First in the state Documenting broadcast history teaches trio about research technology and problem-solving

First in the state: Documenting broadcast history teaches trio about research,
technology, and problem-solving

GUILDERLAND — Casey Gerety, Sohee Rho, and Katie Wells are eager to make history. The trio of Farnsworth Middle School students will fly to Washington, D.C. next month to compete in National History Day.

The seventh-graders have condensed a century of television history into a riveting 10-minute documentary that won first prize in the New York State History Day competition, qualifying the team for national competition in June.

Gerety, Rho, and Wells worked together all year — using hours before and after school — to complete their project. They did all the work themselves, but were guided by veteran enrichment teacher Deborah Escobar who literally wrote the book on creating his-tory documentaries. Her book, Creating History Documentaries: A Step-by-Step Guide to Video Projects in the Class-room, was published by Prufrock Press Inc. in 2001.

Over the last 13 years, Escobar has led Farnsworth Middle School students to many local victories in the regional History Day competitions. Last year, Rho worked on a project about the atomic bomb and Gerety and Wells won a third-place state prize for a documentary on Anne Frank, the Jewish diarist who fled Nazi Germany.

The young women have learned about the richness of local history. "We found out more about something we were interested in," said Wells.

Their documentary, WRGB: Broadcasting Pioneer, also won the "Best Local History" award given during the state competition in Cooperstown. The award, from the New York State Historical Association, is presented to the best local history project among all competitive categories — research paper, exhibit, performance, and documentary.

The young women also learned about conducting original research; their documentary is based on 17 primary sources as well as 27 secondary sources.

And, they learned to use an advanced technology — creating a documentary on a computer — where their teacher would brain-storm with them to solve challenging problems.

"We recorded our voices on computer with a microphone and pulled it into the software program, putting it with pictures," said Wells.

"We had to do a lot of troubleshooting," said Rho, citing a problem with sound, where erasing a sound on a source tape erased other sounds as well.

"We all solved it together," said Wells.

Perhaps most importantly, they learned about the satisfaction and joy of working together.

The three friends are diverse in their goals and outlooks.

"I want to go into history or law," said Rho. She thinks it’s important for people to learn from history, from "all the mistakes that people have made."

Gerety, whose father is an endocrinologist, hopes to become a doctor, too.

"I like math and science," she said.

"I think I'd like to be a lawyer or a journalist," said Wells. "I like to debate with people about what’s happened."

The young women have been informed by their research — not just on dates and facts but on ways of thinking about the world around them.

Last year, when she worked on the project about the atomic bomb, Rho said, "We learned all sides — whether to do it or not. This time, we learned about the impact of media coverage. During the Vietnam War, you could actually see the war. People don't react to television like that now."

"Now it’s more for entertainment," said Wells.

"They take it for granted," said Gerety.

Currently, most television news, said Wells "doesn't really go into depth."

"During the Vietnam War," said Gerety, "they showed blood and coffins on TV. With the war in Iraq, we barely see any of that."

"The Vietnam War ended be-cause people saw that. In our life, they don't show it; they don't want people protesting," said Wells.

Beyond books
The WRGB documentary began with a list of suggested topics developed by Escobar.

The theme for this years His-tory Day is "Communication: Key to Understanding." Escobar, a self-described "local history buff" selected topics that would encourage original research.

"With local history, there's usually not a book they can turn to," she said.

The girls chose the topic of the first television station, Schenectady’s WRGB.

"We went to the General Electric Archives," said Gerety.

"We spent two or three months researching the topic," said Rho. "Ten minutes seems really long at first."

Escobar agreed: "At first, they say, ‘Ten minutes; how do we fill that"’ Then they say, ‘How do we cut"’"

She concluded, "Its a good critical-thinking exercise to see what is most important and least important."

The team got together before class to work on the project and stayed many evenings until 5:30. Rho said how grateful she was to her parents for driving her in the early-morning hours and picking her up late at night.

In order to get more time for the project, Escobar said, "I improvised, and created a new animal — an in-school field trip." This allowed the team two days of uninterrupted work on the documentary.

Each of the girls spoke of the strengths of her teammates. Rho said how good Gerety was at finding pictures and lauded Wells’s skill at "putting things to-get her."

"Sohee helped us practice our lines over and over," added Wells.

"They each did a third of the narration," said Escobar.

"Everyone had input," concluded Rho. "You had to put thought into each part of the product."

The young women were equally enthusiastic about praising their teacher.

"She’s so supportive of us, every step of the way," said Rho.

"Without her, this would never happen," said Gerety.

"I'm a facilitator," Escobar said with a shrug. She added, "Sometimes, as a teacher, that's the hardest part for me. I have to slap myself and say, ‘Shut up,’" Escobar said with a laugh; the girls joined her with giggles.

Documenting history
"We wrote a script and then we record ourselves saying the information," said Wells. "You have to decide what is most important."

At first, said Rho, "Our script was like a time line. We had to add depth and detail."

"We tried to find interesting things that happened to the station," said Wells.

The time line began with Gets invention of the cathode ray tube in 1905 and continued to GE’s radio station, WGY, in 1912. It covered Ernst Alexanderson working on experiments that led to the creation of his mechanical television in 1928, and moved along to Kolin Hager, the first television newscaster, who broadcast farm and weather news.

It included the broadcast of New York’s governor, Alfred Smith, accepting the presidential nomination, and the first television drama, The Queen’s Messenger.

