Outside room 119 at Juneau-Douglas High School, a sheet of paper taped to the wall says, “FOG MACHINE IN USE.”
It’s the Friday before Halloween, and the usually no-nonsense control room and JDTV News anchor desk is dressed with spider webs, skeletons, jack-o-lanterns, black lights, and strobes.
Eleven students put together a live, 10-minute television newscast every week for their video production class. They shoot the video, write the scripts, and edit their stories. On Fridays, they run the studio cameras, a control room full of intimidating buttons, dials and screens, and go on camera as anchors and correspondents.
It’s a hectic scene as students – several in costume – distribute last-minute scripts, set mic levels, practice camera moves and load teleprompters.
And then there’s freshman Jessie Gregg. She’s in front of a green screen wearing a green bodysuit that covers her from neck to toe. It’s a visual effects gag. Viewers should only see her disembodied head and gloved hands floating over the weather graphics.
The effects test goes well.
“It was a little weird not to see my body when I like, looked on the screen, but it was – it’s a pretty cool effect,” Gregg says.
Mikko (and he goes by his first name with the kids, too) is busy, but there’s another idle observer in the studio. Carin Smolin manages the school district’s career and technical education programs, which includes Mikko’s contract.
“Mikko’s doing a great job. He’s been doing this for several years with us. And we’ve, we’ve got a full studio here, and people need to know about it,” Smolin says.
Much of the gear the class uses was donated by KTOO.
Then, from the anchor desk freshman Jade Kalk belts out, “Ready for rehearsal!” Smolin takes her leave.
The rehearsal gets under way and the first few minutes go smoothly. Gregg begins her weather routine:
“Thanks guys, and now for the weather. You may have noticed a teensie-bit of rain –“
But Mikko interrupts her midsentence on the squawk box.
“OK, bit of bad news. We need to stop our rehearsal there, we have 25 seconds to air,” he says, then ticks off a very fast, but intelligible series of instructions to the students sitting next to him in the control room and his two camera operators in the studio on headsets.
“Reset to the top please, black on air, first graphics ready. Ready two. Make sure you have the right script loaded. Ten seconds to air. We are recording. Quiet please.”
But there’s an equipment problem, and resetting takes more time than they have. The flurry of chatter and activity in the control room continues while dead air stretches on.
Eventually, Mikko begins counting down.
“Ready? We’re gonna go in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 — take all.”
The program opens with Kalk dressed as a gypsy and ninth grader Mirriam Meredith as a hippie at the anchor desk.
“Welcome to a very spooky episode of JDTV News,” Meredith says before the first scripted gag of the show. Kalk and Meredith say, “DUN DUN DUUUN!” as Keegan Brown on camera zooms in dramatically.
About 10 minutes later, the newscast winds down. There’s usually a burst of chatter after getting the all clear, but today the reaction is muted. There are a lot of deep sighs.
Mikko calls everyone into the control room.
The broadcast started almost half a minute late and went too long for the 10-minute slot on local cable channel 6. Viewers saw black at the beginning, and the show cut off before the end.
“How did we end up with black?” Brown asks.
“Prompter had a problem,” Mikko says. “And we cannot go without the prompter at the start of the show. K? What caused that problem? We weren’t ready. The script was not ready by deadline. The deadline for the script is before class on shoot day.”
They continue through the debrief identifying more problems. The students get a lesson in responsibility and consequences. Individual problems pile on and affect the whole team.
And the fog machine? They never fired it up.
The bell rings, and the students set aside their television responsibilities for the weekend – Mikko, too. He’ll be out of town next week, so the next show is truly a test.
One week later
A week passes with Mikko out of town. In his absence, Calvin Zuelow is directing. It’s his third year taking the class, which is an elective.
The scripts were closer to being on time. They got through the rehearsal with enough time to make some script changes. And even though a key piece of equipment crashed a few minutes before air, everything came together to hit their live slot on time.
“It worked OK, there were a few technical problems, but there’s always technical problems,” Zuelow says. “You can’t really always foresee those.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the camera operator performing a dramatic zoom as Kyle Short. It was Keegan Brown.