For retired church producer, success meant changed lives
“I like producing,” says veteran producer J. Fred Rowles. “I like directing. But I also love the interaction between brother and sister people of the faith.”
By Barbara Dunlap-Berg*
Growing up in Beckley, West Virginia, John Frederick “Fred” Rowles, now 77, wanted to be a garbage collector.
75 years of communicating faithView the interactive timeline of United Methodist Communications' 75 years of telling the church's story, both within the church and to the world.
By the time he entered West Virginia University, his aspirations had shifted to radio announcing. After graduating with a degree in theater and radio/TV production, Rowles spent two years in the military, assigned to the Army Pictorial Center. From there, he went to Baltimore, producing and directing industrial films, and then to an ad agency.
“I was burned out. I had an empty feeling inside,” he says. “I just casually told God, ‘You know, I’d like to work for you.’”
Working on a radio commercial the next day, he met Charles Washburn, who worked for TRAFCO — The Methodist Church’s Television, Radio and Film Commission, a precursor to United Methodist Communications. On a whim, Rowles asked about job openings. Washburn replied, “As a matter of fact, I’m leaving. My job’s open.” That night, Rowles sent his résumé.
“I figured God wanted me,” he says.
Notable Agency Productions
- "John Wesley," 1953
- "Talk Back" series, began 1958
- "Catch the Spirit" TV series, 1985-93
- "Questions of Faith" video series, 1987-92
- Faith and Values Network, began 1988
- UMC.org, 1995-present
- "News Odyssey," 1997-2000
- "Igniting Ministry," began 2000
- "True North" TV series, 2001
- "Rethink Church," 2009-present
Planting seeds of communication
One of Rowles’ first TRAFCO assignments was coordinating all of the media events for the 1968 Uniting Conference in Dallas that merged the Methodist and the Evangelical United Brethren churches into The United Methodist Church.
Laughing, he remembers how he ended up in all of the photos of the Methodist and EUB bishops shaking hands.
“I had a little hand-held motion-picture camera. Producer Don (Donald E.) Hughes said, ‘I want to get a shot looking back out at the audience.’ So I duckwalk across, and I’m right there as they’re shaking hands, shooting out to the lights. In every one of the shots, there’s this little tiny camera person that comes out underneath the bishops shaking hands.”
Most of Rowles’ first overseas trips were to produce filmstrips because that was the most economical way to get the message to a local church.
Rowles recalls a filmstrip project – “Where in the World Am I?” – that he did with Edwin H. Maynard, then editorial director of the Methodist Commission on Promotion and Cultivation. “It was the structure of it that I think was the genius,” Rowles says. Half of the filmstrip focused on World Service ministries; on the vacant other half, annual conferences could modify a template to feature their ministries. “It was incredible. Everyone wanted to do one.”
Changing with the times
Until the turn of this century, “reconnaissance trips” were the modus operandi for United Methodist Communications. The production team would travel to the site before actual filming or videotaping occurred.
“I learned early on,” Rowles says, “that to get the trust of people you’re going to be filming, you have to spend some time with them. On my first trip to Borneo, in 1970, we spent about two weeks in the jungles with ex-headhunters who were converted to Christianity.”
Rowles was the producer and the sound engineer. Simply handling the equipment was brutal.
“The Nagra [audio recorder] weighed 40 pounds,” he says. “Plus the microphones, plus the tapes, plus the film. We had 18 pieces of equipment. When we came back from Borneo, I had a dozen 400-foot rolls of film in a carry-on suitcase, because I didn’t dare check it. I mean, it was our life! I remember carrying that on my shoulders through Customs and refusing to let them X-ray it. I got by with it. I had everything wrapped in aluminum foil.”
Technology – constantly changing – transformed everything. As modern media shortened attention spans, Rowles went with the flow, going from hour-long films “to half an hour, then 15 minutes and then 10.”
In the mid-1980s, the agency began transitioning from film to videotape and taking on more studio work.
“The transition of technology also brought a cultural change within the church," says Harry Leake, a Rowles colleague who now leads the production team at United Methodist Communications. "With smaller, lighter gear and increased quality, we found others could tell the stories easily. The 1990s and 2000s found us moving into the Internet age and social media. Our product focus often was one of showing the needs of the world and helping the church find its way in those struggles."
It’s all about changing lives
Rowles fondly remembers videotaping the opening of Africa University in Zimbabwe in 1992.
“We were the first to send an edited show back via satellite for use on a special,” he says. “I thought we were the cat’s meow at that point. Who’s gonna top this? Well, think how quickly it got topped!
“We shot the opening ceremony. Two of us were supposed to fly back to Harare with the tape. We had already made contact with an editor there. Communication got messed up, and the plane went to another place. So we had to drive all night. Got to Harare. Did the editing. Made it to the States and for the uplink just in time.”
Until his retirement in 2001, Rowles traveled to 44 countries for United Methodist Communications – “so many good places!” he exclaims.
In the Philippines, he and the crew met a young woman with a severe facial deformity. Rowles and videographer Ronny Perry arranged for her to come to the U.S. for corrective surgery, and today she is a United Methodist pastor.
“Those kinds of things really make me happy,” Rowles says. “It’s what you leave in the hearts of people.”
The denomination's fight against malaria offered another opportunity to make positive global change, Leake says. He traveled to Nigeria with Rick Reilly, whose 2006 "Sports Illustrated" article started the Nothing But Nets campaign for the United Nations Foundation. That effort planted the seeds for United Methodism's Imagine No Malaria campaign that continues today.
"In 2015," Leake says, "we continue to tell the stories and promote the needs. In the ever-changing world, new technologies make these stories and information available to more people than ever through Internet downloads, cellphone apps, broadcast distribution and social media such as the umc.org website, United Methodist News Service and Rethink Church."
To Rowles and his colleagues, it is still all about changing lives.
“I like producing. I like directing," Rowles says. "But I also love the interaction between brother and sister people of the faith.”
He once told a work team that asked United Methodist Communications to film their work in Jamaica, “If we come back and we have made a change in people’s lives – in their lives and ours – and the film or video is lost, I still would consider it a success.”
*Barbara Dunlap-Berg, on staff at United Methodist Communications since 1979, today is general church content editor and associate editor of "Interpreter" magazine.