Keeping people connected: Northampton Open Media helps put arts, government and more online through pandemic

  • Northampton Open Media Production Coordinator Dave Newland, left, and Executive Director Al Williams talk about the last year while a clip of the Carolyn Dufraine Trio plays on screen in the NOM offices. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton Open Media Executive Director Al Williams says the public access TV station and community media center has been busier than ever during the pandemic. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton Open Media Production Coordinator Dave Newland looks over a work in progress at the group’s office. NOM has helped screen many online concerts with local groups in the past year  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton Open Media Executive Director Al Williams, left, and Production Coordinator Dave Newland work have assisted many local artists and other groups with online productions this past year. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton Open Media Executive Director Al Williams, left, and Production Coordinator Dave Newland talk about the past year as a Northampton City Council meeting plays behind them. NOM records all the council’s Zoom meetings. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton Open Media Production Coordinator Dave Newland says he’s enjoyed filming and producing online concerts this past year given that “so many people have been stuck inside.” STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton Open Media Executive Director Al Williams says helping other groups with online productions this past year “is really an extension of our mission — plus we needed something to do.”  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Dave Newland, production coordinator for Northampton Open Media, films Jim Armenti last fall for a music video for Armenti’s community song, “All We Ever Have.” SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Dave Newland, production coordinator for Northampton Open Media, films Jim Armenti last fall for a music video for Armenti’s community song, “All We Ever Have.” SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • The Jacob Smith Trio was filmed at The Parlor Room by Northampton Open Media for a series of virtual shows produced in April by the Northampton Jazz Festival, one of many collaborations NOM has been part of in the past year. IMAGE COURTESY OF NORTHAMPTON JAZZ FESTIVAL

  • The Carolyn DuFraine Trio was filmed at The Parlor Room by Northampton Open Media for a series of virtual shows produced in April last month by the Northampton Jazz Festival, one of many collaborations NOM has been part of in the past year. IMAGE COURTESY OF NORTHAMPTON JAZZ FESTIVAL

Staff Writer
Published: 5/10/2021 12:34:21 PM

In Northampton during the past year, when so much of life retreated to Zoom, there’s been a thread connecting many online events and conversations, from meetings of city government to concerts and artistic performances: Northampton Open Media.

Before the pandemic arrived, the community media center and public access TV station had long defined its role as a resource for, as Director Al Williams puts it, “helping people create and express different kinds of content.” But with COVID-19 restricting so many activities and groups, Northampton Open Media (NOM) has really stepped to the fore with its assistance.

The group filmed and livestreamed last summer’s Transperformance show, the annual musical fundraiser for Northampton schools, as well as a virtual First Night Northampton last New Year’s Eve. They had a key role in producing an online documentary and anniversary concert in February for the Northamptones, the a capella group from Northampton High School. And NOM helped produce a series of jazz shows this spring for the Northampton Jazz Festival and the vocal group Valley Jazz Voices.

Then there’s the video record it has made of extended City Council meetings, which have lengthened during the pandemic due to many additional people tuning in from home to comment. NOM also filmed the extensive public discussions involving the city’s Policing Review Commission, and it has worked with other organizations to help them get up to speed with their own online operations.

At the start of the pandemic, “Our resources were not as dramatically threatened as they were for other organizations,” Williams said in a recent interview at NOM’s office in the Northampton Community Arts Trust building. “So we took on a lot of projects to help support community events and other organizations. That’s really an extension of our mission — we’re about building community.”

“Plus we had to do something,” he added with a laugh.

Dave Newland, NOM’s production coordinator, said if there’s been a silver lining to the pandemic, it’s that online events can reach people further afield. And he’s personally enjoyed filming many events for online viewing, including a series of performances by four small jazz ensembles whose concerts were screened in April by the Northampton Jazz Festival. Newland had filmed the groups performing to an empty house at The Parlor Room.

“In a year when so many people have been stuck inside and needing to watch stuff online, it’s kind of fun to be the one making that stuff and doing it in a safe way, filming at a distance,” Newland said.

“I got to see those four jazz shows, I got to see the First Night bands play live, and I got to see the Transperformance bands live,” he said. “That was great.”

