Sunday, November 30, 2008


Dear readers,

If you ever buy a "sungun," a little nightlight for your camera, be certain to only use the AC adapter provided with the light, especially if it's a 10v or 60w light. Here's a cautionary tale for you:
I bought my little 10v at B&H photo and somewhere along the line I lost the AC adapter it came with. On a subsequent trip to the shop, the guys told me it was okay to use any AC adapter to charge the battery, as long as I didn't turn on the light. That, I was warned, would blow the bulb out.
So, in a comfortable frame of mind, I plugged your standard ac adapter into the battery pack for the nightlight and left it on my desk to charge while I was making dinner. A few minutes later, I heard a little pop followed by a little BOOM.
I returned to my desk to find it covered in black powder, and the remains of the battery pack. I spent the next two hours removing the powder and all of its contents from my computer, my desk, papers, and floor.
There's an old African proverb that says "Through mistakes, one becomes wise." If so, I'm on my way to Mensa.
But at least I wasn't in the room when it happened. If so, I'd probably have my eyes in bandages rather than having the opportunity to write to you wonderful people here.
Good night and good luck until we meet again.


and I'm half-satisfied.  I was able to take care of the first minute of my slideshow and trim down the fat.  i tried at first working the sound as the backbone and then adding picture, but the pictures were moving too quickly.  So, I let it run silent while I laid down the photos and then just watched, thinking about where to put the sound.  It worked far better, and it made much better visual sense than what I had before.
I'm having some kind of issues with the decks in the 24-hour media lab on campus, so I'm going to return tomorrow to my old friends at 35 Washington Place, the guys who taught me ProTools.
It's almost scary how quickly I felt I had forgotten the little ins and outs of Final Cut, but they came back within a few minutes of work.  It's kind of the same way with ice skating or dancing: you've learned the moves before, but it takes a couple of numbers before I'm in the groove.
This third piece's topic has daunted me, but I think it's really about the shift of the folk scene from Manhattan towards Brooklyn, and the impact that's having.  I was originally having it just be a survey of venues which could be nice in its own way, but is more of a tour guide than a story.
At least the footage I collected from Joe's Pub can be useful on its own as a separate clip, and I've gotten to see the insides of some great clubs as a result.
Tomorrow, the Cornelia Street Cafe and back to Sidewalk to film their open mic night...

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

THE PROBLEM WITH LOOKING FOR AN "AMERICANA SCENE" that there may be no such thing as an Americana scene. After hearing Carolann talk about Americana music in the first video, I began thinking about that as the beat. I thought I could look at folk, bluegrass and singer-songwriter musicians within an overarching label of Americana. However, I'm not so sure the musicians would unite themselves under such a label. The guy at Banjo Jim's playing mandolin might not consider himself on the same scene as the guy playing folk rock at Sidewalk Cafe. To try to do a piece about those pubs and how business is going as if there was a connection may be stretching things too far.

When I interviewed Shanta Thake, the director of Joe's Pub, she suggested that these genres operate in separate worlds. Folk music is by definition music of the people, she said: in New York City with the wide mix of people we have here, folk is wide open in terms of the musical influences on it and different strains. It may not be as uniform as it once was in the 60s.

For example, I looked at a local indie NYC music magazine called "The Deli" and found a wide assortment of genres that would fit under this so-called Americana label: bluegrass, Old Time bluegrass, folk, folk rock, indie, lo-fi, and even something called "shoegaze country." While I can talk about the artists' struggles, it seems rather odd to talk about the clubs' businesses in sequence given the variety of music. Maybe I'm being too hard on myself...

I covered the Williamsburg Live Singer-Songwriter Competition for my photo slideshow, and I suppose in covering a "scene" for this third piece, it could be the singer-songwriter scene, which has elements of folk, bluegrass and country. I can try to see how the environment is for that type of music: all the clubs I've filmed at so far invite such kinds of music.

The plan for now: log my footage from Sidewalk and Joe's Pub, interview Valerie Ghent and Robin Hersch at Cornelia Street Cafe, and see if I can get Banjo Jim's over the weekend. Meanwhile, take my photos and audio and my script and edit my slideshow from the Williamsburg competition. I'm psyched! I hope you are too.

WHAT'S THE BIG IDEA? is a new site successfully bringing together high-profile thinkers and everyday users of the Internet. Through videotaped interviews, famous subjects discuss burning questions in every field from news and pop culture to science and religion. Then visitors are invited to log on, post their own videos and text and join message boards, creating an ongoing dialogue on the issues. Their efforts have paid off, with hundreds of thousands of visitors per month and first-rate guests.

