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Part 2

The Last Days of Blab

The proof, he says, is in his sales. The day after any show, he can pretty much expect one or two sales, each about — ka-ching — $4,000.

And it appears to be true for most of the growing list of clients signing on to do shows. Thirty minutes of a high-wire act on live TV translates into customers who feel they know you and your product even before they've walked into your shop. And who, after all, wouldn't buy something from a friend?

Of course, not everybody is out to sell stuff, per se. Sometimes it's an image or a message they want to get out. And they do it by offering expert guests and good free information for anyone brave enough to call in. Those are the shows like "Live Healthy, Be Healthy," a panel show hosted by John Beckner, director of pharmacy health services at Ukrop's. Sure, topics like new treatments for diabetes may not make great prime-time TV, but for a guy who's strapped to an insulin pump, the show's more pertinent than an episode of "ER."

Just ask Edward Cheek, 72, of Richmond. He's been calling Beckner every week for years, so much and so often that everyone in the studio is worried sick when his name doesn't pop up on the marker board. Still, it stops no one from joking about his ubiquity.

"Edward's on line one," the audio director says over the headset during a show on allergies.

"Different Edward?"

"Nope. Our Edward."

"Don't tell me. He's allergic to oxygen," grumbles the director.

Edward, as it turns out, isn't allergic to oxygen. He's just addicted to community programming. "They're such good shows, just showing you how to take care of yourself and your things better," Cheek says admiringly, in just the way a merchant would dream he would. "I do buy products from the businesses that support those shows because they are supporting me."

Other community shows include "Police Beat," the cop-show brainchild of station manager Karen Newmyer, a dead ringer for Bette Midler who can quote verbatim whole cartoons from Loony Tunes. Newmyer was originally looking for a fugitives-in-Richmond type of cop show. Something to get citizens' blood flowing and their binoculars ready at the window.

But that's when Ron Brown, Darryl Skinner and (no kidding) Kevin Bacon, three exceedingly polite detectives from Richmond and Chesterfield County, offered a show about the more realistic life of cops. Now — airing opposite "Cops" on Monday night — three guys that it would probably be a pleasure to be arrested by are on cable TV, talking about things like the Hanover Dive Squad, and the ins and outs of fleet maintenance in Richmond.

It's too bad they prerecord so many of their shows (some run as long as four hours), since it's always fun to watch cops lose their composure, or at least just forget their names on the air — something these three do regularly. Plus, on a recent shoot about the Richmond Police Mounted Unit, we could have seen Detective Brown miss the vital stage direction reading "MOVE DUMMY." (It's the cue that orders everyone to run off the set at once.) As a result, he got mowed down by six horses demonstrating maneuvers for crowd control.

"I wasn't hurt too bad," he says a little sheepishly, as his co-hosts giggle. "But it did rip all the medals off my shirt." Howls of laughter.

Even Morchower's show, "Lawline," as well as his sports and profiles shows of earlier years, give everybody the chance to see him as something more than the tall man who defends embattled City Council members and women accused of pricking little kids in supermarkets.

It was about Christmastime when Morchower got to thinking about all the pros and cons of BLAB, an adventure he'd gotten involved with through lawyer buddies. BLAB, you should know, was not unique to Richmond. No, it was part of a strange little legal family begun in homey Pensacola, Fla., where it was originated 15 years ago by Florida tobacco attorney Fred Levin just after the Supreme Court made it legal for attorneys to advertise.

What started as Levin's call-in legal show led to increasingly diverse programs: plumbers, neurosurgeons, gardening experts, you name it. Eventually, even as it switched ownership, it spawned not only Morchower's BLAB, but also BLABS in Alabama, Louisiana and other cities in Florida — all of them owned by attorneys. Today's Pensacola BLAB runs 66 hours of programming a week (compared to RICH-TV's 20) and its viewership figures come in — believe it or not — behind only the network affiliates and CNN, according to station manager Bob Burk.

"There's not a thing you could mention that we don't promote," Burk says proudly. "People call us a cash cow."

