Personal video journalism hits the Net
A camera, firewire, Internet connection and some gumption are all you need to Webcast
By J.D. Lasica
Online Journalism Review
By night, Raven — the name everyone uses for 47-year-old Harold Kionka — works as a janitor, mopping the floors and cleaning the grease traps in TGIFriday’s in Daytona Beach, Fla.
By day, he operates almost single-handedly a 24-hour Internet TV station, serving as owner, station manager, producer and on-air personality. Daytonabeach-live brings live coverage of events in the Florida resort town to as many as 17,000 viewers a day.
Raven and a handful of others are at the vanguard of a new breed of journalism: personal broadcasting. Using equipment that is now relatively inexpensive and simple to use, these video pioneers are claiming a stake in territory that was once the exclusive province of big media.
But let Raven tell it. “I consider a lot of what I do real reporting with no strings attached. When a major event comes to town, I’m there with my camcorder to record everything that goes down while adding some color commentary. On slower days, I still capture the city’s day-to-day life.”
Daytona Beach is home to a number of well-attended public events each year. In March, Raven covered the Birthplace of Speed, a three-day antique auto festival. During spring break he waded through a quarter-million people thronged along the city’s main street and interviewed college students from around the nation. “I call it the sidewalk commando cam,” he says.
He does the same during Bike Week — Daytona Beach claims to be home to the largest motorcycle gathering in the world — and Black College Reunion week each spring. In June, he covered the Great Race, an annual race of classic cars that began in Michigan and wound more than 4,000 miles through 15 states, ending in Daytona Beach. Raven was at the finish line, interviewed the winners, and broadcast it on the Web. In mid-July, he gave viewers a tour of the city’s Florida International Festival. In October he’ll be covering Biketoberfest.
He also covers space shuttle launches, power boat races, fishing and beach activities, performances of live rock bands and more.
“I’m out there interviewing people just like the local Channel 7 news, only I can bring people more complete coverage, and my signal travels a lot farther,” Raven says. “Some days it’s almost like being a documentary filmmaker. You’re showing things to people who can’t be here, and that’s a community service.”
The town fathers weren’t always sure about Raven’s intentions. At first they thought he might be connected with Girlsgonewild, a renegade group of video voyeurs who descend on spring break destinations and ask young women to remove their bras or swimsuit tops. The group does a brisk video business.
Raven’s not into that scene. “Everything I shoot is family-oriented — basically, all G or PG rated.” In the past year, he has become such a local fixture that the Ormond Beach Chamber of Commerce (just north of Daytona Beach) added him to its mailing list for media outlets. Local PR people make sure he’s in the loop whenever they promote an event.
Daytonabeach-live is Webcast seven days a week, 24 hours a day, barring a technological hiccup. Raven estimates that 40 percent of the programming airs live; the remainder is rebroadcast from earlier tapings. When Raven heads off for his night job, he plops an old-fashioned videotape into the VCR and streams it onto the Web.
How does he pull all this off? On the cheap. Raven and a part-time computer technician, who volunteers his time, run a small production studio out of Raven’s home. Raven uses a Hi8 analog Sony Handycam, which he bought for $200, and hooks it into some used computers.
Typically, a Webcaster pays hundreds of dollars for server costs and a high-bandwidth T1 line. But all Raven has to do is point his camcorder and flip a switch, which sends his signal to an Internet service provider in Utah. The ISP handles the technical heavy lifting, hosting his Webcast on their servers and splitting his feed into 1,500 simultaneous streams. The cost? A grand total of $17 a month.
“None of this is Hollywood quality,” he admits, “but it’s all original programming.”
(For more on citizen reporters and the recent increase in participatory journalism, see this sidebar.)
Despite the low costs, the Webcast has been less than lucrative. “I’ve done this basically free for the past five years,” he says. But in July, he nailed down two paying sponsorships for live local music acts that he helps to produce and Webcast.
He has begun to approach sponsors to see if he can wrangle enough money to let him quit his night job. Already, he has obtained two rooms on the top floor of a beachfront motel — worth $1,400 a month — in exchange for mentioning the motel on the Webcast. Those quarters have become the studio of a sister station Raven recently launched, GalaxyUniverseTV. The studio features second-hand computers, stereos, a few worn couches and a tripod on an outside balcony overlooking the beach.
A headline news box on GalaxyUniverseTV’s main page offers links to ABCnews.com, MSNBC.com and other news sites. Users can check Daytona Beach weather and jump to live or taped Webcast footage. The site is getting 2,000 to 3,000 visitors a day and, like Daytonabeach-live, gets a fair number of international viewers. Both stations are among the 3,000 live and archived television and radio feeds from around the world listed on Internet portal wwiTV and its North American affiliate, TV4all.
