Zines of the Airwaves:
ROX: TV Show of the Millenium
By Terry Gilmer
Zines and public access TV both serve as an outlet for the public to express themselves when they may not otherwise have the opportunity to do so. Since a small group or a single person often makes them they both have a very personal feel. They can be focused on a very small audience and don’t have to pander to a broad demographic. Zines and public access only have to satisfy the people who make them. Neither resembles a corporate-owned magazine or network TV show. Where’s the love in something like Newsweek or “Veronica’s Closet?”
Public access TV began back in the ’70s when cable companies first began setting up shop in American cities. Local governments argued that if they were to award exclusive franchises to these cable companies, they had to give something back to the community in return. I still find it amazing that city leaders once had the balls to demand business monopolies give something back to its residents. This would be like demanding that Microsoft give free web tutorials and free websites (without ads) to its users.
Sure, there’s lots of dreck on your public access channels. Local residents can be as brain dead as any network TV executive. In order to find the occasional gem on your local origination channel, you’ll have to wade through dozens of religious shows, school productions, talk shows and lots of other “talking heads” types of programs. But, amongst them are programs so original, so entertaining, so thought provoking that they never could have been aired on network TV. If there is a perfect blend between zines and public access then it is a TV show called “ROX.”
“ROX” isn’t a TV show in the conventional sense. It’s not a sitcom or a talk show or anything that can be easily sorted into a category. It’s basically the real-life exploits of a group of twenty-somethings in the college town of Bloomington, Indiana. “ROX” first aired between 1992 and 1995 but still pops up occasionally at film festivals and on other access channels. The closest thing you could compare it to is MTV’s The Real World except “ROX” isn’t contrived and doesn’t suck.
The cast grows and changes from week to week with the two constants being the show’s co-hosts Joe Nickell and Bart Everson. Joe and Bart armed with a Hi8 video camera film themselves along with their friends and loved ones and sound off about anything on their minds. It sounds simple enough but as anyone who’s familiar with zines will tell you, it’s all in the presentation and “ROX” presents itself well.
It’s a page out of collegiate, off-campus living where the typical meal consists of coffee, cigarettes and cheesy macaroni. The show makes you feel as if the gang from “ROX” were your actual friends, or better than your real friends, and that they made the show just for you. It’s hip in an early ’90s, grunge aesthetic kind of way. “ROX” is sexy like Winona Ryder, cool like Eddie Vedder and smart like Janeane Garofalo.
The show’s main claim-to-fame is an episode titled “J&B Get Baked” dealing with marijuana legalization. But don’t get the wrong idea, “ROX” isn’t a show where a bunch of dopey guys sit around and get stoned while listening to Pink Floyd and discussing why the castaways couldn’t get off the island. It’s more of a show that speaks out against corporate greed, mindless conformity and middle-American hypocrisy.
You may be saying to yourself, “Well, this sounds cool and all, but how am I going to see a five-year-old public access show from Indiana?” Well, thanks to modern technology you can see complete episodes on the Internet. “ROX” became the very first TV show on the web way back in 1995 (visit it at www.rox.com). Yes, the “ROX” gang blends together elements of zines, television and the Internet to make “ROX” a full-fledged, multi-media experience.
Like DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, the show’s co-hosts each have their own specific duties. Joe (J) is the bartender who shows you how to make that perfect mixed drink every episode. Bart (B) is the editor who takes care of business in front of and behind the camera. Editing any film or video project is often the most important and the most under-appreciated task. Talking with Bart gave me an understanding of how through hard work you can take your home movies and turn it into the best show on TV.
Terry Gilmer: How did “ROX” get started?
Bart: It started as a goof. We had no idea that it would take over our lives. The show was born when Joe Nickell and I were sitting around one summer evening and we said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we made a weekly TV show?” Originally we called it “J&B on the ROX.” The idea was to make a show hosted by Joe and Bart (J&B). It began as a show about mixed drinks-kind of an alcoholic cooking show. Every week we said, “This is a show that glorifies the responsible use of alcohol by teaching you, the home viewer, to mix a variety of mixed drinks.” It was more of a pun than anything else was. We weren’t really into mixed drinks in a big way. Both Joe and I had artistic and political motives. The whole series continued to focus on alcohol as an ostensible theme, but the show really came to be about our lives: us, the people we knew, the world around us-anything and everything. (Incidentally, this proved to be a good strategy for many of our episodes. They would seem to be about one subject, but really be about another. Great fun!) Later on, after producing sixty-odd episodes, we shortened the name of the show to “ROX”. We took “J&B” out of the title because the show had become much broader in scope. It wasn’t just about us anymore.
