They happened upon the brief, intriguing ad one night while channel surfing, or heard about it from friends who peruse the demi-world of public access television.
Channel 10, available to about 250,000 cable subscribers in Fairfax County, was holding an audition to select volunteers for a new community affairs show. No experience necessary. Lots of work and no pay. But as reality TV proves, the lure of appearing on television -- even a genre famously ridiculed on "Saturday Night Live" -- can be irresistible.
Carmelita Dallas, a real estate agent from Ashburn who friends say was born to be a talk show host, heeded the casting call. So did Cynthia Wilson of Reston, who sees herself as a future Katie Couric, and Jonathan Smith, a former political operative who now is a stay-at-home dad in Falls Church aspiring to a career in broadcasting.
They, and 20 or so others who for the most part have spent little or no time in front of a camera, were plucked from about 50 people from Virginia, Maryland and the District who tried out for the new show that debuted Dec. 8. Serious people all, they make their livings as insurance agents, writers, actors, musicians or social service workers. But they want to be in the small screen.
Some expressed initial reservations about throwing in their lot with a venue better known as a haven for the Waynes and Garths of the world. Fairly or not, public access television is not noted for slick or intellectual programming, and its enthusiasts argue that it is wrong to expect that. It is an outlet for opinions and issues that would not attract a wide audience on mainstream TV. So what if there's no way to gauge the viewership of shows such as "Focus on Franconia" or "Telepathic TV" (Motto: "That's television you watch with your third eye.")? Audience share is beside the point.
Channel 10 is well regarded among its public access peers, but it has its share of under-produced, obsessively obscure and downright goofy programs. It even airs a show in which two comics ruthlessly parody other shows on the channel.
But "Beltway Edition," the 28-minute show that began Dec. 8 with a neophyte crew and talent who came together only a month ago, wants to stand apart from the crowd. It aims to be high-minded and regional in scope so that other public access stations throughout the region will want to broadcast it as well.
" 'Wayne's World' we are not," said Paul Wilmot, executive producer of "Beltway Edition" and head of community outreach for the station, which broadcasts from 9 a.m. to midnight out of a two-studio facility wedged between a multiplex cinema and the U.S. Postal Service's regional headquarters in Merrifield.
"We're attempting to do a community affairs show that will inform and educate the public and raise public consciousness about the station. We want to elevate the standard. That will attract people who will want to come and do this, too, and will encourage current members to aspire to have a similar look and graphics on their shows as opposed to sitting two people down in front of a camera," Wilmot said.
The station he hopes to draw more attention to has been broadcasting since 1983. It owes its existence to Cox Communications Inc. and, in Reston, Comcast Cable Communications Inc. As part of their franchise agreement with Fairfax County, the cable TV companies make several channels available for public access programming, including channels devoted to county government and the school district. They also turn over a portion of monthly subscriber fees to operate the public access channels.
The communities of Falls Church, Reston and Herndon have their own cable channels, but Fairfax Public Access airs countywide. It operates on $1.2 million a year that comes primarily from Cox. In addition to Channel 10, which does general programming, the station runs foreign language programming on Channel 30 and a community bulletin board on Channel 37.
The station puts out about 74 hours of new programming every month with a paid staff of 27 and some 900 "members" who produce shows and take classes on everything from how to use a camera to getting documentary funding to interviewing techniques.
Under the station's contract, any resident of Fairfax County 14 or older has the right to produce a program. For that matter, any resident could walk in off the street and demand 15 minutes of airtime on any topic whatsoever, though William Hutchinson, the acting general manager of Fairfax Public Access, doesn't remember a time that has happened.
"I'd set up a camera and a tripod," he said. "They can say anything they want to."
There are few taboos. At times, the station management has had to make a judgment call on the fine line between art and pornography. But bathroom humor is a staple on some shows.
"All they do is ensure a later time slot, say 11 to midnight," said Hutchinson. "As long as it's not libelous or slanderous, they can say anything."
At nights and on weekends, the offices of Channel 10 buzz with people taping and editing their shows. Some members spend almost as much time at the studios during a typical month as they do at their paying jobs.
David Cawood, an electronics technician from Falls Church, and Dottie Lother, a computer specialist for the federal government who lives in Alexandria, are active in the National Space Society and produce "Around Space," a program dedicated to "educating people in the technology of space exploration and settlement." They also help direct and do the audio for several other programs, including the movie reviews of a married couple from Springfield, a Catholic interview show, "Telepathic TV" and a cooking show featuring the recipes of historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson and Claude Monet.
"Around Space" has attracted a following far beyond Fairfax.
"People make tapes of our show and send them to other public access stations around the country," said Cawood, wearing a Star Trek T-shirt while he and Lother, in an Area 51 baseball cap, vacuumed and dusted in preparation for another edition of "Telepathic TV."
"It's a way to get a message out to the public."
Public access TV has become something of a family affair for Sidney Sachs, a retired mathematical statistician from Springfield and former board treasurer of Fairfax Public Access. Sachs produces or directs six programs -- "Focus on Franconia," co-produced with his son; "Tracing Family Roots," co-produced with his wife; "County Conversations," a series of chats with Katherine K. Hanley (D), chairman of the county Board of Supervisors; and shows geared to members of the National Association of Federal Retirees ("NAFRE Presents"), the American Association of University Women ("On the Go With the AAUW") and Rotarians ("Rotary Times").
