Cor Trowbridge, far right, with current and former BCTV staff, celebrate winning  the 2023 Hometown Media Award from the Alliance for Community Media in June 2023  in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Courtesy photo
Cor Trowbridge, far right, with current and former BCTV staff, celebrate winning the 2023 Hometown Media Award from the Alliance for Community Media in June 2023 in Brooklyn, N.Y.

BCTV leader will leave a station in good hands

Cor Trowbridge will step down in December after serving as executive director of BCTV for 18 years

BRATTLEBORO — This article is supposed to be about Cor Trowbridge.

Yet, as she consults the press release she wrote announcing that she will step down after 18 years as Brattleboro Community Television's executive director, she uses the opportunity to pitch the station.

"For me, that's the headline: BCTV is in great shape and completely ready to go to the next level with a new leader," she said.

BCTV was the first station of its kind in Vermont. Between its four full-time staff members, six part-timers, and approximately 50 community producers, the media center releases an average of 1,200 hours of local programing a year.

Known as a PEG (Public, Educational, and Government) station, BCTV is one of 24 public access media centers in the state. Noncommercial PEG stations welcome all perspectives and all voices. They are charged with fostering civic engagement and government transparency.

Approximately 75% of the station's funding comes through cable subscription fees in BCTV's eight-town viewing area.

'Every day is different'

In 2006, Trowbridge joined a station that was in a state of turmoil.

Previous executive directors had skills that were more technical than administrative, a few membership kerfuffles had erupted, and the station's board had turned over multiple times.

Trowbridge and her husband, Hugh Silbaugh, had recently returned to the area after working in Massachusetts. She had honed her administrative skills at previous jobs, including as assistant town planner and grants administrator for the town of Brattleboro.

"For me, it's been a great match," she said. "I really wanted to be a part of a team, and really enjoy the constant change. Every day is different. Every time we do something, it's different."

According to the station's press release, under Trowbridge's leadership, BCTV "broadened its coverage area, [and] doubled its budget and output of local programming."

As a new hire, Trowbridge oversaw the station's transition from analog to digital for a region that included Brattleboro, Guilford, and Vernon. And over the years, she has seen the popularization of streaming video, cord-cutting consumers, smartphones that can record digital video of broadcast quality, and the instant adoption of videoconferencing software during a public health emergency.

But in 2006, "Our broadcasting method was this rack of DVD decks, that a computer program cut between," she said. "There were four or five hours in the middle of the day where we weren't sending out any programming because that was the time when our technician was programming all the decks."

She also embarked on a three-year process of establishing a contract with Comcast in order to receive PEG fees, which Vermont requires as part of cable franchise contracts. The effort became Trowbridge's first big legal undertaking. As part of the contract process, the station conducted extensive outreach, phone banking, and a community needs assessment.

Later she would undertake a similar process with Southern Vermont Cable. This second contract expanded the station's coverage to include Dummerston, Jamaica, Newfane, and Townshend.

The COVID-19 lockdown of 2020 was a catalyst for the station to pivot again. People needed access to information and to watch municipal meetings - yet, everyone was stuck at home.

Trowbridge and BCTV's staff dug into the challenge, updating their equipment and training municipal personnel on how to operate online videoconferencing programs such as Zoom.

"I think that gave a lot of sense of security to people who feel like their governmental transparency might have slipped away with the move to virtual," she said.

With a goal to be the best

"We're always trying to improve on what we've done from one production to the next, and that keeps things interesting," Trowbridge said.

From 2009 to 2022, BCTV was recognized with 18 national and nine regional awards.

When asked about the awards BCTV has brought home, several current and former staff members smiled.

She won't admit this, they whispered, but Trowbridge is more than a little competitive.

And determined, and hardworking, and holds herself to high standards, they continued. They said that Trowbridge would often be the first to arrive in the morning and last to leave at night.

Trowbridge thought about process a lot. She developed checklists and project management processes, and held a debrief after every production.

The consensus of the staff members: All of this was good - their boss wanted BCTV to be the undisputed best.

