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.