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Sunday, March 5, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Channel 29 -- Where People Make Public Access Of Themselves

YEAH, I'M DOPED UP. BUT no way am I as dumb as those people on daytime television.

Twice a year I get good and sick; this is one of those times. Antihistamines and a hacking cough prevent sleep, so I'm on the couch, remote control at the ready.

Proust, Moliere and Elmore Leonard are stacked at my side but who am I trying to kid . . . I'm feeling so lousy that even if I move my lips I couldn't read People magazine. Surely, the great American TeleDemocracy must have more than "Dynasty" re-runs to offer this huddled mass yearning to breathe free.

So I'm zapping through the channels, reducing talk-show hosts and soap stars to subliminal blimps when a split-second image commands me to "SSSStaaay! TOOON-duh."

Whoa . . . I drop the remote. Is this guy spOOOOky.

A single, hot white light shines on the face of the Rev. Bruce Howard, Church of Life, Scientist. His pale and shining visage fills the screen, "I AM the grRRREat! and . . ." Sparks seem to fly as the words explode from his mouth.

There are only the two of us, there in the dark.

Still, I swear I can hear the Tin Man's knees knocking. Where in heck have I landed?

WELCOME TO Public Access Channel 29, the cable-only station in King County dedicated to the free and unfettered expression of ideas by Joe and Jane Q. Public. Instead of soap operas, Channel 29 offers soap boxes - to anybody be they psychic, cynic, cybernaut, overwrought, patrician, plebian, dominatrix or drag queen. So the Rev. Howard isn't a feverish hallucination.

An electronic Hyde Park, Channel 29 accepts programs from any King County resident with a gripe, grudge, gag, song in their heart, desire to preach, teach or exhibit their private parts. English is not required, profanity is not prohibited and political correctness is irrelevant.

Talent is not necessary, but there is a surprising amount. Programs need not demonstrate intelligence, sensitivity or intrinsic value - this is television, after all.

It is not OK to libel, slander, advertise commercial services, solicit donations or violate federal obscenity standards. However, cable operators are forbidden under the law to exercise "prior restraint," which means they can't preview shows for content. So virtually anything goes, sometimes where no one has gone before.

The station went on the air in 1983 as part of a cable franchise agreement between the City of Seattle and Tele-Communications Inc., and can be seen in the estimated 383,000 households in King County served by TCI, Viacom and Summit cable-TV systems.

The franchise deal is being renegotiated, but for now TCI funds Channel 29 playback operations, as well as the Northwest Access and Production Center on Aurora Avenue North, where a person can tape a program or present a live show. According to TCI, direct costs amount to $300,000 a year (a sum that does not reflect the value of the production facility or equipment). The center offers free television-production courses; last year it provided more than 3,400 hours of formal training. Additionally, a staff person is assigned to each studio production and is available on-call to answer questions.

And is there ever a crowd at the studio door . . . TCI expects to broadcast 10,000 programs on Channel 29 this year, about 80 percent locally produced - making it the most active public-access center in the state. What makes this a true wonder though, is that almost nobody gets paid.

Who goes to that kind of trouble for nothing?

Truth is, the only generalization that can be made is that most public access users don't feel well served by mainstream media. And since it is 5 1/2-hours to "Law & Order," I have to say I share that feeling.

The Rev. Howard is an impassioned speaker. "THINK ABOUT GOOD! THINK ABOUT GOD! I LOVE YOU!!" I'm trying to think; he reminds me of someone. Several someones actually: Bela Lugosi, Tony Robbins, Billy Graham. A fluid, morphed messenger of metaphysics exuding self-affirmation.

I find out later he's also a teacher of elocution and music in Ballard. He doesn't own a TV, but when I meet him later he says, "I am in LOVE with MY-self on the show . . . I am SOOOO in LOVE, I'm sometimes moved to tears."

But he's still scary to watch . . . "I'm looking in the face of death and saying there is life," he says. "I want my voice to ring in your head, my facial expressions to haunt you . . . I don't care what you want."

Unlike other television, "what the audience wants isn't important," says Scott Scocroft, director of the Channel 29 Northwest Access and Production Center. "The important thing is what the program provider wants. The only TV `ratings' that matter are those the public access users give themselves."

Hitting the "mute" button on my TV remote, I roll over to try and sleep.

WHEN PUBLIC-ACCESS television was created by Congress 20 years ago, the commons were being turned over to private developers and streets corners to baristas. Lawmakers were trying to ensure that average citizens would have a place where they could exercise their right of free speech and expression.