When Trowbridge told former Operations Manager Vlasta Popelka that she would also be retiring in December, the former colleagues joked that their boss timed it so Popelka could retain her record as BCTV's longest employee.

For folks doing the math at home, Popelka worked at the station for 18 years and one month. Trowbridge will leave slightly short of 18 years.

"We had a good understanding and working relationship because we both knew the other would do anything for the well-being of BCTV," Popelka said.

They worked together for 14 years together at the station before Popelka retired three years ago.

Popelka admired Trowbridge as a quick study. She described her former boss as coming to BCTV with a high level of administrative experience - but with zip for technical knowledge.

But she quickly learned how to operate a television station.

Along the way, Trowbridge maintained a very dry sense of humor and would unexpectedly drop a joke or funny line, leaving everyone in stitches, Popelka said.

She retains fond memories of the esprit de corps that Trowbridge cultivated at BCTV. One example: the station's Halloween parties, with costumes absolutely required. Every employee also received a birthday party, Popelka said, and even if Trowbridge herself left the party early to return to her work, she would never tell employees that the party would need to end.

"Have you heard about the ball of Saran Wrap?" asked Production Manager Nolan Edgar.

Every Christmas party, Trowbridge would assemble a basketball-sized wad of plastic wrap with prizes and trinkets jammed between the layers, with a big prize at the center.

One person would wear oven mitts, with a goal of ripping off as many layers of the wrap before another player rolling dice would roll a double.

"There's a little bit of a prankster in her," Edgar said.

Looking forward, thanks to Cor

"She wanted BCTV to be the best station in Vermont," said Helena Leschuk.

Leschuk, who succeeded Popelka, is calm for an operations manager in the throes of planning an annual event such as BCTV's Producers Party, preparing to say goodbye to her boss, and soon welcoming a new executive director.

She attributed her calm to the planning skills of Trowbridge, who leaves the staff in a good space and who has empowered them to a level where they can operate the station on their own if necessary.

Leschuk knows that the staff can't bottle Cor Trowbridge and that the next executive director will have big shoes to fill. Still, she said, she and her coworkers are ready. They're looking forward to new energy and vision.

Trowbridge brought dedication to every production, regardless of size or topic, she said. Leschuk said that Trowbridge would treat a graduation with as much importance as an Annual Town Meeting.

Quality control was paramount, and no piece of feedback was too small, Leschuk continued.

"Cor had no fear and carried no ego around appearing stupid, her willingness to learn was that deep," she said.

Leschuk said Trowbridge has maintained long relationships with community members, BCTV staff, and volunteers, fostering strong community ties. The downside: Trowbridge spent long hours at the station, she said.

"Without Cor, there would be no BCTV. Or at least not this one," she said.

Public access media centers like BCTV are important to a community's history and civic life, Content Manager Van Wile said.

On the civic side, the station provides "gavel to gavel meeting coverage," he said, quoting a phrase often used by Trowbridge. This coverage provides communities with easy access to their government's decisions.

On the history side, every time a BCTV producer turns on a camera, they are documenting the community's history, said Wile, who has spent the past couple of weeks combing the station's photo archive. The photos of Trowbridge outline the scope of her work.

"It's awe-inspiring to see this succession of great successes and small little moments," he said.

Prior to taking the position of AV multimedia manager at the Vermont Law School, Brian Bashaw worked four years at BCTV, which produces work as good as, if not better than, stations with more staff and bigger budgets, he said.

Trowbridge's attention to detail elevated BCTV's productions, which in many cases are being made by amateurs, Bashaw said.

Her dedication raised Bashaw's own quality-control bar, and he said that as a result, he gives projects more attention than he did prior to his days at BCTV.

Public access television has the reputation of being low quality, Bashaw said, adding that for most people, the genre conjures up memories of the "Wayne's World" skits on Saturday Night Live.

Trowbridge helped tip that stigma on its head, he said.

Other people's potential

Trowbridge puts a lot of trust in her staff and provides a lot of support, Edgar said, citing her keen eye for seeing other people's potential.