Newland noted that Transperformance was actually a mix of prerecorded takes of bands, coupled with some livestreaming, all of it done in the Community Arts Trust building. From the audience’s perspective, though, there was really no obvious difference, he said, noting that livestreaming can be unpredictable given the vagaries of internet service wherever the event is taking place.

In fact, a recent recorded show featuring Valley Jazz Voices also had a livestream component with guest artist Karrin Allyson, who was performing in her home. Newland said the live feed seemed fine in the run-up to the show but then disappeared as the time for Allyson’s segment to begin drew closer, due to internet issues at her home.

“They ended up getting it working a minute and a half before she was due to go on,” he said with a chuckle. “Live is always a little bit more stressful.”

Regardless, people who have worked with NOM on these collaborative projects in the past year are grateful for the help and technical know-how the group has provided.

Last fall, for instance, Historic Northampton enlisted NOM to make a music video of a song that veteran Valley musician Jim Armenti had written, “All We Ever Have,” as part of community project the museum started to document the pandemic’s effect locally. Newland filmed Armenti and a host of other people around town to the background of the music.

Laurie Sanders, co-director of Historic Northampton, said at the time that when she approached NOM about helping with the video, “They said, ‘We’re in.’ And Dave has done such a great job putting it all together … They’ve been wonderful to work with, really supportive.”

Ruth Griggs, president of the Northampton Jazz Festival, calls Newland “a great filmmaker” with an “eye for visuals, an ear for music, and the ability to craft videos that are beautifully paced.” And Williams, she notes, “has incredible integrity,” a quality he’s instilled in his staff.

And Steve Sanderson, event producer for the Northampton Arts Council, said earlier this year that his group worked closely with NOM to put together Transperformance, First Night Northampton, and the “Four Sundays in February” programs, including the Northamptones documentary. “We couldn’t have done any of it without them,” he said.

Keeping busy

All this collaboration has taken place as NOM has worked to keep its own projects going online: classes in camera operation and video production; a short filmmaking competition and “Crowdsourced Cinema,” in which community members recreate famous movies scene by scene (last year it was “Cast Away”); and a host of platforms on which people can post their own videos.

Williams points to another program, “Focus Locus,” which features videos by artists and filmmakers and interviews with artists, which previously aired once a month at The Parlor Room and has continued online during the pandemic. Loans of cameras and recording equipment to people and groups have also continued.

Last spring, Williams said, NOM didn’t know if it could pull off its short-film competition — called the “Seven Day Film Sprint,” in which small groups of filmmakers are given a week to create a five-minute movie — but that the move to online screening proved to be “our most successful one yet.” (This year another 23 groups have signed up to take part in the contest.)

“It felt really good, like a party, to have (the competition) last year,” Newland said. “People were excited to interact online.”

NOM has worked with the Young@Heart Chorus to help produce the singing group’s online shows, and it has collaborated with other groups, including the Chamber of Commerce and Tapestry Health, to produce online events such as fundraisers and annual messages.

“We’ve worked with groups like that in the past in a smaller capacity, but now (our role) is bigger,” Newland said. “The goal is to educate and give resources to people so they can do their own thing.”

Williams says NOM has been as busy as ever this past year — perhaps more so — especially with a stepped-up pace in covering City Council meetings and things like local Black Lives Matter protests, the policing commission, and other events.

“We’ve covered it all because it’s the only way people had access to government,” he said.

How the group will proceed as COVID vaccinations continue and health restrictions ease is still up in the air. “We’ll look at whatever feels safe for staff and for people” for in-person events, he said. NOM is considering possibly screening some public films around town this summer for its “Cinema Northampton” program; all those showings were canceled last year.

And Newland, echoing what some other artists and event producers have said, noted that virtual programming may well continue at NOM, or through its collaborations with other groups, even as in-person activities resume.

“I think we’ve entered a new era, where some people will say, ‘You know, I’d like to watch First Night Northampton from home,’” he said. “So we’ll need to figure out how to respond to that.”

For more information on Northampton Open Media, visit northamptonopenmedia.org.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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