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Broadcasting from the BLM National Training Center.  (BLM National Training Center)

The First RAC Meeting—The First Broadcast

By Chip Calamaio

On September 21, 1995, the BLM was on the cutting edge.

Across the West, all of the newly formed Resource Advisory Councils (RACs) held their first meetings on that Thursday morning, and they were all linked together by the first live satellite broadcast originating from the new BLM National Training Center (NTC) studios in Phoenix, Arizona.  It was the first time live, interactive, satellite technology was used on a national basis within the BLM and the Department of the Interior, and it was the first time television communications were used in real time to reach BLM’s stakeholders and public land customers to roll out a major new initiative.

“Reaching Common Ground” was hosted by BLM Montana State Director Larry Hamilton and featured Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, Acting BLM Director Mike Dombeck, BLM Montrose (Colorado) District Manager Mark Stiles, and Carol Anderson, a member of the newly formed Arizona RAC.  The telecast was staged as an informal talk show.  In addition to presentations by the panelists, a prerecorded video by Mark Stiles was shown on the critical role of the RACs in working with the BLM to develop the standards for rangeland health and guidelines for grazing management as called for under the new grazing regulations.  Much of the air time was used for RAC members in the field to ask questions and discuss issues with Secretary Babbitt and BLM’s leaders via live telephone calls and faxes.

The idea of using a live, national, satellite broadcast to kick off the first RAC meetings was developed by Todd Christensen, an NTC training coordinator, and Mike Penfold of BLM’s Washington Office gave the concept the green light.  Under the leadership of NTC’s director, Gary Drier, video producer Chip Calamaio and the NTC media team went into high gear building a studio set and collaborating with contractors to work out the hi-tech mechanics of producing 3 hours of live television for the very first time. Stress and anxiety levels ran high since everything from crew assignments and the broadcast script format had to be developed completely from scratch—and with something as high profile as the national RAC rollout with the Secretary of the Interior, failure was not an option!  To ensure success, several weeks before the live telecast, BLM managers and RAC meeting facilitators all came together at the NTC to develop the facilitator agenda and content for the first RAC meetings.  Everyone also learned about the logistics and technical aspects of the satellite broadcast and the contingency plans if some part of the satellite transmission system failed. 

Since BLM offices were not yet equipped with satellite downlink systems, some offices rented portable dishes on trailers to host the RACs; others went to community colleges, hotels, and other facilities that had C-band satellite systems.  Satellite downlink arrangements were made at 15 different locations in the West where RAC members could participate in the live broadcast.  The word was that one RAC in Montana met at a local sports bar and arranged to have NTC’s broadcast signal tuned in instead of the normal football feeds.

The red-light flash on the event came off like clockwork.  Once media-savvy Bruce Babbitt determined which studio camera was “his,” he maintained eye contact with that camera and engaged in a very personal dialog with RAC members.  He explained the role of the RACs and how the BLM and the Department of the Interior were changing the way our public land customers would be involved in resource management issues and long-term planning efforts.

During interactive segments, all 12 phone lines were constantly lit up, and three fax machines kept humming away, pushing out questions sent to the NTC studios from RAC members.  Host Larry Hamilton did a masterful job of facilitating a fast-paced discussion among RAC viewers and the studio panelists.  Behind-the-scenes staff made sure that every RAC location had an opportunity to get at least one question to the panelists during the telecast.  In the closing minutes of the broadcast, a question from the last RAC group came in over a crackling phone line.  Apparently, a BLM staffer had to leave the RAC downlink site in a bar, jump into a pickup, and drive down to a gas station phone booth to call in the question.

“Reaching Common Ground” was an unqualified success.  After the program concluded, NTC Director Gary Dreier walked past the control room and said matter-of-factly to the crew, “Well, this was just the first of many.”  As a high-stakes “pilot,” the “Reaching Common Ground” broadcast validated the concept of using satellite technology in the BLM for training and communications.  Within the next 12 months, almost every BLM office had installed a permanent satellite downlink system, and within the next 15 years, more than 300 live broadcasts were produced out of the NTC studios.

Chip Calamaio started in 1985 as the BLM’s instructional television specialist.  Over the years, he has been influential in creating the BLM Satellite Network, establishing the National Training Center facility, and developing BLM’s numerous distance learning delivery methods.