Sachs, who spends about nine days a month at the station, said he has no idea how many people watch his shows, and he allowed that "I don't watch the others, not really. I only watch the shows I produce."
Indeed, there is no way to accurately determine the audience. Hutchinson said the station once asked everyone who was watching at that particular moment to call in. But he doesn't recall how many responded.
He believes shows about Fairfax high school sports and cooking are among the most popular. "For some reason, anything involving an acoustic guitar seems to get a following," he added.
Hutchinson acknowledged that some of the shows have at best a very small niche audience. But he has yet to see a program so mundane that it wasn't worth airing. "I used to work for C-Span," he said by way of explanation. "I've sat through a week of three-hour call-ins on health care finance reform. I've sat through six hours of a hearing on the $1 coin. There's nothing these people can do here that would bore me or put me to sleep."
Anecdotal evidence suggests some shows have made mini-celebrities out of their on-air talent. Mary Phelan and R. Neville Johnston, the hosts of "Telepathic TV," say they are routinely approached by people who recognize them at the grocery store or in parking lots. The show, of which Arlington public access TV carries a separate version, has aired more than 180 times.
"We talk about new thought and metaphysics and dream interpretations," Phelan said recently before the Thursday night show went on the air. "There are tools of higher thought and ways to get rid of your fear."
"Telepathic TV" is the only Fairfax Public Access show that airs live. Periodically, viewers who give only their first names call for tarot card readings. "Judy" is about to go on a job interview. "David" has some work issues. "Bill" suspects his fiance is cheating on him.
"If there are any questions, we're happy to explain the spiritual ramifications that happened prior to this 3-D event," said Johnston about the show, as he twirled a large crystal in his hand. He sat beside Phelan at a table bearing copies of his books and drawings of people with a third eye in their foreheads.
About 45 minutes into the hour-long show, an assistant working off-camera lowers a rubber duck on the end of a fishing rod, from which Phelan plucks a small card bearing the word "flexibility." It prompts a few comments on spiritual consciousness.
"It's been unreal," Johnston said to the viewers, as he and his co-host waved goodbye. "Now you've seen the show. Turn off your TV and turn on life."
Not everyone takes shows like "Telepathic TV" seriously. It is one of the Channel 10 offerings that Steve Ruddell and Sarah King have parodied in a series of comedy sketches they call "Donkey Punch." In their riff on "Telepathic TV," in which King played Johnston and Ruddell played Phelan, they did phony tarot card readings and a risque version of the rubber duck on the fishing rod.
"It's inside humor," said Ruddell, who has been a paid employee of Channel 10 for five years. "You have to watch the channel to get it. If only five or six people get the joke, that's cool. Sometimes I think nobody's seen the show but us. I send a copy to my friend Vern. If Vern laughs, that's okay with us."
But something counterrevolutionary has happened to the budding comics whose goal is "to make fun of people who think their viewers are legions." Members whose shows have not been parodied yet are approaching Ruddell and King and asking them to take their best shot. "They think we're promoting them," Ruddell said. "They're trying to hitch their wagons to our dumb show."
Dropping his wisecracking cynicism, Ruddell does not expect "Beltway Edition" to become fodder for parody. Though "audience" can be a scorned word around public access TV, Ruddell thinks there is one for a serious community affairs show.
"I think it can go," he said. "These shows all have a learning curve, but inside a couple of months we'll have it clicking."
The program airing at 6:30 p.m. Sundays will feature the work of 12 correspondents. Each is expected to produce a segment to air once a month. They have been lining up interviews with members of Congress, Washington Redskins stars and financiers.
The correspondents were selected as much for their expertise as for being telegenic.
A public relations executive will report on events and entertainment. A personal trainer covers health and fitness issues. A college student has the university beat. An art history teacher will cover art and theater. Fashion coverage falls to a financial planner who once selected film wardrobes. An assignment editor for Fox News will do human interest stories. Wilson, who used to work for a sports agency, will provide segments on athletes, and Smith, who worked on congressional campaigns, will find political figures to interview.
"It's very ambitious," said Smith, a news junkie who admits he never watched Fairfax Public Access before he came across the casting call while researching classes on radio programs. "It's very free-flowing at this point. I'm mostly worried about getting people to talk to. But I have friends who supposedly know people, and I'll mine them."
Smith already is thinking about offering a segment on transportation issues and hopes to interview local candidates during their political campaigns.
"I don't want to try to be Tim Russert," he said, referring to NBC's "Meet the Press" host. "But I can give politicians and candidates a forum to talk without it being a campaign pitch. The audience could be three people. Maybe one day it will be 50 or 100. It is what it is -- public access TV. It's a good idea. It could be something."
Wilson also hopes the program could be a steppingstone to what she calls "the Katie Couric dream."
"I know 'Saturday Night Live' spoofs have done major hits on public access TV," she said. "I've thought about that. But [producer] Paul [Wilmot] is trying to make it so it's not Johnny Joe banging on his drums for an hour. It's a great opportunity to take it out of that realm in this area."
Dallas said she agreed to become the show's host, introducing the three segments that air every week, because she was convinced that Wilmot wants to produce a "top-notch, quality show."
"I look at it as a serious thing," she said. "They want to raise the level of TV at the station, and this could be the catalyst. I'd love to inspire people. It's already been fun. I'm chomping at the bit waiting to get started."