HOLDING UP A MIRROR by Elaine Durbach
Updated: Nov 22, 2019
Community TV channel celebrates the South Orange and Maplewood communities
In a community as close-knit as South Orange and Maplewood, there aren’t many secrets, but SOMAtv could be one. The 24-hour-a-day broadcasting service, which started in late 1995, offers a window onto local government, news about sports and special events, and a magazine-style array of interviews with experts and cultural leaders. (See box for channels and social media links).
And yet few people are aware of its existence.
No one knows the actual stats. Station manager Dustin Dumas, an entrepreneur with Silicon Valley experience and an MBA in finance, admits that they haven’t yet come up with a way of measuring their viewership. But she knows that the SOMAtv audience is way smaller than she would like it to be. That’s why she has been on a campaign lately to spread word about the station’s lineup.
Dumas herself does a show called Dustin’s Kaleidoscope, which features interviews with all kinds of innovators, personalities and celebrities. Larry Petrocarro does two – Books in Action, exploring all angles of literacy, and Education Roundtable. Heather Swift hosts Career Corner, which helps people find professional fulfillment. Mike Sobel brings viewers Nostalgia Alley, celebrating the links between present and past. Ethan T. Berlin offers a family program called SOMA Show and Tell. Dr. Ernest Rogers and Jim Horton together explore topics relating to pet care.
The operation is undeniably small-scale. Working wonders in minimal time, the broadcasters do their interviews and put together their shows in two two-hour windows, 7 to 9 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, utilizing the only time available to them in the production facilities of Columbia High School.
It’s a symbiotic relationship – but one that favors the students, who produce their own shows and video segments. The adult side gets bumped if the school has special events or there’s any kind of emergency. “Because security is a priority, we can only go in when it works for the school,” Dumas explains.
“When the district is closed, like during holidays, and spring and summer vacations, we cannot use the building, so a big part of my job is to keep viewers engaged when we have breaks and also to encourage our volunteers and producers to return each season.” Social media and a conspicuous presence at events around the two towns, she adds, are important components in maintaining public awareness and the station’s continuity.
Asked about some of her show’s highlights, Dumas grimaces like a parent not wanting to name a favorite child. “I’ve always been fascinated by community television,” she says. “I love showcasing what my neighbors do.” While most programs are interviews taped indoors, she will also take her own camera out into the world to cover happenings such as the annual Newcomers Day or a sports event, or to follow a forager exploring edible plants in South Mountain Reservation.
A native of Aurora, Illinois, Dumas lived in Denmark and Germany before settling in New Jersey. When she and her husband and now 14-year-old son made their home in South Orange in 2011, one of the first things she did was offer her services to SOMAtv, headed then by Joy Yagid. Dumas took over as station manager in September last year. Her own business, Mister Grey and Friends, making and marketing plush toys and accessories shaped to clients’ drawings, gets fitted in around her taping, production and management tasks.
Other than her editing work, her efforts are totally unpaid – as they are for all the other presenters. “People ask me what I get out of it,” she says. “I love talking to people who are doing things differently,” she says. That approach is also evident in the book she wrote, Lessons from a Recovering Worker Bee.
Unlike Dumas, Larry Petracarro had no prior interest in broadcasting. He got involved with SOMAtv around 20 years ago. “Serving on the Board of Ed I saw what an impediment being unable to read can be. I wanted to do something about it,” he says.
As an avid reader himself and the father of three sons who graduated from Columbia High School, he offered at first to do a program simply reading wonderful stories to young kids, to encourage a love of books. That metamorphosed into the interview show, which he cohosts with South Orange Public Library director Melissa Kopecky and their guest hosts. Their guests range from authors to teachers to publishers and others involved in the wide world of books.
Petracarro says that he developed a system of preparing a list of 20 or 30 questions – although generally, they get put aside: “I start with the type of question that will precipitate a discussion. I tend to maybe run off at the mouth,” he claims. “But Melissa cuts me off if I go on too much.”
His recent interviewees have included newspaper columnist Dan Barry (“I named the wrong newspaper, but he was kind enough not to correct me,” he recalls) and author Marc Aronson, who – among numerous other books – has written about the rescue of the Chilean miners, and more recently the school soccer team trapped in a cave in Thailand.
Heather Swift first moved to South Orange from Park Slope, Brooklyn 16 years ago. “I became aware of our local station in 2009 when the economy was causing a lot of people to lose their jobs,” she recalls. “I wanted to provide a service that offers free career coaching advice, tips and strategy, by tapping into my network of HR executives and local professionals. I wanted to make a difference in an area I felt I could impact.”
The result was Career Corner. “Over time, the show has changed from mostly career advice to also learning about various careers and how people launched their profession or businesses, and the do’s and don’ts learned along the way,” she explains.
“Work should have an element of purpose and enjoyment; if they are missing in entirety, it is time for a change,” she adds. “People get scared to change, but we can all recreate ourselves – it is never too late.”
One Career Corner highlight for her, she says, was Guns ’N’ Roses drummer Frank Ferrer. “He revealed that his inspiration to become a rock star was sparked when, as a boy, he saw Kiss at Madison Square Garden. His hard work created the opportunity. In other words, he was at the right place at the right time.”
Swift regards the show as a two-way street: “Sometimes we are the coach and we help others,” she says. “Other times we require direction and need to be coached. Receiving and giving are both vital for true career success.”
In a sense, that is exactly what these SOMAtv broadcasters are doing: giving of themselves as volunteers, hour after hour, for the pleasure they say it gives them.
Elaine Durbach is a Maplewood-based writer and editor, and the author of "Roundabout," a love story.