Bringing the St. Olaf community to life, LIVE!
A mother sits in front of the screen with bated breath as her daughter approaches home plate, arms lifted, ready to bat. Across the Atlantic Ocean, a father bursts into applause as he watches his child conclude their choir solo. Thousands of miles away, a prospective student eagerly watches an orchestra concert to see what it might be like to be a member of the ensemble.
Despite the distance between them, the three viewers all share at least one thing in common: they are watching St. Olaf College students showcase their passions on the Hill through the college’s exceptional streaming service.
Each year St. Olaf Broadcast/Media Services (BMS) streams more than 700 events, ranging from athletic competitions to performances by the college’s renowned music ensembles to daily chapel services.
Every shot is supported by professional-level streaming with multiple camera angles and close-ups that capture the intimate details of recorded events. Everything from the movement of a violinist’s hands as they prepare to play the next note to the emotion reflected on an athlete’s face as they move across the field is filmed for viewers to enjoy and experience as if they were there in-person.
“Our live stream offers a very unique opportunity. There’s actually someone switching the camera angles and getting a close, inside view of a game. It adds a ton to the experience,” Head Softball Coach Kayla Hatting says. “Sports are not just about wins and losses; it’s the emotion and love and passion that comes with the game. With our live stream and the ability to zoom in and out, you’re getting their facial expressions; you’re getting the communication between players; you’re getting in on the huddles. If you’re not seeing your daughter in the field, you may have the opportunity to see her in the dugout or on the sidelines or warming up as a pitcher and catcher.”
BMS supports many different departments and college events through production services that include audio and video recording, live streaming, lighting, and video projection. Throughout the last several years, BMS has expanded its operations through generous endowments and the creation of a central production studio in Skifter Hall. BMS uses much of the same equipment that you’d find in major radio stations and television production trucks.
According to Broadcast/Media Services Director Jeffrey O’Donnell ’02, the combination of having a studio as well as equipment across many different venues across campus makes St. Olaf’s broadcast services unique compared to other institutions and contributes to high-quality work.
“Our real strengths are bringing live events to the general public,” O’Donnell says. “That is the charge of this department. This is what we are best at doing. We want people — no matter what event it is that they’re viewing — to experience it the best way that they possibly can, and for us to present the event in a way that’s true to what the event is and bring that viewer into the overall experience.”
We want people — no matter what event it is that they’re viewing — to experience it the best way that they possibly can, and for us to present the event in a way that’s true to what the event is and bring that viewer into the overall experience.Broadcast/Media Services Director Jeffrey O’Donnell ’02
In addition to O’Donnell, the BMS team includes Associate Director of Event Operations Sean Tonko P’22 and Assistant Director of Production Becca Beam ’18, both of whom bring immense skill and experience to the office’s operations.
The team also includes a large number of student workers, several of whom have no previous experience in multimedia production. However, under the guidance of O’Donnell and the other BMS staff, they quickly learn how to use creativity and teamwork to tell a story to the audience through digital media.
“One of my favorite things about this position is the ability to continue to work with fantastic students year after year. We’ve had several students who have gone on to realize that this is something that they wanted to do professionally, where maybe that wasn’t a part of their plan when they arrived here at St. Olaf,” O’Donnell says. “This is a unique opportunity on campus to work with professional-grade audio and visual equipment, and then get mentoring from us in best practices of production and what an event should look like. We do our best to bring those skills to them.”
On average, 60 or more students are employed in the college’s streaming operations each year. About half are focused entirely on streaming athletics, and many are also student-athletes. “I especially enjoy hiring student-athletes because I know they’re invested in St. Olaf athletics,” Assistant Athletic Director for Strategic Communications Michael Abdella says. “They want to put out a good product. They’re friends with the other student-athletes, and they know the parents of that student-athlete back home are probably watching.”
A lot of my teammates didn’t have family that could ever travel and come to games, but they logged on to every game and watched and supported from there. … That was so big for them because it made them feel like they were there and that they were supporting their student-athletes even though they were miles away.Jordan Melz ’22
Especially with the COVID-19 pandemic, many more families are relying on St. Olaf’s streaming services to watch their children perform, compete, or participate in campus life at St. Olaf. Jordan Melz ’22 was very grateful that her parents could still support her at her softball and volleyball games despite not physically being in the stands. She also knows that they were able to experience the game with her through the score bug — created by O’Donnell — displayed on-screen, which automatically updates with the scoreboard, running clock, timeouts, and other game-related information. This gratitude is shared by her teammates, who also had family that could not attend games even before the pandemic.
“Live streaming for family and friends is so important, especially because St. Olaf attracts so many people from out of state. A lot of my teammates didn’t have family that could ever travel and come to games, but they logged on to every game and watched and supported from there,” Melz says. “I think the fact that they could see individual people and they could see certain plays and they always knew what was going on and had the score right — that was so big for them because it made them feel like they were there and that they were supporting their student-athletes even though they were miles away.”
While the pandemic presents many challenges to not only athletics but also campus life, Melz believes that the adversity has shown the strength of the St. Olaf community, which has only been highlighted by the ability of BMS to quickly accommodate their services for many more events than in years past.
“It wasn’t always easy, but it just showed that the community at St. Olaf is so passionate about what we do, and they care so much about the success and happiness of everyone around us,” she says. “I definitely talk about the St. Olaf community a lot when I’m talking to prospective students, just because it is unlike anything else. You always feel like you have a home and a family to be successful in.”
Hatting echoes these sentiments, noting that “everyone is very passionate about being an Ole, and I think that passion really shows in the interactions that we all have with each other.” This is a message that she emphasizes when recruiting prospective students, which is reinforced with the live streaming service provided by BMS.
Sports are not just about wins and losses; it’s the emotion and love and passion that comes with the game. With our live stream and the ability to zoom in and out, you’re getting their facial expressions; you’re getting the communication between players; you’re getting in on the huddles. If you’re not seeing your daughter in the field, you may have the opportunity to see her in the dugout or on the sidelines or warming up as a pitcher and catcher.Head Softball Coach Kayla Hatting
St. Olaf’s high-quality production service has been acknowledged by other colleges and universities as well. Hatting has received many emails from both St. Olaf parents and family members of student-athletes from different institutions thanking the college for its live streams. “Our college has invested a lot into its live streaming capabilities, and it makes a huge difference,” she says.
The services provided by BMS are particularly important for international students, whose families are able to watch their achievements in real-time despite physical distance. “Our broadcast media team is able to do hundreds of games in a year right from on campus that people can watch from anywhere,” Abdella says. “The men’s soccer team has a handful of international student-athletes, and a few of them even work with Jeff and help stream the games. I know from talking to some of them that they have parents watching their games back home. It’s probably an early morning for them, but I know they’re tuning in from all over the country and all over the world.”
While the past year has presented unexpected challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic and most events moving to a virtual format, O’Donnell remains rooted in his mission to advance the work of BMS and continues to impact the lives of the St. Olaf community and beyond.
“It’s all-consuming. It’s too much sometimes, but it’s also what energizes me. It’s my vocation. It’s what I’ve chosen to commit my time to. I don’t think I would do it if I didn’t feel passionately about the place and the students and the people that we work with, and so for me, to spend a lot of time here working, it’s not a burden,” O’Donnell says. “COVID last year was rough. To have everybody doing virtual events all at the same time is very difficult, but the student experience is very important to me. The colleagues that I work with are very important to me. The community is important to me. It’s the place where I feel most at home.”