Who Are These Guys?
In an often-quoted 1961 speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, then-Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow issued a challenge: "I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air... and keep your eyes glued to the set until the station signs off," Minow said. "I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland."
More than 35 years later, every couch potato with a remote control can testify to the enduring truth of that classic metaphor, and this is the story of one such torpid explorer's journeys beyond the bland and lumpen buffet of commercial television and into the backwaters of the wasteland where Baptists, hemp partisans, headbangers, conspiracy theorists, drag queens, apartment wrestlers, neo-vaudevillians, and New Agers preach, propagandize, and strut their stuff for an audience that in their dreams numbers in the thousands. This is the story of some of the brave men and women of local community-access television--the crackpots, zealots, and true believers who are reinventing TV every single day, right here in your own back yard.
Who knows who's watching this stuff, and who really cares? You have your access world and I have mine. There are so many programs and personalities on local community-access networks that deserve attention and recognition, and for so many wildly different reasons, that it is almost an exercise in cruelty to single out some. There are a number of worthy ethnic and cultural shows that address themselves to neglected local communities, including the Healthy Nations Native News Program, Somali Night, Eritrean TV Broadcast, Lao TV, and Vietnamese News. There is the archetypal and multiple-award-winning Mary Hanson Show, the longest-running community-access program in the state (it has aired weekly since 1980) and a virtual model for the community-information talk-show format, with topics ranging from "Sentencing Guidelines" to "Kids and Exercise." And of course you'll also find more than 25 different religious programs spread across the Minneapolis Telecommunications Network schedule (check out Patrice Winston's Turn or Burn), as well as the usual assortment of sketch comedies, music and commentary shows, and slickly edited noise-and-image collages. And that's just Minneapolis cable access; each metro-area community has its own network (for channel and schedule information call your local cable provider), and each of them is crammed with more 30-watt inspiration than you can shake a shtick at.
But let's be honest: The thing that made demistars of local cable-access producers and performers like Fancy Ray, Dr. Sphincter, and Viva and Jerry is the "What-the-hell-is-this?" factor. The remote control in the viewer's hand, while allowing him to sift television as his attention span sputters and flares, is also a powerful tool that can work in the access producer's favor. The challenge is in laying down a big enough puzzle that the viewer will pause momentarily in his stutter surf up and down the dial--the bigger the "What-the-hell-is-this?" factor, and the longer it takes to answer that question, the better the access program's chances are to capture the viewer's attention and imprint itself on his consciousness. The bottom line for most viewers is that while there may well be access programs that deserve their attention more than others, it is the shows that command their attention that they remember and return to.
My introduction to local access programming and easily the most memorable television I have seen in many years was the work of access underground legend Tim Johnson, whose shows pop up at random, and thus unpredictable, times on MTN. Watching one of Johnson's ultra-slow-motion videos of average people--mostly men, and mostly shirtless--running, rollerblading, and biking around the lakes to a throbbing wash of New Age or disco music made me an instant community-access junkie.
Johnson's work has a hypnotic, wholly surreal quality to it, and one feels at once almost guiltily complicit and inexplicably fascinated, seemingly spying from the bushes as these sweating bodies come lumbering or gliding slowly toward the camera, every muscle and tendon popping and straining, fat waggling, bare pectorals heaving, and glutei rolling in tight Lycra shorts. The captives of Johnson's camera grimace and wheeze and huff, and for 90 minutes they just keep flowing hypnotically along, oblivious of the fact that they are being recorded for future access ogling.
Johnson gives everybody his camera's complete and undivided attention, tracking them coming and going, and his "Fun in the Sun" installments (1996 and 1997 versions), as well as his most recent "The Athletic Man in Motion" (which adds slo-mo high school wrestling and swimming to the mix), are each seamless collections of long, panning shots, zooms, and dissolves. Johnson's stuff is fascinating on plenty of levels beyond the mere dreamtime eroticism of the everyday, although the producer is up-front about his motives: "Some people look at it as an interesting sort of movement study, or respond to the surreal aspects of it," he says. "Different audiences get a different reaction, but I do it for purely selfish and voyeuristic reasons.
"I like to watch, and on TV you get nothing but women, women, women. I tell people that this stuff is Baywatch without the women. My target audience is definitely men, and right from the beginning I obviously hit a hot button with that audience. But all sorts of people seem to love it. I'm making something that no one else dares to do."
