BRATTLEBORO >> Persistence has kept a local public-access television station powering through four decades — gaining more segments and technology along the way.
"I do think, over the years, it's been a small group of people that really energized the organization and carried it through some rocky times with low funding or governance issues," Brattleboro Community Television Executive Director Cor Trowbridge said. "Periods that were rocky were punctuated by periods of having a great time making these productions. It's really to the credit of the people who were involved in the early days and kept it going as volunteers. Really, the credit goes to them for BCTV being here now."
One of the first things Trowbridge did when she started at BCTV was prepare for the 30th annual meeting. She read through three decades of minutes and found out the first BCTV board meeting was held on Oct. 10, 1977.
So the party at 118 Ellliot St. at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 6, is about celebrating when that board was appointed by the Select Board. Half board meeting and half dance party, new board members will be elected, the top producers of the year will be recognized and so will 40 years of programming.
BCTV Production Manager Roland Boyde is putting together a 10-minute video of clips from shows over the years. He started the process this summer, getting help from interns along the way. The video will be posted online if people can't make it to the party. Footage of a young Peter Shumlin was found before his days as governor.
"It's a lot of work, so I'm a little bit apprehensive in being able to do justice to the last 40 years," Boyde said. "There's been a lot of really awesome stuff to pay tribute to. It's made me appreciate to a great extent what they did 40 years ago to get the station together, keep it together and keep it relevant."
Trowbridge admitted the "Back to the Future" theme was her idea.
"I'm going to be dressing up as Doc Brown," she said, referring to a character from the films who invents the first time machine out of a DeLorean sports car.
BCTV, the first public access station founded in Vermont, was also one of the first independent stations in the United States. David Chase, a newspaper columnist and playwright, had heard of a recent Federal Communications Commission ruling that mandated public access on cable television in April 1976.
One of the first goals of BCTV was to put Brattleboro Select Board meetings on the air.
"They had one donated camera and a connection to Warner Cable," Trowbridge said. "But they had no funding and no staff. So they charged $1 a minute for air time and they reused the tapes as soon as the programs played out."
Now, 11 cameras are available to producers. Some are kept only in the studio and others are used out in the community.
Trowbridge and her team have been playing old tapes, digitizing them and pulling out clips for the upcoming party. One of the funniest shows, she said, was from the early 1990s. "Is Anybody Out There?" was a live show, which featured a segment where callers would guess what was in a can that had no label.
"Brattleboro Tonight" was a late-night show spoof created in 1980 by Guy MacMillian, who was a teacher at Brattleboro Union High School. This marked a new direction for the station. Founders of the station acknowledged it was the first time they allowed themselves to get creative, according to Trowbridge.
The most famous episode saw the Brattleboro Select Board and community members pretending to be figures in a wax museum. A radio station host attempted to interview people "but they were made of wax and he was getting all frustrated," said Trowbridge.
"Be creative. Be informed. Be Local," is the tagline recently developed for BCTV. This year, the station received a national award for overall excellence from the Alliance of Community Media.
"In the past, we've won for different shows, for specific shows," Trowbridge said. "This time, we submitted a 20 minute video for the station of clips from 15 different shows. I had to submit a letter about coverage and reach. To win that really felt like a milestone for the organization."
With about 50 active producers and volunteers every year, the station annually airs 1,200 hours of local programming. Select board meetings in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend and Vernon are shown on BCTV. A part-time staff goes out and films them. Local live events also are broadcast through the station. And people can and do direct their own production, or pay BCTV to cover something.
"We continue to be a small station compared to these other places but we're producing as much programming as other local stations," Trowbridge said. "Because we're a free resource for people who want to learn about video production and get their hands on equipment, it's often a place where people start. We have people working on their GoFundMe (crowdfunding website) videos. They are creating a public service announcement for their nonprofits, they're covering a meeting they care about or they're producing something creative for a class."
Not everyone is aware of the opportunities BCTV provides to local residents. Trowbridge said a survey last year showed some people did not know that they can come in and learn about new technology and equipment, and make their own programs. Although awareness has grown, she said, similar results came back when her organization did a survey in 2007.
Of 500 people surveyed, 50 percent watched BCTV online. The other half tuned in through the traditional medium. Local reporters also use the station's videos to assist in their own coverage.
"We are trying to get HD (high definition) channels because, of course, many people have their TV set to HD only. We're also trying to get in the program guide so people can DVR things," Trowbridge said, referring to digital video recorders that can be scheduled to capture shows on television. "But that is under the control of Comcast and so that's something that has to be worked out on the state level."
BCTV is funded through a small portion of cable subscriber fees from Comcast and Southern Vermont Cable. Sponsorships and fundraising also contribute to the station's income.
In 2011, BCTV signed an agreement with Southern Vermont Cable that allowed the station to cover select board meetings and annual Town Meeting in Dummerston, Jamaica, Newfane, Putney and Townshend.
"One day, we just went to all of those meetings and said, 'You're going to be on TV,' and though some of them were not excited about it, every single one of those boards has really come around to seeing it's a benefit," Trowbridge said. "People that can't attend their meetings can see their meetings and hear what was said."
The station's latest rollout involves Green Mountain Morning host Chris Lenois from WKVT and reporters from Windham County newspapers. BCTV is calling it Green Mountain Mornings Tonight. Clips from meetings and from around the community are spliced in before the segment hits the television airwaves at night.
The BCTV board is currently getting its strategic plan together.
"We want to really become known as a producer and facilitator of high quality original content," Trowbridge said. "The community wants local and regional news. They want meetings. They want performances and live programming. And that's what we want to focus on producing or helping other people produce."
Next month, BCTV will have a digital single-lens reflex camera available. The station will offer training for the new equipment, which Trowbridge says is "becoming the next camcorder."
The station already has a drone that is in use. Trowbridge hopes to get 360-degree cameras.
"We want BCTV to be a place where people feel they can get their hands on technologies they want to try on for their own," she said. "We want to raise the visibility of the organization and make people more aware that not only do we produce their select board meeting but we're also a place where they can submit their own programming."
The quality of video from cell phones is improving all the time, according to Trowbridge and Boyde. Trowbridge hopes to simplify the online submission process for such content. BCTV has classes specifically about using mobile devices.
Starting in high school, Boyde has been with the station for 10 years. He said technology has brought about the most changes there over the years.
"It's just less and less of a hindrance. Everything gets cheaper and smaller and more available. The technologies we can afford now are close to the technologies professional stations are using," Boyde said. "So the divide is less great."
The most rewarding part of the job for Boyde is "probably helping people make the shows come out the way they were hoping," he said. He's also proud of the finished product of a lot of the in-house shows.
"It's a job I like a lot. You get to do lots of different things," said Boyde.
Call Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273.