Amid the chaos of broadcasting, Trowbridge has "definitely been the figure in my life that's been there and been strong and been supportive."

Wile, who joined BCTV last year, said his first assignment in the field was Landmark College's winter graduation. Trowbridge took the time to prepare him and build his confidence.

"Instantly, I knew I was in a place to develop and learn skills," Wile said.

"Cor is one of the most unique bosses I've ever worked with," Edgar said of Trowbridge, who has encouraged his professional development.

Edgar began his career at BCTV as a high school intern managing equipment inventory and helping with the first studio rebuild. Trowbridge then asked him to become a counselor for BCTV's annual summer camp. Later, he was hired as a staff producer, overseeing the recording of Selectboard meetings.

Next came five years as the station's content manager. After Brian Bashaw left, Trowbridge urged Edgar to apply for the position.

Two years ago, Trowbridge emailed Jeff Mastroianni a help wanted ad seeking an executive director for E-Media (Easthampton Media) in Massachusetts. She added a note telling him it was time for him to take over his own ship.

Professionally, she's one of the best executive directors in community media, said Mastroianni, who started at BCTV as a paid producer filming school board meetings. In 2012, he took the full-time content manager position, which he held for five years.

"I could only hope to be half the E.D. that she is," said Mastroianni, who still counts on Trowbridge for professional advice.

"BCTV will always be my home," he said. "I hope they will continue to inspire people to create media."

Not able to capture lighting in a bottle

Lauren-Glenn Davitian, public policy director of the public access CCTV Center for Media & Democracy in Burlington, spoke highly of Trowbridge's accomplishments.

"Cor Trowbridge inherited a spirited public access TV channel and turned it into a nationally recognized community media center," she wrote in an email. "Cor's focus, diligence and love for her community have opened media-making opportunities for people of all ages in Brattleboro. Cor has invested her heart and soul into this important work and built a legacy that will sustain BCTV for years to come."

Alex Beck, who has served on the station's board for six years and has been president since 2021, likes to tease Trowbridge. When the time comes to hang her photo among those of the station's former executive directors, he threatens to use the one where she dressed as Doc from Back to the Future.

Beck describes Trowbridge as a fierce advocate for the station, especially when negotiating contracts with the state, cable companies, and Comcast.

He believes BCTV is the first station in Vermont to broadcast in HD. It was an upgrade years in the making and required a channel number change with Comcast.

"She is dogged in her pursuit," Beck said, making particular note of Trowbridge's leadership of the station during the pandemic.

Beck explained that the station's primary audience is people who can't attend meetings, for example, because they are homebound. During Covid, however, everyone became homebound. Trowbridge positioned the station and staff to deliver on the station's mission in a completely new way.

"Trowbridge made the job of board president easy," he said. "All the staff punch above their weight."

She wouldn't leave now if she weren't leaving the station better than she found it, Beck said.

Trowbridge was bold in her saying "yes" to the community.

"Because Cor said yes, the community has things like Harris Hill and graduations [broadcast on BCTV]," he said.

A sabbatical, and the next act

Trowbridge may be stepping away from BCTV mid-December, but don't confuse this move for retirement.

After the sudden death of her husband two years ago, she said she needs a break to reassess. She anticipates using the winter and spring to connect with family and maybe travel or volunteer. If she's ready to start looking for her next career, the hunt will begin in autumn.

To her potential replacement, she said, the station is stable, steady, and ready for new leadership. (Yes - the lead she wanted for this story.)

"And that wasn't the case when I took over," she continued. "That is 100% the case right now - we have great staff. We have a great board. The equipment is good. Finances are as stable as they can be for what we are."

And, she says, "the community support is tremendous."

"So you know, that part feels really good," Trowbridge said. "And, you know, big picture, that's an accomplishment."

The public is invited to BCTV's annual Producers Party, on Wednesday, Nov. 8, at 6 p.m., at the Stone Church in Brattleboro. The event will celebrate Trowbridge's contributions to BCTV and include an awards ceremony to recognize the work of local producers.

This News item by Olga Peters was written for The Commons.

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