16 Dec 18
Mike Lamm is not one for the limelight.
So forgive him for feeling a bit uneasy last week when the West St. Paul City Council recognized him for his nearly two decades of filming government meetings for Town Square Television, the community cable channel for northern Dakota County. He’s usually on the other side of the lens.
“Wow. This is really humbling,” he told the council at its Monday meeting. “I’m not used to being in front of the camera. I don’t know how you guys do it.”
Likewise, said Mayor Jenny Halverson.
“When people are good at what they do, whether it’s their job or sports, they make it look easy,” she said. “And Mike makes this all look really easy, and always has. It always goes off without a hitch.”
Well, not always. In an interview before the meeting, Lamm spoke about some of his highlights and lowlights as a “cablecaster,” including the time he accidentally left the lens cap on an overhead projector.
“That was a big-time screwup,” said Lamm, who is 58. “I had to run out there. I felt so stupid.”
Lamm’s production space at West St. Paul City Hall takes up most of a small room that until recently also doubled as a supply closet. It’s not uncommon for council members and staff to poke their heads inside before and after meetings.
“He knows everybody and they know him,” said Carmen Hauck, Town Square TV’s government producer. “When I’m filling in for him I’ll see people come back and lean in and they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re not Mike.’ It’s like they’re disappointed to see me. That says a lot about Mike.”
Lamm, who works the two West St. Paul council meetings and one planning commission meeting each month, calls the work “my perfect part-time, part-time job.”
“You run toggle switches, you run cameras,” he said. “It’s not like you’re out in the cold in zero-degree temperatures and doing hard labor.”
Lamm’s full-time job is as a shift leader at a Walgreens in Woodbury, where he also lives. About 20 years ago, he was managing the Cottage Grove Walgreens when he decided to try something different.
“Your job gets to be the same old treadmill,” he said.
He’d never gone to college, but always wanted to. In high school in Buffalo, Minn., he took a TV production class and liked it. So at the urging of his wife, he took a lesser role at Walgreens and went to Brown College in Mendota Heights.
While there, he learned of the open job filming government meetings for Town Square TV. He took the job in April 2001, just before graduating with a degree in television science at age 41.
Back then, his work consisted of single-handedly running three cameras in the council chambers, as well as monitoring all the audio levels and adding graphics on the screen.
“It was more challenging, but it was never really work,” he said.
Lamm is one of six independent cablecasters who individually work meetings for Town Square TV “and by far the senior member of our crew,” said Jodie Miller, the nonprofit’s executive director. “The next person after him has been doing meetings for nine years.”
The job has become more complicated in recent years with the addition of cameras and monitors in the council chambers, and numerous presentation options and recording devices, Miller said. Duties have expanded with the addition of online streaming and a second cable provider, CenturyLink.
“So it’s a very complex one-person operation,” Miller said, adding that cablecasters are paid $18 an hour. “In doing all of that, Mike and all the cablecasters are kind of invisible to the process.”
For Lamm, a “perfect shot” is getting the closeup as soon as someone starts talking.
“You want to make people look good, and I’m happy when I get a good shot,” he said.
Lamm used to work meetings for Inver Grove Heights, Mendota Heights and South St. Paul, too, but has stuck strictly to West St. Paul since 2003.
“I think the quickest meeting we ever did here was 11 minutes,” he said. “That’s the record.”
When he sees the council chambers full of people, he knows it’s probably going to be a long night.
“That means there’s a subject that they’re interested in,” he said.
The longest night was a marathon Inver Grove Heights Planning Commission meeting that “dragged on until 2 in the morning,” he said. “They let people talk and talk and talk.”
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Miller estimates that Lamm has worked more than 630 meetings.
“I’ve seen a lot and it’s interesting, for the most part,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot about local government and how it works.”
Hauck said meetings are Lamm’s “own private little soap opera.”
“He’s watching the meeting as much as he’s controlling the stuff,” she said. “Whenever I want to know what’s going on West St. Paul, I will call him and ask him. He’ll give me the Reader’s Digest version of what’s going on.”