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HBO series shows Pahrump’s zany, heartfelt TV station

Updated July 29, 2021 - 8:21 pm

PAHRUMP — John Kohler went to high school with Sarah Palin and is the proud owner of an elaborate Elvis costume, a leftover from his days in a trio of heavyset impersonators known as The Portly Presleys.

He insists, though, that the past year has been the strangest of his life.

That should give you a pretty clear window into the weird and wonderful world of “Small Town News: KPVM Pahrump,” a six-episode docuseries premiering at 9 p.m. Monday on HBO.

While most of the world was hunkered down during the pandemic, Kohler and his wife, Missey, relocated from his native Alaska to Nye County, where she soon found work as a co-anchor on the KPVM news. Three weeks later, when the station’s weatherman quit, Kohler stepped up.

“Never been a TV weatherman,” he admits. “I’ve certainly watched a lot of TV news. I kind of know what it’s supposed to look like.”

His on-the-job training included trying his hand at various tasks around the station, such as editing, camera work and ad sales. The latter gig landed him a weekly show sponsored by a local Realtor.

“We’ve got the No. 1 real estate show in all of Nye County. We’re also the only one,” Kohler admits with a laugh, “but you take what you can get.”

Years in the making

KPVM, viewers are told at the beginning of “Small Town News,” is one of only 95 independently owned news stations in America. There would be just 94 if it weren’t for the vision of Vernon Van Winkle.

He was working in Orange County, California, dreaming of starting his own station, when the FCC granted him a license in Pahrump. That was in 1997, after so many months of trying and waiting that he’d almost given up.

“I jumped on it, came out here, bought the property,” Van Winkle recalls. “Had about $70,000 in video production gear, borrowed $20,000 from a friend of mine and told him, ‘Hey, dude, I got an idea. I’m gonna go out to the desert and create a TV station.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘What the (expletive) are you thinkin’?”

The station first came to the attention of filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato when they were directing the 2008 HBO documentary “Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madam of Crystal.”

“We just fell in love with the station, and Vern’s vision for the station was so passionate,” says the British-born Bailey. “I think Randy and I have always just been fascinated by media, especially the idea of do-it-yourself media. They work on a shoestring. They’re on a very tight budget. It’s very punk, really, in a way.”

The duo had been trying to get the series that became “Small Town News” on the air ever since.

“They pitched it, and they couldn’t get anybody interested in a pilot, so it fizzled, pretty much. And it fizzled for a while,” says Ronda Van Winkle, Vernon’s wife and the vice president of KPVM. “And we really didn’t talk again for many years.”

‘A phenomenal opportunity’

The project started gaining momentum around the end of 2017, and a pilot, the first of two episodes airing Monday, was filmed in January 2020.

Vernon Van Winkle admits he expressed misgivings in the early stages about how he, his station and its staff would be portrayed.

“For the beginning of this program, we did it blind faith,” he says. “We had no clue where they were going to go until we saw the pilot.”

Once he realized the filmmakers were having fun with them and not making fun of them, Van Winkle relaxed. That first episode presented what he calls “everything that is real” about the station.

“That’s when I really got to the point of thinking, ‘You know? This is really a phenomenal opportunity for all those involved.’ ”

That doesn’t mean “Small Town News” has zero fun at Van Winkle’s expense.

A scene in which he boasts of the quality of the commercials the station produces is followed by clips of ads that feature a creepy voiceover teasing wet T-shirt night at the Pour House, a gunfighting rooster for the former Sugar’s Shack and an eye-opening ad for Big Dick’s Pizzeria.

In Monday’s premiere, Van Winkle lists his heroes as action movie star Jason Statham, Queen frontman Freddie Mercury and the meditation proponent he refers to as “Deepak Choka … Chopa. Deepak Chopa. Is that? Probably I’m butchering that. Be nice to me.”

The reporters become the story

For intentional humor, the series leans on Deanna O’Donnell, the station’s news director, assistant station manager, anchor and longtime reporter.

“I do the dishes, and I vacuum,” she adds in the premiere, as part of a tour of the station and its various animals. “And I feed the chickens and that dog.”

In one episode, she jokes about getting a job at the Chicken Ranch to pay for some needed dental work. When co-anchor Eunette Gentry says she’s vegetarian 80 percent of the time, O’Donnell cracks, “I do 80 percent meat and the rest (is) wine.”

