Reinventing Dayton on the web

Award-winning filmmakers introduce interactive web site


An innovative new web site devoted to a Midwestern city in the process of reinventing itself was unveiled this week, thanks to major funding from some prestigious organizations and an enthusiastic and creative local production team.

The city is Dayton, Ohio — one of only two small cities in the country selected for a project designed to expand the presence of public radio on the web. Other participating cities include Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco. The other small city was Paonia, Colo.

It’s all a part of Localore, a national public media initiative produced by AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio. Principal funding came from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting with additional support from groups including the MacArthur Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts.

The complex local undertaking focuses on a group of Dayton residents who have started over in their lives. It blends radio segments, documentary film-making, music, still photos and sophisticated web technology. Leading the local team are Academy Award-nominated, Emmy-winning filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar of Yellow Springs in collaboration with WYSO 91.3 and its general manager Neena Ellis. Programing for the new site is being handled by Zeega, a Boston-based company specializing in interactive storytelling on the web.

“Stories have been told since humans developed brains,” Bognar said. “When you hear a story, you let go and say, ‘Take me away, storyteller.’ But people have also played games forever. The question we are asking is: “How can games and stories live together?”

The stories highlight regular people making major life changes, often as a result of a job loss but for other reasons as well. Since mid-January, initial segments have been airing on WYSO’s “Morning Edition,” with additional information provided on the station’s regular website (WYSO.org).

Fun and games

The “games” can be found on the new web site (www.reinventionstories.org). This site is interactive, allowing viewers to click on and follow individual stories as they’re revealed and to get involved in the reinventing process by sharing thoughts, experiences and ideas. Web viewers who choose to “Drive the Road, for example,” will encounter video clips of dozens of special events in Dayton that show “signs of life” in the city. They’re also given the opportunity to add their own favorites.

Although the project focuses on Dayton, the filmmakers say it will interest “anyone in the heartland hit by the big economic downturn.”

Bognar says this site is different in a number of ways. For starters, there’s no homepage; the movie is the interface.

“This site is a longer, deeper experience,” he explained. “It’s more like a good mixtape or a short story collection. And it’s all original content; none of the stories have ever been seen.”

The site embraces full-screen movies, meant to be viewed as large as your computer will allow.

A real life cast

Act I of the three-part initial series premiered this week and introduces seven local folks whose lives are in flux. It’s titled “Who Was I?” and provides background on each of the central characters. They include:

  • LaToya Coleman, a Residence Park mother/stepmother to six kids who worked at a plant that provided parts to GM until they shut down
  • Jeremy Pennucci , a construction worker who risked everything to open a disc golf shop in Belmont
  • Mitch Woods, who lost his job when the GM plant in Moraine closed and has worked to begin again by attending Sinclair Community College
  • Holly Todd, who lost her job and decided to open a specialty shoe shop in the Belmont Business District.
  • Theresa Gasper, who grew up in a large family in South Park and wanted to give back because her family “got three miracles.”
  • London Coe, who decided to open a fair-trade shop in the Oregon District after losing her job.
  • Carol Coffey, who decided to move back to her childhood home in South Park after living in the suburbs.

To find out what happens to each of them, you’ll have to tune in to Act II, which will be added on March 19 and centers around the question “What Happened?” Act III, slated to premiere on April 9, is titled “Who am I Trying to Become?”

“We wanted to roll out the series, so that every story ends with a cliff-hanger,” explained Reichert, who says there have been few programs like this in the world that have been created in this new format. She and Bognar have dubbed it a “transmedia documentary.”

“We collected the stories by walking the neighborhoods with a hand-held audio recorder and a Canon DSLR that takes video and stills,” Bognar explained. The group focused on four Dayton neighborhoods — Twin Towers, Residence Park, South Park and Belmont— but also covered dozens of events and reinvention stories from Fairborn, St. Anne’s Hill, Clayton, East Dayton, Kettering and more.

The production team

Members of the production team come from throughout the region, many are graduates of Wright State University’s film school. A number of folks worked as field producers, walking the streets of Dayton, chatting with people in the neighborhoods, collecting stories.

Kyle Wilkinson of Monroe produced and edited stories for WYSO, and also filmed many of the stories airing on the station’s web site.

“As a filmmaker, it was a great experience working so closely with an amazing local radio station, but what excited me the most about the project was the direct involvement and participation with the communities around Dayton,” he said.

Emily Evans of Franklin, who has been working for the filmmakers for the past year and a half, said she had never really explored Dayton on her own

“This gave me a reason to go out and look at things a little differently,” she said. “”I think I had the wrong impression of Dayton. This has opened my eyes to all of the wonderful things that are going on.”

Nick Rollins of Springfield did animation for the new web site, animating a picture postcard of Dayton and a map.

“Every story is so completely different,” he observed, “and because it’s all local, you can connect to it.”

How they got the grant

Although other interested cities proposed out-of-town producers for their projects, Ellis was determined to keep things local. Although they’d had no web experience, she enlisted the aid of Reichert and Bognar.

“I’m trying to build two things — a community of producers and a multi-media entity here at WYSO,” she explained. “I’ve known Steve and Julia for 20 years and have always wanted to work with them. They’re great at what they do, and very good teachers.”

The theme they picked was also connected to the Miami Valley.

“We wanted to focus on communities that were impacted by deindustrialization in the industrial heartland and the kind of people who had jobs where their moms worked but had to reinvent themselves when those jobs were gone,” Reichert said.

Once the grant was theirs, Bogner and Reichert had to reinvent themselves as well.

“We weren’t even on Facebook,” Reichert said. “It’s strange making something for the web; the challenge was to use the web in a creative way. We needed to understand how the web works, how users interface with it.”

The film makers taught radio staff how to shoot and produce video. To learn more about creative web production, they applied for and received a grant from the Sundance Institute and traveled to the mountains of Utah to hone their web skills at The New Frontier lab for experimental work.

“It was not really a training, really more of a lab, where we presented the project and had deep consultations with many professionals in the fields of interactivity and storytelling,” Reichert explained. ” There were only six projects chosen nationally.”

The question they eventually settled upon: “Can an evolving web site become a living, breathing chronicle of one city’s struggle and resurgence?”

Learning as they go

After South Park resident Carol Coffey had agreed to take part in the project and spent a few sessions with Reichert and Bognar, she asked them what they were planning to do with all of the material they had gathered about her life.

“They both laughed and said, ‘We have no idea,’ ” she recalled. “They said it’s like you go out in your vegetable garden and you pick a bunch of vegetables and don’t know how you’ll put them all together. But when it’s all said and done, you make your stew. They were learning as they went along.

“I’m not about being a star, for me it was about spending time with Julia and Steve,” Coffey said.” I cried when I saw my part; it’s been a wonderful experience that has enriched my life.”



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