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Memorable Moments: The Great Lakes Now team shares favorite stories of working on the initiative

Memorable Moments: The Great Lakes Now team shares favorite stories of working on the initiative
April 27, 2021 GLN Editor

As Great Lakes Now approaches the two-year anniversary of the launch of the monthly program, we asked our staff and contributors about their favorite moments working Great Lakes Now. Their thoughts were as diverse as the show.

Here’s what they shared:

Colleen O’Donnell, social media manager

After some Detroit Public Television staff reorganization at the beginning of the pandemic, Colleen joined the team in June 2020. She’s the originator and “executive producer,” really, of the watch parties. Find the schedule of them on the GLN Facebook Event Page.

My favorite GLN memories are (surprise, surprise…) all about the watch parties. Two of the biggest of course are when Sandra first agreed to do the watch parties, which I (delightfully!) did not even need to bug or cajole her about, because she realized right away, just like I did, how valuable they could turn out to be as part of our overall audience engagement. She saw the vision!

Our success with the watch parties was big and instant – people took note, and GLN fans loved it. We even made new fans, as far away as California and Florida – and even some in Europe, Asia and “down under” in Australia!

Playlist: Episode Watch Parties

Playlist: Belle Isle/Detroit River Watch Parties

One awkward memory that will forever live in infamy was our first shipwrecks watch party (which we now lovingly dub the “train wrecks” watch party), when our technology failed and our stream did not go live on Facebook, along with some other tech challenges piling on, including a video file that momentarily crashed the system, and an army of trolls who were spamming our watch party!

Thankfully our guests kept their cool, the show went on – and we shared the full video later with our audience, but what a hair-raising, white-knuckle experience that was!

The other big moment was winning the award for best use of new media this year for our watch parties from Michigan Association of Broadcasters.

Great Lakes Now News Director Natasha Blakely behind the scenes of Great Lakes Now (Photo Credit: Natasha Blakely)

Natasha Blakely, news director

Growing up in Singapore, the ocean WAS Natasha’s favorite until joining the GLN team two years ago. Her first day as news director was exactly a week before the first show aired, so in those seven days she observed some serious chaos and then got to go to the launch party as part of her job. (No, we don’t have parties every week…) She’s the one who posts most of the website content and is the voice on much of the GLN social media.

Reporting and writing about the J.W. Westcott mail boat is my favorite memory so far. I got to go along on the boat.

It was fun because I hadn’t been on a TV shoot before so I was kind of over-the-top in my ducking behind seats and around corners so I wouldn’t get caught in frame and interrupt filming. I was really tense. Videographer Matt Ilas ended up telling me I didn’t need to jump out of the way and to just relax.

Here’s Natasha’s work from that outing:

Boat Life: The ups and downs of life as a mail boat captain

Letters, Packages, Pizzas: The duties of the mail boat have changed with the evolution of delivery

Nick Austin,  narrator and field-producer

As the host of the “Soul Saturday” program on WDET-FM, Detroit’s NPR station, Nick Austin is no stranger to public broadcasting. But TV and the Great Lakes’ environment are new territory. Nick debuted with Great Lakes Now as a field producer for the “Island Basketball” segment and has since been the voice of several segments.

My most memorable moment with Great Lakes Now was our shoot on Mackinac Island. It started with my absolutely poor decision to think as a native-Michigander I could properly handle a Mackinac Island winter weekend without packing boots. We traveled there in December for the Great Lakes Island Basketball Tournament which became the segment in Episode 1011.

Shooting Basketball: The Great Lakes Now production team on the ferry to Mackinac Island. Left to Right, Videographer Oliver VanAssche, Producer Nick Austin, Videographer Zach Irving, Program Director Sandra Svoboda.

On the island, we ran into unexpected issues with the “horse taxis” — mainly the limited number of them in December — and we had to walk from the ferry to the gym hosting the event. You would think that was my warning not to carry extra equipment I didn’t need. But when we walked from our lodge to the second day of the basketball tournament, at the crack of dawn, and my frozen toes could take no more, I was very fortunate to have a crew willing to help me finish the trek.