Congress expected a marketplace of ideas; public access is more bazaar.

Just read a few listings:

"The King Is Coming" (13-week study of Revelations); "American Atheist Forum" (There is no God); "Strategies for Success" (running your brain for optimum results); "Farrakhan: The Torchlight for America" (the words of Louis Farrakhan, African-American activist); "YWF Championship Wrestling" (Beautiful Sumiko hosts half-hour of action by Beast, Psycho, Iron Man); "People Curing AIDS" (profiles of courage and alternative medicine); "Guitar School Part III" (learn to play); "Freedom Television #2" (news from the mean streets); "Gays for Jesus" (showing GAY is not SIN); "Country Music Northwest" (two-stepping with local bands and artists); "Journey" (UFOs, ETs, Tools and Techniques of self-empowerment); "New Awareness" (reveals One World Government agents suppressing white heterosexuals with mass media brainwashing); "Seattle Chinese TV Square" (weekly news in Chinese from Taiwan, mainland China, Hong Kong and Seattle).

"Public access is absolutely non-discriminatory," says Deborah Vinsel, executive director of Thurston Community Television, a nonprofit agency that runs public access on behalf of Thurston County and the cities of Olympia and Lacy.

"Public access," she jokes, "has something to offend everyone."

I MUST HAVE dozed off because there's drool on the cushions and the Rev. Howard is long gone. In his place is Doc Carlson, Defender (and host) of "The Second Amendment." I'm not feeling much better.

There are liberals who have nightmares about the NRA and those nightmares look like Carlson. He's a patriot, one of the few it seems. Carlson's wearing a camo-jacket and a T-shirt bearing the proud profile of a bald eagle. Seated in front of Old Glory, Carlson is getting very worked up about the "leftist media-elite and its slanted, self-serving" reporting on gun control and gun ownership.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I don't expect all of you to agree with me but at least I'm presenting the other side . . . encouraging you to make up your own minds and not trying to force some cockamamie . . . story down your throats like the so-called mainstream media," Carlson says, his color rising.

This is television for Mad-As-Hell-America. Take-no-prisoners programming.

And I'm listening to this guy, though I'm not exactly sure why; I can't stand Rush Limbaugh or Patrick Buchanan. But then nobody's paying Carlson six-figures and dabbing make-up on his shiny forehead just because he's willing to give me (the media) the kiss off.

"Ladies and gentlemen, If . . . You . . Own. . .a Firearm . . . you better get out and Vote! For God's sake," he pleads, starting to choke up. "Stand Up! Defend Your Rights! If not for yourself then please . . . please . . . for your kids."

There's nothing slick about this show. Just a single camera locked down on a 42-year-old angry white male exercising his right to speak freely. Strident, stripped-clean of staged arguments and audience stooges, this is television worth watching, but you won't find it on PBS.

"Public access is probably the last place open to average citizens who want to present the other side," Carlson says later during a telephone interview.

"Without public access what power does a guy like me have? Unless I wake up as Rupert Murdoch one morning, there's no other avenue.

"Public access is a bastion of liberty. . . ."

EVEN INDECENT liberty.

Lorena Bobbitt made it possible to discuss severed male genitalia on the nightly news. Penile implants are advertised in the daily sports sections of local newspapers. But public-access broadcasts of naked men talking politics is considered by many to be altogether outrageous and offensive - if Republican Sen. Slade Gorton's mailbag is any indication of viewer sentiment.

A lot of stamps have been licked by folks opposed to the continued run of "Political Playhouse," a very hip, very left-wing show. It is Generation X, squared. With startling frankness and irreverence the show takes on such issues as government reform, health care, AIDS and street crime. It offers interviews of all sorts, from the painful recollection of a rape victim to a spy's explanation of why he came in from the Cold. Viewers who think grunge is something under the rim of a toilet bowl or wish Nixon hadn't resigned won't much care for the show. But the message is less problematic than how it is sometimes delivered.

Specifically, last summer "Political Playhouse" presented a 4 1/2-hour retrospective in the nude. The program's 28-year-old producer, Philip Craft, stood stark naked before viewers, his image superimposed on a giant relief of the Constitution, to talk about censorship. And he used the F-word.

Constituent outcry prompted Washington's Sen. Slade Gorton to offer this legal fig leaf: Cable companies would be allowed to refuse to air any show containing obscenity, indecency or nudity, under an amendment to the federal telecommunications law. The Senate Commerce Committee, which is working on a massive overhaul of the law, has adopted Gorton's amendment. A vote on the bill by the full Senate and House is expected this spring.

