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Brattleboro Community Television stays relevant during pandemic

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BRATTLEBORO — Cor Trowbridge, executive director of Brattleboro Community Television, sees all media groups trying to stay as relevant as possible in a world dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

"And BCTV is no different," she said in an interview via Zoom videoconferencing software Thursday morning.

Just like many other businesses and groups complying with directives of the governor's state of emergency, the station closed its physical office and studios on March 16. Trowbridge said the last two weeks have been spent filming meetings where social distancing was practiced, such as in Townshend where a meeting was moved to the town hall to keep people spread out, or streaming meetings held by video conferencing.

On March 26, BCTV camera operators were no longer being sent to physical events. Trowbridge said the station has been working with each of the boards it covers to figure out how to record their meetings going forward.

On Thursday night, a special Brattleboro Select Board meeting was being livestreamed by BCTV on Facebook and broadcast on television. Potential participants were advised to go to a specific link off gotomeeting.com.

"We worked with BCTV on a couple of test runs and found GoToMeeting was best for our combined needs," Town Manager Peter Elwell said Thursday morning in an email response to the Reformer. "It will allow orderly participation by the Select Board, staff, and public in a manner that will work well for BCTV and the [American Sign Language] interpreters. We've also been using GoToMeeting extensively for staff level meetings and for some meetings with outside individuals and groups, so we have become familiar with its features and are becoming comfortable with using them. We're looking forward to tonight's meeting as an opportunity to keep town business moving forward using this online meeting technology and to identify any adjustments we might need to make before we hold the first full Select Board meeting on GoToMeeting next Tuesday."

Town staff put a lot of effort into making sure the letter of Vermont's Open Meeting Law will be followed, Trowbridge said. That will initially require one person from the town sit at the physical meetings but a revision to the law is anticipated soon.

Participants and viewers will be able to see those who are "at" the meeting.

"We're using a software program that allows us to take the stream of that video and re-stream it basically to our channel and to Facebook at the same time," Trowbridge said.

She said towns are providing links to participate on their meeting warnings. BCTV also is trying to share those links.

The station's four full-time employees and six or seven field producers are currently working from home.

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"I feel very lucky our funding structure is such that we can keep everyone working during this crisis," Trowbridge said.

The majority of BCTV's funding comes through local cable subscriber fees that are paid regularly through multi-year contracts with Comcast and Southern Vermont Cable Company. Additional revenue comes through production services, sponsorships and fundraising — but for the next few months, the station will rely on the cable contracts to remain in operation.

Field producers are attending the virtual meetings using computers, making sure the audio is working well and the video is set up in a grid format so viewers can see all parties involved. They're also offering assistance to those having troubles connecting or participating.

BCTV is broadcasting and uploading live videos posted on the Facebook of Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden District, where he's addressing the state's response to the coronavirus pandemic on Facebook. The station is doing the same thing with the Gov. Phil Scott's press conferences.

Local churches have used BCTV to broadcast their services before the pandemic. Trowbridge said more are now interested after they have been closed.

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"This is a time where people need the comfort of the spiritual connection in that community," she said.

Station staff are editing and adding titles to productions being submitted. That content is then uploaded on YouTube and aired on TV.

Staff also are troubleshooting issues and ordering gear for producers when needed. Trowbridge said they're trying to remove as many barriers as possible.

Marty Cohn, host of "Rotary Cares," cancelled his show for March and April. But he plans to resume in May even if that's by video conferencing.

While not new to station operations, content can be submitted on brattleborotv.org. Staff can insert video and photos into interviews or productions.

Trowbridge commended producers who immediately started providing content after the studios at the Municipal Center in Brattleboro closed. She pointed to Peter "Fish" Case's new series, "Call to Action COVID-19," where interviews are conducted by Zoom.

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Case gets higher quality audio, she said, because he's a radio professional.

"Not everybody can do that," she said with a laugh. "Fish is really good at answering the questions that people have and trying to find an authority figure or somebody who is doing the work to really speak to that."

"Montpelier Happy Hour," a podcast hosted by reporter Olga Peters and Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Windham-2-1, is now being filmed via Zoom on shown on BCTV. They're talking about the pandemic's impact on Vermont.

Since shows like these can be uploaded by anybody online, Trowbridge said she feels the station is reaching a segment of the population that may not have access to YouTube or other digital platforms when it makes such content available on TV. She described it as "bridging the divide" between cable and online viewers.

Through the Vermont Media Exchange, local productions are sometimes picked up by public access stations across the state. That's been the case and is the case now, with a lot of interest around COVID-19.

This kind of change in operations is unprecedented for BCTV. It is unclear when physical meetings will resume and establishments will be allowed to reopen.

Trowbridge recalled Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 causing electricity failure.

"But there wasn't a danger to people walking around downtown," she said. "So we just had people making videos and uploading videos as they could in the middle of that. And then a day later, everyone was back in the office."

Trowbridge said she thinks the pandemic is teaching people that their homes can be used as a studio and video conferencing can be "a perfectly legitimate way to produce a news story." It's also forcing the station to reduce any barriers and better explain how community members can utilize its services, she added.

BCTV currently has four channels on Comcast cable: Channels 1075 and 8 are the same, and 1085 and 10 are the same. But in the middle of May, the station will no longer broadcast on Channels 8 and 10. That change will allow for information about BCTV to appear in Comcast's interactive program guide. (Channel 8 is for news and other content. Channel 10 is where government and educational programming can be found.)

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.


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