It moved on to the 1930’s with the first variety show and the first long-distance broadcast, from New York City to Schenectady’s, of the king and queen of England arriving at the World’s Fair.

In the 1940’s, the Schenectady’s station got its permanent FCC license and its current call letters, WRGB, in honor of Walter Ransom Gail Barker, an early broad-caster. WRGB was one of only nine stations in the country that broadcast original information during World War II.

During the war, women kept WRGB running, "operating everything from cameras to lighting," says the narrative voice as a picture of the women at work is displayed.

At the start of the decade, the Capital Region had 300 Tiffs, the documentary states, while there were 1,919 by 1948.

In the 1950’s, the station produced entertainment shows like Teen Age Barn, an on-air talent show, and The Freddie Freihofer Show for children.

"A lot of what you see on television even today is a result of techniques that were just developed here by the very, very early pioneers of television," says Jack Aernecke, in an interview conducted by the Farnsworth students.

In 1954, when WRGB’s channel number was changed from 4 to 6, there were over 300,000 television sets in the Capital Region. The following September, the first color program was produced featuring actress Betty Hutton.

"WRGB was a partner in his-tory in 1960," says the narrative voice as scenes from the Kennedy-Nixon presidential de-bate are aired. The documentary says the televised debate allowed Americans to see a pale Nixon who suffered in comparison to Kennedy’s "youthful and energetic personality, possibly causing Nixon to lose the election."

A visibly shaken Walter Cronkite is shown next in the famous footage reporting on Kennedy’s assassination.

"President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time..." says Cronkite as he puts his heavy black-framed eyeglasses back on and looks down, control-ling his tears.

"The news coverage of Kennedy’s assassination was a turning point for broadcasting overall," says the narrative voice, as stations shifted focus to news coverage.

The documentary’s black-and-white footage changes to colored film of the Vietnam War in the early 1970’s.

As two American soldiers are shown dragging a body, the narrative voice says, "For the first time, war came into people’s living rooms and affected people’s understanding of the tragedy of combat. People saw death, blood, and images that stayed in their minds forever."

The documentary then cuts to a scene of protesters in front of the White House with John Lennon’s song, "Give Peace A Chance," playing in the back-ground.
"Seeing these broadcasts made people realize the hardships soldiers had to endure and how many of them were dying," says the narrative voice. "This in-creased the protests and support for the peace movement, which led to the end of the war."
The documentary ends with a recap, showing scenes from sitcoms like I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners, telling of the values such shows imparted. The narrative voice warns that a negative impact occurs when people spend too much time watching TV rather than inter-acting with each other. The documentary concludes, "We do not give enough credit to the father of television broadcast: WRGB."

The competition
Gerety, Rho, and Wells competed against 16 other student teams from across the state on April 29.

"They have a runoff after the first presentation," said Wells. "You show your video and then they ask you questions."

"You also submit a process pa-per," said Gerety. "It’s a reflection of what we did and how we worked together."

"There are two separate rooms for the first presentation," said Rho. "They take the top three from each room...The runoff judges are a lot more strict."

Asked how they felt during the competition, Wells said, "You always have that feeling of nervousness, but we were confident; we had worked hard."

The next hurdle is the national competition, held June 12 through 16 in the Washington, D.C. area. The group will use its $250 "Best Local History" prize towards expenses for the trip. The students will be taking final exams from Farnsworth while in D.C.

"I’m so excited, I can’t stop thinking about it," said Gerety as the other two nodded in agreement.

Wells made the trip to Washington, D.C. when she was in third grade and her older sister, Victoria Wells, had worked on a project about child labor at Harmony Mills.

Escobar knows the competition in Washington will be tough; she’s been there before.

"Although local history judges well at the state level, it’s almost a handicap at the national level," she said.

Escobar described winning documentaries from earlier years — one on Japanese internment camps that featured an interview with former President Gerald Ford, who issued an apology for the camps; an-other on Vietnam War protests that included interviews with Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, folk singers and activists.

"People making those have connections," Escobar said.

The regional and state judges’ comments, Escobar went on, were not very helpful. "They say things like ‘wonderful’ or ‘outstanding’...You need constructive criticism," said Escobar.

So, with that in mind, Gerety, Rho, and Wells created a survey for Farnsworth staff to fill out after they viewed the documentary.

"We got real good feedback from that," said Escobar.

Based on those comments, and on further research, Gerety, Rho, and Wells plan to revamp their documentary before the national competition, just as they did after the regional competition.

"After each level, they revise and it gets better every time," said Escobar.

The group has already scheduled an interview with long-time WRGB anchor Ernie Tetrault, and will be replacing local stat is-tics with national statistics.

"It’s like a piece of art," said Escobar "There’s always more you can do."

The young women said they have learned much from making their documentary.

"It gave me a chance to open my eyes," said Rho.

"When I work in groups for school now," said Wells, "I know how to help people communicate. I’ve learned skills here."

"The script helped with my writing," said Gerety.

Rho went on to offer advice. "People should take a chance on something they haven’t done," she said. "History Club sounds really boring, but, wow, look at all that’s interesting." Doing the project, she said, made her feel special.

"When I watch TV now — we don’t have cable, so we don’t get many stations — and I see that little sign in the corner," said Gerety, referring to the WRGB logo, "I know all about it."

"We wore our medals to school on Monday," said Wells. "When people asked what it was for, I’d tell them about WRGB. ..You feel like you really accomplished something."

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