As an amateur photographer, I probably had no business carrying photo gear during the trip anyway.

But then I got my favorite landscape photo of the year during that freezing cold trek:

Lorraine Boissoneault, contributing writer

Based in Chicago, Lorraine is an accomplished science/environmental writer. Our program director, Sandra Svoboda, met her on an Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources field reporting trip along the St. Lawrence and the rest, as the cliché goes, is history as she started writing for the website. The Fund for Environmental Journalism provided a grant that helped Lorraine write the “Conflicted Over Copper” series, which became a segment in Episode 1018 – River Influence.

I’ve had a lot of fun reporting on different stories for GLN because so many of them have given me the opportunity to get out in the field and meet people either enjoying their environment or doing work to protect and understand it.

I think my favorite experience so far was going to Milwaukee to help with a wetlands monitoring program. The leader of the volunteer group brought waders for me, and we headed out into very chilly water to look at what had been caught in the traps.

It was still April and there was snow in the forecast, but somehow we had nice weather that day. It felt a little like being in the middle of nowhere, but less than half a mile down the road was a highway and the first IKEA built in Wisconsin.

Videographer Matt Ilas behind the scenes of Great Lakes Now at the 2021 Belle Isle Spring Clean Up (Photo Credit: Sandra Svoboda)

Matt Ilas, videographer

You’ve seen his work in nearly every show as he films our host’s stand ups – the introductions to the show and each segment along with the close that completes each program. Matt has also filmed for numerous other segments and is currently working with our PBS-Belle Isle Conservancy intern.

My favorite memory is something that I’m reminded of every time I’m with Program Director Sandra Svoboda. We had just met, my head was in the game way too deeply because I was using a camera that is less than user-friendly, so clearly I blanked on Sandi’s name when I called her Cindy… or something close but very incorrect.

She then called me Mark after correcting me. And on it goes.

We refer to each other by myriad names, which usually confuses everyone else who’s with us. One day we’ll not be able to remember the other person’s true name. What do you think, Louise?

Sandra’s Note: I would have thought Matt/Bob/Jackson’s favorite memory was the very first segment for the whole show series when we traveled to the Lake Erie Islands for the “Island Life” segment. We drove, rode ferries, flew in a small plane and had a golf cart outing while shooting that piece. He also had to remind someone that he could hear what they were saying on the remote microphone – he still won’t tell me what that person said!

David Ruck, producer and videographer

After one member of the Great Lakes Now team met David Ruck at the Thunder Bay International Film Festival, he came to Detroit and met others, going on to produce and contribute to several segments from his Muskegon, Michigan, home base. David’s GLN segment “Sinkhole Science” was recognized this year with a merit award in the Independent Producer category of the Michigan Association of Broadcasters competition.

I would just say the adventure of building stories with GLN Supervising Producer Rob Green and my editor Zach overall have been my favorite times with the Great Lakes Now initiative. It was a lot of fun work to get “Feeding the Blooms” together and the subsequent Facebook Live events. It’s always great when a piece comes together.

I also really enjoyed doing the original music for the other algae piece, “Climate Conundrum,” as that was something I don’t usually have time to spend on. I love the collaboration and learning from other people who have different backgrounds to make something come together, and I try to allow each aspect of the project to have full attention during the creative process.

Videographer Matt Ilas and Host Ward Detwiler at Kelleys Island School during a shoot for the first Great Lakes Now monthly show (Photo Credit: Sandra Svoboda)

Ward Detwiler, host

Great Lakes Now is Ward’s first regular TV gig. He’s squeezed in shoots for the program, along with other events representing GLN, around his day job as the CEO of a medical technology company. An avid sailor and fisherman, he’s hoping for some segments that give him an excuse to be on the water sailing and fishing with a camera in tow.

I have two favorite GLN moments. I’m sorry, I just can’t pick one.

First there was the time I touched a freighter while on the J.W. Westcott mail boat on the Detroit River. When I watch that segment, I realize that I do, indeed, look like a 12-year-old kid, which I guess is OK in that context because it is truly how I felt.

