Spotlight Woodbridge: Building and Managing a Municipal Access Cable Station
By Lee Beckerman, Station Manager, Woodbridge Channels
In the mid-1980s, Woodbridge Township was contemplating starting a cable TV channel of its own. They had secured a channel on Suburban, set up a governing board and had purchased a random assortment of equipment. And then…nothing happened. At some point they decided it was time to bring on a person to manage the station and move the project forward. I was fresh out of college with a degree in video production. Doing freelance and having a hard time finding fulltime work in my field, I jumped at the opportunity. It was not my dream job, but I thought it might be an adequate place holder to build my resume, and, lacking other options, I took it. I was eventually shown to a packed projection room/closet, told it was my new office and to have at it. No further instructions were forthcoming. No one had apparently thought past the idea of having a TV station and considered what to do with it. I rightly deduced that the first part of starting a community television station involved getting all the crap out of your new office and finding a desk.
One major advantage was that no one (including me) knew what a municipal cable station was supposed to be. There was a vague feeling that it might be a good addition to a forward-thinking town and should probably include some programs. The rest was up to me. I was trained in video production but I did not know any more than they did about what a municipal TV station should be. I set out to find the answer. What follows are some insights gained along the way.
You can’t do everything by yourself. With no knowledge of what to do with my channel, I reached out to the two thriving community stations in the area, Piscataway’s PCTC and East Brunswick’s EBTV. Debbe Gist and Cindy O’Connor helped immensely in getting the station up and running and gave me ideas I could build on. They also connected me with the Alliance for Community Media. The Township allowed me to attend their conference in Tampa, Florida. All this gave me a starting point.
It was Debbe who first brought the idea of creating JAG to all of us, probably because she was one of the people all the other stations turned to for ideas. Cindy became our first President and so began one of the most valuable resources for running a local access television station. Woodbridge Television could not have come as far without JAG’s support.
Access cable audiences are small. If we’re lucky, we get a few hundred to a few thousand viewers for a big event and often less than that. But the numbers are cumulative. The people who are watching the council meeting are not the same people watching your local sports; who are not the same people watching your concert coverage and your parades and business openings and school recitals etc… When added up, you can reach a large, diverse section of your population. For our mayor, announcing local sports is a passion, but for hundreds of kids in our town, and their parents, they know the name of the mayor because he is the local sports announcer.
As a side note, it is the talent that usually gets the direct feedback. The politicians and show hosts certainly knew before we did that we were building an audience. When we started, without access to metrics, this turned out to be a very important point.
In the beginning we had a cable TV channel, and all was good with the world. We put our programs out there and over time, word started leaking out to the powers-that-be that people were watching. (Hey, I saw you on the channel last night and you’re nuts). There were no metrics or any way to measure or define an audience. In came Princeton Server Group (now TelVue) whose file-based server systems completely revolutionized how we worked. Their streaming video service offered us a video-on-demand platform that let us push our shows out in a different way. (An interesting side note. JAG got involved with the Princeton Server group because Steve George’s son played soccer with my son in middle school and we got to talking on the sideline, which led to a tour and a meeting with the president, Jesse Lerman.)
After a while we began to use their metrics, and for the first time, to see the numbers. We next added YouTube and because of the popularity of the platform, once people realized we were there, they started looking for us instead of us seeking them out.
I’m at the tail end of the boomer generation. I’m not going to be the guy to lead the charge on alternate social media platforms. But I know a good thing when I see one. The town had started using Facebook to shout out to residents, so we set up our own page to push out our content. Younger staff began sending out tweets and doing Instagram posts as we set up and shot programs to tease the content. We also started getting conversations going on social media during events like games and concerts, including announcers interacting with fans in real time, creating buzz.
Community Television is about…community. Getting to know your community and establishing relationships gains you access. Early on I created a relationship with our local arts center. We began by covering a few of their concerts, but as they came to know and trust us as professionals, that blossomed into several joint grants for documentaries which won many awards and ended up, along with several of our concerts, being featured on Metro-Arts in NYC to audiences of millions. That gets the name of your town out there!
When I first tried covering high school sports it was a bit of a disaster. What I failed to do was get buy-in from the athletic directors and the school administrations. (We have three high schools). It took a long time to build that trust, but it was essential to successfully covering local sports.
Relationships with municipal departments and local non-profits are also important. We’ve put out content for our police department, libraries, youth theater, historical society, and senior services to name a few. But having strong ties with public works and parks and rec is equally critical. I had a day where we were shooting our exercise show in a park. I scouted a perfect location with the Outerbridge Crossing in the background. On shoot day we arrived to set up and someone had parked a giant dumpster in the middle of my shot! However, because I had built relationships within the town, I had phone numbers of people who knew who I was and I had a truck pull out the dumpster within a half an hour.
Programming quality is essential. If an audience can’t see and hear a program, you have wasted your, and your viewers’ time. Among the first complex programs I started doing were art center concerts. I insisted that they hire a professional audio engineer. I knew I could deliver the video but if the sound wasn’t great, what was the point? Eventually they added an audio engineer to all their concert grants. Video quality is likewise important. Your audience may not know how to create great programming, but they have watched a lot of it, and they understand what it’s supposed to look like. They might forgive quality issues for something they are crazy into, but unless you have a marketing genius on board you cannot build an audience that way.
The look of your shows matter. We try to get very creative with sets and looks on a very limited budget. I designed my own sets, and we were able to find someone in the Parks Department who could build them. With my set design I strove to create sets that shared production elements, maximizing utility and minimizing space constraints. When we were doing Seniorsize, I looked at the township roller rink and realized they already had a great lighting system and I just had to add key lights to make a dynamic show with less set-up time. We also did a season at the Woodbridge Mall (another great partnership) that gave us a cool and dynamic background with minimal additional effort (at least as far as the look was concerned.)
