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Get to Know Us: TPT Producer Steve Spencer

This TPT veteran talks about his time at TPT, his favorite projects, and more

June 1, 2022

TPT began producing content in the 1980s and never looked back. We’ve made content focused on the arts, delving into Minnesota history, and chronicling the everyday lives of many Minnesotans. We’re proud to represent this vibrant community through our video archive.

Steve Spencer came to work for TPT in 1991 and has touched on nearly every topic under the sun in his creative endeavors. For our new “Get to Know Us” series, we let Steve take the reins and talk about some of his favorite projects over the years.

Steve says:

People have said to me, “I’d kill for your job.” Strangely, they say it as though they would get my job by doing so, which seems medieval to me, but a strong indicator of who to avoid at cocktail parties.

I’ve been at Twin Cities PBS for 31 years after designing an individual Film major at the University of Minnesota, starting as an intern, and working my way up to Senior Producer. As formulaic as it sounds, I have come to believe, strongly, in the Three Act Structure. Also that shows should make you laugh and cry. I have a bank of highly rated shows, 40+ Emmy nominations in 16 different categories, and a dozen trophies collecting dust on my dining room table to prove this.

“Good. Fast. Cheap. Pick Two.” Readers may have seen similar signs in their workplace. I did, a long time ago. But we always pick three. Try telling a Producer, “This project is fast and cheap. No need to make it good.”

When invited to choose five shows to highlight, I was honored, excited and… anxiety ridden. How would I choose from 100s of shows? Should I have some sort of play-off bracket?

I’ve tried to highlight big ones you may have seen, and small ones overlooked in five categories:

1. Tape’s Rolling

Short story long, at the dawn of digital post production at Twin Cities PBS, we had lots of leftover footage from John Whitehead’s State Fair Scrapbook, so I took that material into an edit suite with our new digital editing platform and produced State Fair People. We realized how much faster and cheaper we could create content and Tape’s Rolling was born – a series that allowed us to make fly-on-the-wall documentaries for a fraction of the cost.

My four seasons of producing Tape’s Rolling included Emmy-winning Wild and Outside; Girls at LaFemme, Jumpin’ Johnny, Women On Ice, The Phoenix Group, White Tie Affair, The Neighborhood Project. I’d like to highlight the episode, The Minnesota Zoo.

We knew the best episodes featured a charismatic lead, event, or both. During field production, videographer Robert Hutchings, Production Assistant Deborah Hardt and I realized the focus was a little amorphous – what exactly was “The Story?” It wasn’t until I retreated to the new digital editing suite that it took shape. A University education fresh in my mind – focus on 70s-80s feminist film; i.e., semiotics, means of production, mechanics of language and psychology – what I learned about scopophilia (the desire to look) and deconstruction of gender roles emerged. It was all there, not only with the gibbons, but 60 seconds of unedited instinct from Robert and a mom at the zoo sorting out who was going to take the last picture on the family’s camera. Add the impact of Vietnam, which tied into the whole thing. I like the quiet at the end.

I remember when the final cut was being readied for broadcast and Robert standing, watching it. Without averting his eyes from the screen he said, “I had no idea you were going to do this.” Heh, neither did I.

Watch Minnesota Zoo Now

2. History

You know Twin Cities PBS’ reputation for quality history documentaries. Big or small, whether it’s Emmy-winning This Free North or The History of Mosquito Control.

Coming to Mni Sota won an Emmy last year. We were trying to tell a story in an hour spanning 450 years involving millions of people from every corner of the globe – and started production at the beginning of the pandemic. You might notice that most of the interviews were conducted outdoors. No matter how many of my faults I spot, let alone remembering the necessary struggle it took to make it, I watch it to the end every time.

Incredible team effort from Ashleigh Rowe, Anne Guttridge, Julie Censullo, Ezra Gold, Kevin Yang, the entire production unit and especially the visionary Leya Hale who takes projects to the next level.

Watch Coming to Mni Sota Now

3. Music/Poetry

You should see the play-off bracket for this, including my first solo producing effort – Cap’n Jack McDuff – as well as Emmy-nominated Somalia: A Nation of Poets, and all the Spotlight performances from NewsNight with Director Jeff Weihe’s unparalleled track record for booking musical guests.

But I’m going to highlight this Emmy winner – Prized Performers – produced in partnership with St. Paul’s Schubert Club, combining the best aspects of Tape’s Rolling’s style: an event, precocious kids, and lots of music. This entire show was in the field for two days.

Watch Prized Performers Now

4. Social Issues

Sometimes stories tell themselves. Other times, a narrative has to be constructed from whole cloth. I’ve produced a lot of ‘social issue’ programs including the Emmy-winning series Our Rights (“Steve, make an interesting show about workforce participation”), This Is My Home (“Are kids cruel?” “Cool?” “Cruel.” “Yeah.”), Hope For Human Trafficking Victims – the list is endless.

Emmy-winning The Opioid Fix, in partnership with the Mayo Clinic, was a massive undertaking – what is an opioid, how and why do people use them, how did we get here and where do we go? What are we willing to admit? Three episodes, but it’s 90 minutes – can we keep it moving forward?

Our team was invaluable – Susan Thao, who co-produced the third episode and convinced otherwise reluctant people to share their stories, Julie Censullo for keeping us on-track, and Carrie Clark, whose post-production skill set is breathtaking.

We’re public broadcasting and, sometimes, “If this helps one person, it’s worth it.”

Watch The Opioid Fix Now

5. Lo Budget/No Budget 

“Low Budget/No Budget” – I’ve made a lot of these, proud of every one, including my Dad’s favorite, Emmy-nominated Equine Forestry.

Voice to Vision had one day in the field. You know how in the Olympics judges assign a degree of difficulty? Make a documentary with Holocaust survivors in a day.

The program evolved from an art project where U of M’s David Feinberg paired students with three survivors who had completely different experiences. You’ll also meet the late, trail blazing Stephen Feinstein.

Thankfully we had access to the images, as well as music donated to us. Structurally, there needed to be a set-up to explain the what, why and how of Feinberg’s project, but in the second act, when we’re with the survivors, we shouldn’t leave them. Third act, bit of ‘relief’? Yes, Murray’s comment as the last spoken words in this show was deliberate.

Ezra Gold was the Editor. We talked at length about how to incorporate the imagery with what we’re being told. Ezra went above and beyond.

Watch Voice to Vision Now

Ugh, if asked to do this a week from now, I’d have a completely different list, starting with Emmy winners Beyond Cancer, Honoring Choices, the imperfect but precious last NewsNight (August 16, 2001) and a lot of Disability rights.

Thank you for your interest!

© Twin Cities Public Television - 2022. All rights reserved.


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