ARLINGTON — Two hours before “The Steve Katsos Show” goes live from the ACMi community access studios here, the host has just finished hashing out the cold opening with his producers in “Steve’s Green Room,” a bathroom he co-opts on taping nights. Katsos, tall, thickly built, and quick with a smile, is still in his jeans and a white T-shirt, resting the ankle he twisted earlier in the day. There is already a buzz of activity in the control room and the studio.
Justin Brown, who will operate the handheld Steadicam for the night, pops in. Katsos tells him what he’ll be shooting and how he wants it to look, and tells him to make sure he gets some of the pizza waiting downstairs. Katsos already knows how he wants each shot to look and sound like for that night, and every few minutes, another of his crew of 40-plus volunteers and interns appears. Katsos greets them warmly and gives them detailed instructions.
Some of them are professionals from his day job as a broadcasting technician, but most are hobbyists, and Katsos wants them to succeed. “My barber is my bandleader,” he says. “My director used to be my florist. These people are all doing other jobs. They come here one night a week, and I don’t want to make it like, ‘OK, good luck with your camera shots, do whatever.’ I say, ‘This is what I’m looking for.’ ”
It is Groundhog Day, and the crew is shooting the first live show of its seventh season. Since March 2009, Katsos, 42, has been leading his merry band in this late-night-style talk show with a hometown feel and a professional look. You could say Katsos was made for this — he and a friend hosted a talk show for Arlington High School called “The Missing Tooth” that continued for a short time until he went to college. He developed “The Steve Katsos Show” as a grad student at Emerson College.
“If there can be late-night news, locally, and then national news, then there can be national entertainment, why can’t there be local entertainment?” he says. “That was my thesis at Emerson. So I developed ‘The Steve Katsos Show’ to be like the local entertainment for people, before they go to New York and LA, they can be on the show.”
Local talent is the focus of his show. On this night, the guests are author and WCVB sports anchor Bob Halloran, musician Vance Gilbert, comedian Christine Hurley, and performer Allix Mortis, all of whom ply their craft in Boston. Past guests have included Deval Patrick, Wendy Liebman, Jimmy Tingle, and Rex Trailer. In his weekly taped intro, Katsos explains, “It’s my dream to help creative people get their art out to the world.” To that end, the show is carried all around the country, including at several public access stations in New England, New York City, Los Angeles, Australia, and New Zealand.
The show was also broadcast around Europe from a station in London in its first four seasons, until the station asked for $2,000 a week for airtime. Katsos, who sells no ads and underwrites everything that’s not donated for the show, couldn’t afford it. “I mean, I’ve spent $20,000 in pizza over the first 200 episodes,” he says. “Now the studio is helping me a little bit with pizza costs.” Katsos estimates that night’s show would cost him almost $1,000, partly because he bought fleece hats with the “Katsos Show” logo on them for the whole crew. “But after today it won’t be as bad.”
Katsos, who commutes to the Arlington studio from his home in Hudson, N.H., wants the show to live and grow. He has slowed the production schedule, from doing 40 to 50 shows the first few seasons to what will probably be two seasons of 12 episodes this year. That was mainly because of Katsos working a full-time job and wanting to spend some time with his wife and young daughter. “This used to be me the whole year,” he says. “Now, I focus on that, it’s done, and I can go do other stuff at home.” And he aims high — he tried to get President Obama as a guest this season. When the White House declined, he told them he’d check back in a few months. Contrast that with another tagline from the taped introduction: presenting “a show that will one day be good.”
Katsos is habitually self-deprecating, which can sometimes be maddening to his crew. “We want him to be positive just once in his life, when he comes into this building and [goes], ‘You know what? I’m going to have a great day! I’m not fat, bald, and failing! I’ve lost a pound!’ and whatever,” says supervising producer/writer Mike Koutrobis.
“The ambition is there,” says Katsos, “but I’m also a realist. If I’m Jimmy Fallon, Obama comes, right?”
A half-hour before the show goes live, the crew does a quick run-through of the opening. It’s a little rough. A headset goes missing, and Katsos, now in a sharp blue suit, is back in the control room digging through boxes for it. Despite some adjustments, there are a couple of flubs during the live broadcast. There is miscommunication about when a guest is supposed to enter, and Katsos is caught on camera yelling directions. Director Tom Giannini’s headset keeps dying in the last few minutes of the show. Still, the guests are charming and Katsos, while trying to put out fires during breaks, is a warm presence.
At the post-show wrap-up, Katsos goes around the room and gets everyone’s feedback. They laugh about the things that went wrong, but discuss how to prevent mishaps next time. And the problem solving isn’t over. While everyone is packing up, Katsos implores the crew to take home the rest of the food downstairs so it doesn’t get left in the studio for someone else to deal with.
Back in his jeans and T-shirt to clean up the green room, Katsos is almost a little wistful about the night’s show. He and his crew didn’t have that mythical “good” show he had described in the opening, but Katsos laughs about losing his cool. “Everything’s good, we’re happy, we’ll try it again,” he says.