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Tell your story on public access.

As an interpreter, have you ever dreamed of sharing your stories on TV, or better yet having your own TV show? With the explosion of video technology and distribution choices, it's never been more possible.


We interpreters are in show biz. We are driven to share our love of a place, a story, or a subject with an audience or participants in our program. We usually employ objects, props, performance, word craft, or "illustrative media," as Tilden summarized it.

It's generally agreed that personal interpretation is ideal--participants being present with a live person who helps reveal wonders in a real place or with real objects. All the participants' senses get involved at the site, and, my goodness, they even can ask questions. And there is no substitute for infectious, in-person enthusiasm.

But when the 14 people who attend your program applaud and go home with your spark in their hearts, your show is over. You've given the world quality, but not necessarily quantity. The 300,000 other people who visit your site were not there; nor were the millions of others who have yet to come. Meanwhile, administrators have faced up to fiscal realities and have decided to reduce your site's interpretive staffing budget.

That's when many of us begin thinking more about nonpersonal interpretation to reach our audiences. Meanwhile, the world is exploding with video.

Being Seen in Public

It's difficult to keep up with all the changes in video distribution, access, and personal video production. If you have a portable device, you can watch nearly anywhere, anytime. You can stream video to your widescreen TV from the Internet, or record your favorite show on cable with your DVR to watch later. Meanwhile, the latest movie just released on DVD is headed your way in the mail; or maybe it's part of your cable subscription. You can watch short videos on your favorite website.

At this point, some interpreters may get nauseated. Many of my friends don't get cable TV because they want to limit their immersion in mass culture that spends billions to mold us into distracted consumers. But let's face it--we live in a video culture. If you want to be seen, you get on the screen.

Okay, you've decided you are interested in using video as one tool to extend your interpretation to a larger audience than you otherwise are able to. But you've watched many mainstream nature and history shows and are intimidated by the enormous production team lists that roll at the end. There is no way you can assemble the resources and professionals to put on anything like that. Fortunately, you don't have to.

Ever since high school in the 1960s when I had a home movie camera, I've wanted to get back into making short interpretive films. Back then, I shot footage of hikes with my father in the mountains to show to family members. Then I became an adult and life got busy. I didn't return to my interest until many years later.

I had a career with New York State Parks in charge of environmental interpretation in the state's gorgeous Finger Lakes region. I bought a VHS camcorder to record programs and events for training and documentation. I made a couple of training videos, one for interpretive content, and another for general seasonal employee orientation for all the parks in the region. I received an agency regional award for the latter, and then was scolded by my boss for the amount of my time the project had consumed! I laid my camera aside once again. (That was in 1994, and I've been told that park managers are still using the staff orientation tape.)

The years rolled by and I took advantage of an early retirement incentive to leave and pursue some deferred dreams. My wife and I published a couple of interpretive books (including A Walk through Watkins Glen--Water's Sculpture in Stone, the 2009 NAI Media Award winner in the small book category). And I bought a video camera.


In fact, I had subscribed to Videomaker Magazine (a great resource) and salivated over the possibilities for a year before I actually bought the camera. And I took a month-long class on TV production at my local cable TV public access station. That led to my first interpretive TV series, Nature Nearby.

The Miracle of Public Access

Many communities across the country have "PEG" (public, educational, and government access) television channels. Local municipalities can require a cable television franchise agreement to include channels for ordinary citizens, schools, colleges, and local government to "cablecast" their own content. They may also include studios and equipment for use by local producers.

Ithaca, New York, has had a PEGASYS (PEG Access System) station for many years. Area colleges provide regular programming on the educational channel. Municipal meetings are aired on the government channel. And local citizens who have passed a certification course can produce their own content for the public access channel. Use of the equipment and studio are free. All programming must be noncommercial.

