Member Spotlight: The New Post-Pandemic Normal Or You Want Us to Do What??

by Cindy Hahn, Executive Director, C-NET

Cindy Hahn

Here’s my big confession: I do not like technology.  I don’t trust it, I don’t enjoy it, and I generally believe that things work better without it.  But I am running a PEG organization… I naturally deal with it.

Things were going just swimmingly at C-NET prior to March of 2020. Our tiny staff and crew of Penn State interns were traveling around the County with cameras, microphones and an array of other equipment to cover the meetings of sixteen different entities — Seven municipalities, two school districts, the County government, a regional Council of Governments, three regional Authorities, the local Library and Penn State.  We produced over 500 programs in 2019.

Then, of course, everything changed.  And for many months, it was a matter of producing the best programs we could utilizing Zoom.  “Can you hear me now?”, “Please mute yourself” and “Your cat is in the way” became the phrases of our life.

Wide shot of a State College Borough Council meeting.  The Mondopod is set up at the far end of the Council dais so that Council members can see virtual participants.  Audio is provided to C-NET and amplified through the Borough’s installed audio system

And now, everything has changed again.  Elected officials and members of the public have decided that they like attending meetings on their couch in their pajamas, and so what now?  The dreaded HYBRID meetings. For the last three months or so, C-NET has been tasked with helping various government and regional organizations figure out how to allow elected officials, board representatives and the public to participate in meetings both physically in a meeting room and virtually.

Shot of the Mondopad at a State College Borough Council meeting.  The bottom right view on the mondopad is the view of the meeting room provided to virtual

This means, of course, that everyone must be able to see and hear each other AND C-NET needs to obtain audio and video from both the room and the virtual platform.  This would be a reasonable challenge if all sixteen meeting rooms had the same audio systems, etc., but they do not.  Some of the rooms in which we work include installed mounted cameras and audio systems with reliable wireless internet.  Other meeting rooms have no installed technology at all.

The result has been a myriad of different solutions.  For meetings in the State College Borough Council Chambers, we are live switching between a Zoom feed and the mounted cameras in the room.  The in-person participants are seeing the Zoom feed on the mondopad and hearing the audio through the Borough’s audio system.

A ”Meeting Owl” sits on a small table with a laptop at the Halfmoon Township Board of Supervisors meeting. The Own provides a microphone and 360 degree camera for remote participants.

We are using a Meeting Owl in several of the meeting rooms in which we work.  This relatively inexpensive (less than $1,000) device uses a 360 degree camera and microphone to provide a view of the room and audio to and from the people in the meeting room and the Zoom participants.  The Owl works particularly well in smaller meeting rooms.

Shot of the Zoom feed at the Halfmoon Township Board of Supervisors meeting using an Owl.  The top view is the view from the 360 degree camera of the Owl.

A third configuration includes a lap-top camera and a high-quality exterior microphone to provide video and audio to Zoom participants, while the Zoom video is projected onto a screen in the room.  In this case, C-NET live switches between the Zoom feed and our single camera.  This has proved to be the most problematic of the various solutions.

A laptop and microphone placed on a small table in from of the Board table.  The laptop feed is projected onto a screen in the room.  The room’s installed audio system provides audio to the in-person participants.  The exterior microphone provides audio to the virtual participants.

Another interesting outcome of the pandemic is that the public’s tolerance for a single camera panning between speakers is lessening.  Virtual meeting platforms allow the speaker to be instantly highlighted on the screen, and we are finding that the public expects this to be the case with in-person production as well.  To assist with this challenge, C-NET has recently purchased a Rushworks VDESK Compact PTZ Production and Streaming System as an affordable way to turn more meetings into multi-camera productions.  More switching…..less panning.

I want to give a shout-out at this point for the annual JAG Eastern Video Expo.  It was, of course, unfortunate that the Expo was cancelled in 2020 and had to be virtual in 2021, but the challenges brought about by the pandemic are precisely why this type of collaborative group conference is so valuable.  For the most part, PEG stations have small staffs and modest budgets, and reinventing the wheel takes time and money.  Talking to others who are facing the same challenges and issues helps everyone.  We network, we learn, and we form relationships that will help us down the road.  I’m very much looking forward to the next Expo!

C-NET is fortunate to have the financial support of the sixteen organizations that we serve.  And we are committed to finding and designing solutions to meet the changing needs of their staffs and the public.  Hybrid meetings and changes in the public’s expectations are here to stay. So while I don’t like technology, I am fortunate that the rest of the wonderful C-NET staff is talented, creative and willing to go the extra mile for our community.

C-Net Logo

C-NET is Centre County’s Government and Education Access Television Network.  C-NET administers two channels, CGTV (channel 7) and CETV (channel 98) on the Comcast and Windstream Cable Systems.  All of C-NET’s locally produced programming is available to view on-line, on-demand at  C-NET’s programming ranges from public meetings to high school sports, concerts, and local festivals.  A C-NET member agency must sponsor each program that airs on the channels.  There are currently 16 members: Bellefonte Area School District, Bellefonte Borough, Centre County Government, Centre Region Council of Governments, the Centre Region Parks and Recreation Authority, College Township, Ferguson Township, Halfmoon Township, Harris Township, Patton Township, Penn State University, Schlow Centre Region Library, State College Area School District, State College Borough, the State College Borough Water Authority, and the University Area Joint Authority.