Spotlight: Newark – Understanding Your Town: Identifying the Opportunities

By Ed Cologna, Newark TV, Station Manager

New York City has a step-brother, and it’s called Newark. The locals call it “Nork.”  Newark is New Jersey’s largest city by population, known for its vibrant arts scene and one of America’s oldest. It was founded in 1666 by Connecticut Puritans and led by Robert Treat.

Newark was known for being the theater capital of the USA long before Broadway, NYC.  It was the home to Thomas Edison’s Invention Factory (now a parking lot, which speaks volumes about American culture or its lack thereof). It boasts a park similar to Central Park by the same designer, gave us the first pressed record factory, and served as the former home and sometimes birthplace to celebrities like Sarah Vaughan, the Ballantine’s, Shaquille O’Neal, Michael B. Jordan, Queen Latifah, Whitney Houston, Joe Pesci, Jerry Lewis, Amiri Baraka, Paul Simon, and the birthplace of yours truly.

Newark TV is located in the same building as historic Symphony Hall.

Symphony Hall

Newark and its Broadcasting History

One detail to mention is that this building is important to the history of American Television.  At some point in the early 1960s, WNJU-TV signed on from Newark as the New York City market’s first commercial UHF station, channel 47.  It carried a format of ethnic programming.  Pete Seeger hosted an early folk music program called “Rainbow Quest,” and a live teenage dance show aired from WNJU called “Disc-O-Teen.”  The station also created some controversy early on by airing bullfights.

My First Visit to Newark TV

My first brush with this location came before I was born when my mother, Nella Zadra, a talented painter and muralist, was pregnant with me.  She designed the set for an opera, “Francesca Di Rimini,” which premiered on the main stage of Symphony Hall in 1966.

Fate would have it that many years later, I would find myself working there.  On a stormy winter blizzard morning in 2014, due to personnel issues, Newark’s PEG TV Station was unable to post emergency announcements about the snowstorm.  I had no political connections to Newark, only a reputation for helping JAG stations such as Edison and Roselle TV.  I drove through the snow to Symphony Hall in Newark, where the station exists, and did what I could to get announcements running.  Upon examining the broadcast schedule, I noticed that the programming was minimal: a weekly news magazine about the city with excerpts of events, a few street dedications, and council meetings.  It was unimpressive for a city of this stature.  If you can imagine, Newark TV was still recording and broadcasting programming in a 4×3 aspect ratio.

In 2007, the city of Newark invested a lot of funds in building a beautiful TV Studio.  Light grid with DeSisti components, two acoustically treated edit rooms, a large conference room, green room and a large office for the station manager that would impress visitors.  At a first glance, this looked like PEG heaven: until you realized there was not a staging area for equipment, lights and only two tall storage cabinets in a machine room.  Newark TV was designed by someone who didn’t know anything about the day-to-day operation of a PEG Station.  It looked pretty, but it wasn’t practical.  There was no makeup room, the kitchen had no stove, the green room was tiny, etc.  And last but not least, the city spent $850,000 that year on video equipment for the studio.  All of it Standard Definition, without a plan for upgrades.  For those who do not know, HD had already been in ubiquitous use by that year.  I compare that to buying a horse and buggy when you can get a car.

Seven years later, although it was a temporary solution, I embraced the challenge to improve the operation almost overnight.  To me, it was a canvas, and my cameras were my brushes.  I didn’t ask for permission regarding what I could or couldn’t do.  I brought my own cameras and editing computers, plus invested in more of them out of pocket.  I started asking around what events were taking place throughout the city and if I could show up and record them; I did.  At the time, Mayor Quintana was the first Latino Mayor of Newark, and he was too preoccupied with running this behemoth of a city with thousands of employees to worry about what was happening at the TV station.  But the administration soon took notice.

Most field events prior to me were recorded and edited with a single camera and were not posted on social media. Soon, I increased to three-camera productions in 16×9 HD, posting the HD files on social media and then broadcasting the 16×9 content squeezed to a 4×3 form factor for Cablevisión (now Altice) and FiOs.

In a matter of days, I reduced bulletin board time from 20 hours a day to almost zero.  Instead of bulletin board static slides, I created video PSA’s.  I went from 4 hours of programming a day to 24/7 original content.  At first, I repeated programming in blocks, similar to how the Discovery Channel did in the 1990s.  As I increased the original programming with events, so did the requests to cover more and more events from all city departments.  I could no longer be a one-man band if I wanted the operation to be sustainable.  At the time, I raced between Edison TV as a full-time job with flexible hours (always to my monetary detriment) and this new project.  This stint at Newark TV was temporary.  After six months, the personnel issues were resolved, and the person in charge prior to me got their job back.  I thought my time with Newark TV was done. It wasn’t.

