APPLETON, Minn. — For nearly 50 years, the public TV station in this Swift County town has dutifully offered its rural viewers the time-honored menu of public broadcasting: many children’s shows, some educational programs, a smattering of entertainment.
Even so, Pioneer Public Television has sought to broaden that mission in recent years, deepening its coverage of the people and places in this patchwork quilt of farm fields, small towns and open prairie on the western edge of Minnesota.
Some of the change is geographical. Digital and satellite technology, for instance, allow the station to now reach about 1 million potential viewers in its coverage area (which also includes eastern South Dakota and northwestern Iowa), while a new mobile studio provides more coverage of regional events.
The heart and soul of Pioneer’s aspirations, however – a heightened focus on storytelling – can be found in a series of documentaries that combine sharp videography, often of the region’s spare beauty, and music with deep narratives. Five of these reports, which the station calls “Postcards,” garnered regional Emmy nominations earlier this year.
“We aren’t going out there and trying to get an Emmy,” station manager Jon Panzer said one November afternoon at the station. “We are just trying to do really good stories that mean something.” He paused and then added: “But when you start doing work at that level, things start to line up.”
One of the nominated stories won an Emmy: “Haiti Love,” a half-hour piece about the efforts of a Prinsburg couple, Jay and Kris TeBrake, to adopt two children from earthquake-shattered Haiti. Other nominated segments included stories on the tight-knit Micronesian community in Milan; a Madison blacksmith and his apprentice; and a glass artist from tiny Vining, population 78.
The station won its first Emmy, in 2013, for a “Postcards” segment on Caroline Smith, a singer and songwriter who grew up in Detroit Lakes before finding critical acclaim in the Twin Cities.
Pioneer Public Television broadcast its first program in 1966 out of an old, red one-room schoolhouse that had been converted into a station. Nine years later, the station broadcast its first local show: a program on the agricultural youth group Future Farmers of America.
For years, the lineup on Pioneer was typical of many public stations: a heavy slate of PBS programs, especially children’s shows, interspersed with local fare – earnest shows with such names as “Your Legislators” and “On Call for Health.”
But sustained long-form journalism – an expensive kind of reportage – wasn’t much of a possibility until 2008, when Minnesota voters approved the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, a state constitutional amendment that created a stable funding source for organizations that promote arts, culture and history across the state.
Pioneer applied for Legacy funding, and “Postcards” was born. It will begin its sixth season in December with 20 episodes on deck.
“It has been enormously enjoyable because we have wanted to do these kinds of stories for a long time,” said Les Heen, the station’s general manager. “People would come to us with ideas, but we didn’t have a magazine show to put them in.”
Pioneer has about 20 employees, including a stable of young journalists who live in this city of 1,400 people or in nearby towns. Most of them also grew up in the area, giving them a certain insight into the local culture. Heen said the station has been fortunate to find young people who are skilled in digital media and “enthusiastic about telling rural stories.”
Appreciation for the area and its people
Videographer Ben Dempcy, who grew up in nearby Louisburg, graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls in 2012 with a degree in digital film and television. He and his wife, who also hails from this area, decided to return home, and Dempcy landed a job at Pioneer.
Dempcy said he has “a greater appreciation for the stories here” after being away for college. “Young people want to see stories that make them proud of where they live,” he said, “instead of seeing greater Minnesota as this great wasteland.”
Producer Andrea Singleton agreed, adding: “There is beauty in the prairie. A lot of artists and creative people are choosing to live here.”
Producer Dana Johnson also left the area before returning. She grew up in Willmar, graduated from Pepperdine University and worked in the Twin Cities before deciding that rural journalism was where she could put her own stamp on her work. She joined Pioneer in 2011.
“The opportunities for what we can do here are just incredible,” she said.