Information Station

The Regional Educational Television Network in Colchester produces 250 shows a year in-house.

by Portland Helmich

Scott Campitelli, executive director, brings his experience in education and television to the Regional Educational Television Network he runs at Fort Ethan Allen in Colchester, Vermont's only purely educational cable access channel.

Those who care about the impact the media wield over the national psyche must find it hard to disagree with television's critics. The more channels there are, the critics declare, the less there is to watch. It's a viewpoint that's hard to dispute.

Scott Campitelli, executive director of Regional Educational Television Network (RETN), wouldn't disagree, but he would passionately add a caveat: "I want to take all those bumper stickers that say 'Kill Your Television,' and change them to 'Selectively Kill Certain Things on Your Television.' You can't throw out the technology. Television is the most accessible, user-friendly information source in the world. More people learn from TV than from anything else - what they learn is another issue."

The only purely educational cable access channel in Vermont, RETN is a nonprofit organization composed of two cable systems: Channel 16 North (in the greater Burlington area) and Channel 16 South (from Shelburne to Vergennes), both of which are funded by a percentage of subscribers' fees through Adelphia. Two-thirds of the network's schedule is a mixture of local, externally produced shows and national and international programs, such as the 6 o'clock evening news, broadcast from Paris in French with English subtitles. If one longs for an international perspective on world events but doesn't need to brush up on foreign languages or dislikes subtitles, there's the 6:30 evening news broadcast from Berlin in English.

The rest of RETN's programming about 250 shows a year is produced in-house. While videotaped public school board meetings exemplify the kind of local programming many viewers associate with educational cable access, such fare comprises a minority of what RETN actually produces. On a given day, it's not uncommon to view professional development workshops, presentations of visiting speakers and authors, school events and discussions among educators.

RETN Roundtable, airing at 10:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, is an informal, half-hour discussion program among community members focusing on the rotating themes of science and history, arts and culture, authors and literature, and education and learning. Shot at RETN's modest headquarters at Fort Ethan Allen in Colchester, the program typifies what Campitelli appreciates about noncommercial, locally produced television.

"Unfortunately, most TV is broken down into such small pieces that public discourse has been divided into categories of right and left and good and bad," he says. "We've been criticized for being long and boring, but when you really get into issues, they don't always fit into 90-second sound bites."

Other criticisms of RETN for which Campitelli and his staff of three make no apologies might be that its programs are frequently repeated and sometimes technically imperfect. "We're a community service," Campitelli explains. "We don't have to sell advertising, so we can plug in the same show several times. And our annual budget is $250,000. That's the equivalent of one broadcast studio camera. If we had to do all of this on a $1,000-a-minute budget, think of how many fewer shows we would do."

Despite these shortcomings, RETN does have an audience. Three years ago, a market survey revealed that 38 percent of cable subscribers watched the network at some point during the month. RETN reaches 36,000 households. "Given all the choices people have," Campitelli notes, "that was a surprising and impressive statistic."

Campitelli doesn't mention that it wasn't always this way. Nancy Cathcart does, however, citing her colleague as part of the reason for the network's expansion. Community service coordinator at Champlain College and proprietor of Cathcart Special Projects, a private consulting business, Cathcart is raising funds for some of RETN's new projects. "Scott's taken a struggling, school-based cable network that mostly collected and dispensed educational curriculum videos," she says, "and, through his leadership and vision, he's made it more accessible to youth and teachers. It's become an incredibly useful vehicle for community activists with educational merit to expand their audience."

Campitelli uses an automotive analogy to describe the network when he came on board. "The car was running in the driveway," he says. "The concept was clear, but it hadn't really happened. They needed somebody to drive."

When RETN was launched by a group of educators at Burlington, South Burlington and Chittenden South school districts 11 years ago, the audio/visual directors of South Burlington and Champlain Valley Union High Schools ran the educational television consortium from their respective workplaces during their spare time. "They had a great idea," Campitelli says, "but it was having a hard time growing because they never applied staffing to it."

David Cranmer, production coordinator (left), works in the RETN studio while Aidan Grace, a Gailer School student, sits at the controls during a project.

In 1994, an executive director was hired, and when Campitelli took over the position in 1996, a channel coordinator was his lone employee. Since then, a production coordinator and a production/operations associate have been added.

Working collaboratively to build up a local organization whose mission is to produce and provide media for learning, at a time when advances in technology are exponentially increasing the medium's possibilities, is what initially intrigued Campitelli about RETN and what continues to inspire him today. "Digital technology is allowing for more information to move over wires or satellite transmissions," he explains. "Everything's being interconnected television, telephones, the Internet. We're only limited by our imagination."

A prime example of the effective melding of technology and education is a conversational Japanese class that RETN produced live on cable with South Burlington and Essex high schools for three years. Neither school had enough interested students to warrant a class by itself, so RETN helped to create a distance-learning course, offering labor and technical expertise. The schools contributed equipment and the teacher split her time between the classes.

Embarking on even larger projects with multiple outlets television, the Internet and programs on portable discs requires financial resources that RETN cannot expect Adelphia to provide. "We're a mature organization now," Campitelli says. "We're ready to take on new things, and so we have to diversify our revenue."

