There was a time when video cameras were bulky contraptions you had to strap onto your shoulder, insert a plastic tape into, and haul around if you wanted to film something. They were awkward appendages, nothing like the tiny rectangles with gigs of storage that we have today. And if amateurs wanted to go live with their broadcasts in this pre-YouTube world, there was only one option: public access television.
Austin’s public access programming, especially in the eighties and nineties, was among the nation’s most vibrant. It gave Alex Jones his start, offered early glimpses of superstars such as Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez, and provided a platform for countless weirdos to speak, experiment, play, and otherwise flex their creative muscles in front of an audience.
Filmmaker John Spottswood Moore is preparing to revive that world with his film When We Were Live, which is in the final two weeks of its Kickstarter campaign. Moore shared some of his favorite clips and sold us on why the public access culture was worth documenting.
What was the most interesting thing you learned as you were researching for the film?
The biggest response from people has come from the Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez footage. One of our main characters in the film is this guy that lent Robert Rodriguez a camera to go film El Mariachi with in Mexico, and who taught him to use the facilities at ACTV, where he edited the film. He had been good friends with him and had him on his show a couple of times, and he gave me this footage like, “I’m not really doing anything with this, you can have it.” And that’s been where we’ve gotten the most response. But for me, the best has been this little unseen stuff. For example, a couple of days ago, I posted this video to YouTube of this clip from a thing called “Moon The Klan,” which was from 1993. There was a huge Ku Klux Klan rally at the Capitol, to do this hate-speech demonstration, and eight thousand Austinites showed up to counter-demonstrate. And out of them, hundreds of Austinites thought it would be funny to do a mass mooning of the Klan. Go on to YouTube, and you can watch it. It’s awesome. I almost feel bad that I’m the one debuting it, because someone else filmed it in 1993, but stuff like that is great. We have another clip from this guy who invented what looks like a hamster wheel, but it’s inflatable, and he’s literally walking on water on Town Lake. There are little gems like that—and then there’s this guy named Carmen Banana, who’s one of my main characters. He was an icon of the LGBT community. He was a drag queen in the 1980’s, and there are countless hours of him dressed as this kind of Carmen Miranda drag queen character, going to the Mexican flea market in 1983, or going to the City-Wide Garage Sale in 1984, or Sixth Street Halloween in 1984, and it’s just that kind of ethnographic look at Austin in the 1980’s that’s just been amazing.
Have you found that most of your response is from people who remember this stuff and are excited to revisit it, or from people who want to learn about it for the first time?
I think it’s a lot of people who were there and are very excited to reach out, or people who want to learn. We’ve reached a time in history where there’s a romantic quality to analog video and to VHS, where we look back at this video footage from the eighties, and it’s kind of like watching Super 8 footage from the fifties or sixties. People, I think especially when they’re from Austin, see that it’s just this window into history and the Austin that’s been so romanticized through Slacker, or the Butthole Surfers and this old music scene.
Public access culture isn’t the same now as it was in the eighties and nineties. What do we gain and what do we lose from the shift of all of that to YouTube?
YouTube, in my opinion, is one of the greatest things to ever happen in the history of free speech. When you look at people filming police corruption on their cell phones, or leaving their phone on when Mitt Romney is talking—stuff like that, when we can influence revolutions in Egypt that way. But the charm of community access is that you were limited in technology. If you wanted to put on a show, it took a lot of assembly and a lot of technical knowledge, so only the people who really, really wanted to broadcast themselves were the ones who did it. It wasn’t over-saturated. Also, it was a lot more community focused, because that’s as far as your bandwidth went—it didn’t go beyond Williamson County. And so, as a result, you could talk about Sixth Street or Town Lake, and people would know what you were saying. Public access had a big hand in organizing people for the Save Our Springs uprising of 1990, where they got together almost eight hundred Austinites to shut down a corporation that was trying to develop over Barton Creek. That’s just one of the things that public access could do, because it was a rallying cry to a community. So I think that the local, communal part is lost on YouTube, because it’s international. That’s the other big thing, and the reason why I called my movie When We Were Live, is that’s the thing that made public access television amazing. You could come home drunk at 2 a.m., turn on the TV, and literally call in and be on TV. That is dope. Dave Prewitt, the guy who used to run the show called capZeyeZ, had a show called Sail Hatan, that was a call-in karaoke show. He would literally post the karaoke lyrics on the screen, play the music, and you were encouraged at home to do karaoke, and you could call in and sing over the phone line. That type of interaction is what made this period so magical, and I think that’s very lost on the fact that almost all of YouTube is in retrospect, and it’s something that captured a moment in time.
Was Austin unique in what it was doing with public access, even among other communities around the country?
Oh, yeah. Far and away. That’s the whole reason this has gotten such great response. Almost every city had a public access television station—but the big ones were New York and Austin. Just because there were a lot of stations that were focused exclusively on the community side—they would just do community discussions, or church discussions, or political stuff. And then you had people who would be interested in just another genre, but Austin was such a rich mix. And also, it was that weird, artistic, encouraging culture that wasn’t over-saturated. It wasn’t like you were in L.A., and everyone wanted to be a star. You’re literally just doing this for fun. And just in general, all the proof is in the pudding—if you just go and YouTube “ACTV,” some of the stuff that will come up is insane.
How are the cable access stars doing these days?
They’re doing great. It’s been easy, because almost all of them live in Austin. One of our main characters—who did a show called Ask Livia Live, which is one of the most public access shows to ever come off—her stuff actually has more clicks on it than the Robert Rodriguez clip did. She lives in L.A., and she hasn’t been asked about her access stuff in almost fifteen years. And so they’re all responding very well. I’m doing one character posthumously, who passed away in 2001, named Dean Langston, who was kind of like the Roger Corman godfather, recruiting the youth to do this crazy stuff on access. But everybody else is doing well. Some people, it was a phase in their life that you do when you’re in your twenties, and some people still do it today. But most of them never got rich off of it. They did it purely for the love of broadcasting.