It’s not uncommon around Election Day to see candidates appear on television interview shows.
It’s rare, however, for that television station to broadcast out of a local high school.
But that was the unique opportunity recently afforded to students from SOHO TV, Southold High School’s broadcast and media production class.
The students said they were overjoyed when incumbent Congressman Lee Zeldin and Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo agreed to be interviewed along with Democratic challengers Perry Gershon and Rona Smith.
The candidates visited the school during their campaign races last week and discussed their planned policies and major issues that applied to students, including the economy, gun control, the environment, health care and student loans.
Jason Wesnofske, the district’s broadcast production teacher, said the idea of bringing in politicians came from SOHO TV executive producer Anakin Mignone, a senior. Anakin said he proposed the idea after watching a televised debate between Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke.
“We’re on par, I think, with some professional news networks — or the local affiliates, at least,” Anakin said. “So I shot over a text to Mr. Wesnofske, and I said, ‘Hey, what do you think about trying to get some politicians on the show?’ And he agreed to look into it.”
Mr. Wesnofske said SOHO TV contacted the four campaign managers through email the first week in October. Mr. Gershon agreed to come in right away, Mr. Wesnofske said. Mr. Zeldin’s representative agreed to an interview after the students completed their interview with Mr. Gershon on Oct. 26.
Anakin said he was surprised Mr. Zeldin and Mr. Gershon agreed to be interviewed.
“I don’t think we actually thought we’d be able to get them in,” Anakin said. “But we sent back and forth some emails, and they were interested enough in our program. It proved impressive enough that they wanted to come here.”
Both candidates thanked the student organization for allowing them to be interviewed. After his on-air interview, Mr. Zeldin said programs like SOHO TV offer a local element to reporting that isn’t present in most national news.
“People are consuming their news in many different ways,” he said. “When you get closer to the local news, you’re exposed to a wider range of topics on very local concerns that you can’t get if you are just going to that one national website for news … A great secondary benefit of this program is actually delivering news to viewers who want to know what’s going on.”
Mr. Wesnofske said bringing in politicians forces students to educate themselves on current events.
“It makes them pay attention not only to journalism, but to policies that are being put out, whether it’s the Affordable Health Care Act, the new Supreme Court justice or anything that’s going on — they have to stay current,” he said.
Senior Sabrina Basel, one of SOHO TV’s broadcast anchors, joined Anakin in interviewing the four candidates. This is her first year involved in SOHO TV and she said preparing for the on-air interviews was a lot of work.
“It’s very stressful,” Sabrina said. “You just think, ‘Oh, they’re a politician, they’re running, people vote for them.’ Then, when you really know what they actually do in office, or what they’re planning to do, it becomes crazy.”
Sabrina said she believes the close bond formed among members of SOHO TV has helped make the program successful.
“It’s very special that we’re bringing in local politicians, especially because we’re such a small school on the East End,” she said. “It feels unreal.”
Last year, the Southold School District completed over $9.7 million dollars in renovations, including a new television broadcast studio for students in the high school. Before the renovations, Anakin said, SOHO TV was operating from the high school’s old woodshop studio.
“We had a drop green-screen, two cameras and a little wood desk we built,” he said. “When they started doing building renovations, we had to move into one of the English teacher’s rooms. We were working in this tiny corner in the back of a classroom, and we still managed to get out 35 episodes.”
But the completed renovations have added a level of seriousness and importance to SOHO TV, Anakin said.
“We have this fantastic space,” he said. “Being in charge, being given this responsibility, and given the privilege to do something as big as this … has really been a fantastic opportunity.”
Caption: Congressman Lee Zeldin with students Anakin Mignone and Sabrina Basel. (Credit: Kate Nalepinski)