It's not often that television viewers flip their remotes and see an accountant, an engineer, a mayor and a lawyer -- all African-American men -- casually chatting about history, religion, hobbies and their dreams.
"That Show With Those Black Guys," a public-access cable talk show produced in Ellicott City, has turned such nonsensational topics into a surprise hit. Not even a year old, the show has been picked up by cable stations from Washington to Atlanta to Compton, Calif., and is one of the hottest homemade shows on cable, programmers say.
"It's like 'Larry King Live,' except everybody's a black man," said Harry Evans III of Columbia, the show's creator and host. "The images on TV always show us singing or throwing a ball, but they're just minstrel shows. There's room for more than just that."
Cable programmers say the show's catchy title and contradiction of stereotypes have helped give it success in the diverse, competitive public access cable market.
"I looked at it and thought it was cool," said Raymond Reeder, a program director at Continental Cable Vision in Los Angeles, where more than 500,000 residents have access to the show. "We saw it was educational and decided it might put a spark in the youths' lives."
Such comments are exactly what Mr. Evans is seeking. He tries to select topics far from tabloid sensationalism. His most recent interview was with Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.
"The content of the show is refreshing," said Karen Simmons-Beathea, executive director for Baltimore Cable Access Corp.
Mr. Evans, a patient advocate for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, dreamed up the show in 1993, when he saw a notice seeking volunteers to film shows for public access television. He saw the show as an opportunity to improve the image of blacks.
"We, as African-Americans, needed something different from the rank and trade you see on TV every day," Mr. Evans said.
That fall, the Howard County Cable Advisory Committee gave him $200 to cover expenses for filming two shows. He had some early setbacks in trying to establish a format but never gave up.
Finally, in April 1994, friends helped him set up borrowed camera equipment behind Clyde's restaurant-bar near Lake Kittamaqundi in Columbia's Town Center. Suddenly, a show was born.
"I had no script, no plan, no anything," Mr. Evans said. "We were just educated black men talking -- about marriage, how we were raised, the glass ceiling. . . . I was not sure it was going to work."
It did. They filmed two shows. After the first aired in Howard County in October, other cable companies took notice.
Now Mr. Evans has filmed more than 20 half-hour shows, and so far 12 cable systems around the country have signed up to air them. But it's still a shoestring operation without outside funding: He and his crew just set up a couple of chairs at some outdoor location, adjust the microphones and start the cameras.
"I love it," he said.