But it doesn't take an act of Congress to restrict public access - any cable customer has the power. Subscribers who find Channel 29 programs offensive can go to their cable company and pick up a free station "lockout" device.

Which may be just the thing for parents who don't want their kids watching "Safety with the Goddess Severina."

For reasons unknown to me, sadomasochism is all the rage. "Goddess," which runs occasionally on Channel 29, features a big blond, whips, chains and slaves. Severina is a local dominatrix whose program (compared to hyper-glitz shows on commercial air) is pretty tame. Well, actually her slaves are tame. She's clinical and kind of boring, despite being half-naked . . . wasn't too long into the show that I started thinking about the upcoming swimsuit season and cellulite.

"I always tell people to create a compelling image - one that will arrest channel-surfers," says Ken Harris, TCI public-access coordinator. "The problem is, a few program originators create images that are too strong . . . I can tell you, we've taken a lot of heat over the S&M show."

Now, most all who appear on public access are clothed and do not use profanity. But that's often lost in the hullabaloo.

"Easily, less than 5 percent of the programs are the kind that raise eyebrows. That's not to say public access is dull, but the overall content is certainly a lot less controversial than some suggest," says Harris. "The vast majority of people appearing on public access bare their souls, not their behinds."

But when they do, it is (for now) protected speech under the First Amendment. "SHE'S GONNA make it after al-alllll"

"Love, Laverne" is on. And Gosh, this Laverne is so just like MTM. Oh OK, so Laverne is really Brian Brock - a Gay Seattle Man originally from Holland, Mich., playing a Straight Seattle Gal originally from Holland, Mich., trying to make it on her oh-own.

But the hairdo is exactly the same. And there's a live studio audience.

This I have to see. I'm getting up, getting dressed and getting myself to the TCI studio. I need keys, I need Kleenex.

Different as it is from commercial television, public access is still TV. Which means sitcoms and talk shows.

"Love, Laverne" is a campy, often very funny, sometimes crude sit-com. It's a spinoff of the long-running public access show "Queen's Kitchen" (hint: "QK" has nothing to do with the monarchy). One of the more highly produced shows on Channel 29, "Love, Laverne" mimicks the giddy-sweet style of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." But the plot is thicker than "Days of Our Lives."

"Laverne has a lot to handle, she's really a bridge between the gay and the straight communities," says her alter-ego Brock. "I created the show as a way of addressing gay life, and human relationships generally . . . Laverne and all the characters are bigger than life because humor makes it easier to connect."

But sometimes, midway through the laughs you cry.

On the talk show front a stand-out is "Deface the Nation," a weekly half-hour of C-SPAN slam-dancing. Hard news with an attitude. The show is originated and co-hosted by Jeff Pearson of Seattle. With a casual, erudite style, the 29-year-old Pearson is the Dick Cavett of Generation X. His co-host, Bernie Regies of Olympia, is a sharp foil. They definitely lean to the left, but skip the de rigeur diatribe against the Establishment.

"Deface the Nation" could likely draw a late-night network audience, but that would put Pearson and Regies in the mainstream. "And we like to think of ourselves as an antidote to the mainstream media," Pearson says. "There's this news persona that doesn't allow emotion . . . we're trying to eliminate the artifice . . . You know, I'm not doing this solely for my benefit," he adds. "I'd like to think I'm reaching somebody with our political rap."

Not all the talk is serious, some is downright slap-happy. ". . . Bam! Bam! Oo! Oow! Wham! Oo! Oo! . . . " Sister Irmalita and Charlie Chan, two hand-puppets, regularly duke it out on "Bend My Ear, Seattle," a quirky variety/talk show hosted by Richard Pennant, 44, and Neil Clarey, 45. Friends since 1963, they met on a school sandlot and discovered they shared a love of baseball and an extreme loathing of a certain "300-pound nun who flew down hallways like a Star Wars missile" to intercept misbehaving boys.

The cigar-chopping, wise-cracking Pennant and Clarey spend several hours a week working up bits for the show. "It can be guerrilla warfare in front of the cameras," says Clarey. "Have to keep our wits sharp, it's our only weapon."

The two men aspire to prime time, to fame and fortune. They also hope to widen the middle of public access. "We're not running for office or cross-dressing in fishnet stockings . . . we're playing to middle America and frankly, we think we're darn good at it," says Pennant, a Seattle real-estate agent and "consummate ham."

