In YouTube era, public access TV still on the air in suburbs
Vincent LoCascio is no technophobe.
He appreciates the power of the Internet and sites like YouTube and Facebook, where anyone can create and post a show, a thought, a photo.
But when it comes to the local talk show he produces, LoCascio prefers to go old-school: He tapes the show on a set in Comcast's public-access television studio in Elmhurst.
"I think it looks more professional that way," said LoCascio, a Wood Dale resident. "I guess I could do it myself in my house somewhere and just put it online, but I don't think it would have the same feel."
"The Busy Guy," LoCascio's show, is one of dozens of locally produced programs to appear on public access cable channels in the Chicago area.
They range from comedy and entertainment to sports, politics, religion and culture. Comcast estimates that more than 1 million households in the area receive public-access programming.
In the pre-Internet days, public access gave "regular" people a chance to try their hand at television, in an otherwise impenetrable mass-media landscape.
That role isn't nearly as vital today, when anyone with a cellphone and a computer can send text and video all around the world.
Comcast couldn't provide figures for how many people produce shows in the Chicago market today, but media experts say the number has almost certainly declined in the YouTube era.
"Things have changed so much," said Michael Niederman, chairman of the Television Department at Columbia College Chicago. "What made public access so vital was that it gave you the channel and the tools of production. Now, technology has made both those things accessible to most people."
One sign of the times came when Comcast announced recently that it will close the Skokie public-access production facility April 1. Comcast will fold those operations into the company's existing studio in Mount Prospect.
"We were renting that space in Skokie and the lease came up," said Jack Segal, Comcast's regional vice president for public relations. "We own our other studios, so consolidation made sense."
Segal said the company's remaining public-access studios will provide more than enough capacity for Chicago-area users. In addition to Elmhurst and Mount Prospect, it has studios in Homewood and Waukegan.
"We remain as strongly committed to public access as we've ever been," he said.
LoCascio is happy to hear that. He has been producing "The Busy Guy," a "Tonight Show"-style interview show, for about three years. In it, LoCascio, who works by day in the restaurant business, interviews writers, comedians -- anyone who catches his fancy.
"I'm a huge Beatles fan, so I had the (tribute) band American English on once," he said. "I love the Schwinn Sting-Ray bike, so I had some experts on to talk about that. I just love exchanging stories with people."
LoCascio tries to keep the interviews light and fun. He ends each show with a bit where he thanks the guest and says, "I'm busy, I gotta go," and then leaves the set.
LoCascio's website is at busyguy.co. (There's no "m" at the end of the address.) In a nod to the times, he's been posting completed episodes on YouTube.
Jerry Markbreit, the well-known former NFL referee, is another fan of public access. He co-hosts (with Terry Poulos) a weekly show called "Talking Sports." He was encouraged to do the show by his wife, Roberta, who hosts her own public-access show, "Contempo."
Markbreit has been taping his show in Skokie, but he said he'll move it to Mount Prospect. "They won't be getting rid of me," he said with a laugh.
Markbreit, the lead official at the 1986 Bears game where the Packers' Charles Martin slammed quarterback Jim MacMahon to the turf, said what he likes about public access is the freedom it provides.
"You can just do your own thing," he said. "We can talk about whatever interests us in the world of sports. We can say what we want, how we want. It's great."
Markbreit said the show is a "labor of love" for all involved.
"I have no idea how many people are watching, but we do it because we enjoy doing it," he said.
Columbia's Niederman said that if and when public access dies out, he hopes the cable companies will find a new way to serve their communities.
"One thing that public access does that YouTube can't is serve and reflect the local community," he said. "That's a great thing for cable companies to offer, and I hope going forward they can find a new way to do it."