TAMPA — Before there were YouTube stars, there were Public Access stars.
From the 1980s through the early 2000s, Hillsborough County's public access network had an eclectic cast of characters, from pastors and non-profits promoting causes to people seeking their 15 minutes of fame — a faux pimp named “White Chocolate,’’ for instance, and a "Lobster Boy."
The weirder the better, was the unofficial stance among performers and the people who watched them. The most bizarre became part of local pop culture.
This area was not unique. Public access channels throughout the nation made local stars out of their less inhibited residents. Then, one by one, the channels folded. Some died because of finances. Others were deemed obsolete.
Today, Hillsborough has the only public access channel still operating in Florida.
“We’re it," says Louise Thompson, executive director of the Tampa Bay Community Network public access channel, which is operated by the nonprofit Speak Up Tampa Bay.
But for how long? In an age when YouTube attracts more than 60 million eyeballs every day, can a “community network’’ survive?
It can’t depend on government money. Tampa stopped subsidizing Hillsborough’s network in 2017, costing it $207,000 annually. With a current operating budget of less than $400,000, Thompson said the network now depends on community support.
She hopes people know public access plays a role beyond providing air time to extroverts.
It offers free production training to county residents at its 4,000-square-foot University Mall facility, which has studios and editing suites, and paid sessions for non-county residents. It broadcasts community news shows like Spotlight on Government and interviews with area officials.
“We have turned the channel into a true community resource,” Thompson said.
But is anyone watching?
Unlike at YouTube, where every click is counted and monetized, public access officials acknowledge they don’t measure their viewership.
They can’t afford it.
Launched in 1985 by cable networks to provide a voice to the people, public access television quickly became controversial in Hillsborough. While it provided air-time to churches and nonprofits, it also showed raunchy and racist content.
Lifestyles of The Up and Coming covered local wet T-shirt contests. The host of Race and Reason sat in front of a Nazi flag and insulted minorities.
Speak Up Tampa Bay took over in April 2000 and said it would clean up the network's image. But two years later, controversy struck again, this time centered around The Happy Show, which featured a young man named Charlie Perkins pretending to be a pimp named White Chocolate while dressing as a nun and showing footage of naked women showering.
Supporters said the show was protected by the First Amendment.
Then-County Commissioner Rhonda Storms called it pornography and launched a failed campaign to shutter public access.
Those days have passed. Thompson said only two shows for "mature audiences" have requested a time slot in the last five years. Both were broadcast at 11 p.m. There are no such shows today.
“All the salacious stuff can be found on the internet,’’ said Bill Hodges, who hosts the “Spotlight on Government" show. “There still needs to be a stable place where people can go to benefit their community. That's what we are."
Truth be told, most of public access’s resident-made shows were more eccentric than raunchy.
Some involved talking on the phone for the entire program. Grady Stiles III, who went by the nickname “Lobster Boy” due to the Ectrodactyly that caused his hands and feet to look like claws, spent his hour chatting with anyone who called. Jerry Cantor did the same on his Insanity Defense Show, but he dressed as Superman.
There was Mariette Coulter, who used Barbie Dolls to teach French. Sondra Prill sang cover songs, often out of tune. Shannon Rose hosted Pro Wrestling Weekly. Xposure filmed musical acts performing live. There were psychics, conspiracy theorists and alien believers.
In a time before streaming services and cable packages offering hundreds of channels, each show had fan bases that stretched across the area. But when they left, their would-be replacements flocked to YouTube.
Some programs are still trying on public access. Kouture's Variety Show, for instance, highlights local artists of all genres. But nothing has broken through like the old shows.
Hillsborough County film commissioner and network board member Tyler Martinolich said it might be time for the network to embrace the internet.
It has a YouTube channel but it only includes what its staff produces, such as Spotlight on Government. Residents with programs must post their shows online on their own channels. Not all do.
Perhaps, Martinolich suggested, create one online channel for all public access shows and put more marketing behind it. That might convince locals who already have popular YouTube shows to join the public access family and bring along their following.
Or perhaps the time has come to abandon public access television altogether and fully embrace the internet.
"YouTube is just Public Access 2.0," Martinolich said.
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or follow @PGuzzoTimes.
In its Golden Age, public access television in Hillsborough County was something to behold
Here are some more of the eccentric, controversial, popular and remembered local public access shows from the 1980s through early 2000s:
• Miss Nude Tampa: In the 1990s, it was an hour-long infomercial for Joe Redner’s strip clubs.
• The Bleepin Truth: Host Joe Redner would discuss current events and sometimes interview guests. In 2006, Redner and guest Tony Katz got into a heated argument that ended with Katz tossing a wicker chair toward the strip club king.
• World of Nolan: Hosted by Nolan Canova in the early 2000s, this show highlighted local pop culture connections. It was sometimes used as a source for Times stories on those topics.
• Chuck Roast: The name of the host can’t be found but the program ran for much of the late-1990s and early 2000s. “Chuck,” sometimes dressed in drag, typically took phone calls for the duration of the show.
• Revelations Fitness: The only record of this show is from a YouTube video listing a public access lineup from the 1990s. The program’s promotional image is of a woman dressed for church while holding a basketball.
•The Dungeon (or something like that): Readers couldn’t remember the specific name, only that at some point there was a show featuring S&M.