TG: Did you have any prior experience in film or video production?
B: Yeah, a little bit. At that point I’d made two half-hour compilations of short art videos. I’d also made one longer piece with my friend Brian Jones; a 40-minute documentary called “Indiana Urinalysis.” It was about the urinals of Indiana University-kind of a folklore perspective.
TG: Was “J&B Get Baked” something of a breakthrough episode? Did the show change after that?
B: Ah, yes. That was our 59th episode. We smoked a lot of pot on TV and said “See? This ain’t so bad.” We’d gotten some local press, but this story went up on the AP wire and became a national item. Suddenly, we were doing a lot of radio talk shows all across the country. Clips from this episode found their way onto the Howard Stern Show and, eventually, into a documentary, which still airs on MTV called “The Straight Dope.” We got so much mileage out of this single episode, we felt sure we could continue milking the issue and get more and more publicity. We made a conscious decision not to do this. We didn’t want to be branded as “the marijuana guys.” We felt like “ROX” was about a lot more than just that. So, although it could have had a profound effect on the direction of the series, I don’t think it did. The whole experience did motivate us to do one thing. We wanted to prove to the world and ourselves that we could get the same kind of media attention without resorting to controversy. So, in May of 1995,we put “ROX” on-line and became the first TV series on the Internet. That got us write-ups in Time, Wired, and a bunch of other magazines!
TG: I haven’t seen the article but didn’t Wired magazine call “ROX” the best TV show in America?
B: Sure did. Let me tell you, as superficial as it might seem, that recognition was a real shot in the arm for me. Even though it’s not what we got into this whole TV gig for in the first place. That article appeared after we had finally stopped production on the show, and I was feeling pretty down. Since then I’ve realized that Wired has to be the most hyperbolic publication in the entire history of human civilization.
TG: Why did you decide to get married on “ROX”?
B: It seemed like a natural thing. I had a TV show. She had a TV show. So our marriage was televised. It was quite an event, too: a puppet show in two acts, written almost entirely in rhymed couplets. Taped in front of a live audience, natch.
TG: Do you have any particular favorite episodes?
B: Hmm. That’s hard. It’s kind of like picking a favorite child. I’m fond of them all, but there are a few of which I’m particularly proud. Our interview with Noam Chomsky is one example. The perverse side of me likes an episode called “Raw Footage”-the name says it all. There are a lot of favorite moments here and there, too, like when J mixed a “Maggot De Menthe” with crème de menthe and maggots. “Six Six Six” is another favorite episode which was about being on a talk show called “Studio Six” on the local PBS affiliate. We took our camcorder on the set with us and videotaped the whole thing from our perspective. In between her stand-up intro and the actual talk segment, while the title sequence was rolling, the host turned to us and said, “This is real television.” I’m sure she didn’t mean it to sound the way it came off, but it was priceless, especially when I played it again-and again-and again, throughout “Six Six Six.”
TG: Were there any other episodes that caused a media controversy?
B: Oh yes. We got into controversy starting with episode #5, I think, and it was pretty much non-stop after that. We discussed the topic of coprophagia [eating shited.] and showed a picture of it that had been downloaded from the Internet. Mind you, this was in 1992-some groundbreaking journalism! The picture would definitely have been ruled obscene by almost any judge in the country, if it had come to court. And it probably would have gone to court if it had ever aired, but the station director held it back. Eventually it was shown with the picture blocked out (but the graphic audio description of the picture remained intact). After that there were a couple more incidents of similar nature, mostly involving penises. Each time, we didn’t think what we were doing was problematic. That may sound hard to believe, but it’s true. After all, the show did have occasional nudity and lots of swearing and all manner of things you don’t see on regular TV. We did this stuff naively, and were always surprised when the shit hit the fan. Then the local paper ran a story about controversial programming on the access channel, and we sounded like very sick individuals indeed. Naturally, we just made a TV show about it. Another controversial segment was the one that taught the viewer how to make a red box for phreaking pay phones. One of the network affiliates in Indy came down to cover it.
TG: “ROX” seems to be both improvisational and very calculating. Was there a lot of planning involved in the making of the show or was it all in the editing?
