In the mind of Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas’ Rob Roedel, there’s a news reporter in each bucket truck, power plant, substation and construction site.

“It varies from mission to mission or power plant to power plant, but we basically have reporters 24/7/365,” said Roedel, director of corporate communications at Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. and Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Inc. in Little Rock.

Roedel and his “brilliant” team of digital producers are leveraging their access to round-the-clock storytelling in a big way. Recently, they rolled out a state-of-the art broadcast studio in the Little Rock office.

The studio is “the next step in communications,” he said, because it gives co-ops access to technology to produce the news themselves instead of hoping for a quick hit from a media outlet.

“Basically, we have our own cooperative TV network, and our field reporters are our employees,” said Roedel.

The production studio, a former storage area, contains a TV anchor desk on wheels, a screen, lights, two cameras, a control room and equipment. It doubles as an audio and photography studio.

“The studio allows us to deliver real-time updates in a production-level form,” Roedel said. “We are able to do instant interactive news updates with our employees at power plants, job sites or storm sites.”

A simple control panel allows users to change lights and shot angles, advance slides and perform other functions. Open Broadcaster Software, a free, open-source cross-platform app, enables streaming capability. Roedel puts the studio’s total cost at about $30,000.

The studio is open to AECC’s 17 distribution co-ops, its generation and transmission co-op and ERMCO, a subsidiary that manufactures transformers. And while the designers created the production panel to be simple enough for non-techies, they still plan to make video tutorials and label key pieces of equipment.

“Ideally, one of us will be there to walk them through it,” said Chance Gowan, one of two digital production specialists who built the studio. “But eventually you would just walk in, watch the video on how to use the controller, and once you have that figured out, it's pretty easy to go from there.”

Before Hurricane Ian struck, Roedel designated general foreman Mike Matty as the lead reporter to do live interviews from Florida. As one of more than 85 mutual-aid crews from AECI, a generation and transmission cooperative, Matty did a live spot from his truck in the North Fort Myers service area of Lee County Electric Cooperative.

Roedel envisions more live coverage in the future. “I can interview a lineman getting ready to go and then I could switch over and interview someone in the trenches. And then, furthermore, I could FaceTime the CEO.”

Co-ops don’t need to wait for a disaster to use the technology. Instead of Zoom or Teams, co-op safety directors have used the network TV format to liven up safety meetings and training. Recently, AECC’s human resources staff kicked off a food drive from the studio.

“We can change the logo on the desk to whatever logo you want,” said Chance Allmon, the other production specialist. “If you want to pull something up, you can do it like a news channel. It’s more interactive than just a straight video and someone talking.”

The studio fulfills a longtime dream for Roedel, who has a radio, TV and newspaper background. He envisions a daily or weekly broadcast for members that could be archived.

“I visited a local television station that was doing a Sunday morning political talk show with one person doing it all…the directing, the producing and being the face for the program,” Roedel said. “I thought, ‘we have a news reporter in every bucket truck out there during storms.’”

And with remote work arrangements becoming more common during the pandemic, “everyone got very comfortable working with their iPhones and FaceTime and everything else,” Roedel said. “I tell people that the pandemic was horrible and hard but, from a communications perspective, it caused us to reach farther in some innovative ways.”