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- 2014 - January - 20th -

Ray Hays: Four decades of telling community’s stories

By Karen Brune Mathis, Managing Editor

For 41 years, Ray Hays has worked behind the video camera to put his customers' names and faces in front of it.

Hays has created TV broadcasts, documentaries, corporate and military training programs, commercials and much more.

For 26 years he has run a business to do it, PRC Digital Media, which began as Producers Resource Center. It's in Brooklyn at 250 Park St.

Among his titles past and present: president at PRC Digital Media; a technician at CBS Sports; special projects producer of PM Magazine at WJXT TV-4; production manager, producer, and director at WJCT TV and director at Florida Public Broadcasting.

In recognition of that, Hays, 60, won the 2013 Jacksonville Film Industry Award from Mayor Alvin Brown's Advisory Board on Motion Pictures, Television and Commercial Production.

That is in addition to the Emmy Awards and other honors that he has received over the years.

How much fun have you had?

Like any small business operator, I've had a lot of fun and a lot of challenges, but my mother taught me early on that if you're not having fun, then you must be doing something wrong.

Obviously you've been doing a lot right.

Well, the lights are on and the phone still works.

Describe what you do.

We are specialists in converting information into knowledge. We've taken broadcast professionals that use our visual storytelling techniques and apply them to training, and that's an evolution.

We can take any topic and information you've got — whether it's commercials or documentaries or training — and move the ideas from your mind into the minds of your audience.

The trick is to do that and make it stick. If you're doing commercials, you want people to understand what it is you're trying to tell them, believe you, and buy what you're selling.

Training is the same thing. You've got an audience, you've got to hook them, get their attention and make sure they understand what it is you want them to understand, why they need to understand it, and do it in such a way that they remember it and take it with them and use it in their daily lives.

That's not how we started in 1988, but it's what we're doing now and it just worked out really well.

You were a professional behind the camera and started a company. How did you make that decision?

When you work at a television station or you're working for a client, somebody's providing the money. When you're doing it on your own, you've got to come up with the money yourself. That's one of those things that I was wholly unprepared for with sales.

I got into the business because I discovered it at an early age. I started pushing around the camera in the studio at 15. We did outside broadcasts and stuff that, for a teenager, was pretty exciting and I just fell in love with the industry.

When the opportunities at TV stations began to change, I said I need to set my own course.

I saw there was a niche opening at the time and you realize, in 1988, it was a very different industry. It was a huge gap between the high-end expensive production companies and the low-end dollar-a-holler spots TV stations would turn out that they had to squeeze in between newscasts.

What I tried to do was bring that high-end level network production to corporations. It seemed to work, they liked what I did and came back.

People say how do you measure your success? It's by the success of the clients who keep coming back to us. I think that speaks better volumes than the bottom line.

Doing it and telling the stories and making the pictures and moving people's opinions and ideas and having an effect on people's emotions or understanding is a sense of accomplishment.

What are some of your most memorable projects?

Two stand out.

One is the documentary we did on the (St. Johns) river, "The Green Monster: It Came from the River." Later when you hear the mayor, City Council members and members of the state Legislature referring to the algae bloom as the "green monster," and you've inserted something into the lexicon, I feel like, OK, that worked out well.

Another one we did on fallen heroes. NAS Jacksonville does a great job honoring soldiers who have been killed in the line of duty. It's a terrific scene to see all of the people out there and how they honor them, and it was something I felt like I had to do. I was very proud of it.

You ask for memories. There was a time where the Turkish army showed up with machine guns.

We were in Istanbul and we were doing a rededication of the Cathedral of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and they brought in Americans because the Greeks and the Turks don't get along.

The Turkish government, at the last minute, pulled the satellite truck we were going to use and said, 'Oh, we just realized there's a soccer game we have to cover.'

I made a couple of phone calls to some friends in London and we flew in a portable satellite system and set it up in the park across from the church.

We were setting up, then this Turkish army lieutenant and about six other guys, all with machine guns, showed up and said 'oh, no, no, you can't do that,' and fortunately, the Greeks who were with us had plenty of money and for $2,000, we could rent the air space between the satellite dish and the satellite.

You've had some interesting experiences.

I've been supersonic in an Air Force fighter. I rode an avalanche down the side of a mountain in Lake Tahoe. We did the video for the Jaguars that brought the franchise here. I did a bit on driving a race car in the Nurburgring in Germany.

You learn as a broadcaster that you really should serve the public interest. One of the things I want to do as a production company is give something back to my community. Since we've started, we have taken at least four charities a year and done something for them. We've been able to help a lot of different agencies.

We're engaged with the Adams Class (Naval Ship) Museum, trying to help bring a military ship to honor our military and our military heritage in Downtown Jacksonville. I'm on the board of the Riverkeeper. I did two documentaries on the river and they said 'Gee, we need you.'

That gives me an opportunity to do the things that are important to me and important to my community. If we don't do something for the water and the river in this state right now, we're going to be in a world of hurt in five short years.

