On Sunday, the Riverside Cable Commission quietly doubled the size of its audience when AT&T U-verse began running the cable access TV station’s feed on its Channel 99. But that’s just the latest accomplishment for the commission, which oversees programming there and on Comcast Channel 6 in Riverside, in the past year or so.
For a village of just about 9,000 people, Riverside has one of the more robust cable access channels in the Chicago suburbs.
“For a small town, we’re pretty good,” said Joseph Ballerine, the Riverside village trustee who serves as the board’s liaison to the cable commission. “I think it’s important for residents to know as much as they can about their government.”
In addition to covering village board meetings — typically the minimum standard for most municipalities offering cable access programming — the commission now has crews recording meetings of the Riverside Township Board of Trustees and the Riverside District 96 school board.
Also in 2015, the commission began presenting Planning and Zoning Commission hearings. That’s in addition to important village events, such as the Riverside Arts Weekend, the Fourth of July Parade and RiverFest.
When Cook County officials visited Riverside last summer to outline their plan to purchase residential properties in Riverside Lawn, a cable commission camera crew documented the event. They even ventured over to North Riverside on Sept. 11 to record that village’s annual 9/11 memorial ceremony.
For those not near a local TV, the board meetings are available live on the cable commission’s website — riversidetv.us — which also keeps an archive of past meetings and special events available on demand.
“I’m really very proud of it,” said Don Farnham, an Emmy Award-winning retired network cameraman and Riverside resident who at 90 years old is the longest serving commissioner. “It started out very primitive, but it’s come a long way.”
Farnham and the late Dr. Bob Novak were early proponents of documenting village government on video — when the presence of cameras was not especially welcome. By the mid-1990s, however, the fledgling commission had been established.
“When I came in, it was a DVD player and two VCRs. That’s what ran the station,” said Commissioner Mark Yurkiw, who has been a member of the commission since about 2003. “The station has grown by leaps and bounds. Compared to what they were doing when I got involved, it’s night and day.”
Things started changing more rapidly after the village hired a paid, part-time production supervisor to manage and schedule camera crews, comprised of high school and college students, who are also paid for their time.
The seven or so student staffers are critical to the success of the operation, said Joe Doria, who was hired as the commission’s production supervisor in 2015.
“They all can cover various responsibilities for the job,” said Doria. “They’re all really motivated and hungry, but they’re also so lucky to work in the career that they want to be in at this point in their lives. They’re involved in a working television station.”
The commission also began seeking out better equipment, whose purchases are reimbursed through the West Central Cable Association, a consortium of nearby communities that pool fees from Comcast and AT&T to fund cable access operations.
Doria, a veteran TV producer who has lived in Riverside for almost 20 years, has served as production supervisor since early 2015. He and cable commission Chairman Greg Gorski are seen as the principal drivers of the initiatives the commission has pursued in the past 12 months.
In addition to documenting village government and important events, the commission is exploring original programming.
Last year, the commission shot a couple pieces focusing on local business people and spent hours riding along with and interviewing police officers and other employees of the police department for a documentary-type program about a day in the life of police officers. That program is still in the works.
“We need to figure out a real format for it,” said Doria, noting that the commission is also working on “Memories of Riverside,” a kind of living-history series featuring interviews with longtime residents as well as short subjects about notable locations and the history of Riverside.
Yurkiw, a historian of the Chicago local TV scene, is one of the driving forces behind the station’s weekend movie features and cartoon packages. He seeks out public domain films — the two running currently are an Abbott and Costello feature and a made-for-TV movie called Escape from Gilligan’s Island — and cartoons and tries to package them as if they were being shown at a movie theater, with short subjects and cartoons thrown in.
“It’s very limited with public domain, but there’s a lot of stuff like ‘Clutch Cargo’ and ‘The Funny Company’ which have fallen into public domain,” Yurkiw said. “One of the things I’m working on is a bunch of cartoons presented as a two-hour show that would run on Saturday mornings.”
The goal, said Ballerine, is to evolve from a station that once ran part time on VHS tapes to 24-hour programming.
“That’s as quality a commission as you’re going to get,” Ballerine said. “They’re all passionate about it.”