Whether it’s an uncle living in northern Wisconsin who’s too far to travel to see his niece or nephew play basketball, or an immunocompromised parent who doesn’t feel comfortable s sitting in an audience to see your child in the performing arts on stage because of COVID-19 – if community media were to disappear, it would be a loss, OCA Media executive director Paul Zwicker told AFP. ‘Observe.
OCA — or Oregon Community Access — Media has been around since the 1980s — though not always under that name, and for the past five years has been located outside of Oregon High School at 456 Perry Parkway.
When the school learned that the OCA was looking for a new home, they offered space “almost free,” Zwicker said, saving the nonprofit media group “significant amounts of money.”
But as well as being a cost-saving decision, it was also extremely practical, he said, given the OCA’s record numbers in school sports and the performing arts — they didn’t have so no need to travel far.
They also record village meetings, including village council, library council and park council.
In December alone, OCA facilitated 29 live streams, and there were one or two nights where they had two or three live streams at the same time, Zwicker said.
In addition to dozens of sporting events, Zwicker said he also counted the OCA’s recording in 2021 of a total of 65 village meetings, 22 board of education meetings, 20 band concerts community or school district shows and 40 community events, including graduations. triathlons, parades and fireworks.
“Few community access stations could broadcast more than 270 programs a year with part-time staff, which is hard to do anyway – but even harder to do with a small staff – and we continue to do the work,” he said.
Besides Zwicker, there are a few part-timers, including social media coordinator Frank Caruso, producer Dan Sutter, and programming manager Josiah Wampfler. There is also an Oregon High School graduate, Jordan Hake, who is in her fourth year working for the OCA. She is currently at Madison College studying broadcasting.
There are also OHS students working as cameramen and announcers, and another Madison College student helping out with the audio. This is the first year the OCA has had students sign up for basketball and hockey instead of volunteer community members, but both students want to become professionals.
Sutter is the man behind the scenes at various village meetings or library events, Zwicker said.
Caruso provides a lot more content than its official job title suggests. He has been on the OCA staff for 18 years this year. He was transplanted to the area from California via New York 33 years ago.
Caruso was the originator of programs such as “Oregon Minute,” which are meant to be short windows into life around Oregon, like ribbon cuttings or the recent Winter Fest. The other day, Caruso recorded a half-minute conversation with Public Works employees working on a project.
He said he liked to capture everything that was “happening now” – at the start of the pandemic, when no one wanted to talk to each other or get together, Caruso decided to document short bursts of things happening in the moment was an important thing.
At the start of the pandemic, he also began reposting old videos on social media such as school science or STEM fairs, Chamber of Commerce events, and police pancake breakfasts, with the message “it will happen again”.
“It was really great for the community – to say this will happen again,” he said.
And even though it will soon be two years since Wisconsin first entered lockdown, everyone is still struggling, he said. For the past two weeks, people have been telling Caruso off-camera that they just want peace and happiness in their lives.
“People I’ve never met before in my life say that,” he said.
And so he aims to create content that will uplift people and help them feel good, he said. He hopes to uplift people with encouraging stories for young and old. Right now he is recording a story about mindfulness.
A lot of story ideas come to him just from walking around Oregon. Like a few weeks ago when he noticed some wooden carvings outside the public library and inquired about the carver. It turned out to be resident Ken Anderson, whom Caruso knew through the VFW but had no idea he was an artist.
“He had apprehensions — he wouldn’t call himself an amazing artist,” Caruso said. “I’ve known him for over a decade, but I didn’t know he made art in his spare time, it was a beautiful thing to find out about him. I had no idea Ken Anderson was such an artist, he really is such a reserved and laconic person.
Part of what helps people open up is that his main tool isn’t an ordinary video camera – which can be difficult and intimidating – but rather his iPhone, which, since almost everyone knows it, doesn’t doesn’t seem as intrusive.
Convincing people to chat can be tough when they think it’s going to be a lighting crew and “all minions,” Caruso said. It’s much easier once he pulls out his phone and sets it up.
Zwicker said he’d like the OCA to do more long-form content, but he’s turned to short-form content, like Oregon Minute interviews with local community leaders and people of interest, to continue disseminating information to people despite not having a large staff.
“We’re still launching them,” he said.
“I don’t know how Frank keeps finding these stories, it’s really interesting,” Zwicker said.
But Caruso said not a day goes by that he’s not in town — whether it’s shopping for gear at Dorn’s or groceries at Bill’s — without someone pitching him a story idea. Sometimes ideas just happen or happen by happenstance, like when he was at JL Richards Prime Meats and a woman dropped off a bunch of her homemade mustard that day, which led him to discover Rhoda’s Mustard of Belleville.
“I’m super curious — why people say or do things, like why they drive a certain way, super curious about all kinds of things,” Caruso said. “Someone asked me when I was going to run out of stories…I could tell a story every hour for the rest of my life and I won’t run out of stories. It’s just a matter of convincing people to tell them.
And stories take time to tell, he said, because each minute of video takes an hour to edit.
But despite this boredom, he is encouraged by stories – like Girl Power Africa, a local student group that sends clothes, toys and personal items to women in Africa every year.
“They really feel like they are changing lives by giving people these items,” he said.
He also enjoyed reporting on the collaboration between Kickback Café and OHS’s Panther Café, to help children who might be struggling mentally or physically – teaching them about Panther and helping them find jobs at Kickback.
“It’s so heartwarming that people are helping each other – you don’t feel so alone in the world when you know people around the world are helping each other,” he said. “It took my breath away, my heart swells.”
But his favorite story he’s covered is when Yordanos Zelinski set the Oregon boys’ 5k school record, breaking the previous record by 33 years. Zelinski was adopted at age 11 by a family in Oregon.
Caruso wasn’t even supposed to shoot footage the day Zelinski broke the record, but something in his gut told him to get to Janesville that day last September with his phone ready.
“He’s inspiring, the odds were really against that kid,” Caruso said. “It shows that no matter where you come from, you can excel if you are supported.”
Funding and future
From now on, all the money for these kinds of local access channels comes from the cable companies, through a fee the companies charge cable subscribers, Zwicker said.
Wisconsin law requires cable companies to provide local access channels.
But cable companies don’t pay anything out of pocket, he said, the money they provide to local broadcasters is just a transfer from their customers. And there is no ad revenue.
Which puts the chains at risk, Zwicker said.
Audio and video equipment, live streaming software and video editing software all cost money, he said. Upgrading costs money to be able to live stream multiple events at once like a sports match and performing arts.
“If those funds disappear, we cut a lot of time,” he said. “It starts with stories like Frank Caruso that are not only interesting, but the community would also lose a lot of quick access to information and transparency in government. There are a lot of things we do for the community that they may or may not take for granted.
However, there have been other sources of funding. The Oregon Athletic Booster Club has been a generous supporter, he said. And a variety of anonymous donors. Additionally, the Oregon Village provided funding for new equipment, such as a wireless camera to record events held in the Performing Arts Center without running wires everywhere that could trip dancers or performers. .
There will also be new equipment in the new party hall, such as a touch screen to facilitate live streaming.
But for now, Zwicker is focused on creating content and gaining viewers and that’s exactly what they’re doing, he said.
“We’re way above comparable cities for the number of people watching us on Facebook or watching us on YouTube,” he said. “Our YouTube got 600 new subscribers in the last year.”