Johnson is a corporate video producer who does his access projects strictly as a fun sideline. A few years ago MTN aired a Johnson video in which for an hour he tried unsuccessfully to start a lawn mower. He films his "Fun in the Sun" subjects from a considerable distance, using a broadcast-quality television camera with a powerful lens that allows him to be "truly voyeuristic," he says. "I can shoot people without them knowing they're being observed, so you don't get people waving, smiling, turning away, or otherwise acting unnatural." Johnson's work, while a good example of the sort of video you would only find on cable access, is somewhat atypical in that the self-consciousness he seeks to avoid is one of the most endearing and often painful trademarks of community-access programming in general.
Before the grotesque and exhibitionist proliferation of the World Wide Web, before the zine-culture surge of the 1980s, before even the glut of cable stations and the incongruous and far-flung appearance of backyard satellite dishes, there was community-access television, an often noisy and haphazard underground of diverse cultures and viewpoints presented with few frills, almost zero budget, and limitless (if sometimes clumsy) enthusiasm. The humble charms and hallmarks of the medium are much the same today as they were when it began in video collectives and vo-tech schools--cheap production values, obviously real people, frequently awkward execution. So are the basic guiding principles, with free access and freedom of expression being the central tenets.
At its clumsiest and often most entertaining, community access comes off as television on its hands and knees, and the fact that it is so frequently apparent that there are people learning as they go along--and fumbling mightily behind the scenes--only contributes to its entertainment value. Access-television producers more often than not are one-man gangs, handling every aspect of production from cameras, lights, sound, and editing to the actual performance. There are hugely entertaining access programs that are primers in wholesale technical incompetence, and others that are dreadfully boring, yet demonstrate remarkable proficiency. The real beauty of community access is the fact that proficiency, or even competency, is never a prerequisite for procuring airtime.
Which is one reason community-access television has long been the stuff of easy and tired satire; but the truth is that satire can't begin to suggest the often terrible poignancy and grassroots vitality of both the best and worst access programs. Behind every one of these shows, at every stage in the production process, there are people who obviously and sometimes frighteningly care about whatever it is they are trying to get across. These are people revealing themselves, disseminating sometimes strange and controversial ideas, trying to keep cultures alive, and many an access producer is possessed of a courage and a weird conviction that can be as discomfiting as it is inspiring.
It was on Kristin Schaible's MTN program 777 (Thursdays at 9 p.m. on Minneapolis Channel 58) that I first learned of President Eisenhower's top-secret treaty with aliens, in which the aliens agreed to swap some of their technological secrets in exchange for the right to experiment on U.S. citizens and build underground bunkers on American soil. On a later show, I discovered that for much of his career, Sammy Davis Jr. had been under the virtual control of Church of Satan founder Anton Szandor LaVey. This saddened me a bit--I always kind of liked Sammy.
I wasn't, however, surprised to learn that John F. Kennedy had kept Marilyn Monroe as the "first presidential sex slave." There aren't too many presidents before JFK whom I can envision making mysterious pilgrimages to the pyramids and keeping sex slaves, at least not on the control level of high-ranking illuminati like JFK.
I guess I'm also willing to buy the idea that "Jesus was a space brother," at least on some metaphoric level. But the very notion that there may be sulfur-reeking, catlike, 3-foot-tall aliens with delicate hands who would like nothing better than to install some sort of implant in my body and force me to drink blood, no ma'am, that I cannot accept. If I believed that sort of thing I wouldn't be able to leave my house in the morning. And I don't want to hear about how "UFOs might well fit into the devil's plan for the tribulation" either. Schaible told me that "Billy Graham is a 33rd degree Mason, which is provable," but I couldn't bring myself to admit that I had absolutely no idea what that meant.
You get the picture: Schaible's show serves up the New Millennium terror spiel in spades, via a mesmerizing, stylishly edited, and wildly entertaining mix of interviews, speakers, music, and interpretative dance. Whether it's angels, aliens, the Bermuda Triangle, or the white buffalo, Schaible leaves no stone unturned in her breakneck quest to ferret out the "conspiracy within the conspiracies facing our world in the present and future."
