Westfield community programming: How a community media outlet steps up during difficult times

By Mark G. Auerbach

Westfield, Massachusetts, is a small city in Western Massachusetts, set between the Springfield metropolitan area and the Berkshires. Home to Westfield State University, a major airport, and a manufacturing base, the city has a daily newspaper, The Westfield News, and two local broadcasting outlets, 89.5fm/WSKB, licensed to Westfield State and WCPC15 community television, licensed to the city. The latter two work in tandem to provide a variety of local programming from music shows to news, talk and entertainment shows under the supervision of Peter Cowles, media systems specialist for the City of Westfield. Programming originates from studios Cowles, a broadcast veteran of many major radio and TV stations, developed at Westfield Technical Academy, the local vocational high school, which hosts a broadcast department, where students learn the craft of radio, TV, and film production.

I know the play and the players, because I have a small part in the story. In an effort to be transparent, I came onboard because I was writing arts coverage for The Westfield News, whose then-president, Patrick Berry, had a weekly program where he interviewed all kinds of locals from DPW officials describing efforts to find and patch potholes to city business leaders. I began as a guest theatre reporter on WOW! It’s Tuesday, a weekly program featuring the community arts events sponsored by Westfield on weekends. I was spun off into my own hourly program, ArtsBeat, where I interviewed creatives in the Western New England entertainment world. ArtsBeat was supposed to be a summer fill-in, but it went year-round.

Going hyper-local during the pandemic

The mostly volunteer crew is committed to showcasing the community assets and needs. Harry Rock, host of Rock on Westfield, is a retired YMCA executive, community leader, chair of Westfield’s 350th anniversary celebration, and a musician. “I focus on highlighting the positive aspects of the city of Westfield,” he says. “I interview directors of nonprofits, interesting startup businesses, musicians, event organizers, and bring focus to events that are about to occur to help encourage public attendance and participation. I continually monitor what events and activities are about to occur in Westfield, as well as news worthy issues that are influencing the city.”

“Before the pandemic, we were producing approximately 20 hours per week of live non-governmental programming,” says Cowles. “Currently, we’re averaging 23-24 hours a week. The programs for the most part, have stayed the same in structure, but the content went hyper local to provide up to date information for local sources.”

Cowles adds “Scheduling has been tough recently though, as the lockdown order has closed City hall. The meetings of the boards and commissions of Westfield still continue virtually. To meet the guidelines of the State Open Meeting Laws, all these meeting MUST be broadcast on the Community Access Channel and Streamed on www.westfieldtv.org. Schedules have been very flexible due to the volume of meetings and availability of the conferencing technologies needed to meet and keep the business of government moving forward.”

Serving the needs of stay-at-home seniors

Tina Gorman, the head of the Westfield Council on Aging, hosts Wake Up Wednesdays, a weekly program for seniors, with a wealth of information for a community often underserved by other media. Realizing that the seniors had no outlet to congregate in, and no opportunity to get out and about, she asked her husband, Dr. Gary Gorman, a chiropractic physician at Trinity Health Medical Group and a sports coach, to create an exercise program for the homebound.

Dr. Gorman adds, “Tina wanted to use Channel 15 to bring programs that are ordinarily offered as classes at the Center to older adults who are sheltering at home. Many of the city’s older adults are not computer or smart phone savvy. Channel 15 is an ideal method for getting information and programs to them. I offered to host a stretching and movement session that is easily adaptable to various home environments for almost any level of functioning.”

Dr. Gorman created a program, Let’s Get Sitting, with his daughter Grace. “She does the exercises; I do the narration, and we have a low-impact exercise program that folks can do without any equipment, while sheltering at home.”

Cowles, along with Ken Stomski, host of the weekly Ken’s Den interview and talk show, and Jay Pagluica, co-owner of Gaslight Entertainment, producers of the Westfield Concerts series, and host of two programs, JP’s Golden Age of Radio (which airs programs of the classic ‘40s and ‘50s radio programs) and JP’s Talk About Town, which showcases local talent, started an innovative program, The Studio 120 Sessions.

The Studio 120 Sessions showcases the talents of area musicians who have no live performance opportunities as bars, clubs, and restaurants are closed, and weddings and other special events are on hold. Cowles, Stomski and Pagluica produce a 30-minute concert with musicians, include an interview, and package it for streaming on radio and TV, plus post it to YouTube. The local musicians have something promotional for their portfolio and an outlet for performance. Pagluica, whose day job is that of a Xerox manager, says “With the worldwide reach of the WestfieldTV.org simulcast and You Tube channel archive of the programs so they can be accessed anytime by anyone, we are more accessible than ever. It’s incredibly satisfying when someone stops me to say they saw or heard a particular show.”

Under my ArtsBeat banner, Peter Cowles and I co-produced a 10-part series, How We’re Doing, where 40 area people from the worlds of media, education, business, and the arts shared their experiences dealing with COVID-19, their strategies for coping, and their advice for others. Since theatres were dark, and we were unable to cover concerts and shows, or bring ArtsBeat to tape live in venues from Hartford Stage and TheaterWorks to Berkshire Theatre Group and the Capitol Steps summer residencies at Cranwell, this new series prevented gaps in the program schedule and retained an audience.

Some of their other programs include: Chamber Chatter from the Westfield Chamber of Commerce, Superintendent’s Spotlight and Tiger Talk, which highlights programs at the Westfield Public Schools and Westfield Technical Academy; That’ll Learn Ya, Bobby G and Company, and on the radio side, polka music on weekends.

Serving the community at a crucial time

Harry Rock sees the high value of community programming provided during tough times. “WCPC-15 broadcasts all of the Westfield City Council and related commission and committee meetings so residents are able to hear the information immediately for themselves. The broadcasting is valuable to individuals who are unable to attend meetings personally, as well as recording every show and storing them on YouTube for people to access at their convenience. We have learned that when it is difficult or dangerous to attend events due to disease or weather accessing that same event through radio or city cable television is even more important to our community to keep everyone informed and up to date with important updates and information”.

“WCPC in particular has adapted greatly and embodies the original philosophy or public or community access television,” says Cowles. “We serve a critical need that commercial stations just cannot do…we bring viewpoints and programs that are unique and not always commercially viable to television. WCPC is now emerging as a vital resource in the community as a source for information and entertainment…I hope continues well into the future.”

Community programming airs on 89.5fm/WSKB and WCPC15. To stream: www.wskb.org or www.westfieldtv.org.

Programs are archived at WSKB Community Radio: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCjzPcoGhNs723gdf2cFc1pQ and Westfield Community Programming: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCpPGZstptNanGmdbo0LHFVg


Mark G. Auerbach is principal at Mark G. Auerbach Public Relations, a Springfield, MA, based marketing, public relations, development and events consultancy. You can find more information about Mark at Facebook and LinkedIn. Mark also produces ArtsBeat in print in The Westfield News, on radio for Pioneer Valley Radio and on radio/TV for WCPC15 and 89.5fm/WSKB.

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