Interviews | Massachusetts | Television

The Folklorist: From Public Access to Emmy Award-winning Show

1 May , 2014  

Written by Michael Cormier | Posted by:

In almost every respect, NewTV’s original program, The Folklorist, is little--small budget, limited studio space, even the stories are little (a few minutes each). Yet what started as a modest web and public access television series has grown into an Emmy Award-winning production that will be available in 22-30 million households this year. How did they do it?

Good things sometimes do come in small packages.

In almost every respect, NewTV’s original program, The Folklorist, is just a little thing. Small budget. Limited studio space, props and wardrobe. Mostly volunteer labor. Even the stories are little, told in brief segments of just a few minutes length.

Yet in the brief time since its inception, The Folklorist has grown into something to be reckoned with, as it finds audiences across the nation. What started as a modest public access television show has grown to be an Emmy Award-winning production (with five more nominations outstanding for 2014) that will be available in 22-30 million households this year.

An Old Idea Made New

Produced out of Newton’s NewTV community access station, The Folklorist offers up narrated stories ranging from historical events to strange and wondrous folk tales. They’re the same kinds of stories big hitters like The History Channel and National Geographic produce with generous budgets.

But not this production. There simply isn’t the money or studio space to put together all the elaborate backdrops and props and lengthy shoots that for-profit cable stations can afford. Most of The Folklorist is shot in a tiny black box studio, where much of the action takes place off-camera as the host weaves the tale in fireside fashion.

And therein lies its charm. This bare bones approach gives the show an intimate feel as its quick-cut montage of images brings each tale to life in ways no plodding narrative ever could.

As for the Folklorist himself, host and co-creator John Horrigan’s urgent narration commands the viewer’s attention, always promising something deliciously unique and interesting just ahead.

What the seasoned historical re-enactor and sports announcer delivers is a mixed bag of little known historical facts, supernatural legends and folk stories from around the world. Some of these people and events we’re already familiar with, like Harry Houdini and Nikola Tesla, the Boston Massacre and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

But who ever heard of the Boston Molasses Flood? Or the wild, eery tale of Spring-heeled Jack? Do you know where the saying “Kilroy Was Here” originated? Or that General George Washington’s stint as leader of the Continental Army was almost cut short by a plate of poisoned peas?
It’s these quirky bits of information that Horrigan loves to impart on his viewers. You might see stories about the same subjects on other channels, but you won’t see them told the same way and with the same enthusiasm and theatrical panache.

Adding to the shuffle and jab effect is the brief length of each episode: Most are less than five minutes long. Which is just the right size, according to co-producer Angela Harrer.

“People today are used to shorter segments,” Harrer explained. “The commitment level wouldn’t be the same for long programs.”

Not only do Harrer and co-producer Andrew Eldridge agree that the shorter versions work well, they purposely string together widely varying topics for each episode.

“We thought about keeping each program tied to a time-period theme, but decided not to,” Harrer said. “This way there’s something for everyone.”

Producer Jesse Kreitzer even created and produced Campfire Stories, a segment told by children in the fourth to eighth grades. The students are given a topic – Babe Ruth, Neil Armstrong, President Obama – along with a bag of costumes and a directive: go write and produce your own Folklore-like narrative on the subject. The final product, usually around a minute long, is shown between segments of The Folklorist.

How They Went From Small Beginnings to a Mainstream Audience

Eldridge joined NewTV six years ago after graduating the University of Maine as a Communications major. For two years he worked as a media specialist for NewTV before being asked to join the new Original Programming Department where The Folklorist developed.

Harrer had worked in New York for a while after graduating NYU in 2006 with a degree in film and television. She later came to NewTV as a media specialist, devoting part of her time to The Folklorist beginning in August of 2012. Five months later, as the show started to take off, her work on the show went to full-time.

Neither had done anything like this before, so they often had to learn on the job like so many others connected with the show. And they had to learn fast, because the show sort of took on a life of its own.

The Folklorist’s rapid ascent began in 2011 as the brainchild of Kreitzer, former Content Producer for NewTV. Kreitzer and Operations Manager Steve Russo were looking for a host to create a new kind of show for the station’s fledgling Original Programming Department. Kreitzer had this idea for a narrated show about historical events and people, and Russo liked the idea.

Russo had known John Horrigan for a long time, and he asked him to stop by the station to audition. Next thing, says Horrigan, a segment – the show’s first – had been shot and edited around his monologue. Two more segments followed.

In April of 2012, Horrigan was surprised to learn he was one of two nominations The Folklorist had received for local Emmy Awards. Something was happening.

“There was a convergence of all these resources at that time,” Horrigan said. “There was me and my training on stage and my passion for certain stories. There was Andrew’s vision that he always sticks to. And when Angela came on board she brought her talents.”

Horrigan did not personally win that 2012 Emmy season, but The Folklorist won for Single Spot Promotion. Then, after The Folklorist’s first full season, Horrigan was nominated again and this time he won in the Program Host/Moderator category against some stiff competition from the likes of WCVB and WPRI.

Their hard work paid off when they sent The Folklorist DVDs out to about 500 community media channels, and about 250 picked it up and began requesting new episodes. This got the attention of Cable giants Comcast and RCN who have since picked up The Folklorist for their on-demand services in the New England market. Perhaps most significantly, Luken Communications, a private broadcast holding company out of Chattanooga, Tennessee, has requested the show for its Family Channel in 22 markets.

So What’s Next?

Horrigan has been in the acting and hosting game too long to fool himself into thinking this is a forever gig. “I just feel blessed to have been a part of this [and] I’ll go on doing it for as long as I can.”

As for Eldridge and Harrer, “We want to keep doing The Folklorist, but we want to do other things as well,” Eldridge says. In fact, he and Harrer have a pet project in mind, which they hope to develop in the very near future. Not surprisingly, that idea involves history.

“We just both have always liked history,” Eldridge says, noting that he minored in history at UMaine, while Harrer participated in Civil War reenactments in the past.

In the meantime, they and Horrigan can take pride in having channeled their love of history and a well-spun tale into a cottage industry for history buffs and folklore enthusiasts. Whatever comes next, The Folklorist has proven it can be done with a small budget, so long as the vision and the talent are big.

Learn more and watch The Folklorist at http://folklorist.newtv.org/


Learn more and watch The Folklorist at http://folklorist.newtv.org/