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Stories from the sky: Jeff Achen uses drone in video company work

Farmington entrepreneur Jeff Achen is owner of CallSign51, a creative services company that specializes in video production with drones where he tells stories with aerial photography. Kara Hildreth / contributor 1 / 3
Videographer Jeff Achen uses drones to produce videos for non-profits and small businesses. “They constantly have me doing videos of their programs and success stories within those programs about students and the people and families being affected by their work,” Achen said. Kara Hildreth / contributor2 / 3
Jeff Achen said produces videos for People Serving People, a large homeless shelter in Minneapolis, and Achieve Minneapolis, a nonprofit in Minneapolis Public Schools that reduces the achievement gap. Kara Hildreth / contributor3 / 3

The sticker on Jeff Achen's drone carries a backstory.

The word "call sign" stems from his boyhood when he was fascinated with code names and call signs. The number 51 links back to his military career and his ship's number when he served in the U.S. Navy.

As a boy, Achen was fascinated with cool code names and today keeps a large collection of G.I. Joe collectible military figures in his Farmington home office. Now Call Sign 51 represents his video company where he gets energy from telling stories via the perspective of nonprofit and business owners.

"Call Sign is a unique identifier used by ships, the military and aviation," Achen said.

Radio controllers, planes and ships all have call signs.

"Everyone in nonprofits and small businesses should have a unique call sign, so I thought this would be a good analogy which could help nonprofits and businesses because every business is unique and some can get lost in the fray," he said. "Many need to know how I can help them develop their own call sign and identity."

Journalism roots

As a multimedia journalist, Achen, 41, can be considered somewhat of a Renaissance man. He has worked as a television, print and digital reporter, and a self-made entrepreneur since 1999.

Achen prefers to work with nonprofits and small businesses because he wants to see them thrive and successfully navigate and network social media. Today he chooses to do extensive work with networks of nonprofits and Twin Cities journalism communities.

Achen aims to tell stories from a higher perspective. He launched CallSign51, a creative services company specializing in video production and photography. His videos help to tell nonprofit and small business stories and how they fit into urban areas, suburbs, communities and neighborhoods.

As a Minnesota transplant who grew up in Grand Forks, N.D., Achen entered the U.S. Navy after high school. He said he needed to grow up, travel and, he admits, there was free education. He served on the USS Thomas S. Gates CG-51 missile cruiser based out of Norfolk, Va. He served in Operation Desert Shield to enforce the no-fly zone as the Gulf War wound down.

A son of Peace Corps volunteers, Achen served in the Peace Corps himself in Nepal for more than a year. He worked as an English teacher, again taking his camera on the road to tell stories. He loved learning a new language as he immersed himself in a different culture. Even back then, Achen began to view the world from a more global perspective.

Working as his student newspaper and for a TV station, Achen became accustomed to storytelling from the print and broadcast perspectives. He decided to go back to school and pursue a master's degree when he worked as the Apple Valley editor for the former Thisweek Newspapers-Apple Valley edition for four years. He was promoted to work as the first online editor for the south metro newspaper group.

"I really enjoyed learning about my community," he said. "Career wise, I grew as a journalist and at the time my boss there gave me a wide area to experiment with video and photography."

Since 2010 Achen has focused his energy on producing videos for nonprofits, although he is always open to helping out small business and newspaper groups.

Achen produced 40 video stories for Minnesota Philanthropy Partners called "Nonprofits to Know" video series that reported on the back stories of how nonprofit groups were launched.

Nonprofits and startup companies he's worked with wanted to become social media savvy and reach a broader audience and perhaps a younger demographic, Achen said.

Over time, Achen invested in more than $30,000 in video and drone equipment.

"I can do it all with drones and they enhance the video products, and drones have certainly advanced this industry — the drones' technology has really changed not only the industry but how we consume things and experience the world."

Drone changes

Just as the internet and smartphones have revolutionized access to information, drones are rapidly changing many industries, Achen said. Like real estate, construction, search and rescue and law enforcement, medical and even city planning.

"Drones will evolve and the technology is here to stay," Achen said. "Before you needed a pilot's license and an airport, and now you can buy a $500 drone and fly it up 400 feet and make money and tell stories."

Drones enhance his storytelling, he believes. He uses a portable camera dolly rail and a tripod head to create a cool effect. The camera can seamlessly slide sideways to produce cool, modern videos shot up high and can swoop down to capture scenes. The video end product may be considered more commercial quality video and can resemble a TV or Hollywood movie.

"I like to use drones and still draw on my journalism background and interview people to tell client stories," Achen said.

Proud to have worked with clients like People Serving People, one of the largest family homeless shelters in Minneapolis and across the state, Achen has also produced videos for Achieve Minneapolis, a nonprofit in Minneapolis public schools that aims to reduce the achievement gap and improve the opportunity gap.

"They constantly have me doing videos of their programs and success stories within those programs about the students and the people and families being affected by their work," he said.


Who: Jeff Achen Videography and drone aerial photography

What: Achen, a Farmington videographer, produces videos for nonprofits and small businesses. Achen uses drones to produce aerial photography for Farmington businesses, CrossFit Calypso and BlueNose Coffee.

Why: Achen likes to help nonprofits and small business succeed. He uses drones to produce more masterful storytelling for online and social media. "They constantly have me doing videos of their programs and success stories within those programs about students and the people and families being affected by their work," Achen said.

Connect: Jeff Achen Videography on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Vimeo channel. Go to or for more.