Hickory Telephone Co. is more than just telephones, Brian Jeffers said.

“It’s telephone, internet and cable – all fiber to the home,” said the firm’s chief executive officer.

The cable TV operation is steadfastly local – news, sports, events, announcements. That element of the company’s operation is known as Aurora by Hickory Telephone Co.

“We call it ‘Hometown TV,’” Jeffers said. “We hope to put on as much local content as we can. The focus is on community.”

A group of Avella Area High school students, and their media production teacher, are playing an integral role in that focus. A growing, changing role as well, as digital storytelling has become an integral part of the curriculum.

For nearly four years, Avella and Hickory Telephone have had a partnership whereby the students provide taped and live content for the cable broadcasts. About a dozen teenagers, under the tutelage of instructor Jesse Saunders, are doing so through their Media Production II class.

This class is made up of mostly of juniors and seniors, who learned the basics previously in Media Production I. (About 10 are currently in the introductory course.)

The more-seasoned news team works in a tight, but well-appointed computer room inside the junior/senior high school library, fine-tuning skills, cobbling together brief newscasts and work as a team called The Eagle Eye News – named, naturally, for the school mascot.

During class Wednesday morning, Ella Lengauer, a senior bound for Allegheny College, and freshman Elonna Coontz served as anchors as Rafe Cooper operated a teleprompter. They began the newscast with the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by announcements of school signups, sports results, upcoming games and other newsy bits.

One girl slipped over a word pronunciation, but no harm-no foul to the English language or her budding career. Avella students tape the news a day in advance, so this was a seamless do-over.

“It’s a nice thing that we tape,” Jeffers said. “If someone makes a mistake or laughs, we can redo it. The kids do look forward to the news bloopers we run.”

The number of live productions, however, has increased over time – as well as the quality of work. “Before, this was all tape,” Saunders said.

Avella has been broadcasting football and basketball games, using the public address announcer as the play-by-play voice. In one broadcast, producers came to an agreement with radio station WJPA to use its broadcast feed on the telecast. “We hope to have students announcing this fall, the teacher said. “We hope to add podcasting and community-related stories.”

“We have an open platform,” Jeffers said. “Anything the school is willing to produce, we’re willing to run. It’s a good platform for students.”

Avella has had a video program for 11 years, which started under Saunders, who is otherwise a business and computer technology instructor. The high school entered TV programming in the fall of 2015, thanks to a $1,000 donation initiated by Rick Walsh, the owner of Walsh Media.

Funding is a necessary element for the Media Production program, to pay for equipment. Gofundme pages and grants have helped, along with football advertising. Saunders has been seeking grants for a new Mac lab, as the iMacs are more than a decade old.

Avella isn’t the only district providing cable content to Hickory Telephone. Jeffers said his company runs information from Fort Cherry, Burgettstown Area and Canon-McMillan. The firm provides cable, internet and phone service in Avella, Atlasburg, Cherry Valley, Cross Creek, Hickory, Southview, Westland, and parts of Burgettstown, Houston and McDonald.

A former radio guy and part-time comedian, Saunders is serious when he says the production classes provide a boost to his students and to himself.

“Once students see their content out there, they’re satisfied and their work may inspire other students to do this.”

Inspiring their academic peers and informing the public – that’s The Eagle Eye News team.

Business Writer

Rick Shrum joined the Observer-Reporter as a reporter in 2012, after serving as a section editor, sports reporter and copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rick has won eight individual writing awards, including two Golden Quills.

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