It's 'Our Story': Unique cable programming is produced by and for residents of southern Minnesota

WORTHINGTON -- On the latest episode of "As the Corn Grows," Aunt Minnie listens in on a suspicious telephone conversation between Cousin John and Prairie Ann. Could they be involved in (gasp!) a relationship?...

Jeff and Denise Rouse are the founders of "Our Story" studios, and Jeff serves as executive producer of the "Our Story" programming.

WORTHINGTON -- On the latest episode of "As the Corn Grows," Aunt Minnie listens in on a suspicious telephone conversation between Cousin John and Prairie Ann. Could they be involved in (gasp!) a relationship?

If that sort of drama isn't your cup of tea, you might want to check out Professor J. Von Tron as she travels back in time and visits with residents about historical events that have taken place in southern Minnesota, such as the 1902 opening of the Fairmont Opera House.

For game show fans, there's "Name That Town," which gives at-home viewers a chance to win a valuable prize.

On "Designing Accents," host Doug Wollam might share the finer points of displaying collectibles as part of a table setting.

All these diverse segments -- and many more -- are part of "Our Story," a cable television program now airing on cable access channels in 65 southern Minnesota communities, including Worthington Cable 3. This cornucopia of regionally-produced programming is the brainchild of Jeff Rouse, who serves as executive producer for Our Story Television. A native of the Emmetsburg, Iowa, area, Rouse lived in Colorado for a number of years before returning to the area and settling in Fairmont.


"We were very fortunate in Fairmont to have a local cable show that was very well done," he reflected about the origins of "Our Story." "We thought it made a difference ... but ours ended after 13 years. I was complaining, as a business person, that we need this kind of programming to promote our town. People kept telling me, "OK, why don't you do it?'"

After several such encounters, Rouse began to seriously ponder the possibilities and was encouraged in the venture by his wife, Denise (who now portrays Prairie Ann on "As the Corn Grows").

"That was two years ago," Rouse continued. "We started in Fairmont, and to be quite honest, it took off in popularity right away, and other communities asked if we'd come to their town. It's been really fun, but it's 24/7, even if it doesn't look like it.

"Our thought, my wife and I, from day one, was that we wanted to have it look different and still maintain the small-town feel. We wanted to basically do a lot of things that public access stations have always done well and talk about local lifestyle, local interests and the way we are fortunate to live in southern Minnesota in a way that people would like it, but we didn't want just a microphone and two people standing there.

"For instance, if we're going to do a history segment, (we thought) how can we make it work and be different? How can we do it inexpensively, make it quirky and still promote things from all over the country? Well, history is in the past, and I like time travel shows."

Thus, the aforementioned "Moments in Time" with Professor J. Von Tron was conceived.

"In the Passenger's Seat," the only ongoing segment hosted by Rouse, came about in a similar manner.

"Interviewing politicians can be rather boring," Rouse explained, "so I thought I could be driving in a car and run across somebody who's 'running' for office. They get in the passenger seat, and we talk. This isn't a hard-hitting news spot, more of a get-to-know-your-candidate thing, why are you involved in politics beyond the issues."


All of the "characters" who host and populate the "Our Story" programming are volunteers.

"We have 32 volunteers right now, and I must say that everybody's having a great time," he said. "We have two bankers now, one doctor if not two, a couple of salesman, a couple of retirees -- a wide variety of citizens, not just from Fairmont, but Blue Earth, Truman, and it's always expanding."

Bruce and Shelly Abitz of Gemini Studios are the creative team behind the camera at the Our Story Studios in downtown Fairmont. Bruce serves as principal cameraman while Shelly is responsible for production/editing.

"Bruce kept joking, 'What you need is a soap opera,'" related Rouse. "We kept saying, 'Yeah, right,' then one day, we started thinking, 'Maybe he's on to something,' and that's how we came up with the premise of 'As the Corn Grows.'

"The fun part of the soap opera is it basically writes itself. Shelly Abitz writes most of it, but it's also a lot of brainstorming, and everybody comes up with ideas, and you know what? They're all good, which is different from things I've been involved with in the past."

It doesn't take long for the "Our Story" volunteers to become invested in their roles, Rouse noted, and pretty soon they're debating what their character would or wouldn't do in certain situations, although "We definitely do it in a light, not serious way," he said. "Like I've said before, we're not amateurs; we're non-professionals."

That non-professional status adds to the quirkiness of "Our Story" programming and also gives Rouse and his unconventional cast a lot of freedom to experiment.

"Bruce Abitz said, 'The reason why it's working so well is you don't have a clue what you are doing,'" Rouse related. "I don't know what CAN be done, so we just go ahead and try it. We back plan everything: In a perfect world, this is what we'd like it to look like, but we always have to figure out how we can do it in our budget and make it entertaining."


As executive producer, one of Rouse's primary jobs is coordinating the shooting schedules for all the various segments.

"This is probably the hardest part of our job," he said. "I'll start calling people, and so and so and so and so and so and so can come, then I get to the fourth person on the list, and they can't come and are key to the story line, so I have to start all over again. We'll shoot on Sundays, sometimes on Saturday, weeknights, whenever we can make it work."

Each episode of "Our Story" that Rouse delivers to the local cable access stations features a rotating array of elements. The lineup is always evolving -- and some of the shows get reworked, too -- to keep it fresh for the viewers.

"Our Story" segments can also be viewed on the Internet. After shooting an "Our Story" special during which Jeff and Denise Rouse filmed their trip to Hollywood and interviewed various "celebrities" to be a host on the show, the programming attracted some new fans in California.

"I think people recognize that it's shot and filmed in and by southern Minnesota people," Rouse reflected. "On the Web site, we've got a whole group of people from Hollywood who watch this. They've e-mailed and called and said they love that small-town feel. ... It's not designed to make fun of small towns. It's designed to embrace them. Most of the segments are not overly polished, not overly produced, because we want that feel.

"It's our story, and not much more than that," Rouse explained about the title. "It's about all of us, and anybody who's watching can be part of our story."

"Our Story" is currently airing on Worthington Cable 3 at 7 a.m. Mondays; 1 p.m. Tuesdays; and 3:30 p.m. Thursdays.


On the Net:

Worthington Cable 3 schedule:

"Our Story":

"As the Corn Grows" is one of the most popular segments of "Our Story."

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