Q & A

Mark Cohen
Looking back at 14 years hosting the Coffeehouse

by Howard Kohn
photos by Diana Kohn

On June 7, a reunion cast gathered in Rockville at the Cable Channel 21 studio to tape Episode Number 150 of The Coffee House, an hour-long, cutting-edge, high-brow variety show of public affairs, books, poetry and music that debuted in Takoma Park in 1996.

It was also the final episode.  Mark Cohen, the show’s founder, inspiring force, producer, political-page host and jack-of-all-trades, had decided to call it quits. 
From humble beginnings in a back room of the old Takoma Park municipal building, where the set was so makeshift that it collapsed once during a live airing, the show gained an audience that spanned the country and a couple of oceans.  For the past year the Coffee House was seen on cable channels from Alaska to Georgia and from Mississippi to Minnesota, and nationwide via satellite, and worldwide via the Web.

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Mark Cohen, founder, producer, and host of The Coffeehouse, a local cable show that has aired around the United States and the world.

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Originally called The Takoma Coffee House, the show started as an
amateur hour of local talents, best known as “Friends of Mark.” Mark
also enlisted his wife, medical writer Cathy Kristiansen. “It was
either that, or get a divorce” was his recollection.

Even after the show’s far-flung expansion it retained a distinctly
Takoma flavor. The show featured a revolving door of local
personalities as hosts – law professors Jamie Raskin and Angela Davis,
dance impresario Liz Lerman, environmental sage Mike Tidwell, labor
expert Fred Feinstein, literary authority

Lisa Page, artist Welmoed
Laanstra, poet Rueben Jackson, film maven Pat Auderheide, Voice editor
Eric Bond and Voice columnist Howard Kohn.
Many of them were on hand for the final show.  They toasted Mark with
champagne in plastic glasses and then took their seats on the interview
dais one last time.

Afterward Mark answered a few questions.

What compelled you to start the show? You must’ve known it would be a ton of work.

What compelled me? I’d had drinks with City Councilman Larry Rubin in
1995 and expressed dismay that although the city was loaded with
talented artists, writers, musicians and activists, the municipal cable
channel offered little more than a community bulletin board and
inaudible council meetings. Hearing of my concerns, the city
administrator invited me to serve on the Cable Advisory Board. Once I
attended two meetings in a row, I was anointed to be in charge and felt
compelled to make something happen. So, in short, I’d shot off my mouth
and then had to back it up.

I really didn’t know how much work it would be.  At the beginning, we
did the show live with the view that whatever happened, happened, and
then it was over. The problem was, at that time, the TP municipal
channel was ill equipped to produce a show. 
 
Can you describe the original setup? What was it like?

I’ve blocked most of this out! The set reeked of no-budget public
access. A couple chairs, a table, whatever tablecloth we could find,
and some cheapo hangings.  Not even a faux fichus!  The folks in the
control room couldn’t really see or hear us on the set. We didn’t have
any studio lighting, and the set was too dark. The tech crew had very
limited hours, so setup for the shows was chronically late and rushed,
the equipment spotty, and whatever could go wrong did.

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Several Coffeehouse collaborators gather on set for a final group hug: from left, Fred Feinstein, Howard Kohn, Mark Cohen, Sen. Jamie Raskin, Cathy Kristiansen, and Mike Tidwell.

After a couple troubled efforts, we moved the show to the council
chamber for the duration of 1996. That was a marginal improvement. 
Moving to a “live on tape” format in 1997 gave us the chance to fix our
mistakes, but at the expense of my time. The possibilities for tweaking
in post-production seemed endless. No doubt, the show was much better
as a result. But now I was doing post-production as well as all the
up-front work. It consumed a lot more hours.
The real change came a bit later when we moved the show to Montgomery
Community Television (Access Montgomery) in outer Rockville, a real TV
facility.

To start a show locally and take it nationally, actually globally, has to be rare.  How did you do it?

