Pilot program gets Park students
and alumni tackling real media problems.

By Sharon Tregaskis

Last spring, ABC World News anchor Diane Sawyer and David Muir ’95, who hosts the show on weekends, issued two challenges to a classroom of Park School freshmen and sophomores. “What would it take,” Sawyer asked, “to get you to watch old, conventional broadcasting at 6:30 p.m. for your news?” Muir focused on process: “How do we get an additional 500,000 more eyes — anywhere in the social universe — in your demographic?”

Before the students broke into small groups to come up with answers, they had a chance to pepper the pros with their own questions about how to prepare for careers in broadcast journalism and set themselves apart from the competition.

“Content is king,” Sawyer told them. “The rest is just style, and you can learn that.”

Muir, a one-time ICTV reporter, emphasized the value of a winning attitude, especially in the internship game. “Always be excited and do your work with a smile,” he told the students. “Make sure they remember you for all the right reasons.”

The free advice was part of a one-credit, pass-fail pilot program known as s’Park, intended to bring together alumni, professionals, and first-year students around issues facing the entire communications industry and to promote networking. In a scheme to optimize both time and a limited budget, hardly anyone hit the road. The 60 students who enrolled in the six-week course traveled only as far as Park Hall Auditorium, while the bulk of the 30 guest speakers — commercial, nonprofit, and independent media professionals in Canada, India, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and throughout the United States — joined the conversation from their offices via Skype’s group-calling feature.

Andy Orgel ’74, the Park School’s assistant to the dean for industry relations who co-organized the course, worked with Park School dean Diane Gayeski and Nancy Cornwell, chair of the Department of Television-Radio, to launch the course in February as part of Gayeski’s vision to incorporate more interactive experiences into the academic curriculum, teach students to solve real-world problems, and prepare them to compete in the marketplace after they graduate. Orgel said that conversations he has had with students over the last few years about media, entertainment, technology, and how rapidly the business is changing helped shape the idea for the course.

“As the fields of communications change, there are common issues that impact all professionals,” says Gayeski, a class of ’74 Park alumna who joined the IC faculty in 1979. “What used to be rigid disciplines are becoming more porous. I thought it would be interesting to design a one-credit course that could unite our students.”

The effort also fit with Gayeski’s desire to prompt students to think more strategically about electives, study abroad, and other academic opportunities in order to develop distinctive skill sets. “All of us agree that students should start planning earlier,” she says.

Creative use of technology

Key to the s’Park classroom ethos was an embrace of technology. Cornwell required students to carry their laptops to class, encouraging them to surf the Web and post questions to the class Twitter feed. Freshman television-radio major Ben Ratner provided tech support, making sure the Skype feed worked and setting up a live Twitter display on the auditorium’s split screen, which students used to ask questions of the speakers and comment on course content.

“Using technology, we could vastly expand the interaction between students and alumni,” says Cornwell. “We spent a lot of time thinking about how to do that and about how to schedule a course to include people on the East and West Coasts.”

Bill Froehlich ’74, a one-time WICB-FM disc jockey who went on to produce the hit television show MacGyver and now works as a writer, director, producer, and actor with Ithaca Films, joined the class for a Skype conference from Los Angeles.

“It was nice to be able to not just talk with the students, but also see them,” he says. “You pick up a lot more in discussions when you can see faces, body language, and the emotion behind the questions and in the answers to questions you may have asked.”

In his conversation with the class, Froehlich encouraged students to deploy social media tools such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter in order to promote themselves and connect with others in the industry. “I’ve only recently started using Twitter,” he told the class with a self-deprecating twinkle in his eye. “Every time I tweet, I feel like a twit.” Nevertheless, he says, since he began marketing his new book, U R the Solution, he’s benefited greatly from advice from younger colleagues.

 Cornwell says she was impressed by the enthusiasm of the alumni participating in the program.

“I’ve always heard how extensive and committed the alumni base is at IC, but I never really got it until I taught this course,” she says. “People were eager to come and talk to students. It just blew me away.”

Teaching assistant Rebecca Webster, a senior journalism major, felt the same way: “It’s awe-inspiring how willing the alumni were to help those of us who are just jumping into the field.”

Cornwell points out how varied career paths can be for Park graduates and how valuable the face-to-face contact with working professionals is for helping students realize what they could do.

“Some of our students arrive with only a vague notion of what career they’d like to pursue and a vague notion of what possibilities are available,” says the professor. “That’s where alumni come in: we can show students interesting examples of how our alumni have taken the skills and knowledge they acquired at the Park School and done interesting, unexpected work. Having alumni like David Muir on camera and the kids talking to them in real time went far beyond what you would think of as video chat. It really had an impact.”

For instance, when Ratner heard Billy Hall ’84, the Atlanta-based vice president of the cable television channels TNT and TBS at Turner Entertainment Networks, describe the evolution of his career, it hit home.

 “[Hall] went into an industry that didn’t exist yet,” says Ratner, who serves as webmaster for WICB and aspires to direct a live television show one day. “He had a hard time telling friends and family that he was starting a television network. What I heard from him really changed my outlook on the media industry. One of the big focuses of s’Park is that we have to be open to all opportunities, including those that don’t exist yet. Billy is a prime example of how he had to take what came at him and take risks to get where he is today. I was very inspired.”

After hearing Hall and several other guests highlight the importance for aspiring communications professionals to hone their business sense, Ratner decided to pick up an integrated marketing communications minor.

Michael Belmonte, a television-radio major from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, tweaked his academic program after listening to the guest speakers. “Every person we spoke to said they wished they’d taken more business classes.” Belmonte also signed up for the integrated marketing communications minor.

Back to the future

In the last s’Park session on April 5, Cornwell, Orgel, and Gayeski suggested an alarming yet exciting possibility to the students: the work that the class of ’13 will pursue after graduation may not even exist yet.

“We had them write about what careers might be gone by the time they graduate and speculate about what careers might exist in the future,” explains Cornwell. “It’s hard to envision what doesn’t exist, but they were able to think about where careers might move.”

The exercise prompted conversations about the growing international nature of most niches within the communications industry and the imperative for global awareness, which gave students new perspectives on the value of foreign languages, study abroad, and classes they take outside the Park School. To enhance future conversations about the field and give students an historic perspective on the challenges facing the industry, the school videotaped and is archiving all the sessions.

The class also gave students a new way to think about the school’s informal motto: “Hands On from Day One.”

“Now, ‘hands on’ is not just hands on the equipment, because most students have had their hands on a computer and even a video camera by the time they arrive on campus,” says Gayeski. “It’s getting them engaged in the big challenges, having them wrestle with what the professionals are grappling with from their first semester.”

As the program’s organizers had hoped, the class “sparked” an epiphany for at least one student: Daisy Arriaga-Lopez ’13, a native of New York City who plans to write for magazines after graduation.

“Journalism isn’t dying, it’s just changing,” she says. “Hearing that from Diane Sawyer and David Muir makes me want to keep going.”