Do you see that a lot of small business owners are able to become involved in the community?

That's an individual thing. Running a small business, you quickly discover that doesn't describe the workload. When you're busy scrambling doing the day-to-day things, it's very easy for small business people to spend all their time working in the business and not working on the business.

It's important to take the time to look around the community because it gives you a sense of where you fit in.

Where did you grow up? What did you want to be?

My family moved to Jacksonville in 1957, so I was 4 or 5. I've lived in Jacksonville most of my life and I grew up in television stations.

My mother was an educator in the Duval County school system and I had the opportunity to come into what was then the educational TV station a few times, got a chance to do some work at the (public television) auction, and when the Feedback television shows started, they needed part-time camera operators.

I applied for the job and Dan Kossoff was here (at WJCT). He said, 'Why do you want to work in television?' and I said 'I've seen television and I'm sure it can be done better.'

Fortunately he laughed, which was what I was hoping he'd do, and I got the job. So I grew up actually doing public affairs television and community-based television.

People today really can't understand that when you've only got four television stations instead of 200 channels, and no Internet, it tends to limit your options, so we had a good shot at getting an audience.

We did remarkable things because nobody told us we couldn't. I grew up with the idea 'well let's just do it.' Instead of saying 'we don't have the resources, we don't have the budget,' that didn't enter into it. It's like,

here's the message and here's the story we have to tell and let's do that.

One of the things about public television is when you don't have a budget, you have to get creative.

What have been some of your biggest challenges?

Like any small business, the biggest challenge is always going to be people. If you are running a business and you have a vision, an idea of where you want to go and how things should be done, you need to bring in the best people you can.

By best, it doesn't mean that they're necessarily the best at their jobs at the moment, but they need to be the best characters you can find.

One of the things I hold dear is honor, your personal honor. The first page of our employee handbook has a quote that is 'what is left if honor is lost?' because the most important thing is having people around you in whom you can trust.

How big is your operation?

Our operation is as big as it needs to be. You grow or contract depending on what you're doing. We've only got four on staff, but yesterday, we had an additional five in the studio. We've had 14 on location.

You know, Steven Spielberg doesn't own a camera. He creates a production company every time he does a movie, brings in the people, they do the movie, then they go on. It's that collaboration of people and choosing the team every time you do a production that allows you access to that real creativity, real skills, and it gives you the opportunity to bring in people with different perspectives.

It gives us the opportunity to be small, nimble and have a variety of different people doing a variety of different things.

You've made quite an investment in your company.

Twenty-six years, that's a fair investment. We've moved locations recently and finally threw away the $60,000 tape machines that we had bought that we didn't use anymore. We had it all electronically recycled.

Technology advances, it changes. The cameras that we started with in the studio are large, black-and-white, 100 pounds. Now, you've got kids doing better stuff with iPhones. That's been the evolution of everything: smaller, faster, lighter, and cheaper.

The good news, for folks like us, is storytelling doesn't come in a box. You can't buy at the electronics store the talent that it takes to craft a story and to move an idea from beginning through middle to end.

The investment I've made has been what was necessary at the time to get the job done.

What's the future for PRC Digital Media?

We're trying to leverage our storytelling and videotaping. A few years ago we developed a multimedia job training program for the U.S. military and that was going great until the tea party taught Congress to spell sequestration, and then things kind of got slow.

But we've adapted that to the commercial industry. We do a lot of work with the rail industry and we probably have more knowledge of environmental regulations and how they affect the transportation industry than any other production company you're going to find anywhere.

What are you doing for fun?

I bust my knuckles on old cars. I have a 1968 Mercedes 280SL that is my absolute dream. I saw that car on the street in 1968 and just fell in love with it.

I bought mine in 2004. It needed a lot of work, so I rebuilt the engine in my garage, and that's the first engine I've done since high school.

When that thing started up, I was the happiest guy in seven counties. I've driven that now and I've met great people all over the world as a result. We went to the 50th anniversary celebration of the car in Germany this past summer.

I've got an '89 BMW convertible. It's kind of a rolling restoration I'm working on.

There's no way you can think of business when you're trying to troubleshoot an ignition problem. It takes your mind off of it.

What else would you like to share?

As a technician who goes in and starts a business, your goal is really on doing what you want to do and doing what you love and it's not about necessarily building an empire or leveraging your finances.

I look back and go 'OK, I've done what I've wanted to do, I've made mistakes along the way and I've learned from them, but I can hold my head up high.'

There's not a person in this town that I can't look them in the eye. I've got my honor intact and as long as that's there, then I've got pretty much what I need.

kmathis@baileypub.com

@MathisKb

(904) 356-2466

First Coast Success: Ray Hays, PRC Digital Media

The Daily Record interviewed Hays for "First Coast Success," a regular segment on the award-winning 89.9 FM flagship First Coast Connect program, hosted by Melissa Ross.

The interview is scheduled for broadcast this morning and will replay at 8 p.m. on the WJCT Arts Channel or online at wjctondemand.org.

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