Eric Olson: A new story

KSMQ President Eric Olson is wrapping up his first full year as head of the public TV station in Austin, another mark in a long broadcasting presence in Minnesota.

KSMQ President Eric Olson is wrapping up his first full year as head of the public TV station in Austin, another mark in a long broadcasting presence in Minnesota.v

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Eric Olson is heralding KSMQ’s TV programming into the future

Eric Olson knows a good story when he sees one.

He should, as the president and CEO of KSMQ-TV, the region’s public television channel based in Austin. Olson is spearheading a push for local content that other TV stations and media outlets can’t cover, and KSMQ is already showing results.

Olson has more than three decades’ experience in media and knows his way around a TV station. He started at WQOW in Eau Claire, Wis., in 1982 as a sports assistant on the floor crew, running cameras for the news cast and shooting sports highlights. He quickly rose to become weekend sports anchor, eventually moving to the main anchor desk for the 6 and 10 p.m. news until he joined KARE 11 in 1985.

“Small stations, you know, you can have opportunities that you don’t get at bigger stations,” Olson said.

His jump to KARE 11 was an “unusual, huge opportunity,” and one that would test his reporting mettle. He became the Wisconsin bureau chief; only he was the entire bureau. While reporters today can cover a region by themselves, Olson’s situation was rare in 1985, when video and audio recordings had to be transported by tape, instead of the Internet.

“It was weird, because it was a big-market station where my one-man band skills — shooting, editing and reporting — were needed,” Olson said.

That meant Olson needed to be creative to get his video and audio tape from anywhere in Wisconsin to Minneapolis every day to make the 6 p.m. news.

“I was asking the guy running the bread truck in Madison, [Wis.] if he would run this tape up to Minneapolis,” Olson said. “I had this network, ways to get video tape [there].”

Sometimes that meant chartering flights for tapes, or even paying someone at an airport to safely deliver the tape to the Twin Cities, where an engineer would be waiting for it.

Olson soon came to the Twin Cities, where he was a general assignment reporter, a Saturday show anchor, and covered environmental news.

Yet his marriage and the birth of his children prompted Olson to reconsider a metro-market career and spend more time with his family in a smaller media area.

“I went against the grain of the normal career path there,” Olson said. “I figured, heck, I won a national [Edward R. Murrow Award], I won two gold medals in New York — International Film Festival, Chicago Emmys and stuff. Do I want to redo that whole grind again as a reporter in Detroit, or something like that?”

Olson spent 14 years in Duluth, working three years as an anchor at KLAH and eight years doing corporate public relations before pursuing a master’s degree in communications, eventually teaching for a year before he was called by a headhunter to come to KSMQ.

“I’ve never had a chance to oversee a station that does local programming,” Olson said. “That was very intriguing to me.”

Since Olson has taken over, he’s energized public television by taking the competitive skills he learned to find programming no other local cable channel is offering. Case in point: the 1st Congressional District debate between Tim Walz and Allen Quist last fall, which KSMQ organized with a western Minnesota PBS affiliate.

“It was something we put together that nobody else was offering,” Olson said. “It’s kind of what we’re all about. It’s what we’re supposed to do.”

Olson and KSMQ plan to do more community-focused programming in the future, what some call “hyperlocal content,” meaning shows that focus specifically on the communities KSMQ serves. By telling as many local stories as possible and securing funding from area foundations and organizations, Olson and the KSMQ staff hope to thrive in the coming years.

“That’s got to be our bread and butter going forward,” Olson said.

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