Charlie Baase is immune to the allure of plastic flowers.
It’s a Tuesday afternoon in November, and Baase is backstage at the District’s public-access television studio, a hand-me-down space connected to the Comcast customer service center off Michigan Avenue NE. Baase is setting up for his half-hour show, Health Justice Café. The show, in which health-care experts discuss issues affecting uninsured D.C. residents, airs every week on DCTV, the District’s noncommercial, public-access station.
Baase is the communications coordinator for the D.C. Primary Care Association (DCPCA), a local nonprofit health-care group. He’s also the producer of Health Justice Café, and he assumes myriad responsibilities for the show. Every week, he must choose the subject matter (today’s topic is breast cancer), the weekly guest panelist (Zora Brown of the Breast Cancer Resource Committee), and the snacks (raw vegetables with a creamy dip).
He also does the grunt work, including setting up the stage before filming. As Baase transports his cache of props from the studio’s storage room to the main stage, he sashays right past DCTV’s sizable collection of inanimate flora, unmoved by their beauty. The plants will survive the snub. They don’t need sunlight. They don’t need water. And they certainly don’t need Charlie Baase’s attention.
Though Baase has no prior experience in television production, he says that college radio helped to prepare him, more or less, for the challenges of producing a public-access television program beamed into the 150,000 District homes with cable TV. He knows that the District’s public-access channels are crowded with shows like the Health Justice Café, in which serious hosts and game guests go back and forth about issues affecting D.C.’s communities. Baase wants Health Justice Café to stand out.
Lesson No. 1, says Baase, is to resist the siren song of the plastic flowers, which show up on the sets of countless DCTV programs. Lesson No. 2, which is related, is to buy your own props. “We’re probably the only show that locks up our props,” Baase tells me with a sheepish grin. He pops open a plastic storage box revealing his coveted set decorations: two rag rugs (one sky-blue, one navy-blue), some miscellaneous mugs, and a few colorful place mats. “If you watch DCTV a bunch, you’ll notice that a lot of the props get recycled. You see the same chairs, over and over again. We want to look different.”
Health Justice Café first aired back in February, after the DCPCA received a Communities in Charge grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for the purpose of stimulating debate about health care in the District. “We thought about different tools to communicate with the public about health care,” says Baase. “We thought, Let’s do a TV show. When we found out how cheap [public-access television] is, we decided we couldn’t not do it.”
Originally, the DCPCA paid a private production company to film the show. Then the communications staff learned that a DCTV crew would help produce Health Justice Café for about half the cost. “Now we can produce a show for under $500,” says Baase.
Baase strives to keep Health Justice Café not only cheap but also entertaining. “We’re still pretty early on in the show’s history,” says Baase. “Next year, we’re hoping to put some more money into the set, and maybe do something to try and make it look more cafelike. It’s an ongoing process.”
Already, the show has gone through several transformations. The program was originally called Health Justice D.C. and featured a one-on-one format with host-guest banter. “Watching it, we realized it got kind of dull,” says Baase.
After brainstorming, the DCPCA staff came up with the snappy concept of the “cafe,” in which multiple hosts could sit around a table, sipping drinks, munching on snacks, and chewing over health-care issues in an informal fashion.
The conceit has allowed Baase to spice up the show’s meat-and-potatoes issues with a bit of pepper. A recent show about prescription drugs was dubbed “Prescription Pancakes.” Another installment, concerning health-care issues in prisons, was called “Correctional Casserole.” The show is now filmed in front of a backdrop, which Baase and company designed to look like a menu. Careful viewers might observe that “Food for Thought” on the Health Justice Café menu costs “One Penny,” “Appetizers for Action” are “Complimentary,” and “Just Desserts” are “On the House.”
“Yeah, it’s kind of cheesy,” admits Baase. “But the subject of the show is the uninsured. That’s a real serious issue. If you have a bunch of solemn people sitting around a table talking about how awful a situation is, no one wants to see that.”
But how many people want to see a show where “Today’s Special”—scrawled in black marker toward the top of the menu—is “Breast Cancer”? Baase is still pondering that. Commercial television has extensive research and metered ratings that allow advertisers to know not only how many people are watching but even their ages and genders. Public-access television is flying blind, with only viewer feedback to guide it.