(Stephen Salpukas / Style Weekly)BLAB's owner, Michael Morchower, keeps a fake water buffalo to represent the station's former mascot, the yak. Clearly, Richmond's station had not taken off the way Pensacola's had. Morchower pondered this. Finally, he came to three vital conclusions:

1. He was still committed to the risky concept of live, local TV;

2. He'd lost somewhere between $50,000 and $75,000 on BLAB over a 10-year period, and that probably wasn't good; and

3. He needed to hire somebody who knew what she was doing, since the only experience he'd had with television other than BLAB was, well, watching it.

Enter Wanda Lewis Goodridge, a local media and advertising dynamo with 25 years of media experience in Richmond, a ferocious vision of what makes good advertising, and a nifty suede suit. She runs Ad Results, her own marketing firm in Midlothian, and also has the handy ability to be functional on four to six hours of sleep. Here, Morchower decided, was his savior.

Goodridge's task? Continue to run her own company, while turning what Morchower describes as a sort of fraternity/sorority atmosphere into a business capable of generating $1 million in annual gross revenue.

"At first we were at war," says Morchower, who acknowledges that his desire for "great new changes" was not initially greeted with open arms by the staff. Still, he's confident of Goodridge's business sense and powers of persuasion.

The first casualty was the BLAB name, a name that Goodridge says, absolutely revolted upscale clients like orthopedic surgeons from coming onboard. Also — because it's not public access TV — RICH-TV finally exercised its "discretionary rights" and axed "Just for Men," a cult favorite that featured a chatty group of Paper Moon strippers wearing pasties.

Goodridge plans to replace the haphazard show lineup, which had been determined only by what night the client was free. Instead, the station will shift shows around so that those that attract similar viewers are seen on the same night, creating a synergy for each client's show.

Also added to the mix will be a show targeted to seniors, live local sporting events and shows like "Take a Vacation in Your Own Backyard," done in conjunction with the Richmond Convention and Visitor's Bureau.

In short, she's going to make a serious TV station out of the remains of our dear old daffy BLAB.

The possibilities, she says, are endless.

"I think it's all up from here. I mean, we started with a boss who had no business sense, or even a financial goal. Yes, it's going to be run like a business, but good things can come from being run like a business."

Meanwhile, nerves are jumpy as the station braces for its more serious future. Word of the change is leaking out slowly to clients, and — frustratingly — to the staff. Everyone is gnawing their fingernails, wondering if they'll make the cut or meet the fate of the station's erstwhile logo, the Yak.

Even the detectives from "Police Beat" seem paranoid. They'll grill anybody for information.

"Just tell us if we're off the air. And don't lie, because I'll see it in your eyes," says Detective Skinner, suddenly looking a lot less friendly to a reporter across the table at Shoney's.

The staff is cautiously optimistic. Media is a place where you can lose your job overnight in a move to improve a format or reach a new audience. (Does WRVA-AM ring a bell?)

For this crew, which sees itself more as a dysfunctional family than as co-workers, the idea of being restructured is particularly scary. Even if they do write stuff saying a co-worker "has a monkey brain" on the back of the marker board, nobody wants to see anybody else go. Especially not Newmyer, the new station manager. As RICH-TV's new leadership swings through and different ways of doing business are proposed, she's decided to be patient and hopeful about the station she's headed since 1995. Hey, it worked in the old "Kung Fu" series.

"It is good to be like the wise grasshopper," she says in an accent parodying the wise old man on that show. "You have to sit quietly on the blade of grass to eat from the blade of grass."

But not everyone else is so cheery or so trusting about what is coming down the pike.

"It's a lot easier to get onboard with something if you know what's happening," explains Lenny Partiss, a director at the station for seven years. Now he's considering leaving the station. He says the speed of the changes and the initial secrecy surrounding them fueled insecurity and fear. "Everybody here would want to improve what hits the air," he adds. "We just need to know what's happening."

Key for him, though, is that the "fast-food" television that he's grown to love stays exciting and a challenge.

"The concept of BLAB isn't broken," he says with confidence. "Never was."

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