Big Think's guests have ranged from John McCain and Bill Richardson to Moby and master chef Jacques Pepin. Their interviews are unique in that the interviewer is absent from the finished video: he or she sits in a separate room during filming, visible to the interviewee only by a screen directly in line with the camera lens. So, guests appears to speak directly to the camera, and with the interviewer neither seen nor heard, the interviews feel like webcam videos. Through this interview method, BigThink's founders hope to give visitors a feeling of intimate connection to their guests.

Former television producers Victoria Brown and Peter Hopkins founded BigThink in Chelsea, and their initial site launched this January. A second updated site opened in the fall.

With a staff of only five, BigThink's managed to become a successful and provocative new player in interactive news media. They've done over 200 interviews and recruited more than 500 experts who chime in via webcam on different topics.

I spoke to co-founder Victoria Brown about how she and Hopkins started the business and on their visions for the future. Both co-founders were producers for the PBS program Charlie Rose before starting BigThink in 2007.

Brown:We went for venture capital but we had difficulty raising money initially, because venture capitalists typically invest in companies where they can forecast explosive growth, usually in technology, not television or film or media content. When venture capitalists invest in media, it’s seen as a media play, a foray into the field, kind of gambling.

We raised our initial funds from a few individuals. Larry Summers, the former Secretary of the Treasury, he was one of the first investors. Peter Thiel, who was the first investor in Facebook- he founded PayPal, and runs a hedge fund...and then our lead investor, a South African classmate of mine from business school, David Frankel. He was voted South Africa's Technology Achiever of the Century. David founded the largest Internet service provider in all of Africa. He's been the most involved of any of the investors in guiding us.

There was of course the question of how we two people were going to get all these people for interviews. There we were saying, “Imagine a website with leading intellectuals from all different pursuits, a website where people will come and participate…” And the venture capitalists couldn’t get beyond how we would get the interviews. Then of course we were building a website which we’d never done before, managing the content and the editing, which is a full-time job in itself. And then managing the website once it’s built, and getting sponsors. How can the two of you do this here before us with a mock-up and nothing else?

Getting the first 5 interviews was really difficult, because people always want to know “Who’s done it before me?” Once we got those, it got a lot easier. We only promised for a launch of 20 interviews. We launched with about 250, because we were serious about it.

We now have around 500 experts that contribute to the site on various topics. We do between 5 and 15 interviews a week. Our hope is that some of our experts will log in and participate on their own via webcam, without even needing our involvement or coming into our studio.

What made you want to start your own business?

Before working in television, I was at business school. I always wanted to have my own sort of endeavor. I came from a very entrepreneurial family. Prior to television, I had worked in film, film finance and production. Wrote scripts on the creative side. I’ve worked in all three mediums now.

The Internet was always clearly where I was headed. I learned a lot from Charlie Rose, but I wanted to be in the Internet and so did Peter. We were both good business people and good at the content side, but we both had to learn the technology. The Internet landscape, the editorial process, how you get an audience to come back to your site. Things I didn’t know like SEO, search engine optimization. I had never even heard that term before 2008.

And the Internet landscape is constantly changing. We started with a site we’d built in April of 2007, and by the time it launched this January, we realized we needed to build a new one. The first was an ok starting point, but as soon as it launched, we got started on the next one.

The new one is an open source platform, much easier to build on. A good lesson if you’re starting a website is to build it in open source platform, because if you build it in closed source, then you’re 100 percent dependent on the people who built it for you to keep changing it. In open source, you have many more options. So there have been lessons in technology we would have not encountered if we had started a television show.

So describe the types of interviews on the site.

We really wanted a site for thinking people from every background. We didn’t want to be just a business site or an arts and culture site. We wanted people interested in many different subjects. That’s not to say that we haven’t found particular topics more popular, and we have to be cognizant of what our sponsors and advertisers are interested in. The most popular tend to also be the most requested by sponsors. Business content, science and medical content, health, education. We’ve been sponsored by the Templeton Foundation to do religious content as well.

The stuff that’s hard to get sponsored is politics and policy. Sponsors don’t want to get involved in things that may be controversial. They don’t want to be seen as potentially endorsing a political point of view. It’s one of the reasons political sites often have a hard time getting sponsors.

What other difficulties have you faced?