“The frustrating part is trying to figure out if the show is effective,” says Baase. “That’s hard to do when you don’t know if people are watching you. But we think it’s a good match. Only residents of the District watch DCTV, and we focus all of our energy on policy issues facing D.C. residents. People who are concerned about the community and local events are probably watching, and that’s who we’re trying to reach.”
So far, the feedback about Health Justice Café has been positive, says Baase, though not overwhelming. “We usually get about one call a week,” he says.
Producers such as Baase strive to develop followings for their public-access shows. It’s not easy, however. There’s an abundance of slick network television and cable niche programming with which to compete. Practically anyone can produce a show on public-access. A modicum of creativity and a little bit of cash are the primary prerequisites.
Another roadblock in the quest for a larger public-access audience is the format’s reputation as a freak show of sorts, filled with raving morons, lo-fi idiocy, and porn. In fact, the most famous public-access show in history never even aired on public-access television. Rather, it was a network spoof of the genre, which highlighted its foibles and foolishness.
Dana Carvey and Mike Myers’ recurring Saturday Night Live sketch about the basement public-access show hosted by two Midwestern Gen-X slackers, Wayne’s World, brought the goofiness and lo-tech energy of public-access to a wider audience, and the sketch was eventually transformed into two feature films that together generated over $168 million in revenue.
Wayne’s World tweaked public-access programming in an innocent, PG-rated fashion, but there is often a more ribald side to the medium, especially in larger cities. In New York City, for instance, shows such as Midnight Blue—a talk show about pornography hosted by Al Goldstein, the publisher of Screw magazine—have earned public-access television a reputation for bawdiness.
Prime-time DCTV, however, will disappoint viewers who arrive in search of the silliness of Wayne’s World or the smut of Midnight Blue. A steady diet of its programming leaves you wondering where the freaks and the fetishists have gone. Where are the dyspeptic malcontents? Where are the basement dwellers concocting words like “shwing”? Where are the naked people?
What DCTV has instead is an endless procession of sober and maudlin people obsessed with what’s wrong with D.C., and, occasionally, how it should be fixed.
“The preponderance of programming over our full history—even though it’s not produced by a single type of group or a single type of producer—has been community-affairs-oriented,” says Nantz Rickard, executive director of DCTV. “It’s kind of like the conversations that you would overhear at a meeting.”
Though speaking in general terms, Rickard might well be describing any number of shows I see on a November Saturday, when I sit down for a nine-hour marathon of watching DCTV. Take, for instance, Non-Profits: Front & Center—an hourlong program produced by the Washington Council of Agencies, an umbrella organization serving 843 nonprofit groups in the D.C. area.
This first half-hour of the program features a monotonous succession of lessons on how to protect children from the pitfalls of modern life. Shots of the program’s somber host, Kinaya Sokoya, are interspersed with close-ups of bar graphs. The dangers facing today’s children, I learn, are myriad and ubiquitous. Parents must be ever-vigilant. “Prevent exposure to criminal activity,” reads one stark graphic. “Prevent exposure to substance abuse,” admonishes another. “Prevent abandonment.” As the segment draws to a close, the host reminds viewers: “It takes a village to raise our children. The children are our future. Treat them well.”
The second half of Non-Profits: Front & Center shifts focus to the pervasive threats facing homeless men and women in the District. Gunshot wounds. Stabbings. Liver disease. Frostbite. As waves of hopelessness begin to wash over me, I am introduced to the Christ House, a medical facility for sick homeless people located on Columbia Road NW. A parade of homeless men testify to the facility’s positive impact on their lives. My spirits are momentarily buoyed. Then comes the pitch: The Christ House needs more volunteers. A telephone number and a Web-site address appear on the screen. Too busy, I think, sinking a little lower on the couch.
“Public-access gets marginalized because of the whole Wayne’s World thing,” says Bunnie Riedel, the executive director of the Alliance for Community Media, a D.C.-based nonprofit organization that serves as a national advocate for public-access programming. “I remember a show on public-access called All About Lupus that made me cry. Now, who’s going to watch that? People with lupus, or people with loved ones who have lupus. But All About Lupus is much more characteristic of public-access than is Wayne’s World.”
During my DCTV binge, I’m thrown headfirst into a quagmire of maladies, such as lupus, that afflict District residents. On a show called Spirit and Truth, Kimory Orendoff, a DCTV staff member and prolific public-access producer, hosts a round-table discussion about the excess of absentee fathers in the District.
