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Ketchikan’s KPU Local Television Goes National

Diversification key to electric, water, and telecom utility success


KPU Local TV cameraman Jacob Schwartz filming at the Annual CHARR King Salmon Derby in Ketchikan.

© Michelle O’Brien

Aboard F/V Aleutian Ballad, Ketchikan Public Utilities’ Local TV cameraman Jacob Schwartz—taking a break from shooting—gets to pick among chunks of king crab so large they’re jokingly being dubbed “Alaskan hot dogs.” The Aleutian Ballad is a former Bering Sea crabbing vessel featured on early seasons of “The Deadliest Catch.” The boat has been retrofitted to carry tourists to the calmer crabbing grounds off Annette Island in Southeast Alaska. There, the crew will drop some pots and haul some up, just like in the show.

The Aleutian Ballad is a popular attraction with tourists visiting Alaska’s First City, but Schwartz’s main focus was shooting footage for an episode of “Celebrity Chef” —a show on KPU Local TV about Ketchikan cooks and their signature dishes.

Besides king crab boiled in seawater and shrimp stewed in spices, this episode of “Celebrity Chef” included brie-and-crab-filled croissants, fashioned into the body and arms of a crab. Schwartz is local, too, and graduated from Ketchikan High School in 2001. He is not unfamiliar with Southeast Alaska’s bountiful seafood, but even he was impressed.

“[And] I’ve done every single fun thing to do in Ketchikan,” Schwartz says.

KPU Local TV airs about ten locally-produced episodic shows like “Celebrity Chef.” There’s also plenty of more meat-and-potatoes local access television fare such as school music concerts, city council meetings, and sporting events. But KPU Local TV’s producers sometimes give these offerings a new spin by shooting with multiple cameras and live-streaming some sports games on the Internet or by shooting aerials from a GoPro camera attached to the skid of a helicopter. It’s local TV on steroids.


Stars are Born

Michelle O’Brien is both the producer and host of many of KPU Local TV’s episodic shows. After years in advertising and sales, she came to KPU five years ago from Tallahassee, Florida, to sell phone systems—one of a new team brought in to KPU to revitalize the company’s sales and marketing division. Ketchikan Public Utilities is city-owned and provides electrical service, water, and telecommunications services. The Telecommunications Division provides television, Internet, and voice services via fiber-to-the-home—connecting Ketchikan customer’s homes to the Seattle “cloud” via seven hundred miles of KPU-owned terrestrial and undersea fiber optic cable.

“In 2009, KPU Telecommunications was struggling,” O’Brien says. “Our job was to build a sales-focused organization.”

Long-time Alaskan telecom executive Ed Cushing was leading the KPU sales team and looking for ways to set KPU Local TV apart from competing TV services. One day, O’Brien showed Cushing some tapes of local shows that her friends had produced back in Florida. She remembered that Cushing said, “You know what? We need to be doing that here.”

“And for much of the last five years, our focus has been on local television,” O’Brien says.

The station’s ability to produce shows received an enormous boost in 2012 when they received an Alaska Department of Labor grant to prepare Alaskans for jobs in the television and film industry. The $40,000 grant to KPU, called The Alaska Cast & Crew Advancement Program, funded two years of training that has already borne fruit.

“We have trained more than fifty people to date,” O’Brien said in May. “We have given them a lot of work. We have six of them as stringers for local productions on a part-time basis. Last weekend, we had four events [where] filming [occurred] simultaneously.”

“Celebrity Chef” is shot in O’Brien’s kitchen on a shoestring budget. Even so, O’Brien received three calls the previous week from people wanting to get on the show.

“It quickly became very apparent that there was this dynamic —people really liked to see themselves on TV,” O’Brien says. “They like to see their friends on TV. And they like to compare the way they look on TV compared to the way their friends look on TV.”

