Newport News Public Schools TV and the Telecommunications Center

students at controls - 1987
Telecom students work on a broadcast around 1987.

NNPS's TV production classes, station celebrate 30th anniversary
A series about the early days of the Telecom program and NNPS-TV

Back in the days of big hair, Madonna, tube TVs, and VCRs, the program at Newport New Public Schools' Telecommunications Center was just getting started. The fledgling program offered high school students hands-on learning and job training that was technical in nature but appealing to teenagers. It involved their favorite things - television and radio - and an opportunity to be creative.

Using high-tech equipment, gathering news and video footage, and working on a studio set were a normal part of Telecom students' activities back then, just like today. And students with dreams of working on Hollywood movies or as a TV news reporter were able to take that first step toward realizing their goals back then, just like today.

Telecom students - then and now - also work on local broadcasts that serve the community, like high school football games and graduation ceremonies. Many student productions, including news magazine shows, public service announcements, and show promos, air regularly on NNPS-TV (Cox Channel 47/Verizon FiOS Channel 17).

It was 1986 when NNPS' new school superintendent, Donald Bruno, started the program. Paul Cummings, who supervised technical training programs in 24 NNPS schools, was the first Supervisor of Telecom.

According to Cummings, Superintendent Bruno called him in and said, "We're gonna build a TV station and you're gonna run it."

"It was a life-changing experience," said Cummings, who led the Telecommunications program for 18 years.

The first students attended class at what is now Deer Park Elementary School because the Telecom building on Minton Drive was still under construction. In the mid-1980s, Deer Park School was the Vocational Education Magnet School.

The Telecom program offered instruction in both radio and TV broadcasting. The first instructors had experience in the field: Rosalynne Whitaker-Heck, who was a producer/director at a Public Broadcasting System (PBS) station in Pennsylvania, was the first television instructor; and WWDE radio personality Molly Brooks, whose real name is Molly Cochran, was the radio teacher.

Star students

One of the students in the first radio class was Lawrence Brown III, better known as "Kool DJ Law" on WOWI (103 Jamz) in Norfolk. He was one half of the "Boodah Brothers," whose rap and hip-hop show was the number-one rated morning show in the market for several years. Sadly, Law passed away suddenly in 2010 at the age of 40.

Cocoa Brown in For Better or Worse Popular stand-up comic, actress and producer Cocoa Brown is a Telecom grad. She was a lead in Tyler Perry’s movie, "The Single Moms Club" (2014) and plays Jennifer (pictured, on the left) in his comedy series “For Better or Worse.” She has a number of films in the works currently.

2005 Telecom grad Steven Wilks has been working for Entertainment Tonight in Los Angeles for six years. He started as a Production Assistant in the tape vault and worked up to Field Producer for the news department. He has covered stories like the deaths of Prince, Robin Williams, and Bobbi Kristina; Muhammad Ali's funeral, and Super Bowl 50, plus numerous court cases and red carpets.

"I actually hauled the camera equipment back and forth to class in the trunk of my car for a few weeks," said Dr. Whitaker-Heck, who is Associate Dean for Administration/Associate Professor in the Communication and Creative Media Division at Champlain College in Vermont.

"My first class had the unique opportunity to watch our radio studio being built," said Cochran, who is a guidance counselor at Point Option, NNPS's school for non-traditional high school students. "I had the challenge of teaching a class in radio broadcasting with no studio for the first semester."

Cochran's radio students learned the history of broadcasting, writing for broadcast, and the psychology of advertising. Since digital recording and editing was still a thing of the future, students learned how to splice tape to do manual edits.

Once the Telecom building was completed, it was not long before NNPS's cable TV channel went on air. It was early 1987, and in those days, the school system broadcast on Channel 36 on Newport News Cablevision. Later it became Channel 6 and finally changed to Channel 47. Today it is Channel 47 on Cox Cable and Channel 17 on Verizon FiOS.

"All it was, was a bulletin board," said Cummings. The school division's Public Information department created the messages, which were just basic, easy-to-read words relaying school-related information.

"The biggest need is coming up with programming," Cummings said of starting a cable channel.

"The Learning Channel was our first resource," he said. It was a very inexpensive way to fill the channel with educational programming.

Later, "the schools became the source," he said. For example, in the early 1990s, the station invited musical groups from local schools to be taped performing in the studio. Around 20 school groups participated, and their performances were recorded over two days.

"The idea was to have enough local programming to cover the entire winter holiday," said Cummings.

Jim Anklam, NNPS-TV's current Station Manager, came on board in early 1988 as TV Producer. Anklam was a recent graduate of Regent University, where he was an anchor on a weekly national news show and had edited a film that won an Academy Award for the best dramatic student film. Anklam also had experience as a union actor. He had been in movies and TV series (including an Emmy-winning after school special) as well as many TV commercials, company safety videos, military videos, and criminal case re-enactments for TV police shows.

