Wakefield Public Access TV: the Dark Ages

17Dec15

This month, Wakefield Community Access Television celebrates its 25th anniversary as Wakefield’s public access television operation.

tv_oldIt’s hard to believe that WCAT has been around for a quarter century. What’s even harder to believe is that public access television has been around in Wakefield, MA for even longer than that.

WCAT was formed in December of 1990, but there were people doing local public access TV in Wakefield for about five years before that – although it felt more like fifty years to those of us involved at the time. I refer to those days as the Dark Ages of public access.

In 1983, Warner-Amex had been awarded the contract to provide cable television in Wakefield. Those were exciting times. It marked the end of the once ubiquitous rooftop TV antenna or its alternative – a set of “rabbit ears” on top of the TV. Cable TV also came with something called a “remote control.” Suddenly, you no longer had to get up from your recliner and walk across the room to change the channel.

Cable also came with more channels – about 30 at first – mostly the existing broadcast channels out of Boston plus some from other cities like New York and Chicago. Ted Turner’s CNN was one of the few “satellite” channels around at the time, aside from premium channels like HBO that you had to pay extra for. By the late 1980s, however, satellite channels outnumbered broadcast channels.

In each city and town, competition was fierce among cable companies to secure the local cable license, because once a company got the license to provide cable they were a de facto monopoly in that community for the next 10-20 years.

carrotsOne of the carrots that cable companies dangled in order to win those contracts was local programming – television that would originate in your own community. The companies would make grandiose promises of a “state-of-the-art” television studio in your town where professionals would train local people in how to produce television programs “by and for the community.”

It’s important to remember that in the early 1980s, hardly anyone had a camcorder. Nobody had a cell phone, much less a smartphone with the ability to create video. There was no internet and no YouTube. So offering people the ability to not only create and edit video, but also a place to show it to a wider audience was unique and exciting.

Warner-Amex won the first cable license in Wakefield. But it quickly became clear in Wakefield and in every other community that fulfilling those promises to facilitate local programming was not high on any cable company’s agenda once it had a long-term local monopoly.

water_street_37

The Wakefield studio, located at 37 Water St., was actually used by Warner-Amex to fulfill its local programming obligations in surrounding cities, like Medford and Malden. The company did also grudgingly provide training and “public access” to the studio and equipment to those Wakefield people who knew enough to ask.

When I showed up in late 1984, I was a member of only the second class of people to go through the training and get certified to produce shows.

I still remember my very first very first production. It was actually a co-production with another graduate of my cable TV training class, a young woman who called herself “Lisa J.” She had had a short stint as a joke-writer for Charles Laquidara’s “Big Mattress” morning show on WBCN radio. Now she was living on Gould Street in Wakefield and apparently saw local cable as a way to keep her hand in “show business.”

mr_edWe did a short program called “In Search of Mr. Ed,” where we hauled one of the huge Sony 1800 cameras and a Betamax recorder (called a “deck”) up to the Topsfield Fair. When we could get the microphone to work, we would walk up to people and tell them that we were looking for the famous talking horse from the 1960’s TV show, “Mr. Ed.” The finished show was embarrassing, but we were young and had no shame.

I have the only extant copy of “In Search of Mr. Ed,” and no, you may not borrow it.

Sometime in 1985, I found myself paired with a bald, 54 year-old would-be Boston comedian named Charlie Golub. He would perform at Boston comedy clubs on open-mike nights and was convinced that if he just got the right exposure, he’d make it big. Somehow, I got roped into working with him on a show we called, “Wakefield Tonight.” Charlie was the host. I was producer/director.

wakefield_tonight2
We did the hour-long show every Monday night live from the Warner-Amex Wakefield cable studio at 37 Water Street. Charlie would sometimes interview local guests, but mainly we featured Boston open-mike comedians that Charlie managed to fast-talk into coming out to Wakefield. I’m sure most of these performers had no idea that the show only went out to Wakefield. It was the early days of cable and all you had to say was “TV appearance” and they would come. Some weeks we had so many we had to turn people away.

wakefield_tonight3We even got some big-name Boston comedy pros, like Tony V, Bob Lazarus, Chance Langton and the late, greats, Rich Ceisler and Bob Seibel. There is even a credible rumor that then unknown Boston open-mike comic Janeane Garofalo drove out one Monday night with another aspiring comedian. I can’t confirm it. There were so many and she would have been just another in the blur of unknown faces. But it seems unlikely that the other comedian who claims to have driven with Garofalo to Wakefield would bother to make up such a story if it didn’t happen.

Wakefield Tonight lasted just one year. Charlie became increasingly annoying as he came to the realization that his big show biz break was not going to happen in Wakefield. He eventually moved to Las Vegas where I heard he died about 10 years ago.

Those may have been the Dark Ages of public access TV, but we did occasionally manage to have some fun.

[This column originally appeared in the December 3, 2014 Wakefield Daily Item.]

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