Her joking manner lends “Small Town News” a unique style, one that lands somewhere in the vicinity of the cable access channel from “Parks and Recreation” and a community theater version of a Christopher Guest movie.

During an interview, though, O’Donnell says she doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. “I don’t look at myself as super funny, but I guess other people do.”

Her daughter, Darbie, who grew up at the station, says “Small Town News” highlights O’Donnell’s real personality, the one she can’t reveal during a newscast.

“This shows a completely different side of her that I don’t even think that the town of Pahrump has seen with her. So I think it’s going to be extremely hilarious for them to realize the things that my mom says.”

While screening the first three episodes, O’Donnell mostly kept her head down during her scenes.

“I’m OK when I’m talking about you and your story and your job. But I don’t want to talk about me, and I have a really hard time with that,” she admits. “They were talking about having a red carpet event, and I said, ‘And I will promptly walk right past that and go sit in the corner somewhere.’ Too much attention kind of scares me, because I’m just a small-town news person just doing a regular job. … I’m just trying to get the job done.”

Putting Pahrump first

There’s something touching about O’Donnell’s dedication to covering Pahrump and other parts of Nye County, especially considering Vernon Van Winkle’s push into the Las Vegas market.

The KPVM signal can be picked up throughout the valley via a digital antenna on Channel 25.1. One of the main storylines, though, involves his plan to open an office and studio in Las Vegas and cover Clark County, as well.

For her part, O’Donnell just wants to focus on serving the community she’s reported on since 2006.

“That’s something I really take a lot of pride in,” she says. “I figure that we are underserved as far as what happens here in town, and even in rural areas all over Nye County. I really feel that we have a responsibility. There’s people out here that matter, who are important and have a heart. … It’s where I live. It’s my home.”

The word “heart” comes up a lot when talking with Bailey and Barbato, the executive producers, who directed the recent “Catch and Kill: The Podcast Tapes” for HBO. “That’s the crack cocaine of this series,” Barbato jokes.

That heart comes bursting through in unexpected places.

Take Barbara Teicher-Cates, better known to locals as Barbara Bell. The KPVM client buys airtime and pays the production costs for her talk/variety show that features puppets, stories of her encounters with aliens and some surprisingly catchy performances of her self-styled songs. (Sample lyric: “Bop bop bop, shoo bop, oh baby. Bop bop bop, shoo bop. Well, me and Michael Jackson was ice skating around.”)

She is, as they say, colorful.

But just when it seems Bell is being set up as easy comic relief, O’Donnell goes to check on her for what turns into a moving look at acceptance and just how little effort it takes to be a good neighbor.

‘A big bunch of commotion’

“Pahrump is a great co-star of this series,” Barbato says. “Pahrump is such a wild frontier that has had a tradition of attracting really eccentric characters.”

Ronda Van Winkle says the residents she’s heard from are “super excited” about the series, much more so than they were about the town’s appearances on the likes of “Cops” or “Live PD” or shows that concentrated on the local brothels.

“They’re very happy that something positive about Pahrump is coming out,” she says. “They really hate that most of what people have seen about Pahrump is just cop shows about the area, showing maybe the bad things.”

Putting Pahrump in a negative light was the farthest thing from the producers’ minds.

“We don’t have these crazy goals,” Barbato says, “other than to spread the kind of joy and heart that these people have in their workplace.”

As for what comes next, Vernon Van Winkle likes to think the exposure will accelerate the station’s growth in Las Vegas.

“I’m hoping that by people watching the show and seeing the hard work, (they) will recognize the fact that we’re true entrepreneurs just trying to make something work by helping other people reach their dreams.”

Ronda Van Winkle’s desire is more succinct.

“A second season!” she declares. “A second season, hello!”

Kohler, the weatherman, who has a penchant for pairing jackets and ties with cargo shorts, is trying to keep his expectations low.

“Nobody got paid for any of this,” he reveals. “It’s just a big bunch of commotion, and I’m just really curious what comes out on the other side. Because it seems like there should be something.”

He gets recognized with a “Hey, weatherman!” while getting groceries in Pahrump. Maybe that grocery store level of fame spreads to other markets. Maybe that’s all there is.

“I don’t know,” Kohler says. “I’m just dying to find out.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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