"He had a great list of credits when he came to work for us," Cummings said.

Anklam was hired by Dr. Wayne D. Lett, who later became Superintendent of Schools, to do a news show about NNPS. At the time, Dr. Lett was Director of Information Services and Fiscal Programming.

Anklam distinctly, though perhaps not fondly, remembers asking where his crew was, only to find out there was no crew.

"Molly laughed so hard and loud into my face," he said, with only a small chuckle.

More stories

"30 years of TV at NNPS" is a series of stories about the early days of the Telecom program and NNPS-TV.

Anklam had to create, write, shoot, and edit material for television by himself. He even built his own set by hand for the show, "In School."

With no crew, no student-workers, and no budget, it was a challenge. The equipment was "gigantic stuff," he says, and he had to carry it around, set it up, do the shoot, and then pack it back up. He even did his own stand-ups (speaking in front of the camera) since he had no camera operator.

"Nowadays you can flip the screen," he said, but back then he had to set up the shot and then "squat or stand taller" to make it work. Eventually he enlisted interns and Telecom students to help with production.

"Homework TV" was Anklam's showpiece local educational TV show. It ran for 10 years and involved an elaborate set-up of math teachers, a student audience, student callers, a call-screener and a TV crew. HTV was a live show that NNPS students could watch after school and call a teacher on the show for help with math homework. The hour was split between elementary and middle school math. The teachers taught lessons in between phone calls.

"The audio was a challenge," said Anklam. The teacher and studio audience had to be "miked," and they also had to be able to hear the caller on the phone. The audio technician had to control the feedback.

Anklam trained students and interns in all of the crew jobs and it wasn't long before the show ran smoothly. Still, each episode took about three hours to record, and it aired twice a week for the first five years. It was a great opportunity for students to learn how to work on a real production.

"Many of those kids have gone on to work in the industry," Anklam said.

production van (motorhome)
Telecom bought this motor home from General Electric after GE closed its factory in Suffolk. It became the school channel's portable production vehicle, which was used for football and other broadcasts, including live broadcasts.

The Telecom team procured a "production van" for remote productions a few years after the closing of the General Electric factory in Suffolk in 1986. The "van" was actually a motor home, though it had never actually been used as such: It had traveled all over the Midwest selling GE television parts. The NNPS transportation department purchased it and converted it to meet TV production needs. It was outfitted with broadcasting equipment so the team could broadcast from various schools and locations in the city.

The first live remote broadcast was from B.C. Charles Elementary when the governor was visiting in the early 1990s. And when Miss America visited Deer Park School, that was covered as well.

In 1991, NNPS-TV started broadcasting high school football games (tape-delayed) using the production van and a mix of adult and student crew members. In late 1992, current Telecom Supervisor Ray Price started as Instructor and Assistant Supervisor of Telecom.

Later, the team went live with football.

"We did our first live football game in 1995, between Hampton and Ferguson," said Greg Bicouvaris, who has done TV sports broadcasting with NNPS-TV since 1991. "We broadcast the State Championship live in 2000 in Richmond, between Dinwiddie and Heritage," he added.

Over the years, the NNPS-TV sports crew, led by Price and Bicouvaris, has produced 11 different high school sports for television: football, basketball, baseball, softball, soccer, wrestling, tennis, track & field, swimming, gymnastics, and volleyball.

Nowadays, besides sports, NNPS-TV programming includes school-related news shows produced in-house by a team of videographers/producers, School Board meetings (broadcast live and also replayed), a community bulletin board that advertises school and community events and reminders, student productions like PSAs and news magazine shows, and educational series purchased from media vendors covering a huge range of subject matter.

Although the radio program was discontinued after five years, Telecom TV students continue to learn video production and create their own shows. They are instructed in modern techniques using up-to-date equipment, and are advanced in their skills when they apply for college or jobs in the industry.

The NNPS-TV production team has three highly skilled professionals with a crowded schedule of shoots at our schools and beyond. Besides creating informational shows for the public, the team also assists the school division with video needs such as video messages from the superintendent to faculty and staff, teacher training, and educational projects like making the Elementary Engineering Design Challenge intro videos.

And the NNPS-TV sports crew has been producing their "Sports Highlights" interview show, and high school football games, for 25 years. They also have recorded nearly 40 episodes of their exercise show, "Fuzion Fitness," which is hosted by Alexis Perkins, a Telecom grad and Co-Producer of the show. Current Telecom students gain experience by working on sporting events and "Fuzion Fitness" in addition to their own projects.

The website, nnpstv.com, includes a live webstream of the NNPS-TV channel as well as videos on demand. NNPS-TV has YouTube and Twitter channels, too.

TV at NNPS has come a long way since the simple bulletin board of messages and the early days of cable television broadcasting. What lies ahead in the next 30 years remains to be seen, so be sure to tune in for more from this station.