Orendoff, who comes from a single-parent household himself, begins by discussing the emotional difficulties of growing up without a father. Eventually Orendoff puts his two younger guests— both of whom are black male teenagers— on the spot: Do they have older role models to counsel them? What have they been told about drug abuse? Unprotected sex? Unwanted pregnancy? AIDS?
As I digest the 90-minute show, I’m not sure who’s squirming more—me or the teenagers. But through it all, Orendoff remains serene. Perhaps most people don’t want to engage District teenagers in frank conversations about sex and drug abuse. Orendoff does. And he uses DCTV to drag you along with him.
DCTV airs on two channels (5 and 6 on Comcast cable and 10 and 11 on Starpower cable) from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week. With 168 hours of airtime to fill each week, the gatekeepers of DCTV programming have become avid recyclers. Each episode of Health Justice Café, for instance, airs at least three times every week. If you miss a DCTV program once, there’s no need to worry. Chances are you can catch it plenty more times over the next several years.
Public-access proponents emphasize the multicultural, multiethnic nature of the programming. “Compared with network television, what you see on public-access channels these days is much more like what you see on the subway,” says George C. Stoney, a professor of film at New York University (NYU) and the so-called godfather of public-access television. (In 1971, Stoney helped form the Alternate Media Center at NYU, which for years served as the focal point of the public-access television movement in the United States.) “Count the number of black faces,” he says. “Count the number of programs done in a language other than English. Count the number of young people you see. It’s a majority. The stuff may be junk. But what’s my junk is somebody else’s life.”
DCTV’s Saturday schedule is rife with programming that reflects the District’s diversity. The notion that D.C.’s black residents can look to African culture as a source of pride is a recurring theme. This idea is made explicitly on a program called Slavery Is Not My Only Heritage, more implicitly on shows called Africa Plus Magazine and Spotlight on Africa.
Other shows on DCTV’s Saturday lineup highlight the difficulties facing various minority groups in this country. On the Gay News Network, I watch two gay individuals (a man and a woman) go incognito as a Christian married couple. Disguises in place, the couple hop in a Winnebago and tour the Bible Belt, interviewing locals about homosexuality. The end product is downright creepy, particularly a segment in which an unidentified man ardently compares gay people to “libidinous dogs.”
Ethiopian Cultural TV offers a less ominous portrait of life in one of the District’s minority communities. The program begins with one of the few fictional skits aired all Saturday. Unfortunately for me, it’s in an African dialect, and I can’t catch a word. But halfway through the time slot, the drama ends abruptly and the show segues into a church service conducted in English by a local Ethiopian pastor. He’s raising money for the victims of the Sept. 11 tragedies.
The spiritual life is a staple of DCTV programming, and the pulpits of various District churches pop up on DCTV as often as the fake flowers. Apparently, DCTV producers don’t need Nielsen ratings to know that, at the very least, God is watching. Puppets read scripture. Louis Farrakhan philosophizes. Urban evangelists take it to the streets. On a Saturday show called We the Friends, one preacher targets the District’s “Dirty Daves” and “Sordid Sallies” most in need of God’s salvation with his public-access air time.
“I’m constantly watching DCTV,” says Kojo Nnamdi, the host of WAMU’s Public Interest radio program and the chair of DCTV’s board of directors. “I am entertained. I am offended. I am outraged.” But it’s hard to imagine what Nnamdi, or anyone else, for that matter, could possibly find offensive about the squeaky-clean programming on DCTV.
Since public-access programming’s inception, in the early ’70s, stations across the country have had to wrangle with the vexing question of providing a forum for hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Rickard, who has been with DCTV since its 1988 kickoff, says that such controversial programming has never been a problem in D.C.
“We’ve never had any problems with obscenity,” agrees Mark Sarver, the deputy director of DCTV. “The D.C. public-access community is extremely responsible.”
Ted Quimby, the director of development for DCTV, puts it another way: “We have nothing but G-rated programming for the most part.”
So why do District residents, when given complete editorial control, produce such unremittingly grim television? “The seriousness of the programming is due, I think, to people’s disenfranchisement in the District,” says Rickard. “If you don’t get many opportunities to have your voice heard, when you get a chance to express yourself, you’re going to do so with a constructive and urgent perspective.”
