Steve Krahnke’s New M.S. Initiative

by Ken Rosenberg

Grad students work closely with the production team of WTIU, from left to right: Shannon Schenck, Annie Sexton, Senia Borden
(Producer Sarah Curtiss in background) 

The design and production track of our M.S. program is growing and transforming, as four M.S. students spend their first semester serving as associate producers on projects for WTIU, the local PBS affiliate that broadcasts from studios on the first floor of our RTV building. Working for course credit, they are assisting with the production of two variety shows: The Weekly Special, a public/current affairs program, and The Friday Zone, an Emmy award-winning show for children hosted by IU undergrads. It’s a valuable experience for M.S. students looking to transition into studio production after grad school, as it enables them to build a healthy portfolio. Steve Krahnke’s  joint appointment with WTIU and the Telecom department enabled him to transform a good thought into reality.  The immediate beneficiaries of Steve’s initiative are 4 M.S. students:  Annie Sexton, Garrett Poortinga, Senia Borden, and Shannon Schenck. There will be many more in the future.

“We’ve got this public television station which is already connected to Telecom,” Steve explained. “Why not find opportunities for them to work as producers on existing programs, where they could learn from the professionals that are doing the work, while doing professional work themselves?” Producer Sarah Curtiss is equally excited about the collaboration. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to bring in fresh vision and enthusiasm,” she said. “We are never at a lack for great stories, or wanting to do great stories – it usually just comes down to a matter of resources, like production time and assistance. To have the grad students on board, we’re able to put more effort toward making those stories. It does nothing but help increase the potential and quality of the work we do here.” Steve sees parallels to this sort of setup in many other professional schools. “To that extent,” he said, “it’s a bit like a graduate theatre program that has a resident professional theater, where designers and actors are working with professionals.”

Steve Krahnke

This initiative arises out of a happy confluence of mutual need and convenience.  “We just made this – I just made this up,” Steve said. Senia had been his student as an undergrad, so he wanted to maximize her educational experience in grad school. Annie and Shannon were pitching projects to him, and he was getting concerned whether they would be able to finish their degrees in a timely manner, on their own. Then, after talking with the WTIU personnel working on The Weekly Special and The Friday Zone, he found that “they were so short-staffed, they were unable to produce the shows they wanted to produce.” Coming together, unifying the teaching and practice of production, just made sense. “It seemed like a reasonable trade,” Steve said. “Education for labor is always a pretty good offer.”

It’s not simply an opportunity for work experience. As such, it’s very much a learning opportunity, too. “You always want to be working just beyond your skill level, at least at first,” Steve said. “Graduate school provides a relatively safe place for people to do that. You’re expected to fail a little bit, and the stakes aren’t quite as high – and then, eventually, you’re required to display some expertise.”

Right now, Annie, Garrett, Senia, and Shannon are working hard to get their first segments to air. Annie shot a segment at a dog bakery in Indianapolis for The Friday Zone, and took her dog with her. She went with a crew, but she will most likely edit the video herself. “It’s not that you don’t do more than one thing,” Steve explained, “but, in the business, no one expects you to do everything.” Garrett has his own niche, covering bands and local music.

Senia is working on her package, a piece on a local dirt bike competition, and she loves how quickly she got the chance to do this level of work. “It’s a way to come in and already have a base level of trust,” Senia said about the program. Senia has done production work in internships before, but she feels that if she went straight into the industry without the current project work with Steve it would take her a while to get to the level she is currently operating on. “It would take a lot more time to get this if I started as a personal assistant,” she said. “It’s technically a class, but I get to go to studio shows and play a part – that’s more than what I’d get my first years in the field. Eventually, I’ll be making contacts, too.”

Recently, Shannon had her first solo experience as the on-set producer. “I felt like people were super helpful,” Shannon said. “The cameraman I was working with was really experienced, professional, and cool. He was open to my suggestions, but didn’t hesitate to let me know if and when something wouldn’t work. He was comfortable making suggestions, and did so without stepping on my toes. Everyone I’ve worked with so far has been like that. They know that we know what we’re doing, mostly, but that it’s still a learning opportunity – and everyone’s been really open.”

The Weekly Special is going through a “refresh,” so all four students get to experience “essentially, the re-launching of a show,” Sarah said.

Garret and Senia will get to pioneer this pilot program along with Annie and Shannon, but they will also receive that experience for the entire tenure of their course of study. “That’s when it’s really going to take off,” Steve said. After their first year, “the two of them will know everybody; they should be able to take on positions of substantial responsibility.” Steve sees second-year grads teaching new initiates, and even undergrads working as production assistants. “It’s not really that much different than how the business works, actually,” Steve said.

Steve is hoping for a codified relationship between studio and production/management students, so that students come here knowing they can have this opportunity.  “We didn’t have to change anything. The course numbers already existed; the situation already existed – all we did was just figure out how we could make it work.” So, while there are still a couple of hurdles before it’s entrenched and solidified, any incoming student can already sign up for the same experience. Eventually, the plan is to integrate production- and research-focused graduate students into one cohesive work force. Steve wants to bring scholars interested in processes-and effects research – particularly those interested in “children and the media”-type research questions – downstairs, onto the set and into the studio, “so that way, together, they could make something to test, “ Steve said.

“There aren’t many graduate programs in the country that are capable of doing what we’ll be doing,” Steve said. It’s amazing to think that, very soon, Steve can tell the incoming production students, “you can work with professionals – you can work here and win an Emmy, or an award from the Society of Professional Journalists.”

“For somebody who is trying to use their M.S. degree as a way to position themselves for future work, it’s a great opportunity,” Steve said. Concerning applications involving portfolios with video, “the rule of thumb is that they’ll only look at three minutes,” Steve said. “So, if you make a 90-minute feature film, they’re only going to look at three minutes.” But, if you make several three-minute clips, “they might watch all of each – particularly if they’re interesting, if they’re different from one another, they’ll get a sense of different styles. Producing for children’s television is a very different than producing for adults.”

“PBS is all about education, and it’s cool to take that mission to the next level in a new and unique twist. I think it provides an invaluable experience you just can’t get in a classroom,” Sarah said. “There are lots of things that you experience in even just the day-to-day production routine” – including the routine itself – “that you’re just not going to know how to address until you’re in the midst of it. To have that real-world experience … is incredible; simply put, it’s just something that you can’t read in a book.”

The Friday Zone airs Fridays at 4:30pm on WTIU and WFYI, and Saturdays at 10:00am on WTIU. The Weekly Special airs Thursdays at 8:00pm on WTIU.

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