It’s a drizzly Monday night at Drake High School in Norwood, but television star John Louis is doing his best to “live it up!”

Live It Up! — after all — is the title of his long-running variety show on Norwood Community Television and other public access channels. Louis, a professional magician and entertainer by trade, wows his studio audience with an audacious mix of verbal patter and outlandish magic tricks. Oh, and don’t forget to toss in a few doses of guaranteed crowd-pleasers and feel-good family fare. On this particular evening, he’s interviewing children about their favorite Christmas stories. He jumps up! He spins a plate on his nose! Watch as he pulls a rabbit out of his hat!

Louis is one of many self-made stars of the cable access airwaves. Well, not airwaves, actually, since the very nature of cable is nothing goes out on the air. “It does gives you a voice,” Louis notes. “You don’t need to own a TV station. If you work hard, you feel like you’re part of something good here.”

This isn’t exactly network news and prime-time programming. Heck, it’s not even citywide programming. The entertainers and commentators who appear on cable access could only wish for an audience of, say, a Channel 9 or a Channel 5. Many if not most of these performers produce shows only on channels limited to certain neighborhoods. They may well blanket a Deer Park or a Finneytown, but that’s about it.

And that’s all right. While there are no Nielsen ratings for the public access world, there are some indicators of popularity and staying power. We surveyed station managers around the Tristate in our search for the Stars of Cable Access.

Take Tom Bishop, for example. As executive director of Media Bridges, Downtown’s public access channel, Bishop is hot on his current talent, talk-show host Brian Garry. He has sought a seat on Cincinnati City Council and often is pictured with Democrats, from Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Tim Burke to no less than Barack Obama. Garry also runs a homeless shelter and an eco-friendly construction company. “He’s been on here since years ago, since before I got here,” Bishop says.

So how did public access to cable systems actually begin? When cable TV companies first began crisscrossing the nation in the 1970s, federal regulators and politicians became concerned that such firms wanted to use public rights-of-way — such as sidewalks and roads — to run their cable wires, all in search of profits. Some regulators asked what the American citizenry would get in return. In 1984, Congress passed the Cable Franchise Policy and Communications Act, requiring cable firms to provide channel time as well as cameras and studios.

The list of cable access performers runs long. The profiles on these pages are a mere starting sampler.

Louis likes to say he keeps viewers on the edge of illusion, with fast-paced production, juggling, live animal stunts (meet “Snowball: The World’s Coolest Party Rabbit”), comedy, magic, and even the odd flying hatchet and folding chair balanced on the nose trick. The Owensville resident estimates he’s performed 5,000 live shows, entertaining audiences at the Cincinnati Zoo, Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom and elsewhere. (He’s quick to point out he’s available for company picnics, family parties and trade shows, too.)

“I just submitted something to Norwood,” Louis says of his humble beginnings. “I’ve been on cable since 1995, so I’ve been at it 13 years.”

Louis can’t say enough in lauding the concept of public access television. “I have access to a lot of high-tech equipment here that I couldn’t afford.”

“The access users, we try to be very serious about our business. It’s not for everyone. It’s many long hours. If you want to do a good job, it does take time.

At age 14, Ashley Peterson of Anderson may be one of the youngest stars of cable TV. Well, her 11-year-old sister Allie also works on the weekly Coming At You program on Anderson Community Television (ACTV). “They came up with the idea of having a talk show for kids on community television,” says proud father Barry Peterson. “Ashley runs the cameras and actually does the editing of the shows using their software at the studios.”

Coming at You is best described as an enthusiastic potpourri of Oprah meets Hannah Montana. Not to suggest the talk-show tweens spend all their time cooped up inside a studio. “For Halloween, we went to the U.S.S. Nightmare,” Ashley notes.

Anderson Community TV station manager Bud Gawthrop was enthusiastic in his nomination of Coming at You: “Families like the Petersons have discovered how fun, easy and inexpensive it is to produce programming that everyone can enjoy.”

For her part, Ashley says the program has made a difference in her school life. “My friends watch it,” she says. “We get calls in all the time.”

The toughest part of her blossoming career in broadcasting? “Learning how to use the cameras and working with my sister.”

City Nights has been Cincinnati’s own version of Austin City Limits for quite a few years now. Airing on the Telecommunications Board of Northern Kentucky (TBNK) channel in Kenton, Boone and Campbell counties, the program’s producers boast they’ve brought hundreds of acts to the tiny screen.

A mishmash of just about every musical genre imaginable, the show links viewers to the local music scene (or national acts performing locally). A totally volunteer crew has worked with such lofty performers as Eliot Sloan of Blessid Union of Souls, Buddy Guy, Mitch Ryder, The Ass Ponys and Molly Hatchet. “It’s my personal, fun-time show that I produce/direct in my spare time,” observes Jason Dudas, TBNK’s program director. “But it is the longest-running show at TBNK and we take it very professionally.”

The program, highlighting lesser-known bands and artists such as MoonZoomer, spawned its own CD,City Nights: 14 Nights. The 14 exclusive live performances include the Simpletons, Homunculus, Ryan Adcock, Tracy Walker, Langus, Greg Mahan, Jake Speed and the Freddies, Lomax, the Graveblankets, Maurice Mattei, the Balance All-Stars, The Stardevils, Tonefarmer and Brian Lovely and his Flying Underground.

Host Doug Gibson has become Cincinnati’s own Jack LaLanne with his Sensible Fitness workout show on West Chester Community Television (WCCTV) and other channels. Gibson takes his viewers through a series of strength training exercises, emphasizing the art of correctly executing each exercise by gaining a better understanding of the anatomy of human muscles. “I dedicate a lot of airtime to muscular anatomy with the use of a skeleton, and this is what viewers have said they enjoy the most,” enthuses Gibson, a licensed physical therapist assistant who runs his own Blue Ash fitness firm.

No bones about that. But the show is about more than muscle: Nutrition and well-being are also addressed. “I’ve been doing the program since 1998, so just over 10 years,” observes Gibson. “I believe I am the only locally produced fitness program in the area, cable access or otherwise.”

Gibson says he is always amazed that viewers assume the show is professionally done by some New York City ad agency. “Many people think that I hire someone to film my TV show, and are surprised to learn that all the filming, production and editing is done by myself.” All this said, Gibson laughs about some hair-raising moments. “While editing, I have pushed the wrong button and erased an entire one-hour program. It just rips your heart out to have to start over. I quit pressing that button.”

Pat Stern likes to call community access programming “the purest form of unbiased television and what the First Amendment is all about.” Stern, the executive director of the Intercommunity Cable Regulatory Commission (ICRCTV), which serves 27 communities in the area, says two shows are particularly popular among station viewers:Community Report with host Vicki Pritchard, andWhat’s Cooking in Deer Park with chef Sarah Wagner of Barresi’s restaurant. (Wagner started out as a busser at Barresi’s while still in high school; she now owns the place.) “It’s an interesting show about businesses in Deer Park with a twist,” she notes. The twist? Getting high-profile celebs such as WLW radio’s Bill Cunningham to appear on the show.


Because most of the shows mentioned in these pages air on a rotating — and ever varying — playback schedule, we suggest you consult your local cable company for viewing dates and times, as well as channel locations. Or, contact:

Anderson Community Television (513) 474-3488,
ICRC Sharonville (513) 772-4272,
Media Bridges Cincinnati (513) 651-4171,
Norwood Community Television (513) 396-5573,
Telecommunications Board of Northern Kentucky (859) 261-1300,
Union Township/Clermont County Television (513) 947-7336,
Waycross Community Media (513) 825-2429,
West Chester Community Television, (513) 874-4344,