Flurry of public media activities nearly eclipses celestial fever

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The moon eclipses the sun in March 2013 in this image from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.

As the darkening shadow of this month’s solar eclipse creeps across the U.S., public broadcasters from Oregon to South Carolina will be busy helping Americans watch and understand the rare celestial phenomenon.

PBS’s icon science series Nova is attempting its quickest production turnaround ever, taking feeds from multiple member stations the morning and afternoon of Aug. 21 for Eclipse Over America, which airs that night at 9 p.m. Eastern.

Miles O’Brien of PBS NewsHour will be in Idaho for a Facebook Live Event. And Nova producers hope to insert up to seven minutes of video from two jets sent aloft by NASA in Houston.

Series Executive Producer Paula Apsell said she began to consider two years ago how to best cover the first total solar eclipse in the country since 1979. A straightforward history of eclipses and what scientists learn from them “sure would have been a lot easier,” she quipped.

Martin Gorst/WGBH

In “Eclipse Over America,” scientists ready a research rocket that will measure the sun’s corona during the eclipse.

But technology and station participation allow for additional unique elements in this broadcast. “We’re making very meticulous plans,” Apsell said. “WGBH, fortunately, is very sophisticated technically, so we have a lot of support from our station in Boston.”

“We’re really excited about it,” she said. “It will be terrifying, but it will be fun.”

NASA’s broadcast headquarters for the eclipse is in South Carolina, the point at which the path leaves the U.S. mainland. That’s also home to the National Educational Telecommunications Association, which is distributing Total Eclipse Live produced by South Carolina ETV. Its coverage includes live footage shot directly through a telescope at the South Carolina State Museum.

NETA employees in Columbia, S.C., are also pretty excited about being observers as well.

“The NETA staff has a clear east-to-west horizon view,” said Maryanne Schuessler, spokesperson. “So come 2:30 p.m. on Aug. 21, we will be outside, with our ISO-12312-2 filter eclipse viewing glasses, just like millions of other people. But we get two minutes, 30 seconds of jaw-dropping totality. I can’t wait.”

Here’s a look at how some public stations are celebrating and participating, from the eclipse’s entrance into the U.S. in the west to its departure in the east. All local times are NASA estimates.

Oregon: Eclipse visible 10:18–10:24 a.m.

At 8 a.m. local time, All Classical Portland begins broadcasting a special soundtrack of music curated for the eclipse, featuring works such as Also sprach Zarathustra, the tone poem by Richard Strauss that was featured in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, and selections from Gustav Holst’s The Planets. As the eclipse reaches totality, the special will climax with the world premiere broadcast of a new composition by Irish musician and scholar Desmond Earley. The new work, commissioned and recorded by the station for the eclipse, is scored for choir, cello and bass drum and will be performed by Portland-based musicians.

Oregon Public Broadcasting “will be reporting from around the state before, during and after the eclipse, which is expected to bring in upward of a million people,” said spokesperson Lauren Elkanich.

Like many stations, OPB has created a webpage for eclipse content that houses a growing collection of OPB reports on the phenomenon: how to gaze at the sun safely, the eclipse’s impact on public lands and local economies, the history and science of eclipses. It offers photo galleries, videos and other multimedia.

Next week OPB’s daily radio show Think Out Loud will carry live updates from gatherings from across the state.

The production team from State of Wonder, OPB’s arts and culture radio show, “is taking a road trip” up to and during the eclipse, Elkanich said. They’ll report from events including the Oregon SolarFest in Madras and the Symbiosis Oregon Eclipse 2017 Gathering at Big Summit Prairie in Ochoco National Forest.

The Oregon Art Beat team is providing video to Nova for its broadcast. Producers also will be capturing eclipse content at an outdoor art exhibit for a future episode.

Wyoming: 11:36–11:48 a.m.

Kyle Nicholoff/WyomingPBS

WyomingPBS producer Steven McKnight tests camera filters for eclipse coverage.

WyomingPBS is streaming the eclipse and related activities on its website, YouTube and Facebook Live, said spokesperson Jennifer Amend.

Crews will also be filming in the western Wind River Mountains as well as around central Wyoming.

The Riverton station is also taping a special episode of its weekly public affairs program, Wyoming Chronicle, with scientists offering insights on the phenomenon. That will air next month.

The public broadcaster is making a feed available to Nova “and any other PBS station that would like to use it,” Amend said. Interested stations can contact the station for the coordinates, she said.

Nebraska: 11:48 a.m. – 1:03 p.m.

NET in Lincoln is partnering with Homestead National Monument in Beatrice for three full days of activities that include a few public TV celebrities.

Neil Grabowsky/Montclair Film

Bill Nye, former public TV “Science Guy,” is now a science- education activist.

