Vermont GNAT cable television station adapts to changing times


SUNDERLAND -- By day he’s the mild-mannered owner of an office furniture business that specializes in ergonomic chairs. But the rest of the time, he’s becoming a local television celebrity on GNAT-TV, the local cable access television station for the Northshire and mountain towns regions.

Steve Dunning started his career in television with a series of video public service announcements about his passion -- animal rescue. Now, he has his own show, called "The Way Home." It deals with caring for pets and especially animals who are coming in from the cold and into a home.

"I look for topics that are relevant and interesting," he said, such as one on feral cats he finished recently. He has been trapping them and housing them at his office while they acclimate to no longer having to fend for themselves in the wild.

"There are so many topics on animals that it’s endless," he added.

But Dunning hasn’t limited his involvement to the front of the camera. He has taken the dive into the technical, behind-the-scenes end of it as well, spending hours learning the tricks of producing the show that viewers watch on their screens, which increasingly are computers or smartphones, as well as traditional TVs. He learned the video editing software program Final Cut Pro, with some help from the station’s creative director, Hoss Wuerslin.

"We do the editing on the fly in the control room, so that’s half the battle right there," Dunning said. "As we’re doing the interview, Anne, the show’s volunteer director, is in the back, and she’ll be selecting the camera -- what I do is put the whole thing together."

Dunning’s show is one of several that have entered the lineup at GNAT over the past couple of years, but they represent only a part of the changes sweeping through the world of communications. Newspapers aren’t the only information outlets that have had to re-think their business models with the arrival of the Internet, high-speed broadband and smartphones. Small local cable stations, often referred to as PEG stations -- shorthand for Public, Educational and Government -- funded largely by revenues from large cable television networks, are also having to adapt, said Tammie Reilly, GNAT’s executive director.

Large cable network providers are obligated to provide the public with access to smaller local cable channels and help fund them from subscriber fees. But with the arrival of robust Internet signals capable of handling large video files -- and portable tablets and smartphones to watch them on -- the future of that business model could be on the threshold of a shift, Reilly said.

"We don’t receive funding from Internet subscription -- all our funding comes from cable subscribers," she said. "People are getting more and more content from the Internet, and there’s no obligation for cable operators to give us any money based on the Internet. We’re not there yet, but in five or 10 years, where will we be?"

GNAT is helping in that push by offering its content online through its website, where visitors can tune in to its three channels.

The station is exploring new ways of creating programming, and it encourages volunteers to create community programs. Shows now cover local select board and school board meetings, along with other major public events like the "First Wednesdays" lectures hosted by Manchester’s Mark Skinner Library and sponsored by the Vermont Humanities Council. But the station is expanding its roster of volunteer hosts and producers, like Steve Dunning, who line up guests for interviews and talk shows, or go out on location.

The station also offers a range of training programs to teach those interested in being on camera -- or behind it -- the arts of television production.

"We’ve realized that in order to be of value to the community we need to be pro-active and go out and engage people," Reilly said.

Hoss Wuerslin, the station’s creative director,got "engaged" about six years ago, Following a stint as a bartender at the Equinox Resort, he started at the station as a paid intern and followed its move from their previous cramped a new thinquarters in the ground floor of an industrial building in Manchester to its present location in the Applejack Art Partners building in Sunderland, almost directly across Route 7A from the entrance to the Equinox Skyline Drive.

"I teach you how to make TV," he said. "The cameras, the equipment, how to edit. I work with people to create TV shows," from kids right out of high school or college to people in their 40s or 50s pursuing a new or deferred dream.

He points to a long and high-tech-looking control panel in a room just off the main studio.

"There are no DVDs or tape machines anymore," he said. "It’s all become much faster and simpler. They’re basically making it easier for the every-day person to access sound and video."

Steve Dunning, one of those "everyday people," found a way to express an urge to talk about animals and their need for shelter and good homes.

"I’ve found that I don’t need to know everything about whatever the topic would be -- just enough to know what questions to ask," he said. "That’s sort of a new thing for me -- the journalism end isn’t where I’m coming from."

If you go ...

GNAT-TV’s signals reach 11 towns across northern Bennington and western Windham Counties, which include the towns of Arlington, Dorset, Peru, Londonderry, Manchester, Sunderland, Stratton, Weston, Winhall and small parts of Sandgate and Rupert.

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