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Lights! Camera! Rolling!

Students get hands-on experience at DC28

(Published March 27, 2000)

By SAM STRIKE

Staff Writer

J.D. DiMatteo loves it when people meet his kids. Speaking about them, too numerous to count, he has the spirit of a proud father, the demeanor of a motivational speaker and the sensibility of a teacher.

His "kids" are those of the Channel 28 family that produces television programs for cable television. Its mission is to entertain and inform the District about what’s going on in D.C. Public Schools. It reports news from the point of view of students – not adults – which is rare in the news media.

Every year when students apply to work at Channel 28, DiMatteo eventually whittles the number of original applicants from 20-something to a few whom he knows will commit and excel in learning the tricks of the broadcasting trade. These "tricks" include operating video and editing equipment that most adults might not understand.

DiMatteo’s challenging curriculum pays off every time a college professor or admissions director meets one of his students. Professors have been pleasantly shocked, he said, with the experience his kids bring to class. And he revels in calls from admissions people who can’t believe that a senior in high school has written and produced his own show or has learned the intricacies of video and sound consoles.

DiMatteo, who directs Channel 28’s programming, becomes so close with his students because many of them work at the station for more than one year. Nicole Edwards has been working at Channel 28 since she was in seventh grade.

The summer before eighth grade she said she read the newspapers, went to shoots, watched the faces of the broadcasters and practiced in the mirror. Now a junior at Banneker Senior High School, she co-anchors "Eye on D.C.," the station’s news program.

She said she knows what it takes to make it in "the business." She’s worked on getting rid of habits that the camera picks up, on "speaking the Queen’s English" and presenting herself with "a certain air."

Sitting up straight in one of the chairs on the set, Edwards recalled one of her first assignments when it took her 14 takes to do the "standup" commentary for a report on school lunches. At the time she didn’t realize how hard it was to get a quotable comment from someone still learning the alphabet.

"At first the kids wouldn’t talk," she said. "But it wasn’t their fault, it was mine. I wasn’t asking the right questions."

Keanna Faircloth took over the reigns of the issues-oriented talk show "Street Rap" last year. She does research and writes dialogue and questions for her show, on which students and sometimes experts discuss anything from AIDS to hate crimes, the topic of the next episode.

She also works on the technical side of her show with the TelePrompTer, audio and camera – all part of DiMatteo’s master plan to teach everything "hands-on" to his students.

The show is a creative outlet for Faircloth, also a junior at Banneker, and through it she has gained a responsive audience and some measure of celebrity. The students said they have been approached by people on the street who recognize them.

Faircloth said she has learned how to take criticism constructively and use it to better herself. She also has learned to think on her feet in the two and a half years she’s been at Channel 28. She said she has no qualms about firing questions at U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley or anyone else at press conferences.

On a recent school day, Faircloth sat on one of Channel 28’s stages, under lights, with three other students who work at the station for either internship credit or community service hours. They nodded their heads in agreement when she said she likes the friendly environment in which they get to constructively critique each other. They said they eventually learned not to take it personally.

"It’s not your typical internship. We can actually say we learn things," said Rosie Conklin, a junior at School Without Walls. Conklin is the newest reporter on "Eye" and was editing her first story that day. (Later that day, she sticks her head into DiMatteo’s office and says the words he loves to hear: "I made a mistake." DiMatteo sees mistakes as a tool for learning.)

Niya Davis, who started working at Channel 28 last October, said she values the time management skills she’s learned. The School Without Walls junior said she thinks the most recent piece she produced was her best – and she did it all in two days.

Desmond Bright-Davis, a freshman at Cardozo Senior High School, said he is gaining confidence by working the camera and other equipment and writing stories.

The students said their training has taught them to spot grammatical errors and bad camera angles on other news programs, and Faircloth boasted she now knows the difference between a "standup" and a "box" shot.

Critiquing her fellow broadcasters, Edwards said she doesn’t like the "bobbing head" of MSNBC’s Stone Phillips but does admire the work of NBC’s Katie Couric and Channel 4’s Susan Kidd, a neighbor who has given her pointers.

The group sounded off on DiMatteo, saying that while he will chop up a script, it’s like having another English teacher. He’s demanding, but teaches them to be responsible.

"He’s a great person who cares and wants us to do well."

"He also tells us when we are doing well."

Like any reporter, the kids have learned to talk to their editor if they can’t come in or if they’re having problems with a story -- and they know that there are no "stupid questions." And like any editor, DiMatteo said he would never embarrass them by letting something of bad quality go on the air.

Just ask DiMatteo to tell you the success stories of his kids -- full scholarships to major universities, full-time jobs at national networks and the accolades of teachers, parents, administrators who watch them in action on Channel 28.

"The kids are blowing minds. They have the training and know how to use it," he said.

Professional broadcasters they encounter on the job are "amazed at what the kids can do," he said, and look at the sports reporters with "reverence" when they find out they do everything themselves -- from calling the play-by-play to editing the highlight packages.

For DiMatteo and crew, Channel 28 is "real life." He relates anecdotes about his experience at NBC in Boston and tells his students to remember that "if I criticize you, it’s professional -- not personal."

Channel 28 broadcasts from a Northeast Washington studio filled with a growing number of highly technical editing and broadcasting machines. They use only high-quality Beta Cam and computer programs to edit and produce graphics equal to those on professional broadcasts, he said. He wants his kids to understand every technical aspect of broadcasting as well as the ethics and realities of working in the news media.

Edwards said she expected her enthusiastic demeanor to fit well into Channel 28’s sports department, but instead DiMatteo started her behind the camera and on the news beat. "J.D. puts you in a position where you’re not comfortable," she said. "You’re going to get (experience in) everything."

DiMatteo stressed the ethnic diversity in the group and their ability to work together, despite coming from different public schools. The kids echoed that sentiment, saying they like meeting students from other schools.

"If someone would have given me a chance to do this when I was a kid, I would have jumped at it," he said.

DiMatteo’s work days start at 6:45 a.m. and end at 7:30 p.m. He said he wouldn’t work at Channel 28 if he didn’t love it. And he does.

"I believe you have to have a passion for what you want to do," he said.

He said he’s learned from the best reporters and has worked as a cameraman, news anchor and in the Navy/Marine Corps News where he traveled all over the world and trained reporters. He became familiar with Channel 28 while based at the Anacostia Naval Station. When DiMatteo came aboard seven years ago, there were about two students there and now there are 48 guided by four staff members.

His office is adorned with pictures of "his kids" and newspaper clippings about them or the program. Just ask him about his kids. They’ve been underestimated, undervalued and mislabeled, he said.

"Big mistake," he said, shaking his head and smiling. "Big mistake."

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator