programming like BeTV is not governed by the FCC, the body responsible for regulating content broadcast on radio, television, satellite, and cable systems across the country. "We're governed by the city," Elizabeth says, "and the city believes in free speech." Since Elizabeth and her staff cannot review content until it airs, the "adult" label is applied at the discretion of each individual producer. When submitting a show, a producer simply checks a box labeled "adult," alerting Elizabeth to air the show after 10pm.

In her five years at BeTV, Elizabeth has only had to pull one program off the air, an episode of My Naked Truth. One afternoon several years ago, she received a call from a furious mother. "'What the heck was that? My kid just saw a naked man on TV at 2 p.m.,'" Elizabeth says, quoting the angry caller. "I should've used my brain," she admits. "But Gypsy (the show's producer) didn't check the adult box."

BeTV's commitment to free speech has been essential to its continued existence. In 2006, California passed the Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act, which directly altered the way the state's public access stations are funded. Until 2006, cable companies had to negotiate a "franchise fee" with every local municipality they operated within. An earlier federal mandate had each area setting aside a portion of that franchise fee to fund local television stations. The California act ended this relationship by allowing cable companies to negotiate directly with the state, eliminating the funds that had been designated for many public access stations.

Without dedicated revenue coming from cable companies, the onus to fund these stations fell upon individual city councils. Many have chosen to cut or remove funding, leading to the closure of numerous stations. But not in Berkeley. "The council members realized that Berkeley is the bastion of free speech," David Joliffe, executive director of Berkeley Community Media, says. "This type of non-profit agency offers unfettered access to free speech. So they uphold their heritage by keeping us funded."

"Berkeley is a special place in this country," Stoney Burke says. "If you say 'Berkeley,' you don't say, 'Oh yeah, great oranges!' No, you say, 'Free speech!'" Throughout Burke's 27-year public access career, he has worked at numerous stations throughout the Bay Area (most of which have gone dark). At other stations, he says, his radical political views resulted in passive forms of censorship, like being told that no technicians or studio space were available. But that has never happened at BeTV. "That's why this place is so strong and that's why I validate it so much," he says, "Because it isn't just a cable access station. It represents the values of this community."

"I think the residents of Berkley are very lucky that the city of Berkeley still believes in [public access]," Arielle Elizabeth says. But after more than 10 years in public access, she is realistic about the future; she won't be surprised when BeTV goes off the air. "We are at the end of an era. I hope people enjoy it while we have it."

"Dead Air"

When David Jollife became Executive Director of BeTV in 2008, the goal of public access was to influence people. "Now that's over," he says. But in this digital era, Jollife still sees value in a brick-and-mortar meeting place where people like Moby Theobald and Stoney Burke can meet and make a show about whatever they want. "When people with a like mindset gather in a certain place," Jollife says, "the result is a lot stronger than when you put something up on YouTube." That is certainly debatable, but there is no denying the camaraderie within the BeTV family.

"I've come to think of it, honestly, as a form of group therapy," says BeTV facilitator Jeff Kimmich. "People come together to do studio shows and they all have to work together to achieve something. If that makes their lives better, then I don't see anything wrong with it."

"Here it is, the moment you've all been waiting for, " Theobald says, now back on stage, wrapping up the 128th episode of Watch This! with guest Stoney Burke by his side. "I want to thank our wonderful crew and lovely staff," Theobald says. "Steve, Lily, and Bobby and Joey and Chewy and Han and Leia and Luke and all the droids. Here it is, the end of the show!"

The screen fades to black as Theobald and Burke rise from their seats, hug, and take off their microphones. Marcel turns to Steve. "We still have 90 seconds of airtime. Should we go back to studio? We don't want dead air." Steve considers this but decides against it. Dead air doesn't seem so bad.

"Yeah, it's not professional-grade quality, but that's because the people aren't professionals," Theobald says after the taping. "The shows are real and homespun, and they're produced by people in your community who are communicating from their heart and from life experiences."

Who they're communicating with seems irrelevant. "I know people are watching," programming director Elizabeth insists, "because when something's wrong with the channel I get calls." Theobald and Burke watch each other's shows, but not many other public access shows. This is not uncommon: Even public access advocates don't seem to watch much public access programming. But in non-commercial media, viewership isn't what matters. Theobald, Burke, and other producers will continue making their shows until they're told they can't, whether or not anyone is actually watching.

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

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