RETN's first major foray into bigger waters is the Vermont Social Studies Project, a professional development tool that documents promising approaches to teaching social studies around the state. With a $90,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education, RETN is not only shooting social studies classes, but also interviewing students and teachers to highlight ways that the Vermont Standards for Social Studies can be implemented in schools. Campitelli and his staff are looking to create more than a television program, however; they want the finished product to be accessible on the Internet and portable disc, as well.

Technological developments like these have made the cable access channel rethink its name. Though the acronym will remain the same, by September, RETN will stand for Regional Educational Technology Network. "It's going to better reflect the future of what we'll be doing," Campitelli says.

That this 42-year-old Vermonter is managing a local educational cable television network is no surprise. "I do exactly what I went to school for," Campitelli says with a chuckle, "but I never imagined this is what it would be."

Barbara Brisson is RETN's channel coordinator. The nonprofit network airs on two cable systems both of which are funded by cable-subscriber revenues through Adelphia.

Born and raised in Burlington, Campitelli majored in mass communications and minored in education at the University of Vermont, graduating in 1982. He spent much of his time at WRUV, the campus radio station, where he served as news director and disc-jockeyed music programs. The information side of communications always appealed to him more than the entertainment side.

"The funny part to me now is that I studied radio, film and television at school," he muses, "but television interested me least. It grew on me afterwards."

After graduation, Campitelli fell back on teaching because the communications market in Chittenden County was small. He spent four years as a social studies and English teacher at Essex Middle School. "I loved the energy that came from the kids," he recalls, "but I got restless in the classroom. I liked to get out and move around, so I decided I should try something else."

What arose was a production technician position at Vermont ETV, now called Vermont Public Television (VPT). Campitelli did videography and audio at VPT for four years. What he enjoyed most was driving all over the state. "Growing up in Burlington, I didn't really know the rest of the state," he remarks. "It was a huge education for me."

Nevertheless, Campitelli wasn't sure he wanted to do production forever. "The hours were odd," he admits, "and I wasn't always interested in the programs." For just over a year, he returned to teaching at-risk students in St. Albans and was then rehired by Vermont Public Television, this time as director of learning services.

Serving all 350 schools in the state for five years, Campitelli provided media training to teachers and licensed hundreds of instructional programs for schools. "That job was a marriage of education and communications for me," he says, adding that he might have stayed if the position at RETN hadn't arisen.

At RETN, Campitelli gets to do just what he likes, without "the other." There's no on-air fundraising, and he doesn't have to give students grades. "There wasn't enough of creating educational television before," he adds, "and here we focus on working with people locally. Serving just 12 towns, we can develop relationships that grow."

Running a community-based organization clearly suits Campitelli, but he acknowledges that challenges exist. "I've found that it's no easier to communicate in a small office than a big one," he says. "You're just as busy, if not busier." Staying connected to staff is paramount. "If one person's life changes if someone has a baby or an illness, that's 25 percent of the staff. If two people take the day off, that's 50 percent of the staff. Vacations can be interesting. We have a rotation. It's all about communication."

Once a week, the office holds hour-long staff meetings, which center around a production, administration or programming theme. "I have to be directly involved with my employees," Campitelli stresses. "Otherwise, I can easily make decisions that make no sense."

Another challenge is avoiding complacency. "People seldom have big complaints about what we do," he says, "but I know we're sometimes under-utilizing things. It's a challenge to construct our own accountability so that we make sure we keep moving ahead."

Vision is precisely what Jim Hester, vice president of Vermont's MVP Health Plan and a member of RETN's board of directors, attributes to Campitelli. "He's not there to have RETN be static," Hester says. "He wants to grow and develop the organization. That's a key characteristic of a leader. He's also a good fiscal manager. Visionaries don't often pay attention to where the money's coming from, but Scott knows fiscal responsibility. It's a nice blend."

For different reasons, David Cranmer, RETN's production coordinator, would agree that Campitelli possesses a mix of talents. "Scott brings a great combination of teaching and television skills," he says. "Anytime we start a project, he can see everything from both sides."

Scott Campitelli stands in front of RETN's satellite array. The network reaches 36,000 households.

Campitelli's involvement in RETN Newsroom, a magazine program produced by local youth, illustrates the executive director's blend of technical, educational, visionary and fiscal skills. On the air between September 1999 and June 2001, the program allowed high school students to have a voice in the medium, Campitelli says, noting that young people are more often talked at on television than they are encouraged to speak.

"We did it for a couple years in our spare time," Campitelli says. "It wasn't growing, though, so we said, 'Let's stop and do it right.' " RETN is now looking for $100,000 to train young people to produce similar programs. "It's important to give young people a forum for discussion," Campitelli continues, "and media literacy is critical. Society is filled with visual messages; in order to interpret all that information, you need to understand how television works."

There's no question that Campitelli fancies what he does for a living. What excites the articulate executive director most is the way in which converging communications tools can link human beings to one another. "All this technology isn't worth a damn if it isn't being used to connect people to each other," he declares. "Television when it's done well is an amazing and enlightening tool that can be used for the public good."

If all the drivers sporting "Kill Your Television" bumper stickers spent a day at RETN, they just might start scrubbing the rear of their cars. •

Originally published in March 2002 Business People-Vermont