Hadley’s cable guy: Over 20 years and 1,000 meetings later, Richard Trueswell still has his camera trained on town business
Richard Trueswell is the access coordinator for public station TV-5 in Hadley.
JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »
Richard Trueswell, who is the access coordinator for TV 5 in Hadley, edits video from a Select Board meeting for Select Board On Demand in his studio Wednesday.
JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »
Richard Trueswell has been attending Select Board meetings for 23 years.
JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »
HADLEY — The Hadley cable access station is fueled by one man’s passion.
When Richard Trueswell, the access coordinator and sole employee of TV-5, began filming Hadley Select Board meetings in 1990, he used a camera borrowed from a friend of his brother. Over the years, the station has gotten more funding and equipment, but it is still a one-man operation.
“I usually have someone to back me up when I’m not available to shoot a meeting, but other than that it’s mainly just me,” Trueswell said.
In the past two decades, Trueswell, who is 53 and single, has left the station twice, but he has always returned to record his hometown’s business.
There are few people — if any — who have attended as many Hadley governmental meetings as he has. He has been covering Select Board meetings for 23 years. Now he films as many as three meetings a week — including the Select Board, the School Committee, the Planning Board and occasionally the Zoning Board of Appeals. He estimates that he has been to more than a thousand meetings.
“The first meeting I shot was June 13, 1990,” Trueswell said. He still has the VHS recording he made at that meeting.
For some, the prospect of attending so many local meetings would seem tedious, but not to Trueswell. When he first started covering the Select Board, he said, sparks would fly at meetings rife with controversy. A cable company employee once told him that people were signing up for cable just to watch tempers flare.
“They’re definitely more civil now,” Trueswell said. But he still finds the meetings engaging.
He likes that the broadcasts can connect people with their local government. In addition to airing local meetings, TV-5 helps residents get their own views on the air via their own programs.
“Like any public access channel we provide a soapbox,” he said.
Trueswell also covers town events like the Memorial Day parade and the Senior Center Mardi Gras festival. The station airs about 10 hours of programming a day, and when that’s done, it runs a community calendar that Trueswell keeps up to date. He works hard to make the schedule available to residents, posting it in public buildings, maintaining it on the website and sending emails to those on a mailing list.
“I try to air as wide a variety of programming as I can,” he said, adding most of the positive feedback he gets is for niche offerings, like the three polka music shows TV-5 broadcasts.
“We air programs that would never be aired on a station like Channel 40 because they’re not commercially viable,” Trueswell said. “They can’t make money showing polka shows.”
Watching grass grow
When Trueswell’s at work he blends into the background, except when he stops the proceedings to request that someone use a microphone or move out of the way of the camera.
At a recent School Committee meeting, he stood to the side with his camera and a crate of equipment, adjusting the sound and panning between speakers. He whispered in the ear of his intern, Olympia Papadopulu, showing her what to do and letting her briefly take charge.
When a meeting is over Trueswell edits the tapes and adds credit sequences — complete with cheerful yellow lettering and music that sounds like it is straight from a 1980s sitcom.
The office where Trueswell works is in the basement of the Senior Center. When TV-5 moved in, it shared the space with the town nurse, but now how has the place to itself. The room is filled with video equipment, three desks with computers and a collection of VHS tapes that Trueswell has deemed worthy of keeping for posterity.
Community cable access stations like TV-5 are provided to towns by cable companies free of charge. They typically focus on education and government and provide equipment and training for community members to make their own programs. It’s common for towns to request public access funding in the contracts that allow cable companies to use public land for cable infrastructure.
Hadley has three access stations, but has only been able to muster programming for just one, according to Trueswell. Town Administrator David Nixon said the town receives $25,000 per year from Charter Communications for the access stations, a sum that is dwarfed by larger stations, such as Northampton Community Television, which had an operating budget of $280,000 last year, according to the Executive Director P. Al Williams. Jim Lescault, executive director Amherst Media, said Amherst’s station receives almost $300,000 per year. Hadley’s contract, however, will be up for negotiation this year, and Trueswell said that the town will seek increased funding for the station.
Trueswell said the money goes toward station expenses and his salary — which was $27,000 in 2012 and is supplemented by the town.
