As with most PBS programming, Toledo Stories flies rather quietly and humbly under the radar of mass public awareness.
In case you've missed it, the show that digs into the past of our colorful city and some of its important residents airs Thursday nights between 8 and 9 p.m. on WGTE-TV, Channel 30.
The locally produced series can lay claim to being one of the more popular shows on WGTE, but its ratings pale when compared to those on the big networks. During November sweeps, for instance, Toledo Stories was watched by 4,000 total area viewers while the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory was watched by 116,000.
But this is one instance when the numbers don't really tell the whole story. After all, when's the last time someone said a sitcom was important to a community?
"A show like Toledo Stories helps preserve a community's understanding of itself and preserve its identity," said Timothy Messer-Kruse, a former history professor at the University of Toledo and now the interim vice provost for academics and dean of the graduate college at Bowling Green State University. "This is a wonderful way to help younger generations and maybe newcomers to town learn what makes Toledo unique and special to our area."
Toledo Stories has explored the ethnic melting pot of Toledo's history, with individual episodes devoted to Polish, German, Irish, and African-American area settlers, the "cornerstones" of Toledo.
There have been stories about Jeep, the local glass industry, and the beloved retail store Tiedtke's, long-since shuttered.
The series has profiled Mike Gittinger, a newsreel cameraman who supplied Hollywood and grand movie palaces with stories from Toledo; Toledo native and jazz legend Art Tatum; Millie Benson, Blade reporter and author of most of the Nancy Drew books; and famed UT quarterback Chuck Ealey, who led the school to 35 straight victories.
There have been stories about cultural landmarks including the Mud Hens, Toledo Zoo, and the Toledo Museum of Art, and even contemporary programs on the Huntington Center and the importance of arts education in public schools.
"There is no cutoff to the stories that we tell," said Darren LaShelle, Toledo Stories executive producer. "The arena program followed the construction from groundbreaking to opening day. That's a Toledo story. It's not a historic one [but] we captured the creation of what will become a landmark in Toledo."
And like its subjects, Toledo Stories also has history to share, though it's not quite as entertaining as the shows themselves.
WGTE first dipped into the documentary waters with 1979's feature on Gittinger, but the station got serious about telling local tales in 1993, after Greg Tye, now senior TV program producer, joined the PBS affiliate. It was Tye, for instance, who produced the Tiedtke's program. The trouble was, once these documentaries first aired, it would be a while — a year or two — before viewers had the opportunity to see them again.
"That was the hardest thing for me," Tye said, "to see the show we worked hard on and see it not get the audience it deserved on a regular basis."
LaShelle suggested WGTE put a permanent series in place to showcase the 15 or so documentaries that have been produced so far, along with those to come. With the broad title of Toledo Stories, the series was launched in 2002, with an emphasis on creating more features to add to the rotation. Tye and Ray Miller took over as dedicated producers to the series, and since then about 25 new Toledo Stories have been added to the mix.
With hundreds of ideas about possible features, not to mention suggestions from the general public, telling Toledo's story isn't a problem. Funding, however, is always an issue.
A typical hourlong Toledo Stories costs between $70,000 to $80,000 to produce, LaShelle said, which is still considerably cheaper than the $800,000 to a million dollars it costs for programs on a national level. But the money isn't readily available to LaShelle. Funding for Toledo Stories, like all PBS programming, comes from corporate and local viewers donations as well as grants.
"Because we're a nonprofit, we're only interested in breaking even, covering costs," he said. "We're not interested in making a profit. Almost every mid-market station does this, but they don't do it in the volume we do. They do it as special presentations sporadically, where we've been able to turn this into a regular series."
Then there's the process of making the documentary. While LaShelle works to raise the money, Tye and Miller research the subject, sometimes using The Blade's library in a cooperative agreement with the newspaper. From tracking down sources and photos and video to editing hundreds of hours of footage to a half-hour or hour show, the process takes three months or more to complete.
"For the first part of the program I consider myself a detective. I've got a story but I'm not fully aware of what the story is," Tye said. "My first stop is the library or The Blade, where I read diligently and begin to understand what the story is.
"I'm always looking for visuals," he added. "It's hard to tell a story on television without the visuals."
Once it all comes together, well, the end result is entertaining and, just as importantly, informative.
"It's one of my favorite things that WGTE does," said Mari Davis, executive director of the Toledo Ballet, which was featured last year in Toledo Stories, an episode that was recently picked up nationally by 77 PBS affiliates including New York, Boston, and Los Angeles.
"I'm always reminded of the richness of our community — the cultural richness — and what we have here and what's been built. It reminds us of how fortunate this community was to have pioneers this committed to culture and sports in our community. It's important to see where we came from and who we are as residents of northwest Ohio."
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