Almost Anything Goes

November 08, 1992|By Leslie Cauley

The name of Robert G. Pepersack, county sheriff and host of "Anne Arundel County's Most Wanted," was misspelled in the cover story about stars of public access cable television in Sunday's Sun Magazine.

+ The Sun regrets the errors.

Hollywood made big bucks off "Wayne's World" by selling the notion that public-access television is inhabited mostly by people who like nothing better than to sit around doing dumb stuff on television.

That notion could be downright insulting if you happen to be one of the thousands of people across America involved in public access, a medium that aspires to give a voice to people who otherwise wouldn't be heard.


Problem is, Hollywood was right.

Where else could you find Johnny Carson knockoffs who ask viewers to send in videos of people picking their noses -- and call it entertainment?

Where else could you expect to find people like "Underwear Man," king of the Fruit of the Loom gang, peeping in windows at Christmas?

Or a Socratic-style call-in show presided over by a cabdriver wearing green overalls?

In the world of public access, would-be TV stars and assorted stage hounds can tread without fear of Nielsen ratings, critics or the competition. That's because, no matter how bad you are, it's hard to get canceled.

"Public access was set up to be a venue for First Amendment rights, to allow people to speak their minds and get into subjects that broadcast TV can't or won't," says Eleni Zuras, public relations manager for Montgomery Community Television in Rockville. "Public access is designed to meet all those unmet needs out there."

The National Federation of Local Cable Programmers, a national organization that tracks public access, estimates that 10,000 hours of viewer-made programming is produced each week by the nation's 1,500 cable systems. Those shows include the weird and wonderfully goofy as well as ones with a more serious mission, local news, documentaries and the like.

In Maryland, dozens of shows air on public-access television each week, and new shows are always in the works. There's no way to gauge the most popular shows at any given time because ratings aren't kept (shows can't be canceled unless they violate Federal Communications Commission rules, for example, airing libelous material) and viewership numbers are sketchy at best.

Even so, we managed to single out a few shows we thought you might like reading about and then talked with their creators. A few of these public-access stars may come off as outrageous, others downright serious. But they all have one thing in common -- a love of the medium that has made Garth and Wayne Hollywood heroes.


Bob Johnson

"Out and About" and "Trolleys Through the Heart of Maryland"

Carroll County

Bob Johnson is Carroll County's version of Ken Burns, the genius behind "The Civil War" documentary series who did what legions of history teachers before him have been unable to do -- get people interested in America's Civil War.

Mr. Johnson doesn't have the staff or budget of a Ken Burns, but he does have an insatiable interest in Maryland's folklore and history -- and he's got the documentaries to prove it. About 40 at last count, dealing with everything from covered bridges and trolleys to painstaking histories on local points of interest most Marylanders have probably never heard of, like the Union Mills Homestead, a German enclave in Carroll County that was at its peak during the early 1800s.

"I never considered myself to be very creative, except maybe when I used to take pictures with my camera," says Mr. Johnson, a 61-year-old retired auto mechanics teacher.

His "Out and About" series, billed as a potpourri of things to see and do around Maryland, has taken Channel 55 viewers on a walking tour of the Patuxent River Naval Test Center, dropped in on Crisfield's annual crab truck painting contest and a re-enactment of the 1814 Battle of North Point (Ken Burns, eat your heart out).

His latest project, a four-part series on the Chesapeake Bay, is his most ambitious yet. The untitled series will trace the history of the bay from glacial times to the present.

So far, Mr. Johnson and his production partner, Sallie Mallick, have collected more than 200 vintage photographs to use in the series, culled from stacks of historical documentation stored in places such as the Maryland Historical Society and the U.S. Naval Academy.

On an average week, Mr. Johnson said, he puts in about 25 hours filming, editing and traveling in connection with the many self-financed projects he juggles. That includes the Chesapeake project, which won't be finished until sometime next spring.

In the meantime, he says, ideas for future projects just keep popping into his head, ensuring his air time on Channel 55 for a long time to come. At least that's the plan.

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