For La Salle TV, the show must go on

March 17, 2022

Students explain how they have kept the station on-air during the pandemic—and what it has taught them.

Around the world, in the first months of 2020, people were just beginning to hear and learn about the novel coronavirus disease COVID-19. Back then, questions outnumbered answers. That was true practically everywhere, including the studio of La Salle TV.

Like many institutions, La Salle University was preparing for a move to remote learning to ensure the safety of its students, faculty, and staff. That transition left the students who help run cable television station questioning how they might keep their programs on-air.

“Seriously,” wondered Isaiah Clark, ’22, “what kind of content can we create?”

Ultimately, they found a way. Doing so required creativity and ingenuity, open-ended communication amongst staff, and innumerable Zoom-recorded segments.

“In the end,” said Jonathan Colella, ’22, “we made something special. You can say, ‘Hey, look what came of this.’”

Unable to recruit new students following the graduation of others, La Salle TV’s reduced staff produced 125 shows in 2019-2020—a remarkable figure, even if a bit fewer than its 160-show average from recent years. The crew bounced back to its programming mean in 2020-21.

The students produced segments, stories, and specials for their audience. They garnered editing and interviewing experience using a variety of media. And of most importance to the staff, they kept La Salle TV on air without interruption.

La Salle TV recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. The station, since its establishment in the 1991-92 academic year, has served as an educational conduit for La Salle students interested in careers in communication, journalism, and broadcasting. The network’s reach spans more than La Salle’s 133-acre campus, appearing in more than 300,000 Philadelphia homes and providing educational and entertaining programming for 24 hours each day.

Producers, crew members, and on-air talent from La Salle TV shared memories and moments from their many months away from the production studio they call a second home.

“What do we do now?”

With the emergence of the pandemic, La Salle TV staff turned to station manager Tonya Ellis, ’95, M.A. ’02, for a plan. A communication professor, Ellis teaches field and studio video production. She has been involved with the station since its inception. Writing, editing, and producing content remotely presented a first in La Salle TV’s history, she said.

The team, Ellis said, would have to practice fluidity.

For some shows, like SportsLine, highlight reels of previous Explorers games and previews of forthcoming ones are the bread and butter. COVID-19 was cutting some seasons short and leading to the outright cancellation of others’ schedules.

“We’re throwing every idea at the wall to see what would work,” said Siobhan Nolan, ’23, an English and communication major from Flourtown, Pa. “Without games to cover, what kind of La Salle stories can we produce? What do we do now?”

“We were all sent home at first and, for a little while, we hit pause on creating new content,” said Colella, a communication major from Staten Island, N.Y. “I felt I needed to do something, so I made these two video shorts—essentially 10-minute video game reviews. It wasn’t much, but it was fresh content for our audience that they hadn’t seen.”

To keep the lights on, so to speak, La Salle TV dipped into its recent archives and relied on hundreds of hours of relevant evergreen public-service content and previously produced programs—ranging from 30 to 60 minutes. They had a longform fire-prevention feature with the Philadelphia Fire Department. They had past interviews with political figures and notable alumni; a segment with Department of Social Work faculty on human trafficking and domestic violence; and a piece on safety during the holidays with La Salle Student Wellness Services personnel. Also mixed in, they had rebroadcasts of Sunday Mass from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

The team shifted to “stay-nimble mode,” Ellis said, and it worked.

“Let’s go off-script”

By Spring 2021, as the University welcomed students and employees to campus for the first time in months, the buzz around La Salle TV’s studio started to feel normal again.

“It’s odd to even call it normal,” said Clark, a communication major from Baltimore.

At least there were assignments to dole out, interviews to conduct, new segments to prep for air—and a new group of students to introduce to the station. La Salle TV is a learning mechanism for future journalists, said Clark, whose understanding of news do’s and don’ts is heavily informed by his on-the-job experiences.

“When you’re out on a shoot by yourself, you learn quickly,” said Clark, who is aiming for a career in media production. “One time, I got to an assignment late. I didn’t set up the camera right; it was off-balance. I missed a goal being scored. I started thinking, ‘I can’t do anything with this footage,’ but you remind yourself that everyone starts somewhere.”

“My first package didn’t go well,” said Hannah Balkowski, ’23, a psychology and communication major from San Diego, Calif. “The more you do it, the more you learn it. Questions aren’t so stiff. Interviews become conversations. You can say, ‘Hey, let’s go off-script,’ and it’s comfortable.”

After navigating months of Zoom-recorded interviews and remotely produced segments, that learning curve extended to the studio, too.

“It took me a while to figure out what I can and can’t do in a studio, once there’s greater structure than just being the only one writing, editing, and producing,” Colella said.

“Just have to keep it going”

Some things change while some things stay the same. The pandemic has not ended, though La Salle TV’s return to the studio brought to a close its exclusive reliance on remote content creation and production. The students are generating an average of five new shows per week, juggling their journalism commitments with their academic responsibilities, and contributing to roughly 95 percent of the station’s on-air content.

For Nolan, the experience brought together the production team. It also solidified broadcast journalism as her calling—what she aspires to do with her career after graduation.

“All of a sudden,” she said, “you’re learning from each other and how they work, how they put things together, and how you can support one another in a moment that no one ever could have expected.”

It helped hone Clark’s ability to improvise, another critically important skill for journalists.

Added Balkowski: “You watch these months tick by, and the shows we produced, you realize, ‘This is bigger than us. We just have to keep it going,’ and that’s what motivated us.”

“It’s an experience I’m so proud of,” Nolan said, “and something I will never forget.”

—Christopher A. Vito