Longtime MetroEast Community Media program, 'Community Hotline,' celebrates past, faces uncertain future

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Emily Vidal and Monica Weitzel have been the creative force behind MetroEast Community Medias Community Hotline for the past 11 years. A decade ago, the creative team behind a long-running television program produced in the heart of Gresham came to a realization — they needed a host.

While MetroEast Community Media's flagship show "Community Hotline" had been a hit way to spread information about the good work being done by local nonprofits, school districts, government bodies and community groups, they needed a spark.

Sometimes the guests on the show would become nervous under the bright lights in the studio, and the message would get muddled as minds inevitably drifted toward all the viewers tuning in to learn about their community.

"We wanted to take the burden off the guests and help them not be so nervous on air," said Emily Vidal, producer and driving force behind the program. "I knew we needed to bring in Monica."

Monica Weitzel had been hired at MetroEast, 829 N.E. Eighth St., as a receptionist in 2007 before being promoted to office manager. In addition to her normal duties of keeping the television studio humming along, Weitzel began to recruit guests to make appearances on "Community Hotline."

"I loved going out into the community and meeting with different people, so it made since for me to mention the show," Weitzel said.

It was that ability to connect and make easy conversation that made her the perfect host. Though she had never stood before a camera, and her only stage experience was high school drama, Weitzel agreed to the new role in 2010.

"I thought it sounded like fun," she said with a laugh.

COURTESY PHOTO: METROEAST COMMUNITY MEDIA - Emily Vidal produces the program in the MetroEast control room. From that moment the duo of Weitzel and Vidal brought "Community Hotline" to greater heights. The show hit its stride as the two continued to innovate how everything ran. Weitzel would run things on the stage, prepping guests and creating copy, while Vidal was in the control room doing all the little things — lights, editing, cameras — that makes a show possible.

"We fine-tuned a lot of things over the years," Vidal said. "I loved to push the format to do something new or different."

"Community Hotline" is an hour-long show that features three guests during 15 minute sections, with the remaining time being filled with public service announcements. The show serves as a platform for the guests, allowing them to promote their organization, upcoming events and fundraisers, or spread awareness about an important issues.

But after a long run on the air, "Community Hotline" is being temporarily hung-up. Weitzel is retiring on Nov. 1, and the program is facing a murky future as its placed on hiatus.

"This show has been a huge part of my life, it will be hard to step away," Weitzel said. "I hope our viewers enjoyed watching and benefited from being a part of 'Community Hotline.'"

The final episode of "Community Hotline" — for now — aired Wednesday, Oct. 13.

"I am so appreciative Monica was able to step in and become the heart of the show," Vidal said. "That is what made all of this unique."

Lights, camera, action

COURTESY PHOTO: METROEAST COMMUNITY MEDIA - Community Hotline is a television program that allows East Multnomah County groups to spread their message and promote events. On Jan. 13, 2010, Weitzel stepped under the lights for her first show as host of "Community Hotline"

She had a great group of guests — Metropolitan Family Service with guest Carla Piluso, the Gresham Senior Center, and the Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce talking about its Golden Note Awards.

"I remember stepping out there for the first time and thinking I wasn't ready," Weitzel said. "But then I knew it would be OK because I didn't have to sweat the little things."

"Community Hotline" first aired in 1986, and would go on to hit milestones even the most prolific producers in Hollywood would gaze at with envy. The show produced a total of 1,219 episodes, besting other television titans from the decades — The Simpsons have put out 706 episodes, Monday Night Football has shown 668 games and Gunsmoke could only muster 635 episodes.

"Those are legendary shows," said former Chief Executive Officer Martin Jones during the filming of the 1,000th episode. "(Community Hotline) is an original, wonderful, homegrown community-based show."

That 1,000th episode was one of the highlights, preempted with a massive celebration and filmed in front of a live studio audience.

Vidal loved how different guests would change the feel of the show. "We would have this in-depth, emotional one-on-one conversation between Monica and a guest, and then later have the studio filled with people and laughter," Vidal said.

And the show was a great launching point for the folks who make their way to MetroEast Community Media to learn how to produce their own programs. "Community Hotline" was an opportunity for volunteers to practice using equipment and see how everything comes together in the studio.

"We would usually have six volunteers helping film the show," Weitzel said. "It was a great way to get into the television industry."

Vidal was one of those people who learned in-studio. She joined MetroEast in 2000 and first started working on "Community Hotline" as an assistant and camera operator.

"I learned so much working through the different roles on the show before becoming a producer," Vidal said.

One episode had a contortionist twisting into impossible poses. There were rabbits, cats and dogs in the studio. Often there would be live musical performances.

"Kids and animals are always the exciting part, you never know what will happen," Vidal said with a laugh.

But even with all the fun, the pair agreed the important thing was raising awareness about community groups.

"The show was responsive to what people needed," Weitzel said. "It was nice when you found out the show made an impact for these nonprofits — their donations would increase or have better attendance to their event."

That's a wrap

COURTESY PHOTO: METROEAST COMMUNITY MEDIA - Community Hotline is produced by a large team and has been a great launching point for people looking to get into broadcast media. Even though it may feel like "Community Hotline" is going away, this is nothing new for the program. Throughout the years the show has undergone significant changes to allow it to fit the times, including bringing in Weitzel in the first place. The show went from only airing on cable to being offered via the MetroEast YouTube channel and through Facebook Live. They also began editing individual segments so the guests could share them on their websites.

"We have always wanted to put our guests first," Vidal said.

That flexibility and willingness to make things work was on display during the pandemic, when filming in-person at the studio was impossible. Instead of postponing the show, "Community Hotline" was filmed via Zoom. They even won a national Alliance for Community Media: Best Informational Talk Show Series award for their virtual show.

"It was better than nothing," Vidal said. "I'm glad we could keep going during COVID and find a way to make it work."

The future of "Community Hotline" could see it go in several directions. During this prolonged break, which will continue through at least Spring 2022, the creative team will be having conversations. They will decide whether to seek out a new host, what segments to include, what the set will look like, and ultimately, whether "Community Hotline" will return.

"I don't know the answers to some of those questions, but we are excited to figure out what to do with the show," Vidal said.

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