Nnamdi concurs: “I’m just glad it hasn’t gone down the porno tubes.”
Once a month, DCTV staff members hosts an orientation session for potential volunteers. Shortly after 7 p.m. on the second Tuesday in October, Sarver welcomes a group of newcomers to DCTV’s subterranean administrative headquarters, in an apartment building in Dupont Circle. The gathering consists of about 30 curious individuals, almost all of whom are black. They range in age from their early 20s to their mid-50s. “Coming into the basement of an apartment building is probably not how you envisioned breaking into television,” says Sarver. “In a few months, we’ll no longer be here.”
After years of struggling along in second-rate facilities, DCTV staff members are about to realize a long-held dream of centralizing and updating their administrative and production facilities. Sometime around January, they will move into the historic, city-owned Brooks Mansion in Northeast, across from the Brookland-CUA Metro station. In June of 2000, DCTV executives secured a 20-year lease on the building, which is currently being renovated. For the first time in DCTV’s 13-year history, District residents will be able to use production equipment, studio space, and editing suites all in one place. “For the first time in our history, you’ll have access to state-of-the-art technology,” says Sarver.
Before they gain access to DCTV’s studios, novices must attend this orientation session and become DCTV members, via payment of an annual fee of $20 for individuals and $210 for nonprofit organizations. In the fiscal year 2000, DCTV had 627 individual and 92 organizational members.
When Sarver finishes his spiel, someone cuts the lights and the group watches A Community Voice—a video about DCTV that’s narrated by Nnamdi. A montage of images featuring various D.C. neighborhoods flashes across the screen, while Nnamdi boasts that public-access television is where you get “the unvarnished truth.”
“DCTV is community programming,” says Nnamdi toward the end of the video, “sometimes with a bit of an edge.” The last bit is accompanied by a shot of several men dressed as nuns standing in front of a row of urinals.
Following the video, the initiates are given a pop quiz testing their assumptions about public-access television. After everyone has had a few minutes to ruminate, Quimby goes over the answers. “Which of the following folks used public-access to boost their careers?” reads Quimby. The answer? Newt Gingrich and RuPaul.
“Not exactly two people you’d see at the same social function,” adds Quimby dryly.
By the time Quimby finishes, he’s touched upon topics such as how DCTV is funded and how much it costs to produce a show. “For $10,000, the cost of renting a professional studio for one day,” says Quimby, “you could run a show on public-access for 20 years.”
DCTV receives most of its funding not from advertising revenue or from taxpayer monies, but from the corporations providing cable service in the District. Federal law suggests, but it does not require, that cable companies provide public-access channels as a community service to the localities from which they collect their sizable profits. Last year, DCTV received 1 percent of the gross revenue generated in D.C. by both Comcast and Starpower—a total of nearly $800,000.
After the pop quiz, Sarver gets back in front of the group and explains what you can and cannot get away with on public-access television. Public-access is often characterized as a bastion of free speech where anyone can express any views, uninhibited by censorship or Federal Communications Commission (FCC) constraints, but Sarver points out that there are some limits: “The First Amendment is not absolute,” he says. “There are restrictions.”
DCTV producers must obey the law of the land, Sarver continues. The hosts of a public-access show can, for instance, discuss the merits of legalizing drugs, but they cannot smoke a blunt on camera.
Sarver’s monologue skirts around the issues of obscenity and profanity and instead focuses on what distinguishes noncommercial from commercial television. “You can promote a local musician [on a public-access program],” says Sarver. “But you can’t promote their latest CD.”
Ryan Heathcock, DCTV’s production manager, brings the orientation session to a close by detailing the various courses that DCTV currently offers in television production. The DCTV catalogue lists nine classes, ranging from “Basic Camcorder” to “Advanced Character Generation and Special Effects.” The courses cost from $25 to $100. “Classes are small,” says Heathcock, “so everyone gets a lot of attention.”
Before using DCTV equipment, such as video cameras and editing machines, beginners must pass a series of certification tests, whose contents are covered by the introductory courses. Most of the classes, which are taught at night, are held over the course of one week and meet one to three times. Anyone with prior television experience can skip the classes by simply taking and passing the tests.
For neophytes who don’t want to wait three to five months to complete the coursework, DCTV offers another, quicker route to the public-access limelight, called EZTV. For $95, anyone can walk in off the street and rent the DCTV studio for several hours and produce a half-hour show. DCTV provides practically everything needed to make a show happen, including a crew, equipment, and that dazzling array of fake flowers.
