It's Friday, and the producers are eating free barbecue down at the Savoy. The complimentary meal is courtesy of Dickey's, the new barbecue chain that moved in next door to the casino. It's a public offering—served weekly between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. at a dimly lit table behind the keno machines—but, so far, no one else but the producers has arrived.
After a long week of producing television shows on Missoula Community Access Television, or MCAT, the 10-person crew is excited for a no-budget treat. Most of the producers don't have jobs, but they do have time. Making television series and films for public programming is exactly how they want to spend it. The group includes Vietnam veterans, ex-cons, former homeless and rough-around-the-edges men with nicknames like Angel and Red. There's RT, a large African-American guy with sunglasses and a cane. There's Tony Askins, a lanky veteran with a long ponytail and mustache. Roland Fulcher is a kind-faced single father who says he's been in and out of trouble with the law. They're a strikingly ragtag group, like the Lone Gunmen from "The X-Files" or a clan of oddball superheroes who by day hang out on the street corners.
A couple of the younger members—Benjamin Bartlett and Raymond Deaner—joined the MCAT crew because, in the demoralizing process of looking for employment, making television gave them direction. "I jumped in, at first not knowing what I was getting into," says Deaner, a shy guy in his early 20s. "But I'm very grateful for this."
Eric Michael, the group's charismatic leader, is a slight, handsome Vietnam vet. He wears black nail polish and a fitted black vest, sports a goatee, and has a theatrical disposition. Michael and his crew produce a handful of shows for MCAT, such as "Music in Montana," which features live performances at places like Sean Kelly's.
"When you watch the show you're getting only the music, no narration," he says. "These are guys that put 35 to 40 years into their art, suffer for it, eat beans out of a can, might have 15 bucks to rub together with the buddy next to him and they're still out entertaining people. You'll see the tramp playing in the backyard on the guitar who sounds like he needs to be in Nashville. You'll see the fiddle player on the corner who blows your mind."
The show hits close to home for Michael. He moved to Missoula in early 2013 after wandering the country for seven years as a homeless musician. He says his wife left him and took their son. He had $150 in his pocket when he arrived. "Life was not interesting to me anymore," he says. "I didn't want to deal with it."
He put his fate in God's hands, he says, and he ended up in Missoula and eventually found his way to MCAT. "I think everyone gets to that point where they ask their Creator what is it that I'm here to do?" he says. "How can I be a part of something? Do I have any value?" He points to the other producers. "And that's the story with every one of these guys."
Michael and his production crew are just one example of the kind of creative force that has powered MCAT over its 23 years as a nonprofit. The range of contributors to the station—from proselytizing religious leaders to high school students making stop-motion animation—is always broad and always fluid. The diversity and turnover creates challenges, as well as opportunities to keep the channel populated and relevant.
Keeping the channel relevant is an issue that extends beyond its rotating lineup of eclectic shows. MCAT has been dealing with a changing media landscape over the past few years, one that has required television stations to adjust to how content is disseminated. MCAT, which gets its funding from a percentage of cable subscriptions, is charged with filling channels 7 and 11 with public, educational and government programming. In a world veering more and more toward on-demand viewing and YouTube channels, the local station finds itself in the peculiar position of fulfilling a mission that can often seem antiquated.
Meanwhile, the producers rise each morning, sometimes as early as 5:30, to shoot their footage before heading to MCAT's editing bays. On the days they finish their shoot quickly, they stand outside the station's building on the corner of Spruce and Higgins, waiting as long as it takes for the doors to be unlocked.
Walking inside MCAT, anyone can catch a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the station's characters. At one editing cubicle sits Emmet the Aging Punk Rocker, aka Rabid Dog. (Those are the only monikers he's willing to give.) Emmet has hosted his show, "The Awful Truth About Society," for 14 years and, with his recognizable mohawk and leather jacket, is as close to a celebrity as there is on public access television. On the show, the anarchist Christian unleashes various diatribes about society. He kicks over the table and eats Cheetos, meandering wildly through topics from gays in the military to Michelle Obama's promotion of healthy eating. (He's against both).
Another high-profile producer, Frank Anos, can sometimes be found at MCAT's offices, too. His anti-abortion call-in show, "Metaphysical Concepts, Viewer Discretion Advised," has resulted in 435 calls of complaint to MCAT over its four-year lifespan. On the screen during the program, Anos shows a photo of a dog being skinned alive, which he pulled from a PETA website. When callers inevitably complain, he tells them that abortion is worse.
