When Audrey Barnes left television journalism to become Laurel's director of communications earlier this year, she had one clear goal in mind: Completely revamp Laurel's public access television station.
Seven months into her tenure, noticeable changes are evident. The station's studios at the Laurel Municipal Center have been renovated; a full-time media coordinator has been hired to run the day-to-day operations; and the station has been rebranded as Laurel TV. Barnes says more is on the horizon as the station is set to premiere nine new shows by the end of the year.
While Barnes had the vision, she knows that it takes more than that to make it work. Because while Laurel TV runs on electricity, it is truly citizen-powered.
"I really felt like it was my mission to fill that TV screen 24/7, and it starts with building a strong foundation of volunteers," Barnes said. "The volunteers are the key. ... Without the volunteers it wouldn't be possible."
Since the station – which broadcasts on Comcast Channel 71, Verizon Fios Channel 12 and also streams on the city's website, cityoflaurel.org – relaunched as Laurel TV in September, Barnes and media coordinator Joyce Jackson, a fellow television journalist turned city employee, have received more than 100 applications for volunteers.
"You have a lot of people out there in the community who want to help and tell stories, and that's a good thing," Jackson said. "When people are this anxious and have this much energy, you have to give them an outlet. And that's what Laurel TV is doing."
Barnes said the volunteers "run the gamut" in experience level. To help acclimate volunteers, Barnes hosted two training sessions attended by 25 volunteers each, one for reporters and one for photographers.
"We had some people that had never touched a camera, and some people had a good working knowledge," she said. "The biggest thing is having volunteers who are willing to try anything. I think that goes a long way."
'Serving the people'
Laurel resident Valerie Cunningham is one of the volunteers with industry experience, having worked as a news reporter for a radio station in Missouri. Since joining the station's budding volunteer stable in September, she has served as a volunteer reporter. Her most recent assignment was the Laurel Arts Festival on Oct. 12.
Cunningham said she volunteers because it is "a great way to give back."
"I enjoy serving the people; I enjoy interacting with the people, and I enjoy giving back," she said. "It puts you in touch with the community around you."
In addition to being a volunteer reporter, she has helped produce a fitness show called "Fitness 365." The monthly show is hosted by Jackson and features a local citizen and a fitness theme. The October episode will feature a Laurel breast cancer survivor, who will give fitness tips for those recovering from cancer.
Michael Sancho, 49, is another Laurel resident and volunteer who has developed his own show. His show is called "Comeback Stories" and features local residents who have overcome extreme adversity. The show is an extension of a nonprofit he created called Comeback Stories Inc., which is an online video database that documents these stories.
"It's a TV show version of what we do with the nonprofit," Sancho said. "It's a perfect opportunity for our nonprofit to help the city of Laurel and the community. And also it gives us an opportunity to spotlight some people with great stories."
The first show will include accounts of a Laurel business owner and resident that was abused as a child, as well as a Laurel resident who had to rebuild her life after her home burned down.
Richard Friend, the author of the blog Lost Laurel, will also have a show on the network. According to his blog, the first episode was shot in September and will feature Main Street.
While the station is always looking for show ideas, it also needs a stable of reliable volunteer reporters and photographers to cover live events. This is a perfect match for someone like Kayleen Yermal, a Howard Community College sophomore and Laurel resident. Yermal, 18, is studying broadcast journalism, and has aspirations to attend the University of Maryland College Park to continue her education next fall.
It's this career path that led her to volunteer at Laurel TV, a place where she said she receives invaluable experience.
"Being a sophomore, I haven't had much experience reporting. This is a really good opportunity to get this experience, to conduct interviews on screen and on camera," she said.
She added that having two Emmy award-winning journalists in Barnes and Jackson to learn from is also a big bonus.
"I was a little star struck," she said about meeting them. "It's been really good having them and being under them because they have that experience."
Jackson said a big part of her job is serving as a teacher to volunteers of all ages and backgrounds.
"The volunteers are the backbone of what we are doing. These are the people we are going to be relying on heavily," she said.
Jackson said she and Barnes are leveraging their industry contacts to help educate the volunteers. She said they are currently planning for professionals from different technical backgrounds to come to Laurel to teach workshops.
"In order for the station to grow, volunteers are a crucial asset to us," Jackson said.
While there are a lot of new faces around Laurel TV, not every volunteer is new to the game. Paul Kirkpatrick has been volunteering at the station for 15 years, and previously served as the president of the Laurel Cable Network, the nonprofit that ran the station before it was absorbed by the city government in 2013.
Kirkpatrick, who produced the Laurel City Council meetings, said the station has changed drastically in the past year.
"The dynamics of the station have changed completely since it has been run by the city," he said.
And the changes, from what he can see, are for the better.
"The city has more funding to accomplish these things than we did," he said. "They have professional personnel that have a long track record of excellence in the television field, and that in itself is quite a boost for the TV station."
And although changes have come fast and furious, one salient truth remains: The station is only as strong as its volunteers.
"As volunteering declined around 2005, the programming decreased greatly," he said. "Now that Audrey is at the helm, it's picking up greatly."
So far, Barnes and Jackson are measuring the success of the station through posts on the city of Laurel's Facebook page. They say some clips receive thousands of hits, and that the page's "likes" are increasing at a fervent pace. Currently, the pair are working on finding a system to help measure television ratings, which will help give them a more concrete analysis of the station's growth.
And although progress has been steady, there is still a ways to go.
"We are in our building stages, but what we have been able to accomplish has been ambitious and it has been surprisingly faster than we expected," Jackson said.
One of the bold initiatives Barnes hopes to employ in the future is the production of a full newscast.
"The big thing will be starting a newscast, and that's going to take a lot more volunteers," Barnes said. "We have a solid crop of volunteers, and I think we will make it happen."
She added: "We are definitely on track, if not ahead of the game."
This story was updated to clarify details about "Fitness 365."