There’s always been the question of how we would grow our audience. Facebook can grow without its makers having to do anything. People come in by recommendation, and for each person that comes they bring somebody itself. Whereas with ours, it was based on content.

It seems like most sites that thrive these days are as much about networking and interactivity as they are about content.

We foolishly thought at first that if we created good content, people would come back to us every day. But it’s not a breaking news site, so why would they? If I’m a student, I might come to Big Think if I’m researching a topic, but will I come back after the paper is done? Probably not.

But if I go onto a site like Facebook and see someone interested in philosophy and death, we can start communicating on that topic and having an ongoing conversation. That does give a reason for people to come back. The first site did not have social networking in it, but the second site has started that: we’ve got a message board mechanism where people can post responses on various topics.

What’s the audience like?

It's changing. It started being affluent people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, affluent and engaged. Now that we put transcripts up online –and this has been our hope – a lot of students are coming. If they’re doing an essay, they can use our transcripts and learn on a specific subject area. We’re trying to make our site known to universities, to get more students interested.

On our site, we get about 180,000 visitors per month and about 400,000 page views. We have a high bounce rate though which means people may come only once a month. We need to find ways to make people come back more frequently. Since all of our content is embeddable, we get 6 to 9 million views per month of our content off of the site. We have partnerships with a lot of other media groups, so you’ll see our content on the Washington Post, other blogs, and YouTube.

So what other lessons have you learned in making the site?

A: Well, we were initially successful in making money, unlike many web start-ups which don’t make money for the first couple of years. Because we only raised a little bit of money at first, we were forced to start making money early and test our business model. And our business model worked.

So we started fundraising again in May and naively thought that people would be rapping down our door to come and invest, but no! Because venture capitalists may care that your business model works, but what they really care about is the potential for explosive growth. I think they’re changing their tune now, not just because of the economy, but because they’re realizing that though a company may grow and have tons of users, if it’s not making money, it’s not a business.

Ours actually is proving to be a viable business, as well as something that can grow. I’m glad now that we didn’t raise too much money at the beginning, because it forced us to grow, to go out and make the business work. Imagine if we had raised millions of dollars and realized two years from now that this didn’t work. We were fortunate actually that we had to work hard initially on the business side.

Monday, November 10, 2008


Ah, the thrill of victory, and the agony of the feet! Specifically my feet, as I've been traipsing back and forth across town today...but I managed to finish my podcast! Check out for my piece on local singer-songwriter Matt Jones.
From now on, this should be far easier, and I'm starting to actually like Pro Tools. Matt and Dean were right: there's a precision to it that I enjoy, and I created something I can be proud of. Since my subject is folk music, I suppose some stories will do better on radio than video. Showcasing Matt Jones and his music on a podcast makes me pay far more attention to his lyrics and his thoughts.
It was a great exercise, and now that I know my way around this stuff, I'd totally be willing to do it again. Just give me a day or two to recover. Now onto photo slideshows and video #3!

Friday, November 7, 2008

If ears could get blurry

I think Pablo Neruda put it best:
"I could write the saddest verses tonight..."
Pro Tools is working, and I'm putting together the interview portion of the podcast, 
but God this is tough.  I really came in with an advantage in the video portion of this,
but editing these radio clips, especially on Pro Tools, is a whole new feat.  I expect though
that it's like riding a bicycle, and I started off without training wheels: my voiceover, a music track, and interview footage.  So, if I can get this right, which I'm close to doing, the rest will
be fine.
I had a great interview this morning with a multimedia entrepreneur for class, Victoria Brown over at  Interesting conversation on how to market and build a website in Think's wide-open ideas genre.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


Well, compared to the two videos, this podcast has been incredibly difficult. Not just because of the content, but because of the software's learning curve. I've had problems with the tracks not emitting sound, with the Mbox putting out static, every trouble you can imagine, but the truth is I should have been done by now. Other priorities like my applications for jobs have gotten in the way.
Unfortunately, I don't think I'll be able to get to this really until Friday, and then I want to be done with it. I've got music and voiceover laid down, and I've got the soundbites I want logged and captured.
Meanwhile, I haven't taken much time to think about "Folk People" this week: the election and other business overcrowded thoughts of that. I managed to make a few calls over the weekend regarding A&R reps but so far I haven't gotten any response. I'll need to keep digging this weekend.
In general, things are fine. I'm really happy about the election and the footage that I got from it: now I just have to figure out a place to distribute it!