- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 3, 2002

The sky fades into a milky blue twilight. Laughing couples stroll lazily down the Arlington street. Only a few riders trickle off the Metro's escalator, while restaurant patios hum with conversation and clinking glasses as their neon signs flicker on for the night.

But in an off-white stucco building on a small side street around the corner from Wilson Boulevard, things are all business.

The building on Danville Street, an annex to the offices of Comcast, is home to Arlington Community Television (ACT), Channel 33, one of the five public access TV stations that serve the Washington area.

And here in the ACT studio, on the set of "Arlington Alive," a weekly 30-minute talk show featuring representatives of local nonprofit organizations, coils of orange electrical cord snake their way along the floor. Thick gray curtains hang down along each wall. Three camera operators position their equipment. Teetering on a tall black ladder above them, a technician adjusts one of the ceiling's countless colored lights.

In the adjacent control room, a producer in headphones mans an ominously large panel of buttons. Crew members rattle past one another on rolling chairs, flipping switches, angling camera shots on multiple monitors. A woman shifts a joystick back and forth, and the cameras zoom in and out hypnotically.

Host Pia Salmre takes her place on the set, shuffles her notes and greets her guests, two board members of Bread for the City, a charity for the homeless. She is dressed professionally in a pink and black dress, and glasses, and asks some final questions as they sit in the spotlight and wait to begin.

Commands from the control room:

"Cue Camera 1!"

"Cue sound."


Theme music fills the studio, and more lights snap on, draping the background in bright pink. On with the show.

But this isn't your typical Washington television program. No political pundits are trading barbs. No limos wait outside for the guests.

Nor is the staff made up of professionals. They are some of the newest graduates of television production classes here. They are your friends and neighbors, most with paying jobs on the outside.

"I had never done anything with communications, at least not like this," says camera operator Rock Sabetto, 29, of Arlington. After serving four years in the Army he is a software engineer with Verizon. He signed on for classes at ACT to learn how to realize his dream of producing a comedy show.

"The staff here are highly talented, and learning the procedures really wasn't that difficult. The training was fun, more like a workshop than a college class."

It's a trial by fire tonight. This broadcast of "Arlington Alive" is only the first or second on-air production by most of this crew. It's live.

But if the crew makes a mistake, it's all right.

"I don't think ABC has anything to worry about from us," says Paul LeValley, executive director of Channel 33, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month. "We are not broadcasters. They have to draw an audience and sell to advertisers. We aren't in that business. We just give people a place to express their vision, and if they have fun doing it, we like that, too."

"Fun" might not come to mind when you're staring at hundreds of intimidating buttons, tapes and expensive equipment in ACT's editing suites, control rooms and, well, pretty much every piece of available space in the station (they are in the process of taking over the building next door for more room).

But for anyone who wants to learn what goes on behind the small screen, a public access station is the place. With small, inexpensive classes and training offered by ACT and other area stations such as Public Access Corp. of D.C., Community Television of Prince George's County, Fairfax Public Access, Montgomery Community Television and Alexandria Channel 69 aspiring video producers who have a few free nights and (in most cases) $150 or so can produce their own TV show.

"I'll let you in on a secret. Producing television is easy," says Mr. LeValley. "It's not rocket science. Honestly, with today's technology, it's as simple as pointing and clicking. Anyone can do this."

Mark Sarver, community relations director for Public Access Corp. of D.C. (DCTV), agrees. "The equipment may look intimidating, but we are very hands-on in our training. The fact that people can come in here and learn this, that teen-age kids can learn how to operate this equipment it's very empowering, and it gives them incredible technical skills for later in life."

Mr. Sarver credits the pleasant, "homey" environment of the DCTV station, newly situated in the 160-year-old Brooks Mansion, next to Catholic University, with helping people overcome their fears of technical equipment. One of its three studios is designed for children, with desks and equipment fixed lower to the ground.

"Even senior citizens can come in and not feel overwhelmed by the technology, even though what we have is state-of-the-art," Mr. Sarver says. "The technology behind our programming is very high-level. We have just as a good a signal as ESPN or any other network."

Of course, people who don't live in Arlington may never have seen "Arlington Alive." Similarly, anyone outside Prince George's County is probably a stranger to the award-winning financial show "Dollars and Sense." And it's unlikely that non-District residents have come across "At Your Service," the TV forum of the Local 25 Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union on DCTV. Only a handful of shows appear on non-originating stations and those that do, do so because their producers have marketed them across county lines.

In fact, you may never have seen any of your local public access station's shows. They lie outside the mainstream; their channels tend to be banished to the farther realms of the cable lineup, the 33s, the 76s well beyond ESPN and HBO.

Should your finger accidentally strike the remote's digits for a public access channel, you probably rush to stab in another number, fearing the grainy government board meetings, televangelists and eerie mimes grasping for freedom from invisible, shrinking cubes.

And, yes, there are those.

But even the national networks can annoy audiences with their programming choices, their chair-throwing talk shows, endless commercials (public access stations don't have them) their 800th rerun of "Friends."

Dare to linger on a public access channel, and you just might see something good. Maybe really good. Public access producers create programming for their friends and neighbors, not for Nielsen: children's programming, newscasts that focus on local neighborhoods, talk shows that discuss events in the community instead of movies you don't want to see, travel you can't afford or weddings you're not in.

"We have become known as a hub of information for P.G. County," says Prince George's County's CTV Executive Director Sherry Byrne. "CTV is family-oriented and diverse. We pride ourselves on that. We provide information and fairness without sensationalism, and whether it's local election coverage or peewee football, we know what is important to P.G. County residents."