Recently, we are doing more things with green screen. This offers huge flexibility and is great for many applications. The sets, however, especially for multicamera shoots, do have a very digital look especially at our price point. I’m sure there will be new innovations going forward.
You need to hire good people! OK, obvious. Finding good people is hard with our budget limitations, especially in a tight labor market. But people choose jobs for different reasons. I did not intend to stay in my job for more than a few years, but I found I liked the relative freedom, the ability to be creative and I liked building something. In addition to our regular fare of sports and concerts we have made narrative films, documentaries, short comedies with special effects and big location shoots. My staff gets some leeway to create and produce shows on their own for the station. Turned out it was a good gig. I think these are good selling points. I should mention that two out of three of my most recent hires came from JAG stations/ recommendations. When I look at new people, I always hire them as freelancers first so I can get a sense of their work ethic and how they gel with the crew.
Getting creative with staff is also essential to any small operation. Many of the events we cover are at night or on weekends so in order to have staff available we have two members who work 4 days on/4 days off from late morning into the evening. The days are 10-hours so they are available to cover evenings and weekends. We take advantage of interns to help cover larger events and, of course, freelancers for the biggest productions. This is something we had to build up to and we started with volunteers like everyone.
Bosses and Politicians
I had some early run-ins with bosses and politicians. Much of this had to do with my misunderstanding of our relationship. When I was working from the model of public access, I would often fight battles about public access issues. The truth, however, is I work for them in the municipal access model. There are exceptions.
Open meetings rules mean I never edit any public meetings and I have never been asked to or have we in 35 years. We do not allow talk about elections or candidates during election season (outside of debate coverage), and do not endorse any candidates, at any time, on the channel. That aside, the channel has a mandate to be the video face of our town and government, including its leaders, along with highlighting our events civic organizations, nonprofits, schools, citizens and everything our township has to offer.
As a municipal department I started to notice different departments have different reputations. This stood out for me when the deputy police chief kept bringing guests by to see the station. I asked him why this was and he said, “I love coming in here because everyone’s always working, all the time.” I liked that. I try to make it a point for people to understand we take the work seriously and are willing to work hard to make it as good as we can. They don’t always understand what we’re doing but if they show up at an event and see our cameras everywhere and everyone humming like a well-oiled machine, it makes an impression. We also do not stand on our laurels but always try to innovate in small ways and push things forward. I find it is easier to ask for things if people believe you are working hard and believe you will put what you ask for to good use. The motto I’ve adopted is to under promise and over deliver.
It is essential that you keep current with equipment to the best extent possible. Early on I communicated to my town that I was not trying to build CBS -that the equipment I was buying was appropriate for the application. But I also tried to get the best quality equipment that met our needs. I got push back when we became an early AVID adopter, or when we decided we needed to build a mobile production unit, but I was able to give them detailed and expansive reasons why I wanted them and what I was planning to do with them and how they would benefit the town. When they got tired of listening, they let me have what I need if I would just go away. Well not really. I had some protracted arguments about some of this, but I did have my facts. As I stated before, your audience watches video, they know what to expect and if you are not delivering it, they have another reason to turn away. This was obviously why we fought so hard for an HD channel. When the show looks bad, they assume it’s you and you have given them an excuse not to watch.
It’s important to have the people you partner with on shows, guests, talent, performers etc, help push out the content on their own social media accounts. This is something I wish we did more in my time and something I think the new staff will be thinking about. If you do a show with a local organization or business, make sure they get a link and put it on their website, which leads back to your social media which brings in people who may not have been aware of you. We also share our shows and posts to the mayor’s social media which has a much larger footprint than ours.
Easy to forget sometimes but we should be the voice of our town. I always felt it was my mandate to emphasize the Township of Woodbridge as much as possible. We take in very few outside shows, mostly things from Middlesex County government and a few other exceptions, but I always try to keep a Woodbridge twist on everything. With the demise of our bulletin board Channel (We had to give it back in exchange for our HD channel) we started to make all the bulletin board notices into PSAs with voice-overs and motion and graphics to replace the old Ad Council PSA’s. Once again, if you turn on Woodbridge TV you should instantly get a dose of Woodbridge, which is what I consider the essence of Municipal Access Television.
I got lucky in many ways. First, Woodbridge is a large community with a population of over 100,000. I had a few years in the beginning with little scrutiny, in which to build a foundation. When Mayor Joseph DeMarino went on trial for corruption (he was acquitted) we were able to provide the first gavel-to-gavel coverage of a trial in New Jersey. The whole township tuned in, with watch parties at many bars. This raised public awareness of the station and government officials became aware of the potential of the medium.
When new officials were elected, we were already a going concern and the new Mayor, Jim McGreevey, was anxious to use and build on it. The station continued to grow under Mayor Pelzman. But Woodbridge Township Television really blossomed under Mayor McCormac and this current administration who have supported and encouraged us in so many ways. My staff, new station manager Gina Forbes, assistant manager, Joe Fernandes, Emil Brandafi, Samantha Roth, Erin Zirpolo, new producer Valentino Lamotta and Bruno Martins from the Woodbridge Township School District as well as my longtime boss, John Hagerty, have all helped build and support the station. All the great people at JAG including Bob Duthaler and Rich Desimone have had a great impact. I understand my experience may not be your experience and we all have different models and mandates. What we have at The Woodbridge Channels was built very slowly over a long period of time, starting with one person in a basement closet thinking big.