Vol. 17, No. 20

 Oct. 7 - 20,  2004


Still Talking, BronxTalk Marks Anniversaries


It's a gray Tuesday morning on Lehman College's leafy campus, but within BronxTalk's subterranean studio, the lights, and the conversation, are hot. Host Gary Axelbank races between segments on tuberculosis, Throgs Neck, the Mets, and preparing your child for school. Three guest callers have canceled, the guests for tomorrow are calling, and Axelbank has to rush through his closing so the credits can roll.

All this action transpired in just the last half of the two-hour cable TV show. As the lights dim, the production staff takes a deep breath and prepares to do it again tomorrow -- just as they have 1,100 times before. 

While not inclined to pause, BronxTalk is giving itself a well-deserved pat on the back this month by celebrating the fifth and 10th anniversaries of BronxTalk AM and BronxTalk PrimeTime respectively. The two leave a legacy of meaty, award-winning programming that, by several accounts, is unparalleled in the city. 

"There is no other forum like this," said Michael Max Knobbe, the executive director of BronxNet, a nonprofit public access station on Cablevision that broadcasts the shows on Channel 67. "Other stations call up and say that they are using [BronxTalk] as their model."

While BronxTalk's critical ingredients are clearly identifiable -- guests of all statures, newsworthy topics, viewer phone calls -- the show's sparkle emanates from its stellar staff. Axelbank helped found the show in 1994, bringing on producer Jane Folloro soon afterward.

Over 8,000 interviews later, they are still kicking. "You've got to be ready, willing and able so there's no dead air," said Folloro, a no-nonsense Yonkers resident, as she juggled phone 
calls. "That's all that matters. Not tomorrow shows, or future shows, but what's on air 
BronxTalk PrimeTime is a live, half-hour evening talk show that brings public figures and discussion of controversial issues to Bronx viewers. Axelbank takes off his trademark white sneakers and wire-rimmed glasses, dons a suit, and sits down to speak with politicians, activists and artists on Monday nights.
"It's more like a Charlie Rose format," said Axelbank, 50, a Bronx native and father of two who lives in Van Cortlandt Village.

The show has hosted 21 political debates, and is an essential stopping point for borough candidates on the campaign trail. Former borough president Fernando Ferrer turned up 12 times, current Borough President Adolfo Carrion's ascent from district manager of Community Board 5 was chronicled, and nearly every Bronx state and city representative has appeared.

"BronxTalk is our version of C-SPAN," said Council Member Joel Rivera. "Their team makes sure that the voices of Bronxites are heard."

It was the show's success that spawned BronxTalk AM to make room for, as Axelbank put it, "church picnics, car washes" and other local affairs. Launched in 1999, AM is a radio-style format that starts with a discussion of current affairs, then bounces between issue segments, guests, and listener calls. 

"Jane and I have the philosophy that we don't say no," said Axelbank. "If you want to come on the show, come on the show."

AM thrives on spontaneity, made possible by its staff's skill. Axelbank, a former producer for WNBC, can talk competently about almost anything, and Folloro is a tough taskmaster when running the show. "You can be insistent without being annoying," she said about booking the show's guests. 

Folloro's cell phone is on BronxTalk's voice mail, and the mother of two frequently gets calls at night. "It's just whatever it takes," she said before venturing to the vending machine for "lunch." 

Folloro gets help from interns who come through BronxNet's training program. The assistants do technical work, handle phone calls and help with booking. "You're like a clown juggling all these things," said David Makonnem, a Lehman grad from Harlem. "[Jane] keeps you on your toes."

While the show is sometimes a little rough around the edges due to limited resources -- Axelbank controls the cameras himself from a remote control -- the content is solid. "You get much more of a full discussion than a [short] news segment," said Dr. Linda Hirsh, a Hostos Community College professor who hosts AM's education segment. 

That substance especially shines during PrimeTime, where topics range from the war in Iraq to hot-sheets motels. Axelbank's most intense memories are from the segments on the Amadou Diallo shooting. On the day of the ruling, their airwaves were flooded with listeners needing to vent. 

Susan Karten, a lead lawyer for the Diallo and Central Park jogger cases, appeared on the show several times. "Bronx communities get to hear a more focused view on the issues of the day," she said about BronxTalk. "I think it should be expanded to every borough."

Axelbank stays neutral when hosting the debates, but he doesn't bite his tongue during commentaries on hot topics like the water filtration plant, which he's adamantly opposed to, or his love for the Mets. Bronx officials aren't always crazy about his outspokenness, but Axelbank encourages those who disagree to challenge him on the air. "[BronxTalk's] phone number is up on the screen," he emphasized. "Any elected official can call up and disagree with me."

BronxTalk staff wish they received more feedback from viewers, but the ones who do call are extremely loyal. 

The program could also use a larger studio (Folloro doesn't have her own desk), and BronxTalk will probably need to change its facilities by next year as Lehman plans to reclaim the basement space for a computer center. Knobbe is searching for new spaces off- and on-campus, and seemed confident that something will materialize. 

As for his future with BronxTalk, Axelbank doesn't like to predict much beyond the next show. But his passion for journalism, and his belief that the Bronx' 1.3 million people deserve their own media, suggests that he's in it for the long haul. 

"People say to me, 'you are going to talk about the Bronx for two hours a day?," he said. "You don't ask a talk show host from Boston that question, and the Bronx is twice as large as Boston."

Ed. note: BronxTalk AM broadcasts live on weekdays at 10 a.m., and is repeated at 10 p.m., on BronxNet's Channel 67. BronxTalk PrimeTime broadcasts live on Monday nights at 9 p.m. and is repeated each day at 9:30 a.m., 3:30 and 8:30 p.m.

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