Monday, December 14, 2020
By Randy M. Cauthron, Managing Editor
Kelly Jo McDonnell, and her production teammates recently won an Emmy for her “Boundary Waters at Risk” program which aired on KARE-11/NBC up in Minneapolis. They won for public/current/community affairs program.
Royal native receives 4th honor for television project
MINNEAPOLIS — Kelly Jo McDonnell, after growing up in the shadow of her Hall of Fame father Jim McDonnell in Royal, continues making a name for herself in the broadcast journalism world after recently winning an Emmy in November for her production work on “Minnesota Bound,” which airs on KARE-11, the NBC affiliate in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The award winning production piece, a Boundary Waters Mining special, won in the category of public/current/community affairs program.
“We called it ‘The Boundary Waters at Risk,’ and it highlighted the Minnesota mining quandary of Twin Metals wanting to mine copper right on the edge of the Boundary Waters,” she explained. “We covered both sides — can they mine safely, etc. Boy, did we find plenty of opinions … mainly up in Ely, Minnesota, where the whole debate is a pretty hot topic.
She added, “Our whole team got behind this one, led by host Bill Sherck, who loves the area up there, as well as founder Ron Schara, who had retired, but got involved with this show. It’s a topic close to our hearts, that goes without saying. (We film up there often) for the state of Minnesota, it’s a tough topic to beat as far as current community affairs go. But as media, and a television program, we still have to tell both sides … regardless if we’re an outdoor/nature program or not. You have to walk that line. I thought we walked it well — and the Emmy judges thought so, too.”
The honor marked McDonnell’s fourth Emmy. She won her first Emmy for best magazine show back in the 1990s. McDonnell won another with her fiance, Cy Dodson, for best topical documentary for “My Last Breath” in 2015, which was through his production company, Triumph Pictures. She also won in 2018 as producer for “Backroads with Ron & Raven,” which is a show on Fox. The company itself, has probably won over 30-plus Emmy’s over the years.
McDonnell has a B.A. in mass communications from Briar Cliff University in Sioux City — where she played basketball for four years; as well as an M.A. in communications from Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota.
McDonnell is the operations director at Ron Schara Productions, a TV production house in Minneapolis, where she started in 1996.
“I got lucky,” said McDonnell, suggesting her father knew the right person.
Her first job right out of college was an on-air job as a DJ at KDWB/WDGY in Minneapolis, working the night shift.
“I was still super excited,” she said. “I had wanted to get right into TV, but Minneapolis can be a tough market to break into … so I bided my time.”
After working in radio for a few years, she worked in agency/public relations work for a year before getting her break.
“My dad called me to let me know he had ‘heard through the grapevine’ that Ron Schara was starting a TV show on NBC/KARE-11 in Minneapolis. Dad, being “The Fishing Professor,” had gotten to know Schara during his many years in the fishing industry.”
At the time, Schara was the full-time outdoors feature writer for Minneapolis Star Tribune, and like McDonnell, was wanting to break into TV.
“So I picked up the phone and called NBC, asked for Ron Schara, and he picked up the phone,” McDonnell said. “Just like that. I went in for an interview the next week, and started work the next. Been there ever since.”
She added, “I love the variety of it. Some days you’re out in the field filming wraps or stories, and other days you’re move into the nitty-gritty production of it; the logging of the video, the writing of the scripts, and wrangling of the reporter’s and their deadlines. I seem to do well with a lot of projects going at the same time. It appeals to both my creative side and my organized side.”
With COVID-19 numbers spiking in Minnesota, McDonnell and her co-workers have pulled back a bit on the filming.
“We still have to do some things, but it’s minimal,” she said. “So I’m hunkered down, mainly logging video, producing ahead on spring/summer stories, and writing ahead. All our events were cancelled in 2020, so I’m on hold with those, too — we’ll see what 2021 brings. We are currently producing and filming for nine or 10 network TV shows right now, ‘Minnesota Bound’ is just one of them. So our plate is still full.”
McDonnell has been a divorced, single mother since before her son Hayden went into kindergarten, so her work/life balance has been tricky on occasion. Hayden, now a senior, spent a great deal of time on the job with her.
“He jokes that he’s ‘grown up on the set’ of ‘Minnesota Bound,’ which isn’t far from the truth,” she said. “He was always with me when our company would do events, such as our TV booth at the Minnesota State Fair … he, literally, has been working that since he was in third grade. He grew up seeing his mother work, but also saw that I enjoyed my work — a lot of the time it was fun.”
McDonnell’s parents, Jim and Almeda, were with her often at company events to help with Hayden, who now a senior in high school, has shown an interest in going into communications. Schara himself wrote reference letters for Hayden while he was applying to colleges this past fall.
“I genuinely enjoy what I do,” McDonnell said. “It helps that I’ve been with the company for so long, and have helped build it up from the ground up. I’ve learned you have to stay curious, always be learning, and that will help you stay engaged.”
McDonnell points to her own upbringing for helping guide her. She grew up with and graduating alongside 22 students whom she still keeps in touch with.
“We still come back to just ‘hang’ in the area, we miss it,” McDonnell said.
Her mother moved to Minnesota after her father Jim passed away in 2012, breaking her last direct tie to the community.
“We have had such good memories in Royal, however, that my son and my brother’s kids love to visit Royal in the summer,” she said.
The trip now includes a stay in a hotel in Spencer which she referred to as “all part of the experience now.” McDonnell said the trip allows them to pay respects to her dad who is buried right outside of Royal. She said the entire family have an Okoboji vacation planned for summer 2021 and they come back annually for her father’s yearly Wild Game Dinner that the Iowa Great Lakes Fishing Club also puts on with them.
“When I go back to visit, I still know everyone,” she said. “Small towns don’t change a whole lot … and that makes you feel real solid. I’m grateful I had that experience. I loved growing up in Royal. There’s something about ‘small-town’ community, and I sure do miss it. I love Minneapolis … but Royal will always be ‘home.’ My father was a teacher/coach, so the school system and sports were a huge part of my life growing up. There’s a discipline to sports, so that helped with the work ethic, also.”
Spencer Daily Reporter
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