Teaching enlisted professional military education to the total U.S. Air Force is instructors’ work. Still, the ability to recognize and share Airmen’s accomplishments on Graduation Day is the work of a much larger team at the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center.
That is why TEC’s public affairs broadcasters coordinated and rehearsed a recent virtual graduation ceremony from the television studios outside Knoxville in East Tennessee.
“We’re watching over multiple aspects – making sure that teleprompters scroll smoothly for the talent, making sure that the talent does not stumble or have nervous jitters on camera,” said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Erik Gallion, a production specialist. “And we’re ensuring that our recording runs smoothly over the internet without any issues.”
Conversation filled the studio’s central control hub with a cross-talk from the camera room, equipment engineers, and the director. A half dozen television screens displayed the teleprompter script, slides, graphics, preview, program, and queued social media. Below the screens were arm lengths of dials, lighted buttons, knobs, and switches crowded together.
When the on-camera narrator stumbled their lines, someone stopped the scrolling teleprompter.
“Let’s scroll back to that last paragraph and go from there,” said Gallion, through the intercom. “Go ahead when you’re ready.”
Production personnel and instructors then delivered their most recent graduation broadcasts the following two days in February, with the virtual graduation of Airman Leadership School Virtual-In-Residence Remote Class 22-3 and the live graduation of NCO Academy Class 22-3.
The Air National Guard’s primary video production and broadcast center in East Tennessee is not only masterful in delivering virtual education across the active duty, Guard, and Reserve; it expertly highlights Airman’s accomplishments for thousands to watch online.
These graduations are a highly coordinated process that proves TEC’s teamwork is among the National Guard’s more experienced and effective.
An innovative history
TEC’s television studios on McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base opened in 1995 to teach EPME, live, on-camera to drill-status Guard members via satellite-connected bases across the nation. Satellite EPME became popular immediately because it allowed Airmen to remain at home with jobs and families. It reduced the time spent on campus to two weeks, compared to six weeks for an entire in-resident course. It also produced a tenfold rise in graduates.
Decades later, satellite transmission made way for faster internet speeds, and students took their classrooms fully home through laptops. Instructors could also teach from anywhere. It freed personnel from teaching in the studio to base-connected classrooms – which took two instructors for NCOA and two for the leadership school, a director, and an engineer – working well into the night and for 16 hours on weekends.
When pandemic isolations began in March of 2020, TEC was already in a good position from its past to leverage virtual learning. They opened all virtual-in-residence EPME classes in less than 12 weeks, a fantastic turnaround and accomplishment noticed by the U.S. Air Force’s top leaders.
“We were at the ready with many ideas,” said Master Sgt. Amie Taylor-Laws, the superintendent for Airman Leadership School at the Lankford EPME Center, a TEC division. “We were quick in developing our virtual version not only because of the Air Force’s need for a quick turnaround, but because we faced it with excitement. The real challenge for some was away from each other, teleworking/teaching from home for so long.”
Classes returned to the campus, but virtual classes will remain an option. For Lankford PME classes arriving this May, instructors will teach virtual-remote and in-resident NCOA and ALS concurrently. Taylor-Laws said they now have the experience and the know-how to address weak points in the instruction platforms to ensure high standards.
The virtual mix
TEC began broadcasting live graduations to bases’ Warrior Network channels as far back as satellite education. Still, it started streaming to social media just a few years ago.
But virtual graduations started from the pandemic-era curriculum to celebrate the accomplishments and market the course.
Today, virtual instructors and students connect online, and instructors only see the television studio while narrating graduation ceremonies. Still, that effort requires plenty of coordination with production personnel, guest speakers, leaders, and support staff.
“The production team does a great job with helping our instructors on camera, and it’s a lot of coordinating the times, student names, photos, and all that,” said Taylor-Laws.
Sergeant Taylor-Laws explained that the EPME Center writes a final script for the broadcasters and sends the names of graduates, award winners, and class instructors. Guest speakers for the graduations are senior enlisted leaders from across the nation who are prerecorded at their bases — some travel here to talk from the studio (or in the auditorium for in-resident ceremonies).
The virtual event mixes prerecorded messages and student flight-photo collages combined with live narration, streamed to Facebook and a VIMEO video account for public audiences.
“I am in awe of this team,” said Senior Master Sgt. Catharine Schmidt, the superintendent of production. “They put a lot of work into it.”
Senior Schmidt said that some challenges are inherent with the technology. Streaming video connections can drop in quality without notice.
“There’s been a bit of trial and error,” said Schmidt. “Not only with the technology but figuring it out during COVID restrictions, like mask wear on camera and social distancing in the control room.”
Everything in the television studio requires consistent training, said Schmidt. It’s not like riding a bicycle. There are checklists that TEC’s eight video production Airmen and two civilian engineers must follow and update.
Another challenge is the multiple camera angles and switching used during streamed, in-resident graduations. Unlike the virtual graduations from the studio, in-resident events are broadcast as they happen, from TEC’s 220-plus seat auditorium in Spruance Hall.
Thousands of viewers watched the February NCO Academy graduation online during a one-hour broadcast.
TEC’s acting Commander, Lt. Col. John Capra, and the guest speaker, Kentucky Air National Guard State Command Chief, Chief Master Sgt. James Tongate both took to the stage and congratulated the class. The highlight was when instructors introduced themselves and announced graduates’ names as they crossed the stage, masked and on cue. A month and a half in the classroom took the students to graduate.
The EPME Center conducted a full rehearsal the day prior. “The scripts get read similar to a virtual graduation, but the audience sees the announcer and speakers on the stage and sees their student cross that stage,” said Gallion. Practice beforehand helps ensure everyone knows what to do when the cameras get turned on.
“There are moments also when we are good to go, but the internet decides just to give up,” said Gallion. “So we have to fight that challenge while maintaining a live graduation.” He noted that TEC’s Transmission Branch, its civilian engineers, are onsite to troubleshoot the equipment and connections quickly.
Dozens of congratulatory comments for NCOA Class 22-3 stacked up below the Facebook broadcast as it happened. “Hooah! That’s my Airman!” “So proud of you!” “Congratulations!” “Can’t wait to see you; great job, we love you!” “Yelling in my office! Go!”
“It’s the comments posted from their units and families that make much of it worthwhile,” said Schmidt. “People love it, and they get excited to see it, and TEC is excited.”