At Virginia's two public access stations, foreign-language shows give nonnative English speakers information they can understand, not just in their own language but about their local community. Mr. LeValley of ACT says Channel 33's Spanish-language programming has a huge following and has helped Comcast sell more cable subscriptions.

As with standard television shows, public access shows can gain national attention and awards. Montgomery County's "Deliteful Cooking" recently won an award at the Hometown Video Festival. In July, ACT host and producer Jorge Bernardo's "Blah Blah Blah" won an award at the Alliance for Community Media national conference for Best Talk Show.

Fairfax County Public Access recently won Telly awards for two of its shows, beating out thousands of other entries, including ones from Disney, National Geographic and Sony. The Telly is an internationally respected award that recognizes outstanding non-network and cable film and video productions.

"We get to be very grass roots," says Fairfax's FPA executive director Joan Betros, who has worked for CNN and ABC. "I really enjoy working with the public. At large networks you do your job and you leave, but here it's all about outreach, inviting the community in to become a member."

And that's the best way to get the most out of your local public access station to join and make a show yourself (or learn to produce someone else's).

"Washington, D.C., is so diverse and there are so many people and causes, public access centers provide them that forum," says Nantz Rickard, executive director of DCTV. "People are ingrained with not being listened to in D.C., kids especially. We want to show them that, yes, you are being listened to; yes, you have a voice here."

Of course, a person can't simply walk in one afternoon and make a TV show. The stations require some fees and commitment. Novices should count on at least two months of classes before they can see your names in bright lights.

The first step is a free orientation session, usually an hour one evening. Next, the newcomer will be asked to become a member of the station (about $15-$30 per year). This area's public access stations are 503(b) nonprofits and are subsidized by their parent cable companies as well as by grants, donations, and to a smaller extent, the fees from classes, equipment rentals, fees and other donations.

Then the beginner takes introductory courses typically five to eight three-hour sessions teaching basic production techniques such as using cameras, sound and editing equipment, as well as First Amendment policies. Introductory courses cost $50 to $100.

From there, trainees can specialize in studio production (running equipment in a studio environment) or field production (taking cameras on location) and volunteer to help produce other shows. That makes them novice producers, although different stations have different requirements for how many classes and volunteer hours are required before people can begin their own projects. Students can take as many classes as they like. Anyone who takes DCTV's 26-session "A to Z's of TV" curriculum, will have senior-producer-level skills that will be recognized at any station.

Note that public access stations do not typically teach acting or broadcasting skills. They'll teach everything video buffs need to know about being behind a camera, but once they're in front of it, they're on their own. However, taking production classes will help even if they plan only to be on camera; someone has to edit the show. That knowledge can make the difference between a one-hit wonder and a quality program.

"Jorge's passion is what really makes this show a success," says Rob Isele, one of the three wisecrackers who regularly join Mr. Bernardo on "Blah Blah Blah" debating topics such as parallel parking in Washington and wobbly restaurant tables. "He's the one who outlines the show, who makes the notes, who edits the tapes. Anyone can come onto a show and be funny, but it's the behind-the-scenes work that makes the difference."

"You have to pay attention to the technical details," Mr. Bernardo says. "That will help you look professional. Change your shots. State up front what your topic is. Take your show seriously, even if it's meant to be funny."

Many people find they prefer doing the background work to being on camera, and there are many careers doing just that. Sherry Byrne uses her experience as a registered nurse in her position as executive director of CTV.

"I was always accustomed to technical equipment, monitors. They're not hard for me," Ms. Byrne says. "But I don't go in front of the camera. I hate having my picture taken. I'm much more of a behind-the-scenes person."

Once a show is produced, it can be broadcast several times a month and in different time slots so different audiences can see it. Depending on the number of cable subscribers in an area, thousands of people could see it.

"I've been recognized at the supermarket," says Ms. Salmre, volunteer host of "Arlington Alive." "And I have a fan club of little old ladies in my apartment building who watch the show every week and slip notes under my door with what they thought."

Such recognition is good news for Largo resident Sparkal Day, 23, who recently produced a documentary at CTV on health care workers at "The Arc," a nonprofit organization that offers job training and other assistance to the disabled. Ms. Day, who earned a communications degree from American University in 2001, hopes for a career in video production.

"I wanted to show how although the people who work with the disabled are not paid well, they enjoy it and are very compassionate people," says Ms. Day, who continues to volunteer at CTV even though her documentary is complete (and will air every Monday in October at 2 p.m. on Channel 76 in Prince George's County).

"Everyone at CTV helped me with filming and interviewing. It took about six months to do, but I was really pleased with the result," she says.

Because of the training and technology offered to students, as well as the informal, family atmosphere, it's easy to see why many people get bitten by the public access bug. DCTV's Nantz Rickard once studied to be a music conductor. Fairfax's Ms. Betros and ACT's Mr. LeValley both worked at major networks.

"Why serve in heaven when you can rule in hell?" says Mr. LeValley. "I can't be the boss at ABC, but I can be the boss here. It's fun."

Many students go on to have careers in the television industry; several former volunteers at CTV can be seen broadcasting regularly in the Washington area, including Megan McGrath, a reporter for WRC, Channel 4, and Stacey Cohan, a reporter for WUSA, Channel 9.

Others at the stations prefer to keep TV as simply a hobby. Solomon Hamilton, a camera operator at CTV, owns a bail bond service.

But however people choose to use their public access channels, their staffs and volunteers will do whatever they can to accommodate them.

"We serve not just as a TV station, but as a community center," says DCTV's Mr. Sarver. "We have a studio solely for the use of nonprofits for outreach, and we're developing internship programs with local high schools."

He tells of a Benedictine nun who visited recently; she had lived in the Brooks Mansion when it served as a convent during the 1940s.

"She told us we were doing a very blessed thing."

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