Telling stories: Former WKOW anchor Greg Jeschke on his career pivot to making documentaries full time

Jeschke left the anchor desk a year and half ago to form JDog Productions here in Madison. On Oct. 16, he’ll be picking a mic back up and interviewing speakers, exhibitors, and attendees at the IB Expo.

Longtime WKOW TV evening anchor Greg Jeschke got a taste for making documentaries early in his career when he was anchoring a newscast in Reno, Nevada.

Years later, it would grow into a full-blown passion during his 14 years at Channel 27 in Madison, where he was an award-winning producer of eight hour-long documentaries.

Jeschke reached a turning point in his 40-year journalism career in March 2018, when he realized he wanted to make documentaries full time. He asked WKOW for permission but says that understandably wasn’t a route the station wanted to go down, so Jeschke took advantage of a window in his contract to leave and devote his full attention to what had once been just a side project, albeit one that took up hundreds of hours of his personal time each year.

Since then, Jeschke formed JDog Productions, where he’s in the process of wrapping up two documentary projects. He’s also taken on some independent media consulting gigs, and he’ll be partnering with Opix Media at the upcoming In Business Expo and Conference on Oct. 16 for on-site, live-streamed interviews with conference speakers, exhibitors, and attendees throughout the day.

We caught up with Jeschke recently to learn more about his new endeavor.

IB: You left WKOW after nearly 14 years there and about 40 years total in broadcasting. What were your thoughts upon ending that stage of your career, perhaps earlier than you expected? Apprehension? Excitement? Mix of both?

Jeschke: At first it was just the excitement; the apprehension didn’t set in until a little later. I had two projects ready to go and jumped on those right away. The apprehension started later when I realized I had to run a business and not just produce documentaries. Everything that I had grown to be accustomed to having with a W-2 job, with a regular 40-hour-a-week kind of job, was stuff that I now had to take care of, whether it be promotion or any number of details that have to do with marketing, funding, and publicizing a documentary. All those things that used to just go to another department in a TV station come back to me now.

IB: What have you been up to since you left WKOW about a year and a half ago and formed JDog Productions?

Jeschke: It’s interesting because once you form a company you kind of start to work under that umbrella and a few unexpected things happened along the way. I got asked to do some media consulting, for example, that I hadn’t actually planned to do. But once I was out and an independent contractor and able to do those sorts of things, they just landed on the JDog Productions steps. That’s been kind of cool in the last year and a half. There were those pleasant surprises where you sort of expand, if you will, unexpectedly.

One project I have that’s really close to being wrapped up now is called INterDEPENDENCE, which is a word given to people with disabilities who are trying to live independently. The inter part being the fact that when you have a disability and you’re trying to live independently in your own apartment in a world that has very little adaption — curb cutouts and handicapped doors aside — there are a lot of support systems that go with that. What we’ve done an hour on is giving people with disabilities a voice to talk about what they’re up against, what their daily lives are like. There is a huge caregiver crisis in this country, and if you’re in a power chair with cerebral palsy, for example, trying to live in an apartment on the sixth floor in downtown Madison, there are a lot of different things you need to get through your day, not the least of which is someone to show up and get you out of bed in the morning and then at night put you to bed, as well. And then in between there has to be a whole system. That has been one of those enlightening, head-shaking kind of experiences for me just to continue to see what we do in one of the richest countries in the history of the world for and with some of the people who need society’s help the most. You know, we spend trillions of dollars as a country on things and helping people with disabilities gets only a very small chunk of that funding.

Another project I’m close to wrapping up is a local man’s personal story of tracing his genealogy and finding some surprises along that journey. That’s my first attempt at doing a non-narrated documentary. It’s sort of a film versus your standard documentary piece, mainly because I’m not actually in it.

IB: What is it about documentaries that appeals to you, and is perhaps a natural progression or evolution of what you were able to do at the anchor desk for so many years by allowing you to dig deeper into stories?

Jeschke: As much as anything, I would say it’s just the difference in the work and what you get to do as a journalist. As an anchor, you’re responsible for, let’s say, 20 stories in a newscast, and if you have a co-anchor then, theoretically, you’re each going to read 10 stories. And those stories sometimes are a little longer, sometimes they’re 15–20 seconds, and it’s just a whole different skillset. As an anchor, you’re making sure those stories are accurate and written in a way that you want to read them and that sort of thing. That’s work in and of itself, but you’re not doing a story most days. Instead, you’re handling 10 stories and you’re just doing the surface. As an anchor, you have to know a little about a lot, and as a news reporter, that’s sort of the mantra, too — you’re a minor expert on many things.

Now, it’s night and day, going from having that surface contact to having right-down-to-the-bone contact when you’re doing a documentary. Depending on the subject matter, you can dig very deep and sometimes you go to places that haven’t been touched yet on a particular subject or story. For 40 years, I did the teleprompter-reading thing and was the anchor more than the reporter, for the most part, and you just kind of have to pick. It’s really hard to do both, and just doing one documentary a year at Channel 27 was a lot of extra work because I was also the main anchor in the evening. None of that changed. I was just adding the rest of it to the workload because I liked doing it so much. Being able to do both could seem like the ideal situation, but after a while it got to the point where I realized I wanted to do the deep work all of the time, have a couple documentaries in the making at least, and just not have my time taken up by the stuff that goes along with anchoring. Especially if you’re anchoring three newscasts a day, it’s not baling hay — I grew up on a farm, so I always equate things back to farming. You’re not sweating at the end of the day, but it keeps you busy. It’s a different kind of journalism and a different skillset that you do in your eight-hour shift, whereas now I just have one thing and don’t have the distraction of the other stuff.



IB: It seems like there’s a been a bit of a renaissance, if you will, in the documentary format in recent years, with more and more being produced and drawing attention. Are we finding new stories to tell, or have those stories always been there and we’re just doing a better job of shedding light on them?

Jeschke: I think that those stories have always been a known thing, the problem prior to now is most people didn’t have a way to tell that story in documentary form. Now, you have a phone that’s a camera that you can shoot your entire documentary on. You can almost edit the entire thing on your phone, too. That more than anything has given the people who used to have the idea themselves and maybe pitched that idea to a news reporter, a way to say, ‘Well, they never listened to me before, so I’ll just do it myself.’ And they do.

Another thing that has really amped up the documentary industry, for the professionals, as well, are the venues. There are places to see them now where there didn’t used to be. That alone gives people the incentive. Before it was, ‘How do I shoot this thing, and if I’m able to shoot it somehow, where’s it going to air?’ Those two questions that used to be so pivotal in whether or not somebody could even begin to think about doing a documentary are answered quite easily now. The venues aren’t a guarantee, but even as a last resort you can put your stuff on YouTube, let alone the dream possibility of a Netflix or Amazon or Discovery Channel or somebody else picking up on it. That really is the crux of it.

IB: You’ll be working with Opix Media at this year’s IB Expo to conduct on-site interviews with speakers, exhibitors, and attendees. What are you most looking forward to about that experience?

Jeschke: Those kinds of events have always been fun. To me, it’s a big day of interviews, which is neat. So often you run into that part of the job that’s you do the interview but then it’s done and over with. I’m looking forward to being able to flesh some stories out a little bit, give people a chance to explain how they got where they are, and hopefully have them share some of their challenges and failures and things that they learned from along the way.

I think businesses, especially successful businesses, go through ups and downs and dead ends, and everything is always a work in progress. I’m hoping to get people to share those sorts of things in a way that’s educational for everyone else.

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