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Huntsville Utilities’ podcast gives people the ‘power’

HUNTSVILLE – Sparked by a comment from a retired Huntsville Utilities official, Todd Long and Amanda Tomczyk-Kemp have given a charge to social media for utilities.

In fact, the Huntsville Utilities duo recently flew to Denver to accept the Most Creative Use of Social Media award from e-Source, a data research and marketing organization representing the utilities sector.

As co-hosts and co-producers of the award-winning HUTV podcast, they have garnered the attention of small- and large-scale utility companies who want to know how to implement podcasts to better promote their own utility companies.

HUTV has also been asked by the American Public Gas Association to give a presentation about the effective use of video in communications.

Long and “Bonnie to his Clyde and Jekyll to his Hyde” Tomczyk-Kemp took the reins over the local utility’s social media and turned it into the most unique and creative broadcast opportunity in the entire industry.

Long, HU’s electronic content administrator, was hired to take over the utility’s social media. Huntsville Utilities had all the social media platforms set up, but no one was active on them.

And, it wasn’t long before his 20 years experience as a television producer reared its creative head.

Tomczyk-Kemp, the visual media administrator, had been hired a few weeks before Long as a part-time photographer – providing new assets for the public relations team.

They decided to collaborate and see what they could come up with.

“I like to live on the edge so, thinking it is better to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission, Amanda and I decided to play around with some short safety videos,” Long said.

The first few HUTV episodes were streamed live on Facebook with the pair interviewing utility linemen. They talked to customers about what goes into that process and Long noticed they got a lot of hits online. It seemed to be quite popular.

That’s when Long said now-retired Vice President for Customer Care John Olshefski walked up to him in his cubicle one day and said, “I really don’t get what it is you do.”

“’Well, that was a short but good run,’ I thought,” Long said. “’I guess I’ll start packing up my stuff.’

“That’s when (Olshefski) said, ‘But don’t stop doing it!’”

That opened the door for Long and Tomczyk-Kemp to talk to him in more depth about some of their ideas.

“We could do so much more with more resources,” Long told Olshefski.

Huntsville Utilities Safety Squirrel joins Todd & Amanda prior to football season (Huntsville Utilities contributed/YouTube)

Next thing the dynamic duo knew, management was booting someone out of the large basement office so the Todd and Amanda show could have a new studio. The renovated basement came complete with lighting grids, acoustic tiles for soundproofing and editing and plenty of room for interviews and a couple of extra cameras.

Now they could shoot things like it was the real deal. The duo could do interviews and edit  rather than shooting everything live with all the issues that come with that.

“A utility has a unique problem,” Long said. “People really only think of us twice – when their power goes out and when their bill comes in – and neither one of those is good for us. To most people, we’re just that business in the big brick building behind the VBC who takes your money.

“Huntsville Utilities employees 800 people so we wanted people to know we are friends and neighbors, our kids go to school together, and we probably live nearby. We wanted to put a more human face on our company.”

Huntsville Utilities is the 17th-largest public power utility in the nation. Long wanted to pull the curtain back and show people what it takes to keep the juice flowing to 210,000 customers in Madison County, a small part of Southern Tennessee, and pieces of Limestone County.

The show began to take on a more controlled format now that they were pre-taping shows.

“We describe the show as serious topics sandwiched in with silliness,” Long said. “I take care of the silliness and Amanda handles the serious stuff.”

But how many interesting topics can you come up with when it comes to power?

As it turns out, a lot!

Who knew utility linemen never use their real name on the job but instead go by call signs like Maloney and Mario?

Who knew that squirrels’ teeth never stop growing and that is why they like to chew on electric powerlines. The result? Power outages and fried squirrel!

Who knew that critters like squirrels, racoons and snakes are the number one cause for power outages?

Everyone knows weather is a detriment for the power company but who knew the second most common power outage is lightning strikes and Alabama is ranked fourth in the nation for the most lightning strikes?

In one episode, the vice president of operations came spoke about the importance of water in beermaking. He has a brewery business on the side.

“We also want topics to be relevant and timely and based on what the public needs to know,” said Tomczyk-Kemp. “And we will not put out a video unless we have something specific, we want to discuss.”

That means they also cover topics based on the most common questions and complaints coming from the call center like doing walkthroughs on how to make changes to your account if you are having trouble; and people receiving their bills the day before it is due, which led to them converting over 30,000 traditional customers to online accounts.

Huntsville Utilities’ YouTube channel subscribers more than doubled within a few episodes.

“We began interviewing people like Mario out in the field explaining what lightning does to knock the power out and he outlines the steps Huntsville Utilities is taking to prevent it from happening,” Long said. “And we answered questions about what people can do at home to protect their appliances, electronics and computers from power surges.”

But mixed into everything is that level of silliness he mentioned before.

They decided to do a segment on customer service, so they brought in a supervisor known around the building as the “Queen of Customer Service” and made her up as Queen for a Day of Customer Service.

They celebrated Squirrel Appreciation Day by interviewing a real squirrel the linemen befriended and fed, attempting to explain the dangers of him chewing on powerlines.

They also have the Huntsville Utilities “Safety Squirrel” mascot costume, and they often portray him doing a variety of things like prepping for football season or warning against the dangers of live electricity.

Long, who admittedly hates snakes, went out to do a segment (because Tomczyk-Kemp would not go) with a snake expert conducting snake training with the linemen. They encounter so many unfriendly snakes like copperheads and rattlesnakes out in the field, Long said. They must know how to handle them.

They also interviewed a detective in the cybercrime unit at the Huntsville Police Department.

“That was an eye-opening experience,” Long said. “They said they catch more of these scamming type criminals than you think.”

Click here to check out HUTV videos and podcasts on YouTube.

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