Raven, a Michigan native, began his personal broadcasting odyssey in the late 1990s in Albuquerque, N.M., when he launched Route66live.com, the city’s first Internet-only radio station. Two years ago, he gave up radio Webcasting — which now requires small broadcasters to pay fees to music publishers — and moved his family to Daytona Beach, fertile territory for a video Webcast.
He hopes to do more hard news in the coming year. One idea involves examining a recent rash of pickpockets who prey on tourists. Raven wants to set up a sting operation, placing “a mark” on the beach and capturing the theft of a wallet with a hidden camera.
“I don’t claim to be Dan Rather,” he says, “but I’m free to cover whatever I want. I don’t have to get permission from the head office to run something. I think a lot of what we see in the media is compromised. I just wish I had more resources. Then I’d be unstoppable.”
Video blogging takes root
Like Raven, Lisa Rein of San Francisco has become her own one-woman news crew — and she expects plenty of company in the years ahead.
During the peace demonstrations in February, Rein took to the streets of San Francisco and Oakland, camcorder in hand, and shot footage of the marchers and speakers, including Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), singer Harry Belafonte and antiwar activist Ron Kovic. She posted the video on her Weblog, complete with color commentary, providing much deeper (if more subjective) coverage of the events than a viewer would get by watching the local news.
“At one point, the press started covering the protests as an annoyance, a traffic jam problem,” Rein says. “Videotaping the early marches helped spread the word that there were a lot of people who had reservations about our intentions in Iraq.”
In recent months, I spotted Rein at three different conferences. At South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, she videotaped the keynote presentation by Lawrence Lessig. At the Internet Law Conference at Stanford, she interviewed one of the key speakers. Rein also taped highlights of a digital rights conference in Berkeley. She has posted countless hours of video on her Weblog, along with her analysis of events.
“There are just so many interesting things happening in our lives that would make great programming,” she says. “The networks aren’t interested unless it will attract millions of dollars in advertising revenues. Meanwhile, there are people and events all around us that are meaningful and that people would love to watch.”
Rein, 34, also borrows network news segments and public affairs programming for retransmission on her blog. She recently recorded Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s appearance on “Meet the Press.” She has become so prolific that staffers for presidential candidate Howard Dean notify her when Dean appears on C-SPAN so that she can give the appearance wider currency. She now uploads video to her blog several times a day and says such borrowing is permitted under fair use.
“When NBC News said it would air a story on bloggers, I got e-mails from bloggers saying, ‘Hey, grab it and put it up.’ Not everyone can watch the news, and not everyone gets cable. My main goal is to capture news as its leaps along the airwaves from reputable sources and archive it on the Web for people to access as needed.”
A teacher at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-founder of the copyright-licensing center Creative Commons, Rein has a background in technology and freelance writing, laced with an avid interest in public affairs. But she says the tools have become so easy to master that anyone can do it with a little practice.
She captures footage on TiVo — this can also be accomplished with almost any VCR or other home-taping device — and transfers the footage first to her DV camcorder and then via firewire to her Mac computer.
“I’m trying to show other people how easy it is to create programming and set up your own TV station on the Web — without help from anyone in big media,” she says. “Even if there isn’t a business model, it’s still important to do. Media should not just belong to the few.”
Others are also getting in on the action. Jeff Jarvis, a veteran journalist who is president of Advance.net, has published a series of video commentaries on his Weblog. At OregonLive.com, a college student created an online video report from the state cheerleading championships. Members of the Independent Media Center create Web video for their alternative news articles.
The Center for Digital Storytelling is turning out thousands of workshop graduates skilled in the art of personal filmmaking. And Steve Mann, a researcher at the Humanistic Intelligence Lab at the University of Toronto, has outfitted students with Webcams on the theory that being an eyewitness to live events qualifies as journalism.
Down the road, the programmers at the Gnu open-software project hope to transform millions of our personal computers into potential personal broadcast receivers and transmitters, using software to turn PCs into radios and digital televisions.
It all adds up to a personal video revolution coming into focus.
Rein sees the day when tens of thousands of Web users have their own Internet TV shows. But for now, she has a more modest goal. Two cable channels, in California and the Midwest, have offered her a slot on public access TV if she can finish three complete shows culled from her raw clips.
“To get your message out to the masses,” she says, “it still has to go out over the box and hit them in their living rooms.”