Her very first KPU-TV show was shown in 2009 for the “Live in Ketchikan” show—this episode was a tongue-in-cheek look at the difficulty of finding parking in downtown Ketchikan. The video was immediately popular and now is one of 189 that KPU Local TV has placed on YouTube. Two other popular KPU Local TV shows available on YouTube are Liquid City Sessions (music) and Hometown Heroes (biography and history).


KPU Local TV cameraman Jacob Schwartz films Lynn Quan in “Ketchikan’s Top Chef,” an annual community event. Funds raised go to the winner’s favorite charity.

© Jeff Fitzwater

Northern Exposure

In the five years that KPU-TV has been putting Ketchikan people and locales on television, Alaska has cemented its reputation as a superb locale for man-and- woman-against-nature reality shows. When NatGeo (National Geographic) TV came to Ketchikan to film an episode of “Doomsday Preppers,” both O’Brien and Schwartz signed on as production assistants.

Schwartz shot some of the background footage known as the “B Roll” used in that show, and both he and O’Brien received on-screen credit. Schwartz has also shot footage for Animal Planet and other national channels, but considers the “Preppers” work “the feather in his cap” so far.

National production firms looking for skilled and equipped people in Alaska is a growing trend, O’Brien says. KPU-TV is burnishing its reputation as a “go-to” source.

“Production companies such as E Entertainment, Discovery Channel, and NatGeo started calling,” says O’Brien. “They had called the Chamber of Commerce and the Arts Council and were looking for people with these kinds of skills. We were able to handle the requests at first, but the volume kept growing and growing. We applied for the [Department of Labor] grant, hoping to fill the void.”

O’Brien says she keeps a list of people with various skills, so when she gets a call, she knows who’s available and when. She believes having people and equipment ready to go makes producers more likely to choose Ketchikan as a location.

“Finding local people who have been properly trained is immensely difficult in Alaska,” O’Brien says. “We know the right people, we know where to go. [Producers] can do it a lot quicker and more efficiently using local folks.”


Next Generation

O’Brien says two young people who took the training and worked for the station are now off at film school. That number is sure to rise—about a dozen Ketchikan High School students participate in the school’s Media Production class.

Bill Whicker, the technology coordinator for the school district, says he has been seeing a definite uptick in the quality of work the students are doing. Both the district and KPU share equipment, and visiting professionals provide training for both groups.

Students have been live-streaming sporting events, for example, filming with both stationary and mobile cameras and staying in touch with the student-director through microphones. During last year’s Christmas Classic basketball tournament, students and adults shot twenty-two games over three days, streaming the action and recording the games for distribution.

“We’re getting kids real world experience in those things,” says Whicker. “And I think we got a couple of kids hooked! Right now we have camera one, camera two, we have a director, but as we go and try to improve our productions, we’ll add to those [other] skills that hopefully kids can transfer into a real-life position, maybe on one of those [national] shows.”

One promising graduate is Joron Whitton, who took the Media Production class as a senior, and graduated from Ketchikan High School in 2011. A part-time cameraman, Whitton now works about thirty hours a month filming for KPU Local TV. He’ll take as much work as he can to supplement a sideline selling deer calls made from antlers. And he’s waiting for his chance to get a credit on one of those national reality shows.

Schwartz and his camera are so ubiquitous, he’s known around Ketchikan as “Jacob-the-Camera-Dude.”

O’Brien has experience on both sides of the camera. She appeared on the TV reality show “Trading Spouses” as one of the spouses and lived with a vegetarian family in their RV. Trading Tallahassee for Ketchikan is “the best thing our family has ever done,” she says, even if it means a film crew camped out in her kitchen.

“The entire island is our studio,” O’Brien says. “On any given day, we might be hanging out of a helicopter or scuba diving or on the back of a fishing boat. I plan the shows and host them, but the entire town is the star of the show.”

Alaskan author and journalist Will Swagel writes from Sitka.

This first appeared in the July 2014 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.
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