Many of DCTV’s nonprofit members, including the DCPCA, utilize the EZTV format and end up with shows similar to the Health Justice Café. According to Rickard, it’s a win-win situation: The nonprofits receive a ready-made television show (and a videotape that they can show their board of directors), and DCTV volunteers get some professional experience.
“It’s a nice marriage of people who have really good competency [in film production] but need to improve their résumés with the nonprofits who need producers who aren’t charging a thousand bucks a day,” says Rickard. “The nonprofits are a very, very important voice of what’s going on here.”
In addition to its nonprofit clientele, DCTV also features a number of programs that showcase individual talents. Such shows often have a message-in-a-bottle feel to them. Many of them are one-time productions. A viewer might feel like the first person to have ever seen the program.
Mr. Nat Live falls into this category.
“I have an anti-drug gospel-music program that I’ve been performing in schools and churches around Baltimore and D.C. for the last 15 years,” says Nathaniel T. Rice, aka Mr. Nat—the producer and star of Mr. Nat Live. Last year, Rice produced a video of one of his performances, in which he sang at an auditorium packed full of kids from Baltimore’s Leithwalk Elementary School. Mr. Nat Live intersperses shots of Mr. Nat clad in black leather and singing songs such as “No Hope in Dope” with shots of the kids in the audience.
“It’s been running in Baltimore on their public-access since last summer, and now I have it on in D.C., too,” says Rice. “Quite frankly, I’m trying to get my message out, one state at a time. When you’re doing something positive on television, you’re definitely going against the grain. People are going to take notice.”
Mr. Nat’s delivery is part James Brown, part Ray Charles. The kids love it. During Mr. Nat Live, the titular star gets his audience waving hands in the air and raisin’ the roof. It’s a clapping and dancing whirlwind. At one point in the show, Mr. Nat even invites a young whippersnapper on stage to share in the spotlight. The kid seizes the opportunity and breaks into a masterful cabbage-patch dance, all the while flashing a beatific grin.
“My whole premise,” says Rice, “is that the music doesn’t have to be negative for the young people to enjoy it. You can be exclusively positive and educational in nature. It just has to be presented in the right form.”
Like most of what you see on DCTV, Mr. Nat Live offers a message of community improvement. But it’s also entertaining, if only, because of the frenzied energy Mr. Nat brings to the stage. After the first couple of songs, rivers of sweat wash down his face. “I only know how to do it one way,” says Rice. “I go out on stage and I give it my all. You don’t see 20 dancers behind me on stage. You don’t see any smoke up there. It’s just me and the kids.”
At one point during the show, Mr. Nat mixes up the pace by assuming the role of his alter ego—the Old Man Rapper. In this segment, Mr. Nat makes his entrance from the side of the stage, sporting a long, white beard, sunglasses, and a cane. The kids erupt in laughter. “I’m the Old Man Rapper,” sings Mr. Nat. “I’ve been around a while/I was talking like this before it was the style./ Now I know you young folk will just listen and laugh/But I’m the Old Man Rapper with the gift of gab.” Mr. Nat then turns in a slow circle and wiggles his butt. The kids lose their minds.
“I don’t know who loves the Old Man Rapper more,” says Rice, “the kids or the grown-ups.”
Rice says packaging his anti-drug message in a palatable form is of utmost importance. “I do everything on a professional level, because the negative stuff is done professionally,” he explains. “You can’t come with an inferior product and expect to hold a young person’s attention, because they can sense that right away.”
Rice didn’t start singing or writing songs until he was 37 years old. “I had an insurance agency making $100,000 a year 16 years ago,” he says. “But I was also getting high. Then the Lord delivered me.”
Rice gave up selling insurance and started writing songs. “Needless to say, some people thought I had lost my mind. When I first started singing, people were laughing at me. But I stuck with it. And 16 years later, I’m still going.”
In addition to his live gigs, Rice has produced several CDs and a coloring book featuring scenes from his school performances and lyrics from his songs. One page of the coloring book features a giant skeleton wearing a hat that says “Drug Monster” and a cape labeled with various drug names: “acid, cocaine, cigarettes, speed….” A group of children stand at the skeleton’s feet. Lyrics from one of Mr. Nat’s songs remind children of the dangers of drug abuse: “Drugs is a monster you know it to be true/And alcohol is a drug too.”
