"Across Indiana" at 20 years 

For 20 years, the WFYI (Channel 20) newsmagazine Across Indiana has taken viewers every which way around Hoosierland to visit people and places like the original home of the breaded tenderloin, the highest point in the state and the man who used bowling balls to make a rosary.

It's stopped in at least 85 of Indiana's 92 counties and found all sorts of historic, odd and heartwarming stories that have aired on public television stations throughout the state.

"The show is about these three ideas," host Michael Atwood says. "There's Hmm, I didn't know that about Indiana. Or, ha-ha-ha, I didn't know that about Indiana. Or, sniff-sniff, I didn't know that about Indiana."

Across Indiana opens its 20th season at 7:30 p.m. Monday with exactly that mix. There's a story about Joyce Brinkman, the former state treasurer-turned-poet, taking a group of fellow Hoosier poets to El Salvador to do workshops. Series producer Jim Simmons ventures to Vevay to be a celebrity grape-stomper at the Swiss Wine Festival. And we meet the inspiration for a Madison restaurant called ChickiePoo's — a 4-year-old girl with leukemia.

Whatever the subject of the story, the tone of Across Indiana is a consistent mix of "aw-shucks" and "awww," a place where you'll hear folksy wisdom from Hoosiers like Howard Awand, proprietor of the Rosemont Inn bed and breakfast in Vevay.

"There's a lot more to life than tomorrow's chase for the dollar," Awand says at the end of the grape-stomping story. "You can choose to live your life one of two ways: You can live your life in fear, worrying about what's going to happen next, or you can live your life surrounded by happy people, beautiful scenery. What can go wrong?"

To Simmons, Across Indiana is a "nice, friendly show" that's "quirky, literate and kind to the stories."

"The show is the small-town show," he says. "We always say the reason is, whenever anybody with a camera shows up in some of these places, there's been a fire or a shooting or corruption in the sheriff's department. We come out to tell a good story."

And people love them for it. When Across Indiana shows up in town, its presence often merits a story in the local newspaper. Simmons remembers a woman in a Martinsville candy store asking whether she could stay and watch the crew work. He recalls her saying, "I never thought I'd be blessed enough to be in a place where you were filming." And when they visited Orleans to do the story about a mentally challenged man who builds carnival rides to benefit his friend who suffers from muscular dystrophy, "You would think the president had shown up."

"I don't know if we look for the stories in the small towns," photographer Frank Konermann says, "but they seem to come to us."

Across Indiana - and, really, shouldn't it be called Acrost Indiana, since that's the standard Hoosier pronunciation? - got its start as a spinoff from a show called Indiana Tonight. That public-affairs show ended each broadcast with The Rural Route — stories about out-of-the-way places.

The executive producer thought the feature should be a regular show. He wasn't from Indiana and considered the state "exotic."

Atwood, then the host of Indiana Tonight, wasn't convinced. He liked the long-form documentary format Indiana Tonight presented.

"I wouldn't say I was brought to it kicking and screaming, but it was a new approach for me," Atwood says. "That's what contributed to us learning along the way."

Across Indiana started bizarrely, with an episode that, among other things, took a lighthearted look at Indiana's potential to experience an earthquake. "Overly silly" is how Atwood describes that first show.

He says it took three or four seasons to get the correct template. "It's really amazing that 'FYI gave us the opportunity to learn along the way."

The show has told so many stories over the years that Atwood says it's all kind of a blur. He can't name a favorite.

As host, he narrates the show but does relatively little of the traveling. And over the last six years, he's been less involved in the day-to-day operation. Atwood had been a hospice volunteer for years, and he started working full time for AseraCare as a bereavement coordinator.

These days, his travels across Indiana are typically limited to long-term care facilities within a 60-mile radius of Indianapolis.

"I will get recognized in those situations, and it's heartwarming, it's really rewarding and there's a sense of almost instant rapport," he says. "It's helped me be better in grief support because the ones who recognize me, some of them are pretty big fans."

The show now has such a large archive that if you tune in during its off-season, you might catch a repeat from 10 years ago. Viewers don't necessarily know this, which might explain why not long ago, a man approached Atwood, looked at him with a glimmer of recognition and said, "I bet your younger brother does that Across Indiana show."

"It's not that far away," Atwood says, "when somebody will say to me, 'I bet you're proud of your son, aren't ya? He does that show on Channel 20, doesn't he?'"

That may well happen. Across Indiana still has plenty of stories to tell. To illustrate that point, series producer Simmons leaves the room and returns a minute later with two overstuffed notebooks that he drops on the table. Together, they're about a foot high and filled with story ideas generated by e-mails, letters, newspaper clippings and more. The thump they make tells the story.

"We could do this show for a hundred years and never be able to tell all these stories," he says. "It's a very popular show ... and there's no lack of stories."

That said, Atwood recognizes that one day Across Indiana will end.

"I work in hospice, so I'm OK with things ending," he said. "And it happens. And there may be a day when it's time to focus on palliative, comfort care for Across Indiana and let it go gentle into that good night. But at the same time, there's enough material there and there are enough interesting people doing interesting things to keep it going for a while."

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