The topic of the day — bannered in block type across the screen — is "Jesus Christ Was the Black Messiah." Our host is Dr. Luscious Conley, the resident black supremacist on Tampa Bay Community Network (TBCN), the Hillsborough County public access station. An 80-year-old WWII veteran, he wears a rumpled golf shirt, thick-framed glasses and a camo-colored trucker hat. With one camera trained on him, he tends to look down, to look around, to look, well, not exactly dialed in.
It does not take long for things to go bad. After mumbling for a few minutes about Jesus' pigmentation, the scourge of Bush and racism, Dr. Conley takes his first call.
"You're on with Dr. Conley," he blurts in a deep Southern accent.
"Dr. Conley, how big is your trouser snake?" asks a young woman.
Dr. Conley, who's not a doctor of any sort, pauses and then hits a button. Beep. He hangs up.
Next caller: "Dr. Conley, could you demonstrate with your fingers how big "
"You haven't answered my question about your trouser snake "
"SHOW US YOUR TITS!"
"I'm watching you."
"You supposed to be watchin' me," Conley retorts. "You lookin' at television."
"Dr. Conley, do you prefer men or women? Are you gay?"
The calls become squalls of feedback, random squawks and blurts of speech — "COCKSUCK " — mixed with a barrage of beeps. It's as if the public access station has come down with a bad case of Tourette's syndrome.
Welcome to the sometimes loopy world of public access cable, where citizens have the right to go on television and say or do whatever they want (to a point), where Dr. Conley has the right to ramble about how white folks are headed to hell for praying to a white Jesus, and kids have the right to call in and bust his balls.
Over its two-decade Bay area history, public access has been an outpost of raw, unfiltered speech, which can make people nervous or offended or angry. Often called an electronic soapbox, it's a forum where neo-Nazis and Klansmen have sporadically held court over the years (although not currently). Sexually explicit programs have occasionally found a home there as well. In an era of rampant media consolidation and increasingly crafted messages, public access, in all of its ragged glory, is the little runt that nips and nips and won't leave.
Over the years, certain groups have tried to shoo it away. The cable companies, which had to carry public access on their backs as part of initial franchise agreements, generally viewed the obligation as a waste of perfectly good channels. In Tampa, Time Warner turned over public access to the nonprofit Speak Up Tampa Bay in 2000. (Nationally, only about 20 percent of public access is still run by the cable industry.)
Local politicians are largely viewed as the biggest threat to these community stations. Two years ago, Hillsborough County Commissioner Ronda Storms, a champion of the religious right, raised a ruckus when she heard about a TBCN program called The Happy Show that ran video of a woman soaping her genitals in a shower. Storms asked state attorney Mark Ober to bring obscenity charges against the host, White Chocolate (real name Charles Perkins). Ober declined. She then convinced the commission to defund the station. The board concocted a story saying it had to reroute the $355,000 a year to more pressing needs. TBCN sued and won an injunction. Furthermore, a judge warned the commission that it would probably lose in court and be forced to fund public access.
This is where the station's biggest ally — the First Amendment — came into play. Community access outlets are prohibited from censoring their programming, which is something that politicos tend to forget. 'When we went through the controversy, what never really made the press coverage was that it was [the county's] contract that required us not to censor," says Louise Thompson, executive director of Speak Up Tampa Bay.
In the end, TBCN and the county negotiated a settlement that essentially required the station to tighten up its act and audit a small percentage of programs.
Still, there's a vague sense of unease at TBCN, which is housed in a 5,000-square-foot building near University of Tampa. With the recent election having restructured the county commission to include five conservative members, staffers wonder, quietly, whether the body will continue to fork over the dollars when the contract comes up for renewal next September. The question then becomes: Can they get by with just the $550,000 provided by the city?
'I think a lot of the commissioners have been around since we [improved the operation]," says Speak Up Tampa Bay board member Roy Kaplan, executive director of the National Conference for Community and Justice, Tampa Bay Region. 'I don't think it's out of the question that the county will support us in the future."