I’ve done a lot of cool things on the Great Lakes in my life so far – and there are still so many to do – but at least I can check off “ride on the country’s only floating zip code” thanks to working on the show. It was cool to take the audience along.

Speaking of the audience, that is my second favorite thing about the show: hearing from random people about the impact the program has on them. “I was upstairs getting ready for work, I had PBS on and all of a sudden I heard your voice,” someone told me. “Hey, I saw your show,” I hear at professional conferences.

Another person asked if I’d record a happy birthday wish for his wife. I never expected to be a person someone would want a video greeting from, but knowing that they wanted me because I have the honor of hosting the show meant a lot.

Seeing that we actually reach people is so rewarding.

Supervising Producer Rob Green behind the scenes of Great Lakes Now (Photo Credit: Sandra Svoboda)

Rob Green, supervising producer

Rob returned to Detroit after two decades of being based in New York City, working on non-fiction and commercial projects. He organized the launch of the monthly show and continues to lead its development and production.

It must say something about what the effects of the pandemic that the memory that springs to mind is the moment TaskRabbit notified me that I’d successfully sent a portable hard drive of show footage to our editor, Jordan Wingrove.

We try to cover the whole Great Lakes basin, so for every episode of the show, footage comes in from a number of people all over the region. When we were all working in one office, the footage came in and that was that. Everyone could access it from office hard drives.

But when the pandemic forced us to all start working from home, that meant the footage had to come in to me and then go back out to a number other people before we could take next step toward delivering the show.

Often, producers or editors are waiting for me to receive, copy and share that critical footage. Since the deadline for delivering the show doesn’t move, the longer they have to wait, the less time they have to do their work once the wait is over.

I can share the files over the internet if they’re small enough. And I can send a hard drive through FedEx as long as the recipient can wait until tomorrow — but sometimes tomorrow is really too late. Tomorrow means making people work extra hours on Saturday to get the show finished on time. I could drive the footage across town myself, of course, but on those days when footage has to get delivered right now, you can bet there are a hundred other things that have to happen right now, too.

You can see where this is going, right? In retrospect, I don’t know why it took me more than half a year to start using an app-based delivery service. It couldn’t really get more obvious. I guess sometimes I’m a little slow on the uptake, but when I got that first alert on my phone telling me the footage for our “Floating Islands” update was in Jordan’s hands, I understood that this was how I’d be doing things in the future.

So my favorite moment was when something new worked that help us produce the show. In a year of so many logistical and technological challenges, it was just good to have something go as planned!

Here’s the show the footage was part of:

Editor Jordan Wingrove working on Great Lakes Now in 2019 (Photo Credit: Sandra Svoboda)

Sandra Svoboda, program director

When Sandra joined the GLN team, the monthly show was an idea on paper. She came to TV after working as a print journalist and in public radio – thank goodness there were plenty  of TV people around to help make a show. Having traveled extensively throughout the Great Lakes region and worked on multiple media platforms, she’s constantly bugging everyone to make video for digital, to make digital content that can lead to show segments, and to get ALL of it to audiences on social media.

This is difficult. One favorite memory? My favorite thing is always the last thing we finished.

Because usually that segment, story, digital widget, social media campaign, watch party and even group conversation in a Zoom meeting has some little element of it that was just a little bit better than something else we did because we keep learning from making up this thing that is Great Lakes Now. And if we trust that our audience will keep growing because of quality work, then that means we’re heading in the right direction of constantly being just a little better in what we’re doing.

A wise person told me “we want some of our content to be what we want all of our content to be.” (OK, it was Rob Green.) I think that applies to a lot of workplaces and production in other professions. Not everything can be perfect or even spectacular, given deadlines, capacity, production schedules etc. But some of it? Yeah, some of it can be. Thanks to the team here, a lot of it has been!

So while not every segment has exclusive reporting breaking some kind of news story, or unique underwater or aerial footage, or Ward and Natasha on a mail boat, or an Emmy awarded for it, some of our stories have done all of those things. And we’ll work for more of it in the future.

Happy Birthday to the show. Thanks to everyone who makes our work possible.

Here’s more about our two years:

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