It was pretty organic.  Not that any stations paid us to air it, but
after a couple years I felt the quality of the show was good enough to
shop it around. We first got it on public access channels – Prince
George’s, Arlington, Fairfax, Anne Arundel, Carroll, Howard, and
Harford Counties, then D. C. and Baltimore city. They all seemed to
appreciate it, which was encouraging. 

Given our location, we had access to not only regional but national
issues and guests. And so the show grew increasingly suitable for a
national audience. That’s when I became more aggressive about marketing
it to access channels and satellite TV around the country.

The expansion strategy was pretty straightforward once we started
streaming on the Web.  I’d email announcements of new shows to station
managers around the country with hot links to segments for them to take
a look.  Each month a few new stations would sign up.
 
You’ve gathered awards along the way? Such as?

Well, we won top program and host awards from MCT regularly from 2000
through 2008, and also won honors at the Prince George’s channel, CTV,
for their best show that wasn’t produced at their facility. And we won
a national competition, the Hometown Video awards. Not exactly Emmys,
but these sorts of honors do encourage you to keep plugging away.

How would you describe a typical show?

I tried to keep it a regular mix of arts and topical public affairs.
There was almost always roots music or singer-songwriters, poets,
perhaps an arts or soft feature produced in the field, and a rotation
of studio interviews, mostly on controversial subjects, conducted by a
roster of hosts.

The roster varied somewhat over the life of the show. Guests sometimes
became hosts – that happened with Liz Lerman, Angela Davis, Mike
Tidwell and Jamie Raskin – and sometimes hosts became guests, like when
Howard Kohn’s book, We Had a Dream, was released.

How has the technology changed since the show’s beginning?

When we started everything was analog. Every dub of a tape degraded its
quality. With the advent of accessibly priced software for desktop
digital editing, the whole process of production changed dramatically.
Tape copies were virtually indistinguishable from masters. Editing
became magical rather than linear. DVDs dramatically drove down the
cost of duplication and distribution.

Same with cameras. The low-end
“prosumer” camcorders provide quality equivalent to what was state of
the art for national broadcasters a generation ago.
 
Does Cable TV have a future or will it be eclipsed by all the new technologies?

My guess is that the technologies will continue to merge. Web video
quality will continue to improve and cable TV will continue to grow
more interactive.  My concern for public access TV is that it will get
left behind by the HD conversion.

With their paltry budgets, access
channels will be hard pressed to go HD anytime soon. And as viewers
increasingly limit their channel surfing to the HD spectrum, public
access will fade into a seldom visited standard definition ghetto. At
that point, Comcast and other greedy cable operators, who view public
access as nothing more than a lost profit opportunity, will try to move
in for the kill.

What made you say “finis?”

Over the last couple years, I’d been thinking about how long I’d try to
sustain the show. Maybe it had something to do with turning 60 last
November and thinking about how many productive years I still have in
me. But I also felt the fire for the show wasn’t there like it once
was. And rather than fizzle out, I’d sooner make a clean break while I
still feel proud of what we’ve done.
 
What do you do now to fill all your free time?

Well, I’m yet to experience any additional free time. My day job as
director of the Government Accountability Project is more than
adequately consuming. And I host a TV show for GAP, Whistle Where You
Work, that has comparable distribution to The Coffee House. Plus, I
coach my kids’ baseball team, the Blue Tsunamis, which is an absurdly
absorbing obsession for me during the TPSS baseball season. Otherwise,
I’m pretty heavily engaged in family life. I’ll be better able to
answer this question after I go a couple months without doing a Coffee
House.

Which segments stick out in your mind as most surprising? Most difficult? Most satisfying?

Too tough to answer. The best I can do is invite you to tune into the
finale, which is currently airing. Or you can view it on the web
[There’s a link on the Takoma Voice website: www.takoma.com].

It’s a scrapbook of A-list material from the 15 seasons of the show. I guarantee you’ll enjoy it.

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