By Karen Robinson, City Clerk, City of Black Jack, MO
Most cities across the United States provide some way to enhance the lives of their residents and the residents in surrounding areas. It can be a festival, a fair, a special day honoring someone from the community or some other way to give something of value back to the community. For the City of Black Jack, MO, a small Midwestern suburb of about 7,000 residents, our cable news station is one way to give back to our residents, while contributing to the entire metropolitan St. Louis region.
Black Jack News launched more than 20 years ago with just a few shows highlighting community news, and broadcasting from a small room in the basement of the aging City Hall. Before its start, the city used its allocated channel to broadcast text messages of upcoming events to residents.
Today, the channel broadcasts 24 hours a day and has won 52 national awards and three Mid-America Emmy Awards for Excellence in Broadcasting. It is currently on track to broadcast over 250 shows this year alone. The station is funded by the City of Black Jack, and costs are offset using franchise fee funds from the two local cable television providers.
“The cable operation has been a positive for the City of Black Jack,” said Black Jack Mayor Norman McCourt. “It has promoted our community in a positive manner and helped to educate residents of the community on what local governments do and how they affect their everyday lives.”
However, the station did not change overnight. The evolution of Black Jack News got a boost in 1996, when the City hired a new Director of Communications, Randy Gardner, to head the operation. Gardner had lofty goals for the station’s future. For the first two years after Gardner’s arrival, Black Jack News continued to operate out of City Hall’s basement facility, while starting to slowly develop a programming concept that would highlight local government’s contributions to the community.
Then in 1998, the operation moved into the lower level of the newly constructed Black Jack City Hall, where it established its own custom studio for broadcasts. With the new physical space, the concept for the station began to change more dramatically. The goal was to make Black Jack News an alternative to the network TV stations, promoting the good news of the community, while highlighting how local government affects citizens’ everyday lives.
Slowly, the station started to cover news in neighboring municipalities and each year the circle of coverage spread. Within a few years, the station was covering news and events from the entire St. Louis metro area. Increasingly, residents from across the metropolitan began tuning in and learning about the City of Black Jack along the way, as local stories were sprinkled into the broadcasts.
The name of the station soon changed to North County News and became known for its news and sports coverage. As viewers tuned into to see local reports, they were also treated to new shows like “HealthQuest,” a program that interviews local hospital administrators and doctors.
At the same time, the station launched “Priority One,” a bi-weekly police show in cooperation with the St. Louis County Police Department. The show takes an in-depth look at every facet of the department: behind the scenes police operations, ride alongs, crime trends in the community and upcoming events. Another popular program is “City Limits.” The award-winning program features Mayor McCourt interviewing local, regional and national political figures. On the air since 1998, the show has earned the Mayor a reputation for his down to earth, honest interview style.
“Looking back, it has been a long hard journey to get to where we are now, but it shows you that with persistence and a Mayor and Council that is supportive, the sky is the limit,” Gardner said.
In 2009, the station hit what it thought was a major speed bump. The local charter affiliate moved the station from Channel 20 to Channel 994. At the same time, AT&T entered the St. Louis market and the channel was picked up on U-Verse on Channel 99. The challenge was how to manage the change after marketing the station for more than 10 years as Channel 20.
“In the end, it was the best thing that could have happened, as we were forced to think outside of the box. It led us to using social media and video on demand on our website,” Gardner said.
In response, the station also changed its name to the Gateway Television News (GTN) Network and implemented a media campaign that focused on the switch in a positive way. Viewers found the station again and web viewing has exploded in the years since.
For Gardner—the station’s only full-time staff member—running the operation is a heavy workload on a weekly basis. “It has been a major part of my life now for 17 years. I know how much of a difference we make in the community, Gardner said. “It is so rewarding to hear someone say that they enjoy what we do, that makes it all worth it.”