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The cooperative mentality

by Cally Peterson


BEK TV sports broadcasters David Sugarman, left, and Noah Reed cover a recent volleyball game at Bismarck Legacy High School against Mandan High School.
Photos by NDAREC/John Kary

A JCPenney suit and two weeks’ notice written on a bar napkin. That’s the stuff BEK TV is made of, quite literally.

Derrick Bulawa had recently arrived in Steele to take over as general manager of BEK Communications Cooperative. He set his eyes on adding a TV service to BEK’s portfolio that offered local sports, and he pegged Jordan Hassler as the young buck to move the idea forward.

“They wanted to do something different, something that gave them a competitive advantage when they launched,” Hassler says. “They wanted to give something to their members that they couldn’t get anywhere else.”

With a June 5, 2006, handshake, Hassler, a rising senior and radio color commentator for University of Mary football and basketball, quit his serving job on the spot and landed an internship with the telecommunications cooperative. That summer, Hassler turned a seven-page outline into a 127-page business plan and bought his first suit.

“BEK Sports passes, 7-1,” Hassler recalls of the pitch to the BEK Communications Cooperative board of directors.

“Congratulations,” Bulawa told Hassler. “The easy part’s over.”

Fourteen years later, BEK TV has grown and thrived, and stands as a unique, shining example of “the stuff” that makes cooperatives different. It’s “the cooperative mentality,” as Hassler describes, rooted in the seven cooperative principles and six cooperative values, that lights the path forward.
 

Jordan Hassler started with BEK Communications Cooperative as a college intern and has been with the co-op ever since, now as chief operations officer for BEK TV.

1997 WINNEBAGO BRAVE

The plan to focus on local sports wasn’t a novel idea, but it works, especially in rural states like North Dakota.

“Local sports are the lifeblood of any state,” Hassler says. “When you talk about Class B sports, people are intimate with that. From our standpoint, we just took something that was already there and distributed that content out to our customers.”

Besides having the content, BEK TV had another ace-in-the-hole that made the plan work – a fast-growing fiber-optic network. The cooperative started building its fiber-optic network, BEK Fiber, in 2004. Today, the BEK Fiber service area is larger than the state of Massachusetts, reaches every member in the 5,300-square-mile cooperative territory, and expands 1,000 square miles around Bismarck/Mandan and in Valley City.

By tapping into the BEK Fiber network, Hassler broadcasted games throughout the cooperative’s service area that first year, setting up gear in high school gymnasiums and moving from game to game in a 1997 Winnebago Brave.

“We had it wrapped, so it looked like the Mystery Machine for six or seven years,” Hassler says. “Blew the motor up twice!”

In the early years, BEK Communications Cooperative was also intent on working with students in its service area. Hassler taught video editing, camera operation and computer classes one day each week in area high schools. Students ran cameras for BEK TV broadcasts up until about 2012, when the transition was made to remote broadcasts.

“It really changed the process, when we could operate everything from this remote studio,” Hassler says.

The transition to remote broadcasts allowed for cameras to be set up at numerous sports venues across the state. A single camera operator can effectively provide a four-to-five camera production, or camera views, with just one or two manned camaras. The fiber-optic network allows remote control of these cameras from BEK TV’s home studio in Bismarck, which is also where the on-air talent most often calls the game.
 

Zac Hoffner, left, and John Haugen operate on-site cameras during a recent BEK TV high school volleyball broadcast. They are joined by on-air talent, David Sugarman, right, and Noah Reed. A production crew back at the BEK TV studio directs the broadcast and airs it over the network.

Shifting to remote broadcasts also met the needs of the growing network. Other telecommunications cooperatives across the state have added BEK TV service for their members, and Hassler’s crew now broadcasts games from seven different cooperative service territories. In 2017, BEK TV peaked with 398 live games broadcast in a single calendar year.

“We have exclusive agreements with high schools, colleges, and have broadcast from nearly every venue across the state,” Hassler says. “We’re able to scale up and scale down. We’re fairly flexible.”

It’s a winning formula all-around, Hassler says. Schools don’t pay a dime for the broadcasts, kids get to be on TV, and cooperatives provide another service to their members. With the coronavirus pandemic also affecting local sports, and some schools limiting attendance, fans and family members can still cheer on their student-athletes, thanks to BEK TV’s commitment to local sports.

And while BEK Sports may be its “crown jewel,” BEK TV hasn’t shied away from trying new things. The network has also aired co-op annual meetings, graduations, powwows, parades, economic development summits, live cooking shows, 4-H auctions and rodeos, to name a few.

In addition to its sports platform, BEK TV is adding a news component to its programming. By the first of the year, it will have talk-format news programming from 6 a.m. until sports programming kicks in at 6:30 p.m.

“I think this market will support that; it’s not your traditional news at 5, 6 and 10,” Hassler says. “We’ve done so many different, crazy things. It’s all because our members see value in it.”
 

THE ‘WHY WE DO IT’

For a college kid who thought he’d “end up being a radio play-by-play guy in the Midwest with a wife, two kids and a white-picket fence,” Hassler has found much more since coming to work for his cooperative. Sure, he has a wife, Lacy, and three kids, Harrison, 7, Lincoln, 4, and Callahan, 2. But he has a fire inside, too, that’s fueled him for the past 14 years, since signing his name on that bar napkin.

“Some people have a job, and some people have a career that doesn’t define them, and for me personally, you’d be hard-pressed to not see me wearing this (BEK TV) logo,” Hassler says. “I carry that logo with pride, and I live that cooperative mentality.”

What makes Hassler most proud?

“The fact that over the years, the concept and the ‘why we do it’ hasn’t changed,” he says. “We do it to provide a service to the people of North Dakota that they can’t get anywhere else. We’ve kept true to who we are. We are still that 68-year-old telephone cooperative, continuing to be managed under those cooperative values.”

Cally Peterson is editor of North Dakota Living. She can be reached at cpeterson@ndarec.com.