Andrea Cremins, a 25-year-old television news reporter, had driven out to a Homoco gas station south of Alexandria to photograph a blood-soaked Pontiac Trans-Am after an early morning shooting.
Among the onlookers was John Noriega, 20, a porter for a car rental company. "Hey, what media are you with?" he shouted.
"Channel 30," Cremins said.
"Oh," Noriega replied, looking somewhat perplexed. "I don't think I get that channel."
Not many people do. Although Cremins' father, a retired Massachusetts firefighter, proudly calls her "my little Jane Pauley," fan recognition has not exactly been a problem for Cremins. She reports for Fairfax County's cable TV system, and although her show, "The Channel 30 News," is moving into its second year, only 13 percent of the county's homes -- about 32,000 of 250,000 households -- are able to watch it.
There are signs, however small, that things are changing. A solar energy dealer recently called Cremins' newsroom to say he had picked up two new customers as a result of a Channel 30 story. Megan Carroll, 27, a Channel 30 reporter and the show's co-anchor, was recognized by someone at a Roy Rogers restaurant.
The potential is there, too, says Cremins. Media General Cable of Fairfax Inc., Channel 30's owner, says it is hooking up 1,500 new subscribers a week. It hopes to have 100,000 households wired by the end of next year.
But for Cremins, a recent journalism graduate of the University of Maryland, it was the chance to break into electronic journalism that lured her to Merrifield and the cable system's "head-end" studios. The pay for entry-level reporters there is not high -- about $16,000 a year compared with the minimum pay of $50,000 for network correspondents based in Washington.
Channel 30 is TV's answer to a home town weekly newspaper. "Because we're localized, we can do the things big-time Washington television can't do," Cremins said. "There are local newspapers, but we're different. We're hearing and seeing and movement."
Cremins has been with Channel 30 news since its inception in December 1983, and she can recall the time when she not only had to report and edit, but also work the teleprompter, pound nails into the studio set and lug her own tripods, tape decks and cameras -- more than 40 pounds' worth -- in a single day.
As recently as a few months ago, reporter Carroll drove alone to the scene of a slaying, in a station wagon filled with broadcasting gear. "Just tell your men to take the equipment over there," the police said. There were no men, of course, so Carroll alone struggled toward the action, the equipment slung over one shoulder. Nor does the Channel 30 news team enjoy the perquisites of most television broadcasters: make-up artists, wardrobe allowances or voice lessons.
Cremins covers the Fairfax County government, but she can just as easily find herself at an automobile tire store, doing a story on winterizing cars, or at Fort Belvoir, talking about lead poisoning in base housing.
The hours are like those for any beginning reporter -- long. But Cremins is optimistic. The news studio set that Cremins helped nail together has been junked, replaced by a $10,000 custom set with rainbow stripes and beige carpeting. The full-time news crew has expanded from two to five. And Cremins and Carroll no longer have to lug their gear.
Still more exciting will be the arrival of a $100,000 news van that will allow the channel to broadcast live from the scene of a news event.
What Channel 30 news lacks in the way of flash and ratings, it makes up for in esprit de corps, say its news reporters. The night of the channel's first anniversary, the crew floated colored balloons down over the set, and the anchors showed off a chocolate cake, baked in the shape of a news camera.
"I know it tastes as good as it looks," co-anchor Brent Byers told his viewers, "because I helped lick out the bowl."
Still, the recognition comes slowly. Cremins says it does not bother her, and that she has never been snubbed by other reporters. But it is a fact of life that when she comes up with a good story, the bulk of the county never knows.
After inspecting the blood-smeared car the other day, Cremins drove out to where the shooting had occurred, in a subdivision off Richmond Highway.
Bonnie Polvinale, 38, a convention planner, lives in the area, but she did not see Cremins' story. "We had the cable cut off," she said. "It was the summer, and we weren't around enough to watch. A news show? No, I don't think we ever saw that."