The show, like the merchandise, supports Rice’s objective—bringing his anti-drug message to the kids in person—but he also believes that it helps him spread the gospel according to Mr. Nat to the world at large. Mr. Nat says DCTV is an important market for him because of the potential that someone important—say, the superintendent of D.C. Public Schools—could be watching. Does the White House have cable? Does Michael Jordan? Rice doesn’t know for sure, but he has faith that his message will wash up in the right living rooms: “There are a lot of parents out there looking for something positive for their kids to watch, something like my show. That’s why Barney is worth about $90 million.”
The prospect of having your public-access show discovered by a network bigwig— someone with money, connections, and the ability to put the show on prime-time television—is the great hope of those who embrace the DCTV experience.
Several times a week, DCTV airs a promo emphasizing the benefits of becoming a volunteer, which features Maria Jones, a DCTV producer. Jones tells the camera that she already has a full-time job and produces for DCTV in her spare time. Then she adds, “Who knows? Maybe someday someone will see it from Sundance and I’ll get more opportunities.”
The message is clear: DCTV offers District residents the chance to make television production their hobby, but with a little hard work and some luck, it might become a full-time gig.
Is that a realistic message? As it turns out, numerous DCTV volunteers have gone on to find careers in television. But primarily, it is the production skills that volunteers acquire at DCTV, and not the content of the public-access shows, that piques the interest of the Business.
Joseph Martin, who started volunteering at DCTV in the early ’90s, has since worked for the Discovery Channel and PBS. These days, he serves as the location scout and location manager for NBC’s The West Wing. Martin credits DCTV for getting him started professionally. “I’m a big believer in public-access television, and I have to give credit to DCTV for pushing me forward,” he says.
Martin got involved with DCTV at the age of 41, when he decided to change professions. He wanted to get out of the political-consulting biz and into the television industry, but he didn’t want to go to film school. “I didn’t want to spend a few years in film school and come out with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. I decided to create my own equivalent of a film-school experience,” says Martin. “I went to the Martin Luther King [ Memorial] Library, and I checked out every book they had on the creative aspects of film and script writing. The best book I ever read was called Gaffers, Grips, and Best Boys. I recommend it to everyone.”
Martin also began taking classes and volunteering as a production assistant at DCTV. “The equipment was very disappointing,” says Martin. “But to learn what I wanted to learn, I simply made myself overlook that. One of the most important things I learned is that production is essentially the same whether you’re at Warner Bros. or DCTV: You have to make certain things flow. The picture has to work. The series of images you’re showing has to convey a story. The equipment is different, but the process is the same.
“I had no pretensions about my self-education,” continues Martin. “I would get the experience wherever I could get it. I know people from NYU film school that were basically too snobby to get started in the business when they graduated.” DCTV graduates, Martin says, don’t have that problem.
Martin never had his own program at DCTV, but he toys around with the notion of returning someday to create a show of his own. “Every so often, I entertain the thought of going back and doing something,” says Martin. “Having complete editorial freedom to do what I want on a minimal budget appeals to me sometimes.” What would his show look like? Martin says his vision involves hand puppets lip-synching sound bites from CNN newscasts. But he says it probably won’t happen anytime soon, because he’s too busy with his professional career.
Whereas Martin and others have made the transition to professional television, some longtime denizens of public-access, such as Harry Evans, continue their struggle to get network executives to take notice of their programs.
Evans, a full-time employee of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, has spent most of his free time for the past seven years producing and hosting a weekly program called That Show With Those Black Guys. Evans’ show has won numerous awards and is currently syndicated on approximately 80 public-access stations around the country. But after years of fishing for network attention, Evans is still waiting for a bite.
“This isn’t Wayne’s World,” says Evans of his show. “In the public-access world, I’m Oprah. Straight up. I’m Oprah.”
Evans pitches his show as “Tom Snyder goes black. We only talk to brothers who have degrees.” In each episode of That Show With Those Black Guys, Evans conducts a one-on-one interview with a successful black man. His guests in recent years have included NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, R&B singer Howard Hewitt, and Jesse Jackson Jr., the Democratic congressman from Illinois.