On the phone Schaible--a part-time nurse with a background in music and dance--sounds easygoing and enthusiastic, whether she's talking about 777 or her performance company, Tenth Dimension. "It's a big merger of music and dance," she says. "I'm trying to create something that would be sort of like Pink Floyd's The Wall for the '90s."
Schaible confesses that even she takes some of the stuff she solicits and assembles for the program with a grain of salt. But she insists that she is committed to airing the widest possible range of "people's perspectives on the millennium," and says that every show she does expands her own curiosity. "You can't watch the news every night without hearing of more plagues, catastrophes, horrors, and cataclysms," she says. "I'm trying to open people's eyes that prophecy is unfolding. I guess if there's a central theme on the show it's that the trumpets have blown."
But even in the shadow of the apocalypse, Schaible's work is far from done. "Right now I'm working on new shows on angels, demons, biological warfare, and Russian missiles," she says. "You know, how Russia and Iraq are conspiring to bring off World War III. I know that commercial television would never touch a show like mine--I'd be banned for sure. That's why I'm so grateful for public access. I think maybe people can be a little more honest when they aren't being paid. Community cable is providing tons of opportunities for people like me who are working underground."
Since the 1970s, community-access channels have been bargaining chips in cities' negotiations with cable companies, part of the return the public receives in exchange for granting a cable company a local monopoly. In Minneapolis, Paragon Cable for the past 13 years has been providing MTN with equipment and three public-access channels (channels 32, 33, and 58), as well as city educational and government channels (channels 34 and 35). In exchange for shoving stations like the Food Network and E! TV down viewers' throats, Paragon provides a forum for MTN access primers like Perfect TV's Hardcore Wrestling or Tim McCoy's ZTV.
MTN's facilities are available to certified members and anyone who takes required classes for certification, and every day its St. Anthony Main headquarters and studios are bustling with shows in various stages of production and individuals or groups taking classes and checking out field-recording equipment. The network provides resources and instruction for video production, Internet access, and Web design; it also functions as a vital Internet service provider for local nonprofits, providing dial-up accounts and hosting Web sites for organizations ranging from theaters to small publishers.
MTN operates as an independent, nonprofit agency with a board of directors appointed by the City Council, which provides $200,000 of the network's annual budget. Another $280,000 a year comes directly from Paragon, and additional funds are hustled up from donations, memberships, and class fees. Producers pay nothing to have their shows included in the schedule, and the station is mandated to give any and all tapes an airing, whether produced on the premises or not. The station runs more than 100 regularly scheduled programs a year--most of them locally originated, about half produced in the St. Anthony Main studios--and none of them is ever screened or edited beforehand.
Whether he's blasting rockets from his crotch, dry-humping his couch, or listening to answering-machine messages in his dark apartment, Alexander Grant, who bills himself as Acutus on his MTN program Body Rock (Fridays at 11 p.m. on Minneapolis Channel 33), is an irresistible and instantly captivating personality, and his show is another prime example of the sort of inexplicable entertainment only found on access television. Body Rock is television vérité of the highest order, an almost always poignant and frequently uncomfortable peek into the lonely, private corners of one man's life.
One show Grant might be dancing and lip-synching in a graveyard with geese, the next he's touring the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. A recent episode featured him sitting on the living-room floor in his dimly lit apartment (which appears to be in a high-rise near downtown Minneapolis), his head bobbing in and out of the frame as he delivered a long and genuinely moving monologue on the difficulties of life as a young gay male in a big city. "To really find love you've got to be real," he said.
"But when you're real you leave yourself vulnerable as well. Loneliness is something I've learned to live with. When I meet someone, I think about growing old together, not being alone. I think about the holidays, not spending them alone. I think about helping each other though tough times." A moment later he is lamenting the cruelty of technology. "Caller ID, phone mail, the answering machine, e-mail, they all make it so much easier to avoid people," he says. "You never have to actually talk to anyone, and it makes the cruelty of ignoring or avoiding people so much easier." The phone rings off camera and he moves away to answer it, the entire fumbling conversation is recorded, and the monologue eventually segues into a salacious, strobe-lit couch dance to Duran Duran's "Strange Behavior."
