Public access TV usually conjures images of Wayne's World-style programming, featuring teen-agers discussing hot babes and heavy metal music from their basements.

But with new technology and innovative shows, public access' popularity today is on the rise. From political debates to holistic medicine to boxing, the cornucopia of shows has eclipsed the previous crop of bad comedy and late-night psychics.

"There's no question that as the years go by the look of public access shows has improved," said Adam Buckman, TV columnist for the New York Post. "In recent years those that run the channels have been steadily improving the programs."

Karyn Thomas, access manager for Community Television in Raleigh, N.C., said public access offers a unique service that the networks can't provide. "It allows citizens to exercise free speech, to debate and discuss issues important to the community via television."

Some people even find commercial success, she pointed out. Comedian Tom Green and entertainer RuPaul both got their start strutting their stuff on their local public channels.

Current hot talent, Larry Pickett is an example of how public access can help someone with a dream by providing TV skills and on-air opportunities, said Thomas.

The Larry Pickett Show features hip-hop, R&B and gospel performances, along with interviews and live call-ins from viewers. The exposure from his show helped Pickett land a gig hosting a weekly entertainment program on the local NBC affiliate.

Another thriving public access scene is in Boston. The city's Neighborhood Network has won several awards for excellence and, like many other studios, is moving from analog to digital technology.

"It's a whole different ball game now, with what we are capable of doing and the quality we can achieve," Curtis Henderson Jr., the studio's general manager, said.

And their content is keeping up with changing times as well. For a culture increasingly interested in alternative medicine, Healing the Whole teaches viewers about Reiki, homeopathy, shiatsu, and yoga.

Atlanta's People TV is also keeping things fresh. A two-hour block of youth programming, targeted at and produced by 12- to 25-year-olds, is in the works with plans to expand it to an all-youth channel.

And the newly developed Inspiration Without Limits is a series inspired by events around Sept. 11. Centered on exceptional people and encouraging stories, the goal is to inspire viewers to pursue their dreams by watching others who've made a difference.

People TV's general manager, Alison Fussell worked for Turner Broadcasting for 17 years, but said she's invigorated by her move to public TV.

"I have seen many changes and it's exciting. People are more savvy about TV and the equipment has greatly improved," she said.

Wayne would surely say "No way!" if he saw People TV's facilities.

"We have over $1 million worth of equipment, including two studios with three cameras each and professional sets," Fussell said. "People are surprised when they visit. They don't expect it to be this big or advanced."

The Post's Buckman attributes much of public access' success to the technology. "The equipment is easier to handle and more portable. Reporters can go out on the street more, and lay people can edit shows better than they were in the past."

Although equipment improvements have helped give new life to public access, Fussell cites community interaction and coverage as the medium's real coup.

Free from commercial pressures, public channels can cover niche topics in ways networks can't. An hour of Philippine politics is not fiscally viable for CBS or NBC, but public access can spare time slots to dedicate to such shows. 

Chicago Access Network TV carries Haitian programs in French, Creole and English including shows like Unity in Diversity: C'est La Vie and Haiti Jeunesse. Boston Neighborhood Network has programs representing over 14 languages. And Pura Vida! In Atlanta is a popular bilingual program on People TV, covering the Latino community.

"Sometimes people think of public access as just risqué shows," said Fussell. "But when they watch it they realize there are a lot of people covering important issues in their own community that aren't going to be covered anywhere else."