Whether it’s an uncle living in northern Wisconsin who is too far away to travel to see his niece or nephew playing basketball, or an immunocompromised parent who doesn’t feel comfortable sitting in an audience to see their child in the performing arts on stage because of COVID-19 – if community media went away, it would be a loss, OCA Media executive director Paul Zwicker told the Observer.
OCA – or Oregon Community Access – Media has been around since the 1980s – though not always by that name, and for the last five years has been located out of Oregon High School at 456 Perry Parkway.
When the school heard OCA was looking for a new home, it offered up some space “nearly rent-free,” Zwicker said, which has saved the nonprofit media group “considerable money.”
But apart from being a cost-saving move, it was also extremely convenient, he said, considering how much school sports and performing arts OCA records – so they don’t have to travel far.
They also record village meetings including Village Board, Library Board and Park Board.
In December alone, OCA facilitated 29 live streams, and there were one or two nights that they had two or three live streams going on at the same time, Zwicker said.
In addition to dozens of sporting events, Zwicker said he also tallied OCA recording across 2021 a total of 65 village meetings, 22 board of education meetings, 20 community band concerts or school district performances and 40 community events including graduations. triathlons, parades and fireworks.
“Not many community access stations could pump out over 270 programs a year on a part time staff which is difficult to do anyways – but extra tough to do with a small staff – and we’re still getting the job done,” he said.
Apart from Zwicker, there’s a few part-time staffers including social media coordinator Frank Caruso, producer Dan Sutter and programming manager Josiah Wampfler. There’s also an Oregon High School grad, Jordan Hake, who is in her fourth year working for OCA. She is currently at Madison College studying broadcasting.
There are also OHS students working as camera operators and as announcers, and another Madison College student is helping out with audio. This is the first year that OCA has had students announcing for basketball and hockey instead of volunteer community members, but the two students want to go on to be professionals.
Sutter is the man behind the scenes at the various village meetings or library events, Zwicker said.
Caruso provides much more content than his official job title would suggest. He’s been on staff for OCA for 18 years this year. He transplanted to the area from California by way of New York City 33 years ago.
Caruso has been behind such programs as “Oregon Minute” which is intended to be short windows into life around Oregon, such as ribbon cuttings or the recent Winter Fest. The other day Caruso recorded a half-minute chat with some Public Works employees working on a project.
He said he likes to capture whatever is “happening now” – at the outset of the pandemic, when no one wanted to talk to each other or get together, Caruso decided documenting short bursts of things happening in the moment was an important thing.
At the beginning of the pandemic, he also started reposting old videos to social media such as science or STEM fairs in school, Chamber of Commerce events and police pancake breakfasts, with the message “this will happen again.”
“That 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 originally went into lockdown, everyone is still struggling, he said. Over 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 are saying that,” he said.
And so he aims to create content that will lift people up and help them feel good, he said. He hopes to lift people up with stories that are encouraging for both young people and old people. Right now he is recording a story about mindfulness.
Many story ideas come to him just from being out and about around Oregon. Such as 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, who Caruso knew through the VFW but didn’t know was an artist.
“He was apprehensive – he wouldn’t call himself an amazing artist,” Caruso said. “I have known him for more than a decade, but didn’t know in his private time he made art, that was a beautiful thing to discover about him. I had no idea Ken Anderson was such an artist, he’s such a reserved and laconic person really.”
Part of what helps people open up is that his main tool is not a regular video camera – which can be challenging, and intimidating – but rather just his iPhone, which since just about everyone is familiar with – doesn’t feel as intrusive.
Convincing people to chat can be hard when they think it’s going to be a lighting crew and “all the minions,” Caruso said. It’s much easier once he’s taken his phone out and gotten it set up.
Zwicker said he would love for OCA to do more longform content, but it pivoted to short form content, such as the Oregon Minute interviews with local community leaders and people of interest, to keep getting information out to people despite not having a big staff.
“We’re still cranking them out,” he said.
“I don’t know how Frank keeps finding these stories, it’s really interesting,” Zwicker said.
But Caruso said there’s not a day that goes by that he’s out around town – whether getting hardware at Dorn’s or groceries at Bill’s – that someone doesn’t come up to him with an idea for a story. Sometimes ideas just come from serendipity or happenstance such as when he was in JL Richards Prime Meats and a woman happened to be dropping off a bunch of her homemade mustard that day – leading him to discover Rhoda’s Mustard of Belleville.
“I’m super curious – why people say things or do things, like why they drive a certain way, super curious about all sorts of things,” Caruso said. “Someone asked me when I’m going to run out of stories… I could tell a story every hour for the rest of my life and 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, as every minute of video takes an hour to edit.
But despite that tedium, he gets encouraged by the stories – such as Girl Power Africa, a local student group that sends clothing, toys and personal items to women in Africa every year.
“They really feel like they’re changing lives by offering these items to people,” he said.
He also loved reporting on when Kickback Café and OHS’ Panther Café collaborated, to help kids who might be challenged mentally or physically – by teaching them at Panther and helping them get jobs at Kickback.
“It is so heartwarming people are helping others – you don’t feel so alone in the world when you know people out in the world are helping each other out,” he said. “It took my breath away, my heart swells.”
But his favorite story he has covered was when Yordanos Zelinski set the Oregon boys’ 5K school record, beating the previous record of 33 years. Zelinski was adopted at 11 years old by an Oregon family.
Caruso wasn’t even supposed to be out shooting footage the day Zelinski beat the record, but something in his gut told him to travel to Janesville that day last September with his phone ready.
“He’s inspirational, the odds were really against this kid,” Caruso said. “It shows no matter where you’re from you can excel if you’re cared for.”
Funding, and future
As of now all money for these types 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 the local broadcast channels is just a pass-through from their customers. And there’s no advertising income.
Which puts the channels at risk, Zwicker said.
The audio and video equipment, livestreaming software and video editing software all cost money, he said. It cost money to upgrade to be able to livestream multiple events at once such as a sports game and the performing arts.
“If those funds go away, we’re cutting back big time,” he said. “That starts with stories like Frank Caruso does that are not only interesting, but the community would also lose a lot of quick access to information and transparency in government. There’s a lot we do for the community that maybe they take for granted or maybe they don’t.”
Though, 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. Also, the Village of Oregon has provided funding for new equipment, such as a wireless camera to record events staged in the Performing Arts Center without running cables all over that might trip-up dancers or performers.
There will also be some new equipment in the new Village Hall, such as a touchscreen to make livestreaming easier.
But for now, Zwicker is focused on creating content and gaining viewers and they’re doing just that, he said.
“We’re well above comparable towns for the number of people viewing us on Facebook or watching on YouTube,” he said. “Our YouTube had 600 new subscribers over the last year.”