Grant does a lot of private dancing on his show, and there's plenty of exhibitionist in him. He apparently has no qualms about stripping to his skivvies or his trademark cutoff jean shorts and getting down, whether he's cavorting in his apartment or prancing on a lakeside dock to Chaka Khan. He also has an obsession with pyrotechnics, and his shows are full of fireworks displays and roaring bonfires--complete, of course, with more dancing and lots of music.
"I love anything theatrical or dramatic," Grant says. "I love making movies, music, theater, anything creative. I come from a very theatrical home, and I'm doing this by illness as much as by choice. The whole purpose of the show is eventually to expose my own music and to help people learn things about themselves and each other."
Grant promises huge technical advances in the coming year. "I'm going to do a show from the end of a runway at the airport," he says. "I'm going to get so much better. I'm not kidding, you're going to see some stuff that will be unsurpassed." Grant ultimately hopes that Body Rock will be his ticket to bigger and better things. "I feel really attached to nature," he says "You might notice that I use a lot of wildlife in my show. If I ever make it, I absolutely, hands down, want to own a mountain lion."
As a viewer it's easy to get locked into the exoticism and the weirdness of so much access programming. You're sitting there whacked on Nyquil and slack-jawed on your couch, incredulity giving way to stupor, images morphing into a prosaic surreality verging on the unconscious. From the remove of a deep enough access trance, the pell-mell juxtaposition of programs takes on all the fascinating qualities of a dream--a City Council garbage-hauling debate folds seamlessly into a parade of dancing Norwegians--and shows like Body Rock and The Prima-Donns reach a level of true and riveting entertainment that "real" television can seldom approach anymore.
The often primitive production values are only part of what gives community-access programming the feel and appearance of primordial teevee (think of the regional cartoon or variety shows that defined television in the late '50s). The real throwback charm of cable access is in the reciprocal discomfort between performer and viewer, a relationship as clumsy, fumbling, and awkward as any in real life. When a show is struggling, the dialogue is foundering, or the jokes are bombing, there are no safety nets on community access--no takebacks, no studio audience or laugh track. There's only you, the viewer, grimacing on your couch in the darkness, and the access performer sweating in the harsh aquarium light of the studio.
And when a producer manages to create something memorable out of meager resources and astonishing chutzpah, the resulting feeling of admiration and wonder is equal to anything inspired by the spectacles of commercial television. When your overweight neighbor completes a marathon, isn't that somehow more affirming than the performance of the world-class athletes who finished two hours ahead of him?
The thing I admire most about The Prima-Donns (Thursday nights at 10:30 on Minneapolis Channel 32, St. Paul Channel 33) is how much fun everyone among the unusually large cast and crew--a group of 15 longtime friends--seems to be having. The brainchild of producer Mark Engebretson, a Southwest Journal reporter and former lead singer for the Whole Lotta Loves, and Donn Searles and Donn Wingate, two stalwart local rock scenesters and bookstore veterans, The Prima-Donns is a heavily, but loosely, conceptualized show that draws inspiration from sources as diverse as Vern Gagne's classic American Wrestling Association broadcasts, SCTV, the late comedian Andy Kaufmann, and general cheesy pop culture. The sub-pop references flow fast and furious--a typical half-hour program might include an homage to comedian Henny Youngman, All My Children trivia, a J.J. Walker poster, and a fashion show featuring Mexican wrestling masks. More than anything else on MTN, The Prima-Donns manages to walk the very thin line between making access television and satirizing it.
The program's tangled plotlines and cast of regular characters almost defy description, but the basic tongue-in-cheek routine is this: In January of 1996, MTN brass pushed a big enough pile of cash across the table to lure Searles back from a mythic Hollywood exile for a season's worth of shows to be co-hosted with Wingate, himself allegedly retired from "the lucrative rock world." Engebretson was brought on board as executive producer, and he and the Donns enlisted the assistance of a crack staff of local talent, including rock-and-wrestling lightning rods Ernie and Bill Batson.
The show has always relied on that particularly combustible mix, with frequent noisy eruptions and guests ranging from wrestling great Nick Bockwinkel to local bands including Venison and LikeHell, plus occasional visits from other local luminaries such as Minneapolis City Council member Jim Niland and former North Stars coach Glen Sonmor. The MTN program guide also mentions "regular characters who will walk on and off the set at various times," including El Pouro, a masked bartender from Mexico City; Philbert, the show's resident fix-it man; Klassy Karl, a snooty trash aristocrat; and Dersh Darrow, a lawyer with a whiff of the unscrupulous about him.