“It’s one of the darkest places for the eclipse,” said station spokesperson Cameron Risher proudly. “There’s not a lot of light pollution in Nebraska.”

At Homestead on Saturday, activities include Native American “Starlore” stories, NASA presentations and a chance for kids to build an eclipse pinhole viewer. On Sunday there’s a Ready Jet Go! tent with characters and Dr. Amy Mainzer from the PBS Kids show, along with the Ready Jet Go! Band.

And on the day of the eclipse, guests include Bill Nye, the former public TV “Science Guy,” who will explain the phenomenon as it occurs.

Missouri: 1:09–1:21 p.m.

KCPT in Kansas City, Mo., is stocking up on branded eclipse glasses, said Lindsey Foat, community engagement producer.

“We’ll be distributing those in the community in the days leading up to the eclipse,” she said.

The station will also send videographers to capture footage of eclipse viewers for Nova, she said.

Illinois: 1:18–1:24 p.m.

Carbondale, home of WSIU at Southern Illinois University, is bracing for massive crowds. The location has one of the longest totality durations, of up to two minutes and 30 seconds, said Beth Spezia, educational outreach coordinator.


Young visitors learn about the solar system at WSIU’s “Star Party” in April, a kickoff to eclipse activities.

An interdisciplinary “gown and town” team from the university and community is planning a wide range of activities. Carbondale is expecting an influx of 50,000 people.

WSIU actually launched its activities in April with a “Star Party” for kids. Partners included the Astronomical Association of Southern Illinois and the SIU physics department, which set up telescopes. PBS characters met with children, and Mat Kaplan, host of the weekly show Planetary Radio, was there too.

Despite the rainy day, more than 600 people attended. “We’re in quite a rural area, so that’s a wonderful turnout for us,” Spezia said. “We drew from 33 communities, and many participants drove more than 50 miles to attend.”

WSIU Radio kicks off eclipse activities Sunday when it hosts Planetary Radio Live with Kaplan at SIU’s Shyrock Auditorium.

Isabel Lawrence Photographers

Mat Kaplan, host of the weekly “Planetary Radio” show, will be at WSIU for a special broadcast.

For the day of the eclipse, “it’s an all-hands-on-deck situation,” Spezia said.

WSIU will present five hours of live TV that will be available in a national feed. The university canceled classes — Aug. 21 is also the first day of the fall semester — so some 20,000 students, along with faculty, staff and local residents, can gather in Saluki Stadium to watch the sun wane. Experts explaining the science will visit from NASA, Adler Planetarium in Chicago and the Louisiana Space Consortium.

The station is also creating an interactive online story map documenting all the SIU Eclipse Day activities. Visitors can share images on social media with the hashtag #EclipseWSIU, which the station will gather and post along with media clips and interviews.

Tennessee: 1:27–2:36 p.m.

Tennessee Crossroads, a signature series of Nashville Public Television, is hosting a live “Total Eclipse Event” starting at 1 p.m. Aug. 21 on Facebook Live.

Host Joe Elmore and correspondent Danielle Colburn Allen will report from the Music City Total Solar Eclipse Festival at the Adventure Science Center.

The station will also carry South Carolina ETV’s extensive coverage on a multicast channel.

South Carolina: 2:39–2:48 p.m.

Aimee Crouch, lead producer for Total Solar Eclipse Live at SCETV, specializes in supervising coverage of complex live events such as elections. And that’s exactly what this will be.

“We’ve never had so many people volunteer to work a shift,” she said, with more than 40 employees stepping up. “It’s almost like an election night. We have our plan, but after two minutes that could get tossed out the window. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we’ve planned for everything the best we could.”

Cloud cover is the biggest worry for Crouch. The station is filming at four locations, hoping at least one will be clear.

One of those spots is the South Carolina Botanical Garden in Clemson. There “we’ll be observing the atmosphere, people, plants, animals and weather,” she said. Another crew will be at the Columbia Fireflies minor-league baseball park. “They’re stopping a game for two minutes to watch,” Crouch said. “That should be really cool to see.”

At the state museum, “we’ll have a connection straight from its telescope into our production truck,” offering viewers a much closer — and safer — peek at the totality.

But producers realize that not everyone can be outside staring into the sky, “like people in hospitals, or those outside the eclipse path,” Crouch said. For them, coverage from the State Museum will also be simulcast on radio and online.

After the moon’s shadow over the sun slides off the east coast of the state, Charles Duke, an astronaut and South Carolina native, will appear to discuss what everyone just saw.

Through it all, ETV will be feeding content to Nova for its special.

With all the activity, will ETV staffers get to see the totality for themselves?

“We’re going to try and let everyone sneak out for a couple seconds to get a quick look,” Crouch said. — With additional reporting from Barry Garron

This post has been updated to include details of All Classical Portland’s eclipse broadcast.

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