When Laurel's new director of communications, Audrey Barnes, was considering taking the job last month, she decided to become reacquainted with her hometown.
Barnes, who grew up in Montpelier in the 1970s and graduated from Laurel High, said she was excited by how much the city had changed and evolved since she moved away in the early '80s. But what was most exciting to Barnes was how, despite all the physical changes to the city's infrastructure and layout, Laurel was still a tight-knit community at heart.
"It is still very friendly," said Barnes, who started at her new job March 24. "It's a really pleasant environment, and that's what you get in a city this size."
Barnes brings an impressive resume, having worked 32 years in television as a reporter and anchor. Her career, which began at the University of Maryland and Northwestern University, has taken her to Detroit; Flint, Mich.; Baltimore; and Washington. Most recently, Barnes worked at Fox 5 in Washington.
Laurel Mayor Craig Moe said Barnes' extensive experience in television is a valued asset to the city, which is in the midst of overhauling Laurel's public access channel, previously known as Laurel Cable Network.
"I would love to see people turn on their television and the first thing they do is turn to Channel 12 and Channel 71 to see what is happening on their local station," Moe said. "I'm really pleased with her ideas and her outreach, and all the things she wants to put in play."
Barnes has big plans for the public access channel, which has been renamed Laurel TV.
"I am telling people of Laurel that I'm shaking things up," she said. "I'm going to dust the cobwebs off their cable channel and make it fresh and exciting."
The channel had been run by the nonprofit Laurel Cable Network Foundation since the 1980s. It was handed over to the city Jan. 1.
The station's studios are at the Laurel Municipal Center and in addition to being broadcast on Comcast Channel 71 and Verizon Fios Channel 12, it also streams on the city's website, cityoflaurel.org.
Existing programming for the network is varied and includes City Council and other public meetings, a faith-related program and a technology-based show called "NerdCast."
Barnes' plans include adding more news segments -- some that she plans to produce herself -- as well as lending the city's production equipment to residents who can produce their own shows. She has also floated the idea of doing a Laurel history segment, and other informative community shows.
"It's an underutilized gem," she said of the TV station. "The sky is the limit as far as what we can do."
Trying something new
Barnes said her decision to join the city was influenced by her desire "to try something new," but added that the prospect of running her own television station was also a factor in her decision.
"I kind of get the best of both worlds," Barnes said.
Barnes described herself as a natural reporter, a person who is constantly curious.
"My parents said I would interview people in the neighborhood as a little kid, so it kind of made sense I would end up doing this for a living," she said.
And although it would appear that Barnes' decision to join the city would be a departure from the fast-paced world of cable news, she doesn't see it that way.
"I'm not going to be giving up the news business because part of the job is to get news on the air for residents and business owners," Barnes said.
One of the biggest obstacles for the channel is overcoming the stigma generally attached to public access television, which can have a reputation for being stale and boring.
Robyn Small, a writer at Channel 9 who worked alongside Barnes, said Barnes is the ideal person to take on that challenge.
"I think the most important thing about Audrey is she is very tenacious," Small said. "She treated everything with the same sort of intensity and cared about getting it right and getting it done on time."
Celinda Pena, who also worked alongside Barnes at Channel 9, said Barnes is a good leader and team player, two skills that will help her overhaul the station.
"It's a big job, but I think she's very much up to it," Pena said.
In addition to Laurel TV, Barnes will also serve as the spokeswoman for Laurel's city government and police department. She said her media experience is an asset when dealing with crime reports from police, but that she also wants to focus on positive stories.
"I'm working in tandem with Police Chief [Richard] McLaughlin, making sure that we not only cover crime and incidents, but also talk about the positive things police are doing," she said.