“The show does real well in markets where minorities have a very strong presence in the community,” says Evans. “Black people, Asians, Hispanics, and Native Americans, we’re all new to this television game. We’ll watch a show simply because there are black faces on it. That’s not good or bad—that’s just a fact of reality.”
As he approaches his 200th episode, Evans remains hopeful that someday he will move his show from public-access to late-night network television. “I never imagined I would get this far,” says Evans. “My biggest holdbacks now are time and resources. I do my show in addition to a full-time job. If I had someone to back me, I could really roll.”
Evans, who lives in Columbia, Md., and films the show on his house’s patio, has already pitched his show to Maryland Public Television. “They told me, ‘We already have a black show that we’re trying to sell,’” says Evans. “You kind of pick up the vibe when you walk in the door at some stations. A lot of people turn up their noses at me, like I’m not legitimate because I’m in public-access—like somehow I’m dirty.”
Over the years, Evans has interviewed several top executives from Black Entertainment Television on his show. “All those guys came back to me afterwards and told me, ‘You’ll never guess how many people saw me on your show.’ But would they offer me a time slot? Not in your wildest dreams,” says Evans.
“Network executives don’t see the value in what I do,” adds Evans. “They don’t buy this kind of stuff. It’s not what they sell. They’d rather go hire some hack actor, who’s grabbing for straws in their career and doesn’t even have an interviewing style.”
Evans, on the other hand, has honed a straightforward, low-key approach to his subjects. “I’m a conversationalist,” says Evans. “I keep it simple. This isn’t rocket science or brain surgery. It’s television.”
Evans notes with some satisfaction that his show has outlived numerous network talk shows hosted by other black men, including Magic Johnson, Sinbad, and Keenan Ivory Wayans. (Because That Show With Those Black Guys is on public-access, nobody—besides Evans, of course—can cancel the show.) “I just wonder, How long can I do this,” says Evans, “before someone says, ‘Hey, come over here and let’s make it happen for real.’”
As Evans and other DCTV producers dream of having their shows discovered, some public-access participants would prefer to see their creations buried—preferably 6 feet deep.
“What I got out of DCTV is basically a decade of absolute embarrassment,” says David Plotz, Washington bureau chief at Slate and a former editor of the Washington City Paper.
After graduating from Harvard, Plotz, who grew up in this area, returned to D.C. in the summer of 1992. Soon thereafter, he got involved with DCTV. Along with his childhood buddy Jonathan Zurer, Plotz created Left Out, a political talk show focusing, ostensibly, on the role of young Democrats at the start of Bill Clinton’s presidency.
“That was sort of the heyday of public-access,” says Plotz. “People were talking about public-access in a really enthusiastic way. We thought, Let’s do a Gen-X political talk show. Won’t that be incredibly clever? All of the Gen-X political talk shows that emerged in the early to mid-’90s used the same stupid approach that we used—the casual atmosphere, the food on the set, the people just sort of wandering around. We were being really cool.”
Plotz served as one of Left Out’s hosts. After only two episodes, he and Zurer nixed the program. Why? “If you had seen the show, you wouldn’t have to ask that question,” says Plotz.
“They were the two most boring half-hours of television ever created,” says Zurer, who’s graduated to a career in films. “But we had quite a bit of fun, anyway.”
Plotz concedes that the first episode went well. But the second show proved disastrous. “Our guests on the second show were just unspeakable,” says Plotz. “One was a libertarian—I think he might have been an intern at the Cato Institute. He came in and got all steamy and sweaty on the set; and his glasses got all fogged up; and he wouldn’t shut up.
He literally would not be silent. It was like the speech by John Galt at the end of Atlas Shrugged. It was some kind of epic, horrible event.”
Approximately nine years later, that event still occasionally resurfaces on the DCTV play list. “It’s like they have some terrible problem with programming, or they are totally desperate,” says Plotz. “But every so often, some friend of mine or some acquaintance will say they were flipping through the channels and saw me.
“It’s just excruciating to see your youthful indiscretions played out on the small screen, year after year,” adds Plotz.
Plotz says he’s too embarrassed to ask DCTV to stop playing the Left Out tapes. But even if DCTV yanked the plug, Plotz’s brief tenure as a hipster talk show host would live on.
“When I turned 30, my brother gave a copy of the show to my wife as punishment,” says Plotz. “He was like, ‘This is what you need to know now that you’ve married this man.’” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.