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Art Lee: No hocus pocus: A focus on focus groups

Among the stranger phrases popping up regularly is focus group, and for many readers the term often brings forth a line something to the effect of “What in the world is that?”

Apparently it’s a group of people who must focus on something. Well, maybe. But what? And so what?

An answer began in a letter a few weeks ago from Lakeland Public Television requesting that I join a group of regional folks in a focus group meeting, the invitation sweetened by the notation that there would first be a (free) lunch provided before the focus group began to . . . well, focus, presumably on something to do with local public TV.

The gathering was held at the Beltrami Electric Co-op meeting room and some 20-plus folks showed up, representing communities from all over the region where Lakeland TV programs are broadcast.

This meant representatives from towns like Park Rapids and Walker and Sebeka and Bagley and Red Lake and several more; less than half a dozen reps were from Bemidji.

We all sat at a very long table, a table long enough so that people at one end could not hear the people at the other end, resulting in oft repeated lines like “Huh?” “Whaja say?” “Would you please talk louder.” At that point, we were all a little perplexed as to why we were there.

When the lunch was finished (dining on portions of a sub-sandwich, potato chips, chocolate cookies, pop/coffee), Lakeland TV General Manager Bill Sanford stood up to thank folks for coming and he then asked each one there to stand and briefly tell the rest their name, where they’re from, special hobbies, and what they did/do for a living, and this short verbal info produced a few silent “wows” from the listeners after hearing lines spoken matter-of-factly like: “I’m a writer from Remer;” another: “I’m a sculptor from Park Rapids;” another: “I’m an abstract painter from Clearbrook.”

An artsy group indeed. There was even a man whose hobby was making homemade soap but after his hobby was featured on Lakeland’s TV show Common Ground, his hobby became more of a business. As this group knew, the Common Ground show features local-culture subjects done by uncommon artisans, with several of the latter in the audience.

It was this show, Common Ground, that was to be the primary subject of this focus group, the discussion led by John Parson who a number of years ago had been a reporter on Lakeland TV but returned recently to be the new director of Common Ground.

His earlier days as a reporter were remembered by someone at the table who asked if he was the one with the foreign accent, and he acknowledged as much, even adding “German.”

And so the group was there to give their opinions on what had been done before but more important was who and what should be featured for future Common Ground programs.

He got plenty of suggestions — sometimes contradictory — and plenty of ideas, a few on the edge of “far out.”

However, a major theme among suggestions agreed to was to make sure the program provided variety each week and each month.

But trying to keep a focus group focused is not that easy; “herding cats” comes to mind.

Digression came to several minds, like this line to Sanford: “The Red Green Show is the stupidest thing ever to hit the airwaves.” Murmurs of assent followed; murmurs of dissent followed, then Sanford followed with: “That show is either hated or loved; not much room in-between. But enough viewers watch it so it stays on.” Another digression: “Lawrence Welk has been dead some 20 years! Watching him dance around on TV now is almost ghoulish.” Sanford’s reply was the same as on Red Green.

During the hour’s discussion, Sanford would be asked on Common Ground’s popularity and to this, Sanford noted that in surveys taken of all programs watched, it ranked in the top 10.

Photographer Scott Knutson added that for every show, most of the footage had been edited out, so much so that only one out of every six minutes of filming is used in the final show. The group was impressed.

The group even voted on a proposed new “opening film” for the show.

After also watching the old one, the group then voted in favor of the new one. (Among all the spilled verbiage that likely disappeared into cyberspace that afternoon, at least something concrete came out of this focus group.)

Several in attendance, whose lives/work had already been featured in previous programs, stated how they suddenly became “known” to a larger public and appreciated what was done for them.

Their lives were altered after less than 30 minutes of TV exposure.

Also one such featured figure, the superb sculptor Gordon Van Wert, was more bemused and yet perplexed by his designation on the show as “an Indian Artist” and not simply what he was, “an artist.” He added: “Was Picasso called ‘a Spanish Artist’? No.” Point well made.

The confab began at noon and ended at 2 p.m., and the time zipped by. If nothing else, we learned what a focus group is all about.

Well, sort of. Prior to the exodus, we were reminded to watch Common Ground shown Thursday nights at 7 p.m. on Channel 9 and the same program Sunday evenings at 6 p.m.; so watch just to see Bemidji regional artisans doing what they do so well — and if any of the focus group’s suggestions were incorporated. So, stay focused.

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