COLUMBIA — Turn on the Columbia Channel today, and you’ll hear upbeat melodies, see wipe and fade transitions and watch original, animated graphics of kids playing soccer or doing karate. You'll also find compelling stories and neighborly TV such as "Energy Guy" David Mars.
You can find the City Channel on Mediacom Channel 13, Charter Communications Channel 2, and CenturyTel Channel 401. The station airs programming 24 hours a day.
The new look and sound is largely a product of the hard work and leadership of Don Cizek, who's been coordinator of the Columbia Channel for the past two years.
“I haven’t worked a 40-hour week in forever,” said Cizek, whose average workday begins at 8 a.m. and ends around 7 p.m. He just wants to make sure things are running smoothly all day long.
Cizek's dedication to the channel began when the city hired him in 1999 as a graphic designer. In November 2006, he was promoted to coordinator after his predecessor, Connie Kacprowicz, took a full-time position as spokeswoman for Columbia Water and Light. Kacprowicz had been involved for about 10 years with the Columbia Channel, which was established by the Water and Light Department about 30 years ago.*
Cizek does his work at the Columbia Channel station, located in a tiny, nondescript strip mall north of Broadway on Fourth Street. The channel's offerings have become more creative since Cizek took over. A man with a musical background — formerly of the band called East Ash — Cizek writes all original music for the station, and with help from co-workers creates graphics that have improved the visual content of station.
“Don’s a big thinker," said City Public Communications Director Toni Messina. "He’s established high-level quality. His programs are engaging, and his staff are professionals who like what they do."
In addition, the staff have an in-house workshop where they build and repair their own computers and cords. This helps them be cost-effective and customize equipment for their needs. Home-built computers are used in all four editing bays throughout the station. Using sophisticated software — Avid for video, After Effects for graphics and Cubase for musical composition — the station can meet all its production needs.
Multiple editing stations provide the staff with the tools necessary to allow everyone to simultaneously work on different aspects of a presentation. Someone might be working on graphics while another is in an editing bay tweaking music. The atmosphere is laid-back, and the people seem to love their jobs. Cizek treats them like colleagues, not underlings. He doesn't bear down on his employees, which allows creativity to flourish.
“Don’s a real visionary,” City Channel Production Coordinator Rosemary Frank said.
The creativity of Cizek and his staff is expressed in programs such as "Conservation Tips" with Mars, the energy management specialist, or "Columbia Cooks" featuring local chefs, which offers practical information to better inform and support the community.
The channel also broadcasts monthly news conferences with City Manager Bill Watkins, City Council, Planning and Zoning Commission and Board of Adjustment meetings. To keep Columbia residents updated on current events, the channel lists information about community events, employment and recreational activities.
The channel is working on special content for the Office of Cultural Affairs. It is developing an audio tour of nearly a dozen public art exhibits across Columbia. Some of the works of art included in the tour are the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the bronze work "Nexus" at Boone Hospital Center Medical Park and "The Runners" along the MKT Nature/Fitness Trail.
Cizek credits his background in construction with helping him lead the staff.
“I learned how to manage a crew, project end-dates and (to) coordinate sequences from that experience,” Cizek said.
Creativity was not all that Cizek brought to Columbia Channel. He also brought organization and order to the station's budget. When he began work for the channel in 1999, it had a budget of about $490,000, he estimated. Its budget now has grown to $590,000.
“Before I took over, there was no internal accounting structure. Now we’re more careful with money, and there’s a robust accounting system in place, which allows for budgeting and more creative planning on the front end,” Cizek said.
This means the producers can enjoy creative freedom and really have fun with their content, as long as they stay within the time and budgetary constraints.
Also under Cizek’s direction, the channel has developed a database of trends and projects that helps it determine its "unit costs" down to the minute. In other words, Cizek knows exactly how much every minute of air time costs.
“It was hard to apply for grants before we knew our unit cost. The better communication has helped smooth our operations,” Cizek said.
The work environment also is running smoothly.
“I’ve got a good crew these days,” Cizek said. “They’re not necessarily trained in the field, but all had the right temperament to learn new things. They’re all hungry.”
The channel has a staff of 10, six of whom are producers. In addition, there are four freelance videographers and journalists. Although some staff members such as Frank had previous journalistic training, others, including Cizek himself, had very little experience when they were hired.
Cizek has been instrumental in training the staff. The producers are each trained to do the different components involved in creating a story — writing, filming and editing, but often they each do one part.
Every two weeks, the channel turns over its content with 40 minutes of different programming, either on the first or second of the month and the 15th or 16th. Cizek tries to have new programming at each turnover and said this is easier with a bigger crew. The station’s 40-foot back wall is full of tapes of old content, but Cizek is proud to say that in the past six months, the channel has had only five or six reruns. And it's doing better all the time.
Cizek is not stopping here; he has plenty of hopes for the future.
“We haven’t applied for Telly Awards (which honor local, regional and cable television) since 2005 because that was the last time we were in the groove when we wanted to apply,” Cizek said. “But since then, we’ve built relationships and made some really great content, so I’d like to apply in 2009.”
The channel also hopes to beef up its online content by putting videos of city meetings online. Each new agenda item would become a new chapter, and the corresponding paperwork would be attached as well. Cizek also hopes to revive an old agreement with the Columbia Public Library to make DVDs of meetings available for public checkout. By late this spring, another company will be streaming city meetings live online.
The staff is excited about its upcoming move into the new city building in 18 months.
“It’s exciting to move into a new building. If we’re closer to other departments, it should allow for more communication,” said Frank, who has worked with Cizek for two years.
The City Channel also is hoping to work on rebranding. Often confused with Columbia Access Television (CAT), City Channel and CAT are quite different.
“The goal of the Columbia Channel is to provide information for the well-being of the city," Cizek said. "An aspect of what we do is try to tell goals and projects of the city. It also helps explain city issues and get a sense if people have an opinion.”
Messina credits Cizek with helping the city update its technology and enhance its ability to store and produce content.
“Eventually, I’d even like to be able to do live news breaks,” Messina said.
Overall, the staff seems proud of the strides it has made in the past several years.
"Some people don't have the greatest government channel, but we can be proud of it ourselves," Frank said. "And we're blessed to be in Columbia. It's a progressive city that offers a lot to its citizens."
Cizek agrees his long hours are paying off.
“We’re not cutting-edge, but within the constraints and budget, I think it’s good TV,” Cizek said.