As entertaining as it is indescribable, The Prima-Donns has in recent months been rocked by a feud between the two Donns that has made it necessary to create separate sets for each of the co-hosts, and has undoubtedly created innumerable headaches for Engebretson. It seems that during the taping of the 1997 Christmas special, Wingate, in cahoots with pro wrestler Jerry Lynn, set up Searles for a devastating and potentially crippling "DDT" move that left him unconscious and prone on the studio floor, with Lynn and Wingate gloating and exchanging high fives over his body. That show, program insiders insist, had Minneapolis cable-access viewers buzzing for months.
"It couldn't have been more unfortunate timing," Searles says. "After a long holdout and a threatened move to Nashville we had just signed an extension with MTN and things were looking so good--the coffee was hot, the juice was cold--and now I can't foresee us ever working together again."
Despite legal wranglings, failed attempts at mediation, and even the intercession of the show's divine presence, Harmonia ("I'm the closest thing these guys are ever going to get to a guardian angel," she says), Wingate remains unrepentant. "These things happen in show business," he shrugs. "People don't understand, but it's nothing personal. Why should I drag somebody else along on my coattails and share half the wealth and glory when I can have it all to myself?"
Stay tuned, and for a complete rundown on all the characters, episodes, and late-breaking Prima-Donns news, check out their amazing interactive Web site at http://members.aol.com/primadonns.
"You could probably spend our entire yearly budget making a 30-second commercial," MTN Program Manager John Akre says. "But it continues to amaze me what people can do with no budget and almost no formal education." Akre's the guy who takes in tapes and finds a way to shoehorn them into MTN's schedule, and the mountain of tapes in his office along with the constant activity in the studios makes it clear that his is not an entirely enviable position.
"It's always a challenge," he says. "We're dealing with the full spectrum of viewpoints and ideas, and we're one of the few inroads into the media that many of these marginal or fringe groups have. We're airing stuff that commercial television simply couldn't do or wouldn't try, and so much of our programming demands a lot from its audience and from the community. As a viewer you have to be willing to really work to seek out the stuff that is worthy for you, and at the same time you're likely to be exposed to a lot of controversial ideas and lifestyles, or stuff that's just plain foreign to you. Some of our biggest producers are recent immigrants. I like to say that MTN is more like Lake Street than the Mall of America."
J.C. Bagdadi is MTN's production manager as well as its resident patron saint and enabler. He is a forceful and almost torrential conversationalist, and an exhaustive and tireless defender of the community-access ethos. Bagdadi came to the U.S. from Libya in 1970 to attend the University of Minnesota; after graduating with a degree in civil engineering he eventually ended up working as a news anchor for Libyan national TV. "It was interesting to suddenly be recognized on the street," Bagdadi says. "But it was also odd how interesting I became to the people in power. All of a sudden, for reasons unknown to me, I found myself under constant surveillance. Then one night the Revolutionary Guard came around, armed to the teeth, and seized my apartment and everything in it." In 1980 Bagdadi, who had by this time married a woman he had met in Minnesota, immigrated to the U.S.; in 1987 he discovered cable access.
"In Libya, a television station is a high-security place and the Colonel has total control," Bagdadi says. "That's why I was so immediately attracted to MTN. I've seen what can happen when freedom of expression is taken away. Here, everyone at least has a chance to feel like their voice is being heard." Today Bagdadi manages the booking and scheduling of MTN's two studios, as well as much of its youth-access training (MTN has a longstanding association with a number of local schools) and community outreach work, which involves documenting dozens of festivals, parades, and neighborhood events every year.
"It's a great experience," he says. "That's how I got to know Minneapolis. I'm really interested in the nuances within all the various communities. People pigeonhole a lot of these groups, but just like Scandinavians or anyone else, there are a lot of differences even among the smallest groups. That's what I love about my job. Even when you walk the hallways at MTN, the diversity you see is amazing--Somalis, Native Americans, drag queens, punk rockers, high school kids. You'll have a pro-life person working in one editing room, with a pro-choice person right next door. The diversity just happens peacefully and naturally.
