President’s Message: July 2022 – How Municipal Channels Helped Fight the Pandemic
by Bob Duthaler
Local municipal television channels have come a long way since their portrayal in Wayne’s World. Plastic potted plants and silly content have given way to serious programs that inform, educate, and entertain the citizens they serve. In addition to the importance of open government through meeting coverage, Public, Educational and Government (PEG) channels carry various general interest programing for everyone from kids to seniors, with subjects that range from high school sports to cooking shows.
Since many local newspapers have disappeared in recent years, PEG channels have become the main way local governments distribute information. This is particularly true in New Jersey because we sit between two major news markets. It’s often easier to find out what’s going on in downtown New York or Philadelphia then in your own hometown. However, the real value of municipal channels has never been more evident than during the recent health crisis. The Jersey Access Group (JAG), the professional organization that represents the interest of municipal and community channels throughout the state, is proud of how our members have responded to the pandemic over these last two years. Even though many town halls were closed, and station personnel were forced to work from home, PEG stations remained on air. Our members continued to offer important informational and entertaining programming to the citizens they serve with live meeting coverage, and real time updates of live COVID-19 press coverage both locally and statewide.
Early in the pandemic many town halls were closed, but the people’s business continued, and PEG stations were there to keep their residents informed by broadcasting virtual council and board meetings to maintain transparency in government. In addition, stations were called upon to provide important information about how to fight Covid-19. With community activities curtailed, many stations turned the time usually devoted to community bulletin board messages into a source of information on how to deal with the health crisis. These included public service messages about proper hand washing techniques, social distancing requirements and the need to wear masks to stop the spread of the disease. When testing locations were announced, PEG stations provided information as to where and how to access testing. When vaccinations and booster shoots became available, our member channels provided important information as to the location and availability of vaccines. These same municipal channels were also the only place viewers could go to watch Governor Murphy’s daily press briefings in their entirety, both live and re-broadcast at various times on our stations. These briefings provided important information about the fight against Covid 19 across the state.
While it’s not surprising to find municipal stations carrying meetings, public service announcements, and the governor’s press conferences, there were many other ways PEG Channel helped the citizens in their communities. In the early days of the pandemic, with schools closed, and kids stuck at home, many stations created specialized programing to help parents entertain their kids while they worked from home. Programs consisting of mayors reading books to kids, drawing and painting shows, and science-based programming filled time slots on many stations across the state to not only keep kids entertained but teach them as well.
Music also helps children feel a sense of normalcy, and several stations created shows for kids with sing-along songs that both educated and entertained. These programs were not limited to just kids. The senior population, who was most vulnerable during the pandemic, needed to be reached as well. Stations created and aired senior exercise programs, Zumba Gold, Yoga, and other shows designed specifically for the senior population to help reduce the stress felt by many being trapped indoors during the pandemic. These same programs were shared with other stations around the state using the JAG sponsored cloud-based server, allowing smaller stations, who might not have the manpower to create such shows, to air them to their viewing audience.
The health crisis also affected the ability of people to attend religious services. While many municipal stations don’t normally carry religious programming, because of the pandemic, special arrangements were made with local churches, synagogues, and mosques to carry services to worshipers who were not allowed to attend them in person. To many, the broadcast of their weekly worship services became a great comfort, especially to the senior population who found it easier to locate these on their local cable channel then try and navigate the internet.
As things began to ease and the Governor allowed sports to continue, attendance was restricted. In response, many of our PEG Stations increased their coverage of both high school and recreational sports so friends and family could watch their teams compete even though they couldn’t attend the games in person. Stations also became more creative and started airing these live on television and streaming them across social media platforms so they could be viewed by an even larger audience.
In a time that was decidedly not normal, JAG member stations provided programming to give their citizens a small sense of normalcy. Since parades and large social gatherings were not allowed during the pandemic, PEG stations throughout the state carried messages from mayors to commemorate Memorial Day, Independence Day and 9/11 Remembrance Day. Many PEG stations also covered virtual graduations to give families a chance to celebrate their high school graduates when traditional celebrations were not allowed because of the pandemic. These included messages created by the stations from graduates to their peers, words of encouragement from teachers and administrators, and even traditional valedictory messages. In many towns, the stations also covered the socially distant awarding of diplomas live.
While we all have grown accustomed to living in a pandemic, in the beginning there were many technical challenges to overcome. Our stations had to learn how to go live from any location, broadcast a Zoom meeting live on air and share programming across multiple social media platforms. Many townships who used tools like Zoom to allow their citizens to participate in government meetings, are now continuing these methods by televising hybrid meetings that integrate internet contributors with in-person meetings.
This allows those who are still not comfortable with large gatherings to continue to participate as live meetings resume. During the pandemic, many residents got used to this new way to participate in government meetings, and they want it to continue, finding it easier to watch these meetings on television from home, and either calling in or interacting via the web. JAG, with the support of many industry professionals and vendors, have helped their members do just that.
Throughout these last two years, JAG continued to hold our monthly meetings (virtually), ran webinars, station managers round table discussions and virtual networking events. These were all geared to promote the sharing of information to keep our member stations updated, educated, trained. JAG continues that mission to date. Together our member stations provide localized information that the people of New Jersey have grown to depend on. We at the Jersey Access Group would like to thank all the mayors and administrators who continue to support our efforts year after year. We will continue to work hard to deserve that support. To learn more about the Jersey Access Group, please visit our website at www.jagonline.org or reach out to me directly at email@example.com