It's been a couple of years since a commercial TV station in Denver has produced a locally oriented Sunday public-affairs show -- so when political reporter Eli Stokols's overseers at Fox31 asked if he'd be interested in taking on such a project, he eagerly accepted. But now comes the hard part: creating a program that's lively as opposed to stultifying and then convincing an audience that watching it won't be like taking medicine.
The result of this effort, dubbed #COpolitics: From The Source, debuts at 9 a.m. on Sunday, June 1, and Stokols feels it juices up the format while still delivering the newsy goods.
"I don't think we're trying to reinvent the wheel," Stokols says, "but we are trying to do this in a fresh way that engages people beyond the usual crowd of Sunday morning news-show viewers or the Colorado politics crowd. We want to appeal to smart young people who are interested in the issues we're talking about but don't find that too many shows or a lot of journalism that's done around here relates to them."
The first thing that differentiates #COpolitics: From The Source from its predecessors is the program's setting. Rather than being taped in a studio with what Stokols refers to as "terrible furniture and black curtains," the show was taped at The Source, an artisan food market in Denver's River North district.
Despite the presence of The Source in the show's title, Stokols says not every edition will be shot there; to him, the phrase can also be seen as a reference to "the source of the news, the source of the story." As such, Stokols and crew may occasionally hit the road and travel to other parts of the state in order to get closer to a particular week's topic. The idea, he explains, is to take conversations into "really dynamic public spaces like The Source, where people are constantly engaging over meals or business meetings or whatever, to let folks know that we want people to be involved. We want to take discussions of public policy in public spaces and see what happens."
He's also looking to tackle subjects that go beyond typical wonkiness. This Sunday, for instance, the main topic will be marijuana, with panelists including Congressman Ed Perlmutter, Jack Finlaw, chief legal council for Governor John Hickenlooper, and Joe Hodas of Dixie Elixirs, maker of pot infused beverages and other products.
"Congressman Perlmutter is the sponsor of marijuana banking legislation," Stokols points out, "while Jack Finlaw oversaw the process by which the state came up with 500 pages of new rules and regulations. And Joe Hodos is able to talk about how those rules are working for companies like Dixie Elixirs at the five-month mark of legalization" -- a reference to limited recreational marijuana sales, which became legal on January 1.
In addition, Stokols will have a one-on-one conversation with Representative Jared Polis about his support, financial and otherwise, for ballot measures pushing local control of fracking -- a position that's caused fascinating fissures within the state Democratic party.
The opportunity to have sit-downs like this is one Stokols relishes.
"I've realized over the years that there are a lot of topics that don't necessarily lend themselves to two-minute segments on TV," Stokols acknowledges. "So this is a chance to do something more long-form and have a more nuanced discussion -- which I often do when I report stories, although a lot of that material ends up getting cut."
Making an offering like #COpolitics: From The Source work takes personal commitment. The 9News program Your Show was helmed by reporter Adam Schrager for years, but when he left Colorado to take a job with Wisconsin Public Television in early 2011, it limped along for a while before petering out entirely the following year. Likewise, past Fox31 anchor Ron Zappolo's late-night conversations with newsmakers and personalities, broadcast under the title Zappolo's People, ended when he left the station and nothing in the genre has popped up since then on any of the main four Denver TV news stations.
"Public TV has a few shows -- Colorado Inside Out, Rocky Mountain State of Mind, Jon Caldara's show -- where these conversations are taking place," Stokols notes. "And the Denver Post has done videos where they've attempted to get discussions started on its website. But it's hard getting people to sit down and click on these videos or watch them when they're on TV. And I do think the public can only benefit from more of these conversations being presented on the airwaves or online.
"If people are interested in what's going on in Colorado and within our world of politics and our elected officials, and with the issues that effect them, we need to give them an opportunity to be part of the conversations -- and maybe sometimes actually start the conversation."
In his view, "we fill a void in some sense, but in a larger sense, there's a huge void in terms of conversation and general discourse about what's going on. A lot of it is partisan and snarky, and that's fine. But I think having a longer, more thoughtful conversation and presenting it publicly can help people who are interested rethink their own ideas and be more engaged.
"I don't know if our show will have a huge impact," he concedes. "But you need to put stuff out there and give yourself a chance to grow an audience. And it should be fun."
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More from our Media archive circa October 2007: "50 Cent Raps With Adam Schrager on 9News' Your Show."