His first foray into television was in 1990 as a volunteer for TV-13, a cable access channel that Hadley shared with Belchertown. He said that when he began, TV-13 was staffed entirely by volunteers from Belchertown and, although it broadcast in Hadley, too, it only covered Belchertown events.
“They assigned me to shoot Belchertown Select Board meetings,” Trueswell said, “which were like watching grass grow because I wasn’t familiar with Belchertown.”
So he decided to focus on his hometown.
The equipment TV-13 was using was borrowed from Belchertown residents, and Trueswell said he was not allowed to use it to cover Hadley. But when he heard an upcoming Select Board meeting would be addressing a controversial topic, he asked around and found a camera to borrow.
It was a “very hot meeting both temper and temperature wise,” Trueswell said. “They were fighting over the water rates.”
It took three attempts to get that first recording on the air, because thunderstorms kept knocking the town’s cable out.
Trueswell’s journey through Hadley public TV has been rocky. He has left the job twice.
After volunteering with TV-5 for four years Trueswell decided in 1994 to pursue television production professionally. He left to attend Fitchberg State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in communications, with a concentration in television production.
After graduation, he worked at the Smith College Center for Media Production, but he left to find a job where he could focus on television. He got a paid internship at Easthampton Community Access Television, but the funding dried up after a few months.
So Trueswell was back at Hadley community TV in 1999. He volunteered for the station for almost a year before Town Meeting voted to pay him for his time, and he was hired to work for 16 hours per week as access coordinator for the station.
In 2007 Trueswell left TV-5 once again after a long dispute with the Select Board over increasing his hours. He spent time volunteering for Amherst Media, and produced a regular broadcast of the services at Immanuel Lutheran Church, where Trueswell is a congregant.
In November 2009, he was rehired at TV-5 as access coordinator and now works 30 to 35 hours per week. Since his return, he has been expanding the station’s offerings and streaming the meetings he records on the Internet.
Like all public access stations, TV-5 has changed dramatically over the last two decades. When Trueswell began, he recorded meetings onto VHS tapes, and he had to be in the station in order to broadcast them.
“We didn’t have automated cablecasting equipment, so every time a meeting needed to be aired, I had to drive over to Belchertown and do it,” Trueswell said. “Press play on the VCR at air time.”
Now, the meetings are broadcast live on the cable access channel and re-air several times during the week. Select Board meetings and portions of School Committee and Planning Board meetings are available on demand at www.hadleyma.org.
The station has a server that is set up to automatically broadcast the schedule of programming Trueswell arranges. If he has to make a change — like when the station airs information during snowstorms — he can do so from the comfort of his own home by logging onto the server through the Internet.
Nixon, the town administrator, said he frequently hears comments and questions from residents who saw government meetings on TV-5. At a Select Board meeting in February, a resident showed up partway through the meeting because he had been watching the live broadcast and he wanted to correct an error.
Lescault said that Amherst Media is expanding beyond television to do more Internet programming and other kinds of technology training, but residents still rely on the station to broadcast meetings. He said that a recent survey of viewers found that they are particularly interested in news coverage summarizing local town politics.
Williams, of Northampton Community Television, also said that residents are looking to keep up on town politics without watching full meetings and hearings.
“One advantage of the government coverage is that it is not sound bites,” Williams said. “That presents real challenges as well for people, because people are limited in their time. It can be difficult for them to watch an entire three-hour meeting or four-hour meeting. But in this day and age, when we’re putting video on demand, it’s a lot more searchable.”
Video on demand is a project Trueswell is tackling. In order to make meetings more accessible to viewers who are interested in a particular topic and don’t have time to view the whole meeting, he posts videos that are linked to each agenda item at www.hadleyma.org. Viewers can check the agenda, select the item they are interested in and see that debate without watching the rest of the meeting.
Although TV-5 has fewer community participants than larger stations, this year it has its first intern, Papadopulu. She is a senior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she studies communications.
Papadopulu said she is interning with the station because she plans to pursue a career in television production, but she has also learned a lot about municipal governance.
“I love it,” Papadopulu said. “It’s just interesting to see how towns operate.”
TV-5 may be small, but Trueswell still has his eye on expansion. He said that in the future he is hoping to upgrade the equipment and activate another station so the town will have two active public access channels. If the town is able to get more funding with the next cable contract, these upgrades and others may be in the station’s future.