An annual telethon to benefit the four-legged critters at the Coulee Region Humane Society also provides a doggone good training opportunity for the two-legged critters who run the show.

The telethon, to air live from 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday on KQEG-TV, originated in 1999 with a University of Wisconsin-La Crosse student and continues as an incubator for other students to nurture their skills.

“Service learning is a big part of our program, and broadcasting plays an active role in communications” said Pat Turner, a UW-L communication studies professor who has 20 students involved in front of and behind cameras, as well as video editing, for the telethon.

“KQEG offers them a golden opportunity to record and edit videos, and it’s a chance for their videos to be seen on a professional channel,” Turner said.

“They get to crew it during the telethon, run cameras and be on the phone bank, and I’ve got a student on the tote board,” she said.

Student Nick Rytilahti will co-host the show with KQEG’s Rick Wilson in 205 Wing Technology Center at UW-L.

“This is a great experience not just for me and everybody on the set but an opportunity to prepare and use the skills we practice to put together a show,” said Rytilahti, a 24-year-old Holmen native who is majoring in sports management, with a minor in sports broadcasting.

Rytilahti attributed his snagging the co-anchor position in part to seniority.

“I’ve been in the program three and a half years and done all the dirty work,” such as running the teleprompter, being on camera for previous telethons, writing news stories, directing, serving as a news director for UW-L’s WMCM-TV and sundry other tasks, he said.

Rytilahti, a graduate of Holmen High School, aspires to a career in the sports broadcast industry.

“I want to be a broadcaster or the voice of a team,” he said.

Rytilahti got a jump-start on that path during the past two years as color radio analyst for the La Crosse Loggers, as well as being an ESPN correspondent and working on local high school football and basketball games on WCOW radio in Sparta.

“It was fun getting paid to watch baseball,” he said.

Liz Meil, the humane society’s community outreach director, said the telethon is good experience for staffers and volunteers there, too.

“The students came in and interviewed staff members, volunteers and adopters” for videos to run during the telethon, she said.

Guests during the show also will include pet therapy specialists, dog trainers and society advocates, she said.

The telethon typically raises between $3,500 and $4,500, Meil said, adding, “It would be great to raise at least $4,500.“

The shelter at 911 Critter Drive in Onalaska is sheltering about 80 to 90 cats, 15 to 20 dogs and five to seven small animals, she said.

The telethon began when UW-L student Kristen Lloyd decided to produce a live TV telethon instead of writing a traditional research paper, Meil said. UW-L’s Communication Studies Department and campus TV station WMCM sponsor it, in conjunction with Charter Communications and KQEG.

The society also could use donations of towels, sheets, soap, bleach, office and animal supplies or other items.

The society recently received a $2,500 grant from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to promote adoptions of shelter animals and a $1,000 grant from the Pedigree Foundation to help improve the adoptability of shelter dogs.

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