Weaving the Threads of Community: My Journey with PEG Media

by Ed Cologna, Station Manager, Newark, Roselle, Fanwood, and Hillside TV

PEG Media Changed My Life

A long time ago, in 1990, I lived as a young man in my twenties who didn’t know what to do career-wise. I wasn’t affluent, drove a really beat-up car, lived in my mom’s basement, and fixed electronic equipment on the side. I had the potential of youth, although like many twenty-somethings, I didn’t even realize that until later. I applied for the FBI as a communication specialist but didn’t take the job once it was offered. It wasn’t for me. I wanted to help build the future of America’s energy and was hoping to work on the superconducting supercollider project in Texas, which promised to be the basis of fusion reaction technology.

In 1991, as a favor to the Mayor of Edison, Sam Convery, I recorded a segment for a PEG TV Show, using archaic video equipment. The show was produced by a young David Garb, who worked for TKR Cable Company. It was a short segment that told the story of a local artist that did artwork using soda cans. Not the type of segment that any of the mainstream channels would bother with. But at the time, PEG and Public Access stations were the true social media in town. David Garb was very kind to me and said, “You’re pretty good at this, why don’t you make this your career?” In an almost Forrest Gump kind of way, I gave it some thought and said, “Okay.” I started to find a direction and opportunities in life that I never imagined. It was people like his co-worker, Doug Gist, his wife Debbie Gist of PCTC, together with Peter and Leo, then Sandy and Cindy of East Brunswick, Lee Beckerman of Woodbridge, and many others about which I could write many other stories. And volunteers like Herb Sudzin, Carl Sylvester, George RED Ellis, Eric and Chris Rasmussen, Mirjana Pekovic, Stephanie Gibbons, and last but certainly not least, Richard Desimone.

The people mentioned and many more helped me, and we helped each other.

We shared equipment and resources and even worked for free, spending our own money without thought of reward to cover parades and create shows. Radio Shack, Tops Appliances, and Comp USA were where my money went because the towns weren’t eager to spend any money. Plus, when we needed something, such as a device, video tape, a connector, 100 feet of Video cable… we needed it at the moment and not weeks later after three quotes and the lowest bidder was provided. The towns loved the coverage but didn’t want to pay or understand what was required. Funny how situations haven’t changed over time. Nil novum in Latin.

PEG and Public Access shows were no-budget magical moments that told the stories local people truly cared about from Council Meetings to local festivals and ribbon-cuttings. There was no social media as we know it today — there was no YouTube with technology such as cell phones that could record video and audio. We did this with videotape and the wiring required to put the TV shows together, which looked like experiments in the basement of a mad scientist. To edit a council meeting sometimes would cost over $1,000 at a company called Video Corporation of America in Somerset, NJ. I learned editing by watching other editors. Spending that kind of money convinced the Edison government to eventually invest in their own video equipment. In 1993, I started doing videos for Edison’s Fire Department.  I was loaned a fire suit and a red helmet to distinguish me from the other training firefighters so I could go into the training buildings of the Middlesex County Fire Academy. I also did videos for the Edison Police Department such as SWAT ERT training, council meetings, parades, and events of all types.

In early 1994, George Spadoro became Mayor of Edison.  Hewas supportive of the operation, and started funding it more. During his first month in office, newly elected President Clinton visited Edison.

In March of 1994, after a long day that ended recording a council meeting at almost 11:00 p.m., I started driving away from the Edison municipal building in my 1966 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, and in the rearview mirror, I noticed the sky turned orange. It took me a while to realize it was a giant fire not far away. I drove back to the building, got a Panasonic AG-455 super VHS camcorder, and drove to the site. This was later known as the Durham Woods explosion, which was caused by the rupture of the Texas Eastern Pipeline. Because of my fire suit and minor training, I was the only professional camera person allowed to enter and record the catastrophe. I provided the footage free of charge to the networks. I was offered money for the footage, but my response was, “I can’t profit from a tragedy.” My friend who owned a recording studio, Tony Bongiovi, half-jokingly called me an idiot for that, yet he soon got me to do some work on Late Night with David Letterman (The number one late-night talk show at the time) as well as do forensic work on the OJ Simpson trial for famous attorney F Lee Bailey. Tony owned Power Station Recording Studios, funded Jon Bon Jovi’s career, and produced many other artists. He became my mentor. I started doing freelance work, getting paid really good money during the day as an editor for Prudential television, and still working my full-time job as the station manager of Edison TV. Clocking 90 and 100-hour work weeks was common, and I loved every moment. I admit that sometimes the people that I worked with were hard to work for, but the job itself was amazing. My own brother, Fabio, a Marine and Combat Videographer, joined me and worked full time for a while in Edison with me. But my youth and arrogance were too much for him, so he continued on a different path. It is still one of the biggest regrets of my life because there is no one more loyal than him. Now he is a firefighter in Hoboken, and who knows how many lives he saved and helped. The universe has a funny way of putting different paths and choices in front of us.