PEG channels, where they are available, provide a great opportunity for interpreters to reach out to larger audiences. In Ithaca, that is potentially at least 67,000 viewers, and the numbers are much greater for larger communities. Granted, in the channel-flipping universe, PEG channels have a hard time competing with regular, professionally produced programming. But I have been surprised by the number of people who have come up to me and said they have seen my show.

Rolling Your Own

In my Nature Nearby series, I generally have used my own camera, but I didn't need to. The station has a number of high-quality camcorders to borrow, along with other accessory equipment for sound and lighting. Indeed, it seems that most of the amateur producers use the station's equipment. If your community has such a station, you could produce local television programming with virtually no cost for equipment. Not all public access stations, however, have equipment to loan.

Owning your own equipment and editing software gives you total flexibility as to when you shoot and when you edit. It's now possible to buy a small, high-quality, high-definition camcorder that is adequate to the purpose for just a few hundred dollars. I carry an affordable HD "pocket camcorder" on my belt at all times and I catch much more footage for my show than I would were I deliberately heading out for a shoot. I can do unplanned, on-the-spot interviews, or just have the camera handy at some event or location on the chance that I might be inspired to capture something. There is a down side to owning your own, however; if your equipment or software malfunctions, you must get it repaired yourself, if service is even available.

Many new public access producers have grand ideas about the shows they will create, only to find they are in over their heads. Video production (shooting), and post-production (editing) eat time! There are lots of learning curves with equipment, editing software, and the art of producing a program that audiences actually will want to watch.


Citizen producers commonly are too ambitious and make a show too long or more frequent than what they actually have time for. I'm retired and sometimes I still struggle for time to produce my episodes. Some produce shows on no particular schedule and submit them for cablecast when they are ready. Others host a new episode every week.

Using a Team or Going it Alone

A nature center, museum, or organization can create its own show. Small teams of volunteers can divide up the tasks with several people available for videotaping events or speakers, for instance, and others dedicated to mastering the editing process.

For Nature Nearby, I produced a variety of natural history episodes up to an hour in length for local cablecast. Some were easy--recording a presentation and putting it on TV. Others were created over several years and involved a small team. With the Friends of Robert H. Treman State Park, I produced The Treman Show using four narrators and their research, writing, and image resources. Another episode followed the discovery and archeological excavation of the site of the 19th-century Enfield Falls Hotel in the same park over a four-year period. Yet another show featured the confrontation between an environmental group and the National Forest Service over a planned timber sale.

Recently, our PEGASYS station created a "mini-studio" that requires only one person to operate for live, on-air programming. I have started a new biweekly, half-hour show called Cayuga Lake Heritage, featuring the natural and cultural heritage of the 38-mile-long Finger Lake that begins at Ithaca. This frees me from needing a production team, and it's a bit like a one-man band. I can employ video clips, stills, music, DVDs, and my live presence on air to tell my stories. I love it.

Telling the World

When my show is ready, I send out an email announcing the show and its schedule, and I post it on Facebook. Some people write back and complain that they don't get the channel. For these folks, I have posted entire episodes on a video hosting site such as or Vimeo. These are free and they produce good quality reproduction accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. And sometimes I just post a clip that I included in the show on YouTube. I will also commonly embed these online clips in a website and on Facebook, or create a link to the full episode.

You can see The Treman Show, for instance, by following a link at It was designed for an interactive video kiosk in the park's historic grist mill, where visitors can select three-minute segments on several park topics. If the video equipment malfunctions, at least the entire show is viewable online. And the video also may be made into an interpretive product for sale at the park. Though it is an amateur production, The Treman Show won awards as the best show produced in 2008 for Ithaca's PEGASYS channels. Some area educators have obtained copies for use with their classes.

With public access television and online video hosting sites, there is an expanding opportunity for you to tell your stories to the world. And it's fun!

Tony Ingraham is a life member of NAI. In the mid-1990s, he was director for Region 1.
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Author:Ingraham, Tony
Publication:Legacy Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2010
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