When Pete Piringer was hired as Laurel's director of communications in November 2012, Mayor Craig Moe emphasized that the city's community outreach efforts needed a lift.
"I heard him loud and clear when I took the job that there was disconnect" in the city's outreach efforts, Piringer said.
Since then, Piringer's newly minted Communications Department has guided the city on a myriad of public outreach initiatives, which include beefing up the city's Facebook and Twitter presence, and developing a smartphone app, which will be unveiled next month.
However, those pale in comparison to the department's most recent project — the takeover of Laurel's public access cable channel, formerly known as Laurel Cable. The network, now called the Laurel Community Media Network, had been run by the nonprofit Laurel Cable Network Foundation since the 1980s. It was completely handed over to the city Jan. 1.
The Laurel Community Media Network has studios at the Laurel Municipal Center and is broadcast on Comcast Channel 71 and Verizon Fios Channel 12, and also streams at 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."
Moe said the addition of the network is key to the city's public outreach campaign.
"I've always prided myself, and the city, that we've done a good job of getting the message out, but I always hear from people that they didn't know about a program the city was doing or a certain special event," Moe said.
"I really think things have gotten so quick, so fast when we talk about media. ... We have to be able to adjust and we've got to make sure we are using all the avenues to get out there, and get the information out to the community. It would be nice for a person to pick up their television remote, turn on the local station and be able to see that the snow emergency went into effect or a human interest story on residents."
Headlining the improvements to the network will be the hiring of a full-time media coordinator or station manager. Piringer said the duties of the position — which was approved, but not funded, in last year's budget — will be to run the day-to-day operations of the network.
Piringer expects the position to be funded in the next budget, which will be voted on by the City Council in the spring.
According to Paul Kirkpatrick, president of the Laurel Cable Network Foundation, adding a media coordinator is "an excellent idea," as well as an example of why the foundation ultimately decided to relinquish ownership of the network to the city.
"The volunteer participation has become less and less as the years have gone by," said Kirkpatrick, who added the foundation will act in an advisory capacity to the city moving forward. "Relying on volunteers, we could not provide those 9-to-5 hours. ... It prevented the foundation from doing everything it would've liked to do."
Moe, who said he approached the foundation about the acquisition, agrees that the move is ultimately the best for the network.
"The cable foundation has done a great job, but it's like a lot of things when you rely on volunteers; it had gotten overwhelming in some aspects," he said. "They started out in a closet, and now they have a full studio and the latest technology, so they have come a long way. I think it needed that extra push."
In addition to a media coordinator, Piringer and Moe hope to leverage the area's crop of high school and college students by way of an internship program. Piringer said he has reached out to the University of Maryland; University of Maryland, Baltimore County; and Howard Community College as well as St. Vincent Palotti High School and Laurel High School.
Piringer said he has already heard from prospective interns, and hopes to offer course credit and, eventually, money.
"We have a lot of moving parts right now, but it's all coming together," he said.
Piringer also said the city is looking to partner with local Washington television stations to leverage some of their existing content. He said he has heard positive feedback from NBC4, FOX 5, WJLA and WUSA9 about airing evergreen features, sports shows and consumer reports at no cost to the city.
"They are more than happy to share those things with us. Typically, in the past, they would say no because they want people to watch their channel, but I think they've changed their attitude a bit," Piringer said. "We like it because it gives us some good quality programming."
While upping the quality of the programming remains a priority, Moe and Kirkpatrick also stressed the importance of the station remaining Laurel-centric.
"Your major networks are focused on events of interest to the entire viewing community," Kirkpatrick said. "But the ability to bring the local news to the citizens of Laurel is very much a plus [of the network] and gives the citizens a better idea of what's going on the community."