With a little planning and practice, getting set up to go live can be a rewarding experience for journalists and journalism students who want to tell video stories on the go.
Apps like Meerkat and Periscope largely have been used to broadcast events like rallies, speeches or concerts. But there are ways to bring the immediacy of live streaming to other non-breaking news events such as interviews.
At the student journalism lab New Mexico News Port, we recently decided to try to live stream a tv-talk-show-style interview from campus. We spent about a month planning for the show.
First, we considered a show that would feature our guests being interviewed as they walked through campus while live on air. That idea didn’t last very long, given our windy weather, boisterous middle-of-the-city location and bright Southwestern sun. (Think bad, noisy audio and squinting guests — not to mention trying to figure out how not to trip over each other as one of us walked backwards with the camera). So we settled on a studio in our Communication and Journalism building, although the set up we came up with could be used in a variety of locations.
Early on, we considered using the Blab app as our platform. But it seemed more suitable for people in various locations and too much like a Google Hangout for the style of show we were hoping to achieve.
In the end, we chose Periscope, in part because we would have our audience all in one place, and getting followers on Blab seemed like a lot of work.
Our goal was to use mobile equipment — in our case the oldish iPad mini we already had — and to try to get the quality of the broadcast to be as high as possible.
We produced our show in mid-February and plan to produce three more this semester. The students were excited to experiment with a new way to reach our audience through Twitter followers and Periscope users, and to see themselves in a broadcast that they now have the expertise to set up and run.
Here’s a look at what we learned along with the pros and cons of the equipment we used.
Pros of using Periscope on an iPad mini
Going live is the selling point when it comes to using a mobile setup. The fact that Periscope and an iPad can stream live to Twitter (no satellite truck or website required) make up for the fact that the image and audio quality aren’t yet on par with more traditional broadcast equipment.
The beauty of the mobile setup is its price. For this project, we spent about $115 on a microphone and its cable. We used lights that are built into our studio, but you could do a cheap lighting setup or use natural light and reflectors, depending on the situation. We had an iPad mini 2 ($270 or so when they were new) and a $13 case that mounts the iPad on a tripod. The Periscope app — which is tightly connected to Twitter — is free.
The student who ran the camera for the show had been introduced to the iPad and Periscope just days before. With simple explanations of iOS and Periscope, he did fine.
Many students and journalists have smartphones and tablets in their purses and backpacks. Adding a tripod and a case increases a journalist’s load slightly, but is not as cumbersome as large video cameras or even DSLRs.
Students hanging around our news lab were curious what we were doing with the iPad on the tripod. We also found that the small and familiar nature of an iPhone or iPad wasn’t overly intimidating to show guests because the equipment is so commonplace.
On-board audio quality is low
Many of us have watched Periscope broadcasts where it’s hard to hear/understand what’s happening. But for less than $100, you can get an external mic for your iPhone or iPad. I recommend getting one like the Mikey.
I have played with low-end external mics for the iPad mini and haven’t been impressed. The Mikey did well during our tests and our show. It has three settings, a simple interface and can be set on or taped to a table. We also experimented with taping it to a boom hooked on to a light stand, which was O.K. except that in order to get it close enough to all our guests, it showed up in the frame. For this particular setup with four people on camera, it just didn’t work. If you had the ability to hold the boom just out of the frame, it could work.
If you go with an external mic, be sure to get a six-foot cord that’s going to allow you to put your mic close to the person speaking.
Video quality not super
We tested our studio lighting setup extensively with the stock iPad photo/video app. Because of the ability to control for focus and exposure, we had our video looking sharp and well lit. That wasn’t the case when we went into Periscope to test the live stream. The auto-focusing and exposure were thrown off by the studio lighting against a black backdrop and the quality was terrible.
This quality issue was the only thing that caused me to panic ahead of the show. In the end, we used studio lights (dialed down a bit from our tests to provide less contrast) together with the overhead lights. This boosted the image quality and helped the camera with its focusing and exposure, so avoid low-light situations.
Battery life is a concern during live broadcasts
Knowing that live streaming video eats batteries, I made sure to leave home the day of the show with the wall charger for the iPad, and I had already set aside an extension cord in the studio so that the iPad could run on AC power. I even had a backup portable battery charger, just in case.
My plan was foiled when I remembered that the Mikey uses the same (and only) lightning connection on the iPad. I was forced to chose between good audio and a shorter show. I chose the good audio. And because our live show turned out to be less than 20 minutes, our battery life was fine. But streaming anything longer could prove problematic.
Inability to add graphics
Periscope lacks the ability to add graphics or titles as is done in a more traditional broadcast setup. We thought about name tags or signs for our guests, but in the end we decided if the show went long, that we would pause and just reintroduce them. The ability to add names to the screen was one thing we liked about the Blab app.
Periscope is really set up for a hand-held, one camera situation. In our case, we crammed our two guests and two interviewers into one frame and made it work. For this type of broadcast, it would have been more ideal to run a switcher between two or more cameras, but I’m not aware of a setup for that using an iPad. I would love to know if anyone has found a workaround for this. (Hint, hint, Periscope.)