It's 6:30 p.m. Monday. "That Show With Those Black Guys" is on television in Howard County. Several miles north, a woman is sweating on "Carroll County Aerobics." They've just finished "Sex and Cinema" in Annapolis, and in Harford County, "Live Jesus" is playing on tape.
Each season the airwaves fill with new schedules of community access television shows across Maryland. And even though these shows are among the lowest-rated programs on the state's cable systems -- there are few statistics on community channel viewership -- many Marylanders see them as on-air soapboxes and the number of programs continues to grow.
"We'd go 24 hours a day if we could," says Karen Simmons-Beathea, executive director of the nonprofit Baltimore Cable Access Corp., which runs Channel 42. "People watch TV. It doesn't matter if it's a little bit of TV or a lot of TV. If you put it on, they're going to watch."
Tuning in can be a bit like peeping through a neighbor's window. The sights range from the homey and familiar (a motherly woman cooking comfort food and talking about chicken) to the unsettling (two men dressed as southern belles discussing violent intestinal problems).
Local programmers say there are at least 10 such channels in Maryland, playing anywhere from 20 to 140 hours of locally produced programs a week.
Media analysts say the channels are today's answer to the town halls, coffee shops and front stoops where neighbors once spoke their minds, shared ideas or just acted wacky. As those places disappear, more people are stepping inside television studios, creating custom-tailored shows and holding public conversations on the airwaves, says Sheri Parks, an associate professor of American History at the University of Maryland at College Park.
More often than not, however, the people dominating the conversation are not representative of the community at large. Rather, they come from what Ms. Parks politely calls "the electronic avant garde."
'Pretty easy to do'
"Sometimes ideas get generated on public access that get spun out into the public arena and it's always important to keep an eye on that," Ms. Parks said. "But there's also a lot of garbage out there. If you want to get known now, you put yourself on television. People clamor for it, and it's pretty easy to do."
The channels are starting to take themselves more seriously. In Carroll County, the community channel is moving to a studio two times the size of the last one. The Annapolis station boasts a waiting list of producers who hope to get on the air. In Howard County, "That Show With Those Black Guys" is nationally syndicated. A Montgomery County program on cigarette vending was nominated for an Emmy this year. In Baltimore, 90 percent of the shows are locally produced, up from 10 percent last year.
Still the channels get little respect from the public. A viewer once thanked Kathy Conway, who runs Howard County's Channel 6, after an evening of programs accidentally wasn't aired. "I think she was a fan of the Home Shopping Network," which runs on the same channel when the Howard County station is not on the air, Ms. Conway said.
Aside from barring one guest from throwing knives on the air, Ms. Conway never has had to limit a show's content. Indeed, there are few restrictions. The rules are simple: you must be a resident of the county or city in which the show is produced and refrain from overly lewd on-air behavior. Participants spend roughly $60 for classes, bring in a tape, dream up an idea and put on a show.
There are plenty of religious shows with sermons and Bible lessons, such as "Live Jesus" in Harford County. And spandex-laden exercise shows, such as "Carroll County Aerobics," air at least once a day on most stations. Teen angst is another hot topic. In Annapolis, teen-ager Fred Topel, 17, free-associates about high school and reviews movies in his show, "Sex and Cinema."
Mr. Topel has spiritual soul mates on Carroll County's channel 19, where Luke and Job recently pretended to drink paint.
The characters, John Bent and Roy Novoliesky in real life, are wild-eyed hillbillies who have adventures in a tool shop on "Crazy Ed's Used Video Show." They teach the audience how to make Christmas decorations from used oil filters and beer cans.
Leading the buffoonery is "Crazy Ed," played by Greg Whitehair, 33, a Social Security Administration computer programmer. On the show, Mr. Whitehair pretends he's an action hero while wearing underpants on his head, digs pink marshmallow desserts out of a dirt pile as though he's going to eat them, hits himself in the head with two bricks and sucks on a black high-heeled shoe.
Something for everyone
Local access shows also offer a fat menu of self-help and how-to programs. Some shows are in a category all their own.
When Gordon Cheeks and the First Fruits play country music on the Carroll County channel, the guitar-strumming senior citizen keeps the lyrics in one hand and doesn't get flustered when he mixes up the words. Mr. Cheeks tries to create some ambience from the old hotel that now serves as the cable studio.
"We're coming to you from high atop the Charles Carroll Hotel in downtown Westminster," Mr. Cheeks says from the ground floor. "It was quite a place to be. Too bad we missed it."
Also popping up on these channels are local officials. Several politicians create their own shows and more agree to be interviewed. Some even distribute press releases promoting their cable TV appearances.
On public access cable, the questions are flattering and the topics give politicians a chance to humanize themselves. Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary recently talked about family, God and love on "In Touch With Suzi," an inspirational talk show in Annapolis. Host Suzi Slye sat behind Mr. Gary's desk with him for an extra cozy setting.
Next up, Ms. Slye will interview Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
Sometimes, the politicians are the bit players. Or so Harry Evans III hopes. On his "That Show With Those Black Guys," Mr. Evans dreams that he, not political guests, will win the adoration of viewers.
"Someday, somewhere, somebody's going to notice me," he says. "People tell me right now I'm just a blip on the screen. I tell them, 'So was Hurricane Camille.' "