It was around the year 2000 that JAG was formed.

I was invited by Rich Desimone to become one of the founding member TV stations, and without hesitation, I said yes. I didn’t ask for permission from the Edison Township Administration because I knew that was going to delay things. Sometimes it is better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. It was a few years after that that this group called JAG grew, and when Verizon tried to get a bill passed that would defund the franchise fees for the PEG access TV stations, it was because of JAG that many mayors came to the state house to protest, and that line of legislation was removed from the proposed bill.

Fast forward to the year 2020, and during the pandemic, while a lot of people were staying home, my video production team and I were providing coverage to mayors, governors, CDC officials, etc. It was interesting being on the front line of coverage. Sometimes it’s not good to have a good memory, because I saw how the narrative changed from trying to protect the people to trying to control the people, and suppress information that wasn’t in the political and economic agenda. It seemed hardly anyone wanted to speak about natural immunity to SARS COVID-19, although many knew it to be very effective. The narrative one day said that masks were only reserved for frontline workers, and then suddenly everyone had to wear them. Then social distancing became obligatory. Being the PEG manager of several TV stations, I saw the difference between mainstream coverage and the local coverage where mayors wanted to save local lives and they didn’t have a hidden agenda. Mayor Baraka of Newark, Mayor Atkins of Roselle, and subsequently Mayor Shaw, Mayor Mahr of Fanwood, and Mayor Lanky of Edison…. I saw how they cared and depended on their PEG Channels to help save their constituents. They cared.

As we are in the middle of the year 2023, PEG stations need to evolve, so they don’t become extinct. Social media, in general, has become unsocial. Local stories are not being told assuming that because anyone with a Facebook account can tell their story, it should be enough, but it isn’t. YouTube and Facebook can suppress any videos posted and find any reason to do so. It doesn’t matter if it’s monetized content or not. We must keep PEG alive. Bring the stories to people, show the council, zoning, planning, library board meetings, and talk about your very local road closures or floods. Be prepared for the next tragedy or pandemic. I hope it never does, but it always is a question of when more than if.

With traditional newspapers gone, we are the ones that can truly inform the public, not some TikTocker dancing or videos about cats. We are Public, we are Educational, and we are Government storytellers. We have to keep those three letters alive and well in media.

Towards the end of the pandemic, I started a new platform called NJGOVTV, that does not have censorship because unfortunately, cable companies again are trying to find ways of defunding us, hence making us extinct. I am looking for ways to fund the NJGOVTV platform by adding special features so as to not burden municipalities and still keep us alive and relevant without commercial advertising. I will have a booth at this year’s NJLM in Atlantic City where I will showcase the platform.

The end of PEG Stations as part of Cable TV is nigh.

This offers us an opportunity to grow bigger, better, and stronger. We need to keep telling these stories and find different places to distribute them. And do it better. From the creation of shows like Dick Craig’s “Not Just Rock and Roll”, “On the Loose”, and “Uncle Floyd’s Show” all the way up to award-winning coverage of Council Meetings and documentaries, content creators must band together and not give up telling the stories that really matter to us, the locals in our respective communities.

I will finish this article with a final anecdote. I spoke to two Assemblymen, and I heard of bills they are proposing to make our lives better, but after their presentations, they said to me privately that getting mainstream coverage is almost impossible. This tells me that, as JAG stations, we need to up our game and cover more things and not fall into complacency and just do the minimum. Station Managers: If you’re too tired to do this, then recruit some young blood… get some volunteers who will eventually become paid full-timers, but don’t let the fire of your PEG station go out. Remember what it was like when you started doing this. We need to pass that flame to new generations or your efforts will have no legacy. This year 2023, for the first time, I was able to sponsor a little bit of the JAG conference. It was a small way to say thank you to all of you. So here I reiterate: thank you members of JAG for safeguarding PEG Stations.