‘Willinet-TV’ proves vehicle for community engagement

“WilliNet-TV” is a name many students at the College may have heard but few understand. Although it may seem like a constant presence in the background of Williamstown life (students may recall its coverage of the Holiday Walk on Spring Street or notice its presence at major sporting events), few know the crucial role WilliNet plays in the local community or the potential that the small non-profit has as a resource for student involvement.

Situated above MadMacs on Spring Street in a space rented from the College, the WilliNet office is a blend of old and new. VHS recordings of past town hall meetings line the wall while across the room sits a state of the art editing booth. Dominating the space is a recording setup reminiscent of a cable talk show, complete with a long curved table, multiple camera mounts and a “Williams Ephs” backdrop left over from a recent interview with the men’s basketball team.

In charge of it all is the energetic Debby Dane, the organization’s executive director of 10 years and only full-time employee. As the hands, brain and heart behind WilliNet, Dane does a little of everything, from actual production to finances and community outreach. Her efforts are largely focused on engaging all elements of the Williamstown community, pursuing WilliNet’s goal to act as a “platform for the community to talk to itself.”

The biggest and oldest way that WilliNet plays this role is as an observer and broadcaster of Williamstown town hall meetings. WilliNet covers 13 different municipal committees and over 180 meetings a year, broadcasting on its two cable channels and streaming on its website. In addition, WilliNet acts as a forum for citizens and organizing groups to discuss and examine local issues, playing a crucial role in the democratization of local government. “You’d be surprised how important it is to have a camera in the room during official public business,” Dane says, commenting on how WilliNet’s presence encourages honesty and direct confrontation of the issues on the part of government leaders. Although students at the College may not be the most interested in municipal politics, WilliNet is well-known by the surrounding community for this role. “People love to watch the meetings,” Dane said, “because we’re such a small town, you see your neighbors, you see what’s going on.”

WilliNet’s role, however, extends far beyond the local government. It also participates in a myriad of outreach programs and human interest broadcasts to help bring disparate parts of the Williamstown community together, often involving the College. They hold periodic book talks, where local authors (usually Williams professors) have a chance to discuss their most recent publications. They participate in the local elementary school’s literacy festival “Words are Wonderful,” offering workshops for young students to introduce them to the world of video production and broadcasting, getting them “in front of the camera, behind the camera, and in the editing booth,” according to Dane. They also host popular football and basketball shows where coaches and athletes from the College get a chance to talk about their seasons to the wider community.

On top of all these programs and others too innumerable to mention, WilliNet acts as a vehicle for Williams students interested in video to gain experience in the field and pursue their own projects. One such student was Sidant Mehra ’10. Mehra started working for WilliNet in the second semester of his junior year as a production assistant and attributes his time with WilliNet as the reason for much of his subsequent success as a freelance editor and video producer. “[WilliNet] gave me exposure to the craft of video production in such a hands on, practical way that I can’t imagine a classroom experience doing anywhere near as good a job by preparing me for a career in media and production,” Mehra said. Although few students take advantage of it, WilliNet provides unique opportunities for those interested in media, from offering work-study opportunities as production assistants to loaning out cameras and recording equipment to students, free of charge.

Moving forward, WilliNet would like to expand on these programs and more to foster a deeper relationship with the College. Realizing the dramatic shift in the way people consume media over the last decade, the organization is eager to bring more students and young people on board. With a passionate and dedicated core and plans to further increase the organization’s community involvement, especially with the College, students can expect that WilliNet-TV will become a more relevant part of campus life in years to come.