"But the real challenge for us is to keep people from losing their enthusiasm because of technical difficulties. The ideas and creativity, that's the tough part--developing and sustaining those things that keep a program interesting. I tell these people, 'It's not how good of a driver you are that's important, it's where your car can take you.' And I watch MTN all the time, I really do. People here don't even realize that there is nothing like community access anywhere else in the world."
Dotty and Margo from Fargo, the drag-queen hosts of Get Off My Dress (Saturdays at 10 p.m. on Minneapolis Channel 33), are clearly teetering on the brink of access stardom. The program is still a relative newcomer at MTN, with six shows now in the can, and while the girls are working hard to get their production skills up to speed with their torrent of ideas, Get Off My Dress is already the most frequently mentioned "picked to click" program on local community access.
The show had its genesis four years ago when Dotty and Margo--who met in 1992 at a Miss 19 Queen contest--collaborated on a film project, Queens in Oz, which they shipped off to 150 gay bars around the country to a decidedly lukewarm response. "We worked so hard on that movie," Margo says, "and the most important thing we learned is that bad is actually good." In other words, they mastered one of the keystone tenets of access comedy: Let your technical limitations work in your favor.
The experience mainly served to whet their appetites for a wider audience. "Being a drag queen in a gay bar is fun," Dotty says, "but it's so much more fun doing it in a format where you get to fill out a character as opposed to just lip-synching to a song, especially when you have the opportunity to reach so many people who haven't been exposed to it."
Dotty got her cable-access start as a manager's groupie on a wrestling program, and eventually started her own show, a home improvement spoof called This Old Hag. "Basically the premise was 'I'm in drag and I dig holes,'" Dotty says. That show gradually evolved into Get Off My Dress, and the two are in agreement that the show serves an educational purpose. "If you know anything about drag queens," Dotty says, "then you know that they can be mean and bitchy, but we also want to show that they can be caring and productive members of society."
"There are so many different ways for people to feel strange and excluded," Margo adds, "and our mission is to welcome all that strangeness, to celebrate difference. That feeling of strangeness is maybe the one thing any of us truly has in common. We also really want to become a resource and a voice for our community. And of course we're desperately hoping for complaints."
Every episode of Get Off My Dress opens with a herky-jerky Japanese horror-movie homage in which Margo and Dotty, dressed to the nines and wobbling on high heels, skirmish with swords against a chromo-key skyline. After that, there is no such thing as a typical episode. On any given show Margo and Dotty might be out on the town, shopping for vintage clothing, stopping for coffee, visiting friends, or investigating a recent vandalism incident at A Brother's Touch bookstore.
"We have the actual stones that were found in the bookstore on the morning the windows were smashed," Dotty says as the camera zooms in on the rocks. "Wow!" Margo says. "Those are some ugly stones!" Recent studio segments have included drag-queen news and gossip, a juicing demonstration, a feature on condoms and lubes with Pete the Condom Man, and "Drag Queen Aerobics" with Dotty in a pink pleated miniskirt, halter top, and high heels, and Margo favoring an over-the-top early-Madonna look. "Feel the new beautiful you!" Margo exhorts the struggling Dotty. "Beautiful legs for beautiful girls!"
My own favorite regular segment is "Drag Queen 101," in which Margo and Dotty--"Your Drag Queen Professionals"--recently provided breast secrets. Suggestions included panty hose filled with birdseed ("Just be careful to keep them in a metal box as mice will eat them," Dotty advised. "I've lost six pairs of boobs that way!") and Nerf footballs. Or, Margo proposed, "You can just buy a huge bra at a department store and use a caulking gun to fill the cups with silicone, which you'll find in the building and home department of any hardware store."
Throughout every episode of Get Off My Dress you'll get catty comments (Margo: "You better get down, girl, I think I hear the pound truck coming." Dotty: "You pig!") and sound advice, delivered with an assortment of the girls' signature finger snaps, big wows, high fives, and blown kisses. "Every time you get all dressed up and ready to go out on the town," Margo advises, "look at yourself in the mirror and say, 'I am Diva. I love myself, I love my eyes, I love my smile, I love my look. I am Diva!'"
Already, Margo says, all the hard work is beginning to pay off. "We've had an old woman come up and tell us that she's seen our show," she says. "And the other day when we were out filming, a Mack truck blew its horn at us two or three times!"
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