Emmet and Anos stand out, but their shows represent only a sliver of what viewers can find on MCAT. Between channel 11, the civic channel, and the more wide-ranging channel 7, viewers can catch city council meetings and other public gatherings, discussions on historic preservation, lectures from the University of Montana, quirky short films from high school students, documentaries, religious shows and music programs. As producers come and go, the programs also change. But no matter who's creating content, MCAT provides a window into public, civic and educational life in Missoula. It's a place that allows everyone—local politicians, budding filmmakers, free speech proponents, conspiracy theorists and activists—to be seen and heard.
Michael's group of producers, who work under the name E.M. Stage&Light (the E.M. stands for Eric Michael), typically spend six days a week at MCAT in Editing Suite 2 making shows like "Music in Montana," "Talk of the Town" and "What's In Your Garden Missoula?" They're working on another creative series, "The Ides of March," and a film called Zombie Brides from Planet X.
Another one of their series, "Eight Minutes," has aired once a week for nine episodes. The esoteric short dramas are shot in black-and-white and accompanied by beautiful, often mournful piano music created by Michael. The show's tagline asks, "What will you be thinking when time comes for you?" It's described on its Facebook page as "a miniseries filled with characters who are beguiled and demoralized ... so blinded by desire that they cannot foresee the pain and trouble that are bound to ensue."
The producers spend 40-plus hours a week shooting and cutting to make these programs come to life.
"We're not getting drunk on a corner," Michael says. "We're not beating wives, we're not doing heroin. We're doings something positive and good."
Last month, the producers finished an episode of "Eight Minutes" called "In The Eye of the Beholder," wherein Declan Redmond, aka "Red," plays a tramp whose bad luck leads him to getting beat up and, eventually, hit by a car. The crew wrote, shot and edited the eight-minute film in 72 hours for MCAT's Do It in 72 Film Festival. They won first place and received a standing ovation from the festival crowd after its screening.
As the men finish their lunch at the Savoy, they offer a play-by-play of the awards ceremony with the kind of thrill usually reserved for winning an Oscar. For this group of misfits, MCAT may as well be Hollywood.
"When I came to MCAT they were looking for an actor for a segment called 'Flashback,' about Vietnam veterans," says Tony Askins, who hosts "Talk of the Town." He starts to choke up. "It was very, very powerful. I went from nobody to an actor to the cameraman to my own talk show in a month and a half. I love what I'm doing." He pauses and points to Michael. "He made me somebody again."
Michael shakes his head. "You made yourself somebody."
A few other men, including Michael, tear up. The barbecue is gone.
"My grandfather taught me that it's really easy to be mad at someone," Michael says, collecting himself. "It's really easy to start chaos, but it's a better man that takes the time and gives a word of encouragement. That's what they needed. That's what I needed. In the beginning we were all rough, but now we're this band of brothers. It's amazing the way things have fallen into place."
When Joel Baird joined the MCAT board at its inception in 1990, the nonprofit dealt in SVHS tapes and cameras that were twice the size of a bowling ball. The common person didn't have the means to make a movie. Computers weren't powerful enough for editing and there were no smartphones or moderately priced digital cameras. The station's access center saw far more public producers during that decade.
From the beginning, MCAT was charged by local government to provide "Missoula residents and organizations with the equipment, training and channel time to produce programs based on their interests and concerns." The money, taken from cable subscriptions, is a kind of tax on the cable company for being able to make millions of dollars running its network through the public right of way. Per the Communications Act of 1984, the city of Missoula collects the money from the company and passes on 65 percent of what they collect to MCAT for its programming.
"So our budget is flexible," Baird explains. "If there are a lot of cable subscribers, our budget would grow bigger. If the cost of cable subscriptions goes up then our budget will also grow bigger."
From the beginning, MCAT had a wild mix of programs. One prominent show during the mid-1990s was a six-hour sermon every Friday produced by leaders from the local Bahá'í chapter, a religious group that seeks to unify the principles of all major religions.
"Back then MCAT was more 'Petticoat Junction' because producers would have keys to come and go," Baird says. "The Bahá'í started at 7 and they'd go until they got tired at about midnight or 1 and then start tapering off. They got a lot of national attention because they were proclaiming the end of the world several times and they showed up in Harper's magazine."
In 1998, MCAT went through some inner turmoil when the board fired Executive Director Randy Ammon over issues that, to this day, remain murky. People continue to have strong feelings about the situation on both sides, lauding Ammon as a beloved leader who was dedicated to community access television and free speech, while others expressed concern that he wasn't keeping up with new technologies. Ammon sued the station and, after the board dissolved as part of a settlement, MCAT struggled to overcome the blow of a small-city scandal.