"There ought to be more of us on public access," says Clarey.

Julie Mahdavi, a Mercer Island mother of three who hopes to create children's cultural programs for public access cablecast, agrees. "There are so many talented people out there, if they only knew . . . But public access is like this great secret whispered about on the fringes."

I CANNOT seem to shake this flu, or whatever it is. I'm back on the couch, tuned to Channel 29, watching an elderly man in an easy chair reading from the Bible. I don't what show this is, or who he is. But apparently, many people misunderstand the word "anointed."

There is a lot, a lot, a lot of religious programming on public access. Normally I don't spend much time with televangelists, too much brimstone and Big Lash mascara. But there aren't many of those glam-give-to-God-shows on public access. Most are like the one I'm watching, an intimate witnessing of faith.

Not all of the religious programming is Judeo-Christian. Earlier in the week I watched a show called "And Let There Be Light," hosted by Herschel Mahmood. Brother Mahmood is a Muslim, his show is an introduction and exploration of Islam. Brother Herschel brings on guests and together they pray, read from the Koran and talk about how people can apply the laws of Allah to daily life.

I felt oddly voyeuristic. A white girl from the North End of Lake Washington, I've never been inside a mosque and I doubt I will be anytime soon. When Brother Herschel bowed his head in prayer, he didn't know I was there. But I was, and in a roundabout way Brother Herschel had invited me to watch.

"One aspect that's often overlooked is many people use public access to say, `This is my identity, my beliefs, my world point-of-view,' " says TCI's Harris. "When used to its fullest potential, public access really does open a channel for community dialogue."

On screen, the elderly man closes his holy book and invites me to tune in again. I get up to call my sister, ask her bring me more Kleenex and TheraFlu. By the time I'm back, there's a new show on.

Salon Betty and the Big Hair Sex Circus are tonight's featured band on "Queen's Kitchen," a "live, call-in variety show" hosted and produced by Patrick Berringer.

Berringer appears to be his late 20s or early 30s. Nice smile, looks like somebody who might help haul the trash out to the curb and not complain when the bag bursts. But he's busy right now getting a makeover . . . ooh-ohh, sapphire eyeshadow and swirly, gossamer caftan.

After the band plays, it's recipe time: Anchovy Pork Balls.

I like what's on the menu of the next show better. Ian Taylor, button-down host of "What's Cooking," is fixing up trout amandine.

It's all there, flickering on my screen . . . The struggle to evolve, the destruction of the natural world, the rise and fall of political empires, male rage, female supremacy, betrothal, betrayal, low-fat cooking. Equal parts sin and salvation, public-access television is a populist passion play.

Marla Williams is a reporter for the Seattle Times. Harley Soltes is Pacific Magazine's staff photographer.

HOW TO GET AIR TIME --------------------------------------

Want to be part of public access? There are several ways to get involved; a couple are outlined here:

The easiest way is to simply tune in. In King County, Public Access Channel 29 airs programs from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily and can be seen by subscribers to TCI, Summit and Viacom cable systems.

If you're willing to put down the remote and get off the couch (don't strain yourself now) there's opportunity behind the scenes and in front of the camera.

First, behind the scenes: If you want to run camera, direct studio shows or produce programs in the field, but don't know a studio suitcase from a Samsonite, free classes are offered by TCI through its Northwest Access and Production Center. Any resident of King County may sign up for hands-on technical training at no charge. There are classes nights and weekends.

Producing your own show: If you want to produce an original program, you may do so with your own (or a friend's) equipment and simply bring the tape to the center for airing (for the fine print on tape format, etc., call the production center).

If, however, you want make use of the production center's studio or equipment, you need to complete a basic orientation class, a theory class and have a chat with a production center facilitator who will offer suggestions and want to know such things as: Can you persuade qualified crew people to show up on time?

Even before that, you'll need to decide if you want to make this a one-shot deal or a regular series. (Series programs are allocated air time in a quarterly lottery.)

Reminder: No infomercials, pledge drives, flashing 800-numbers that viewers can call to get an earful of advertisement, or anything that violates federal obscenity standards. If you submit a tape, you must own the program or have cablecast rights.

To get the complete lowdown, contact the Northwest Access and Production Center, 1125 N. 98th St., Seattle, WA 98103. The phone number is (206) 522-6672 and fax number is (206) 528-8049.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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