B: From the get, we planned what we would talk about. Shows sometimes had a theme or a subject. When we moved away from the sit-down talk format and starting getting around more, we often planned episodes in terms of activities, like, “let’s go visit that train trestle out in Solsberry.” But we never scripted the episodes. Everything was improvised. Of course, we weren’t really acting, because we were playing ourselves, so maybe ‘extemporaneous’ is a better word. The importance of editing was undeniable, though. I was the editor, and I spent 40 hrs/wk editing “ROX” in its third season. It was a 9 to 5, Monday to Friday job for me. We often shot 6 hours of footage for a 30-minute show, and sometimes I had to be pretty creative to fit all that stuff together in a way that made sense.
TG: Where did you get the music used on the show? I think I recognize the piece of classical music you run over your opening credits. And is the rest by local musicians?
B: The theme music is “O Fortuna” which is the first movement of Carmina Burana by Carl Orff. It probably sounds familiar because it’s used in a lot of different films and TV shows. We chose it because it seemed so completely inappropriate for what we were doing when we started-two guys in sitting in front of a camera in a basement with this totally bombastic classical music playing-it just seemed funny. The composition is public domain, I believe, but the recording and performance we used were not. When we licensed episodes to FreeSpeechTV, we inserted a new version of the theme music, which was graciously recorded for us by a great Bloomington band, Salaam. As for the other music on the show, it is all by unsigned musicians. Most are from Bloomington, Indiana, but some are from Indianapolis, Lexington and San Francisco. Some of the music is from my own (defunct) band, The Submersibles. Some music was written specifically for the show, and a few tunes were inspired by the show and submitted to us by people we didn’t even know. It’s a great way to share the glory and I recommend it to anyone who is producing his or her own TV. Help promote local musicians and get a great original soundtrack for your show at the same time!
TG: What caused the death of “ROX”?
B: Mismanagement, fiscal and otherwise. And since we managed ourselves, we have to shoulder the blame for that. We had some money coming in from various sponsors-essentially donations from businesses and individuals who liked what we did. That money helped offset the expense of making the show. It also enabled me to work on the show full time. Still, we accumulated a lot of debt. We thought it was important to own our own equipment. When you use the facilities of an access station, the station typically holds the copyright on your work. Getting our own facilities meant we held our own copyright. Which means I can license, sell, and otherwise distribute those programs to my heart’s content. That equipment is expensive! Most of the stuff we used actually belonged to a friend who was starting a video production business. Even so, we spent thousands of dollars on equipment alone. One day, we simply ran out of money. Whoops! And I still had to pay rent. So we went out of production until we could get our financial affairs in order. We gave ourselves a year to come up with a viable business plan. And some great ideas were floated. We talked with people in L.A. and N.Y.C. We had an agent. Etc. Etc. But ultimately we couldn’t do it. So we gave up. You’ll notice that we were no longer in it for the sheer fun of it at this point, which is how we’d started. (To tell the truth, it stopped being sheer fun for me pretty early on-It was a lot of hard work, but it was very satisfying.) Somewhere along the way we were seduced by the idea that we could make a living doing this thing we loved to do. Sometimes I think that was our biggest mistake. I really don’t know.
TG: Are you still in touch with Joe or any of the other players from “ROX”?
B: Sure. I married Christy Paxson, and we’re still together. T Black, the anarchist clown, just called us today. Joe (J) and I are still in frequent contact via e-mail, especially on the “ROX” list, which is a discussion list we’ve been running for four or five years now (available via the website: www.rox.com).
TG: What did you study at Indiana University?
B: As an undergrad-everything. I got a Bachelor of General Studies. Seven years later I came back and got a master degree in “Immersive Mediated Environments,” if you can believe it. Honest, that’s the name of the program. It’s in the telecommunications department, and it’s basically about multimedia or new media or whatever you like to call it.
TG: Did you design the “ROX” website?
B: Yes, but don’t hold it against me. That front page really needs an overhaul. Actually our original website was put together by Mike Bone, our first cyberfriend, back in 1995. Later on we had a guy named Tao Craig as webmaster. Both of these guys worked on the site for nothing but love. God bless ’em. Now I design websites (and CD-ROMs) for a living. I probably wouldn’t be doing this today if it weren’t for access television.
TG: Any advice for someone thinking of doing his or her own public access show?
B: Make deadlines for yourself and strive to keep them: crank that shit out. Think a lot about what you want out of the experience, and keep talking to your partners to make sure you’re all on the same page. Don’t neglect money issues or they will bite you in the ass later. Have fun. I think that’s it.