A few years later, in 2002, Baird was asked to step up as director. "I was the reluctant hero and I also felt like a scab," he says.
MCAT operates under two main philosophies. One is supporting free speech for the public. The other is to provide access to anyone who wants to make a show. In that way, it is unlike most other arts and community nonprofits, because beyond its basic tenets, it doesn't support any one message.
"We're very chameleon-like in our public face," Baird says. "What people see are what the producers contribute to the channel. And producers change all the time. One day we're the golden child and the next day we're the evil harbinger of what-have-you."
Perhaps the most controversial period for MCAT programming started in June 2000 when white supremacist Matt Hale began producing his show "Race and Reason." MCAT ran the show according to its First Amendment beliefs, but many people were outraged that the station gave it air time. Baird says the Montana Human Rights Network eventually stepped in and produced a counterpoint show, which aired directly after Hale's.
"We want to be in partnership with the community and yet give that broad view of what people are thinking, too," Baird says. "That was one of my defenses on ['Race and Reason'] was, 'Don't you want to know that somebody in this town holds this view that the white race is the best race? Would you rather they were leading in secret? Now you know, and you can start engaging in a dialogue.' It's a tough thing, though."
MCAT isn't unique among the 1,300 access stations across the country, but it is part of an increasingly rare media model. Most governments use public access television funding for other civic needs or for purely educational programming. In addition, the Communications Act of 1984 includes an opt-out clause that many cities have taken advantage of in recent years. Seattle Community Network shut down in 2010. Tucson, which used to be a flagship for access television, saw its funding cut 60 percent in one year. The reasoning municipalities often give for cutting public access programming is that YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other new media offer an outlet that, they say, deems a public channel no longer necessary.
Baird says cable television subscriptions are rising in Missoula, with about 17,000 customers receiving MCAT. He also says MCAT recently renewed its contract with the city, but it's an inherently fragile agreement. As was the case in Seattle and Tucson, Missoula can opt out of funding at any time. And if cable subscriptions drop, the city is under no obligation to find funding elsewhere.
But the Missoula City Council shows no signs of pulling the plug.
"The city now distributes content on our website, but MCAT is still shooting and producing that," says Councilman Jason Wiener. "In the electronic age, even stuff on YouTube doesn't create itself. And for city council meetings, MCAT is really the only ones doing that. They do value-added stuff too, by providing context for city council with their other shows."
Wiener admits he mostly watches the civic channel, but he says the creative work MCAT producers are doing gives them a voice that would otherwise get buried on the Internet.
"I guess all those people could have their own YouTube channels," he says. "But then Emmet would just be another guy on YouTube."
Christian Ackerman used to edit his sci-fi and horror films using a VCR, a karaoke machine and the simple editing buttons on his video camera. When he moved to Missoula for college 13 years ago, he saw Emmet the Aging Punk Rocker on MCAT and became curious about the station. He offered his homemade films to Baird for airing, under the name "The Christian Ackerman Show." He recalls the rush of seeing his work on television and his name listed on TV Guide.
"MCAT was my YouTube," Ackerman says. "I started putting my stuff out there and I started getting noticed. I'd be walking down the street and somebody would say, 'Oh, you're that guy who did that one thing where the head falls off.' Or, 'You did that thing where you fell into a trash can.'"
Ackerman gravitated to the equipment at MCAT and learned it quickly. When Baird hired him as an equipment trainer in 2001, Ackerman says his on-the-job-training was editing his own movie. "I was sold," he says. "And I've never left."
Ackerman has an Ashton Kutcher look and a similar laidback confidence about his work. His movies stand out among MCAT's mixed fare. His 10 or so films, including Virtual 3000, Catastrophic Denouement and Wisconsin Project X, show an evolution in his ability to tell stories and, even more specifically, use special effects. Wisconsin Project X, released in 2011, featured a lot of computer-generated scenes—a cheap, easy and quick way to make effects, but a technique that often ends up looking fake. For his newest film, Terror Vortex, he spent more time on the effects and experimented with a combination of detailed props and Photoshop. For one scene, he used a Molly doll head, a Styrofoam skull from Kmart, eyeballs made from paper towels and wax, glue and chocolate syrup for blood. With the perfect lighting, some help from Photoshop and a little magic in the editing bay, Ackerman created a surprisingly believable shot of a man ripping off his own face while laughing. The whole scene lasted two seconds.