Newark TV, a Second Chance

Soon after Mayor Ras Baraka was elected, his press office called me in to take the helm once again.  To my disappointment, all the changes I implemented the year before were undone.  Little to no programming was on the air, everything went back to 4×3, and the bulletin board returned.  This was in March of 2015.  Now, more secure in this position, I hit the ground running and hired an editor, Armin, to help keep up with the pace of post-production.  For a while, this seemed to work.  Then I added a still photographer turned videographer who could also help coordinate.  As he learned the craft, Gary Campbell became my right-hand man.  At Newark TV, we work to provide all kinds of productions and support to every department of the city.  From the Administration that produces the State of the City at NJPAC, to interesting events such as parades and music festivals and even special coverage for events like the 24 Hours of Peace.  Newark keeps us busy.

Newark in the National Headlines and the Lead Crisis

In 2014 Flint, Michigan was in the eyes of the media because of a horrendous water crisis caused by mismanagement of their water supply.  This caused illness and retardation in many people, with the depths still unfolding.  In 2017, the National Media focused on Newark because the EPA had detected high levels of lead in a few of its schools.  Mayor Baraka took this challenge head-on.  While the media, even liberal outlets like Democracy Now, were reporting this bad situation and pointing fingers at Mayor Baraka, it was Newark TV that was there showing what the city was doing to address the problem: how to get home water tested for lead, where residents could pick up lead-removing water filters and free bottled water, and reported on the constant progress of replacing the lead service line to all the homes in the city.  A monumental task that was done effectively and economically by a Mayor that was told it was impossible to do.  The goal of some entities was to take over and privatize Newark’s water.  Not under this Mayor’s watch.

Newark TV and the Covid-19 Pandemic

No sooner was this situation almost fully solved that the Covid-19 pandemic began.  Mayor Baraka began broadcasting on Newark TV daily updates during the lockdown.  My team and I were there to report about rapid and PCR testing, how residents without addresses were being cared for, and all the reporting of daily contagions and deaths from what was an unknown situation that evolved daily.

When the pandemic was over, in addition to the ongoing bi-weekly COVID updates we resumed coverage of the fun events such as the MTV VMA’s Red Carpet at the Prudential Center, public forums, consent decrees, art events at the Newark Museum and Library, ribbon cuttings and press conferences.

Newark has had a separate vendor to cover their Council Meetings, but that doesn’t mean we don’t help each other whenever needed.  The Tidwell’s, as I know them or ITM Gospel, which is their company, have been serving Newark’s City Council long before I even knew of Newark TV’s existence, and they are an institution more than a production company.  Working together, we have more strength.  Teamwork makes the dream work.

Mayor Baraka proved his mettle during the pandemic.  My team and I decided to think of ways to provide more services to other towns.  So we came up with the GovTV platform, and in New Jersey, it is called NJGOVTV.  At this year’s NJLM trade show, my team and I will have a booth and talk about this.

My Team at Newark TV and Other TV Stations

At Newark TV, we have four full-timers, and we pull from Cologna Productions, many part-timers that help in every capacity because we serve Newark and other TV stations throughout New Jersey.  We aim to grow bigger.  An author and artist in his own right, Gary Campbell now keeps the madness in check, and we work together to make sure every request within reason is fulfilled.  (Check out “The Artist Recreates the World” if you can.  That’s his pet project.)  Directing Editor Charles Baraff is beyond an editor.  He has a vision for when productions take place and has wise advice to allow for creative turnarounds.  Amira Richardson is a field producer who can host like the best in a pinch and helps in every aspect of the operation.  On the part-time side, I have some superstars from the corporate and broadcast world, such as Thomas Terreri, former President of Prudential Productions, who substitutes in my place occasionally; Ting Yin, who graduated with a Master’s degree in Digital Media from Northeastern University in Boston, has been helping the operation since 2016; Lauren Downs comes from SVA and has been with me for over 10 years; Julia D. is an Art Director and an artist who graduated from FIT; Zhenzhen Luo is a Rutgers Master’s Graduate and fills in the gaps at various productions, and I could go on.  For a while, we had other talents helping, such as field producer Chris Rog, Armin, Juwaan, and last but not least, Doug Seidel, who now works at PCTC.  I leave other station managers reading this article with this thought.  There is a saying that goes, “Your business is only as strong as your weakest link.”  True, but to that, I add we are human, and we all have weak moments.  What matters is that in those times of weakness, the person next to you pulls you up and keeps the operation going.  Pick passionate people, not people who are only in this as a job or are going through the motions.  They have to love what they do. Lead, follow, or get out of the way.

Eddy Edward Cologna is a very early member of the JAG family, and a strong advocate for community media.