My interest grew, and I took a couple of classes and learned how to operate a camera. Finally I was worthy of getting hit on the head with the bars and tone tape, making me an official ACTV volunteer. (Now maybe that was just done special for me, but the atmosphere was spontaneous and whimsical at that time.) Whenever I could make time, I would gladly volunteer to run a camera or the cranky chyron graphics generator for anyone who needed help and was willing to put up with a beginner. To my delight there were a number of producers who welcomed me.

A year or so later, some friends suggested that a group of us do our own show, and for over 10 years, Vast Wasteland was central Ohio’s (insert tongue in cheek here) video guide to pop culture. But in the fall of last year (1999), we made the decision to stop production despite the warm positive response we were still receiving from the majority of the viewing community. Anyone who has every participated in a public access production knows that the reward comes from learning that you have reached your audience and they have responded as you had hoped. Over the years we were well rewarded.

So why did we decide to pull the plug on what could be viewed as a successful effort? Were we tired of hearing the promise of a new and much needed facility that never materialized? No, that became a bit of a joke as the years passed in the same sad building. Were we discouraged by the ever unpredictable condition of the studio equipment? No, the ever dependable staff technicians kept us going with their amazing skills of patching and repairing, and their good humor.

Were we tired of the stigma that is attached to producers and participants who dabble in public access? No, despite the public perceptions, we knew the majority of access users were everyday people who had chosen to express themselves through video. No matter what the intent -- whether it’s to educate or entertain -- people involved in public access tend to respect each person’s right to say whatever is on his or her mind. Even if you become involved just to have fun, sooner or later you realize that you’re actually involved in exercising your right to free speech.

So if it wasn’t the location, the equipment or the popular portrayal of being a “nut on public access.” what lead us to the decision to take our toys and go home and stop visiting the city’s video playground? Our dislike of bullies and the feeling of being left powerless to fight them was one big reason.

You know how bullies are. They want everything their way, and if that means others have to suffer, they don’t care. In this case, though, the cost was more than milk money. The bullies wanted our right to exercise free speech and our right to decide for ourselves as individuals what we want to produce and have the opportunity to view.

Many people will say that the blame for such a move lies with a character called Angsto the Clown portrayed by Howard Luken. But the blame actually belongs to the uneducated power freaks at 21. Instead of allowing Luken to play his show and leaving the decision of its appropriateness to the viewing community, the way this sort of situation is meant to be handled, the management gang at 21 decided to try their hand at censorship they dragged out a court case against one producer that should never had been filed in the first place. What made them believe that they’d be better at deciding what was watchable than the viewing audience is beyond my comprehension since such an undertaking demands that one raise him or herself above the masses and declare his or her standards to be the perfect model for all.

But wait! Doesn’t that very idea go against the spirit in which public access was created? Aren’t we all able to decide what is appropriate for ourselves and our own households? Isn’t that the reason televisions and radios were created with different stations and a device with which to change the channels?

But let’s get back to the story. The changes at 21 didn’t happen overnight. The first thing we noticed was the turnover in staff. Familiar faces that we’d known and come to count on for assistance were disappearing and the reasons behind their departures were saddening. Refusal to break the law led to the dismissal of one. Others, seeing what kind of management they were working under, searched for other opportunities. In the past year, I’ve worked with three former employees of Community 21 who couldn’t wait to get another job due to the stress, lack of training, closed-mindedness and hostile attitudes they experienced while working there.

The hostility spread into the public area. The atmosphere which had once been charged with energy and creativity now rested gloomily on the shoulders of staff and volunteer alike. An “us and them” stink filtered from the downstairs management offices to the upstair studio areas. The submission form went from being one page to three and demanded part of a producer’s copyright for Community 21. Our only elected representative to the board was voted out by the appointed members. All written rules and regulations started appearing in legalese instead of plain English, thanks to attorney Joseph Streb’s desire to prove he at least obtained a vocabulary while attending law school. The final rock in the trick or treat bag was the issue of the Red Rule Book.

Countless hours were spent (and countless dollars that could have been used for equipment upgrades and a facility upgrade) putting together the most insulting bit of paper and binding ever called a rules and regulations manual. Reading through it, one was taken back to the days when ankles were considered pornographic. Language was approved and disapproved for use on the airwaves. But most disturbing was the final section. The loophole that guaranteed the control freaks the power to practice censorship as they see fit. A regulation that granted them the power to make rules and enforce them without informing the participants.

Knowing that and having the knowledge that at least one of the little bricks in the power structure didn’t like our program, we made our decision to go on a permanent hiatus. We were only doing the show for fun anyway, and it wasn’t fun to enter the building any more. Why bother to prepare a program if there is a possibility that the effort will be wasted if something is said that doesn’t please the self-appointed masters of free speech in Columbus? We had great volunteers who, by the way, weren’t eligible to earn volunteer hours because they had moved just outside of Franklin County. (A ruling that never needed to be made if one considers that this is an organization dependent on volunteer power.) It seemed crazy to abuse their time and patience.

So we gathered up our comic books and action figures and I put my shoes on (before they made a rule against bare feet!) and said good-bye to public access as it exists in Columbus, Ohio. It is this writer’s hope that the city will put an end to the mad reign of Queen Pat and her controlling court and award the public access contract to a new organization. It would be wonderful to once again walk into a place where, even if the equipment was in sad shape and you had to pay to park your car a block away, the happy faces and willing attitudes of the staff make up for the inconviences. A place where people can put their thoughts and ideas, no matter what the content, on display for public approval or stoning, without the burden of worrying about how the management feels about it. Recently in American Libraries magazine, I read a quote attributed to USA Today, “Free speech is a matter of faith and it requires confidence that, exercised or otherwise, it exists in full.” In Columbus, Ohio, we are all losing our faith.

“Vast Wasteland- your video guide to pop culture” began in 1989 and ran until the fall of 1999 on ACTV/Community 21 in Columbus, Ohio. It was hosted by Mark Schmidbauer, Wilbert Neal and the usually barefoot MJ Willow, three friends who could discuss the most trivial things for hours on end but graciously limited themselves to 28 minute segments. It was well received by trivia buffs, foot fetishists and people who enjoyed recalling childhood memories that are unique to those who grew up in the sixties and seventies.

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