Ackerman sometimes misses the old days when technology wasn't so expansive. With only a few options for editing effects, he would make a film in just a few weeks. Terror Vortex took two years.
"I remember making movies faster because I could only make so many decisions," he says. "That was a good thing. There are so many choices with digital [technology]. I can tweak everything. I can do almost anything now, but I take longer. It can be a disease."
Ackerman is one of MCAT's great producer success stories. He's built a network among other producers and actors in the B-horror movie realm. Shawn C. Phillips, an actor in titles like Girls Gone Dead and Haunted High (starring Danny Trejo), contacted Ackerman out of the blue to ask if he could be in Terror Vortex. "I told him, 'I can't fly you out here. I can't pay you. I don't have a budget,'" Ackerman says. "And you could tell he was used to it. 'Tell me what I need to do,' he said. And I sent him the script."
Upcoming projects for Ackerman include playing a vegan zombie for a music video produced by his brother, Chad, whose main job in Hollywood is converting blockbuster movies into 3D. He also will appear as a zombie in a film called Breathless, made by Chad Jacobson and Richard Davenport of the local production company Root Head. He met them at MCAT. "Old-fashioned networking," Ackerman says. "That's MCAT in a nutshell right there."
Since digital equipment has become more accessible to the public, so has it for MCAT. The organization has updated its technology to DSLR cameras with full high-definition that shoot 24 frames per second. For producers like Ackerman, it's leveled the playing field. "Everything looks really good, like what I make can play alongside other shows on television."
That technological leap has pushed Ackerman to think about his future in film.
"I came from San Diego, I came from LAI've seen it," he says. "I've never really pursued it though, but I might start trying. I'm building my arsenal now."
Baird pulls a couple DVDs from MCAT's decades-old collection of television shows. One disc from the 1990s says "Fugazi Soundtrack," another is titled "The Right to Know: A public forum. September 27 1990."
"This is kind of cool," he says, pointing to the wall of DVDs. "And also an albatross! It's like a morgue. Here lie the bodies of Missoula in the '90s."
Now the morgue is disappearing entirely, as interns work to move the DVD content to computer files. So far, 700 of the 3,000 discs have been transferred onto an external hard drive—a little black box that barely takes up a corner of a desktop.
"It's almost like burning a corpse and having their hashes put into [an urn]," says Baird, smiling. "Like, 'Here's Grandpa!'"
Other sorts of changes around MCAT show that it's not letting the Internet leave it in the dust. MCAT has a YouTube channel now, and it streams its television content online. All of which means that even if you don't have cable, you can still watch it. MCAT has also started showing more content from other PEG stations and from free channels, such as those delivered by Roku or provided by universities. Station staff targets content that seems to fit the tone of Missoula, like Free Speech TV, which includes "Democracy Now!" and "Classic Arts Showcase."
Despite the diversification, MCAT is still mostly associated with television.
"From TV comes the money," Baird says. "No TV, no money. [It's] kind of our obligation." But in many ways it's becoming a media center, even offering producers training in how to get content on YouTube. MCAT is currently setting up a satellite office at Sentinel High School to help engage student producers. Baird says in the future the staff could end up providing even more mixed media classes such as Photoshop design and video compression classes.
But what MCAT offers that online sites don't is a physical place for people to gather. And for people like the producers, who don't have the means to buy their own equipment, and who may not have easy access to the Internet, the station is all the more important.
"There's still a sense of community that you don't get from just YouTube," Baird says.
That community, however, is always in flux. A week after the producers gathered for barbecue at the Savoy, they had a falling-out. MCAT was getting complaints about Eric Michael, the group's leader. He was allegedly borrowing equipment and props from places around town and not returning them. There were rumors that under another name he'd cheated a business partner out of money. As the rumors spread, it seemed as though the group of misfits was about to fade to black—as was "Eight Minutes" and all the other shows they'd created. Inevitably, a new crop of producers would show up at MCAT. Programming would go on. But the current run of stable shows would end.
Then, two days after the falling out, Michael met with the group and told them he was bowing out. Roland Fulcher, the single father, says Michael has since left town. Fulcher and Ben Bartlett agreed to step up as the production crew's leaders to continue "Eight Minutes" and the other television series. They will keep the production name E.M. Stage&Lighting.
"He told us he didn't want us to stop because of him," Fulcher says. "I don't really know what all happened. But I do know that it's because of what Eric taught us that we're able to keep doing this. Doing shows for MCAT has changed our lives. You're going to see a lot of good things come from us."