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Interview with Andrew Baron from Rocketboom

rocketboomIf you're not familiar with Rocketboom, but you caught the video of the most recent Stevenote, where Jobs unveiled Front Row and the new video-capable iPod, then you most likely noticed that Rocketboom was one of the two videoblogs appearing in the Front Row presentation. What is Rocketboom? Well, according to the Rocketboom about page, it's " a three minute daily videoblog based in New York City. We cover and create a wide range of information and commentary from top news stories to quirky internet culture. Agenda includes releasing each new clip at 9am EST, Monday through Friday. With a heavy emphasis on international arts, technology and weblog drama, Rocketboom is presented via online video and widely distributed through RSS."

Andrew Baron, the man behind Rocketboom, was kind enough to sit down last night and participate in an interview with me over iChat. In the interview, Andrew discusses the process he goes through with Amanda Congdon to produce the daily 3-minute videoblog, the Macs he uses to facilitate the process, tips for any would-be videobloggers out there, and what he thinks about Apple's recent foray into both the podcasting and video content business with the introduction of the new video-capable iPod. Check it out.

INTERVIEW:
C.K.: So, for any of our readers who may not know about Rocketboom, tell us about it. How'd you first start doing Rocketboom and where'd you get the idea?
Andrew: I basically just saved up a bunch of money, put out a call for a blogger/actress and just did it. I had the idea in the elections of 2004 when I was blogging for John Edwards. I decided to take his DVD and put it up online to help get his message out. Suddenly people were saying that it was easy for them to watch the videos. In other words, no one was complaining anymore by saying that they didn't have the plugins or that it was too slow. So then, I realized the time for video was now. I figured that the weblog medium, which was heavily text based, would eventually evolve to a presentation style that was video heavy. So that's what I set out to do in the spring of 2004 and it took me until October to get it all together and launch it.
Read more after the jump...
INTERVIEW (continued):
C.K.: Congratulations on passing the one year mark by the way.
Andrew: Thanks!! 'Crazy how fast that went!
C.K.: I checked out the CBS article and video piece on you going into this [link] and I noticed you were using a Mac and iMovie for the filming/editing of the shows. Is that still your setup and what gear are you using most?
Andrew: Yes, I have never been into one computer or another, and have actually used both [platforms] thoughout my life, but doing video has forced me into Apple. Not unwillingly, it's just that it really has won out for the easiest and quickest way to streamline my process.
C.K.: Can you give us a quick breakdown of that process?
Andrew: After writing the script, we enter into the "studio" which consits of a camera, a laptop and two lights (we should have 3). Then as we record a typical episode, I have my minDV camera hooked up via firewire to the mac and while I am capturing to tape, I also simultaneously capture to iMovie (the tape then becomes a back up and archive for high quality source material) but I eliminate the added step of capturing later. Also, while we are shooting, I can begin editing in iMovie inbetween takes. Then, upon editing, it's just a matter of compressing and uploading.
C.K.: And what type Mac do you have? Powerbook or iBook?
Andrew: I use an older model Powerbook G4. I think its only about 900 and something MHZ. I also just recently got a G5 dual processor, but could only afford the bottom end 2Ghz one. I have been obviously drooling over the new quad machines.
C.K.: What was your first Mac?
Andrew: I had one of the first Macs, but I can't remember because it was around the time puberty set in. I had spent most of my glory days sitting around on an Apple ][e and before that, learned basic on a TI994a, like the one in Rocketboom. With the Apple ][e though, I was running a BBS on a spare phone line and doing ascii express file transfers at 110-baud. I went to swap meets and traded for Incofom floppies.
C.K.: Nice. So how long does it take on the backend to produce a 3 minute long show daily?
Andrew: If you only count production of the show, and not maintenance, human correspondence, development, etc. it takes us anywhere from about 8-14hrs per day.
C.K.: Wow! that's a long work day.
Andrew: Total hrs. between two people. Sometimes the hours are shared. Add all the other stuff and it takes two people about 35 hours per day each.
C.K.: When I grabbed my new video-capable iPod, one of the first places I looked when trying to wrap my brain around how to best compress for it was your site. You have a nice breakdown [link] that seems to revolve around 3ivx and QuickTime. How much tinkering did it take to find the sweet-spot of video encoding...or do you think you are still searching for it from time to time?
Andrew: Every time you deal with a new codec, I think you start to get to know it, kind of like a musical instrument. I can really tune 3ivx files and I have found that they really do look nice for the file size value, if you use the right parameters. Just as I have ended up with Apple, I have ended up with 3ivx for exactly the same reason: it just seems like the best. H264 is also coming into play here, but 3ivx is completey compatable with MPEG4, if you compress it right. Also, I think we dare up the ante in consideration of a more pervasive broadband. We serve a much larger file size than people are used to dealing with. That's one reason why I really like QuickTime: The fast start allows you to deliver larger file sizes. I would make even larger files now if we could afford it, because they would work, speed-wise for a lot of people.
C.K.: It sounds like you are geared more to delivering the video via the site (ie, fast start considerations); but I've noticed that you are quick to come out with formats that are very compatible with new portable devices, like the PSP and the new iPod. How much of an impact do you think the podcast and video podcast RSS delivery is having on the delivery of the show and your audience?
Andrew: Yes, I always wanted just one format, but there is just no use. Our main objective is to let the video flow and its easy enough to generate any variety of file types. Whatever people want. We have blue ones and red ones. I think RSS with enclosure delivery has been extremely helpful. I was already on to doing exactly what we were doing before I ever heard of that, but my friend Josh Kinberg had been in touch with Adam Curry way back when (I remember thinking nostalgically when hearing about Curry and MTV) because Josh wanted to do the same thing for video, and actually made a little apple script. So by the time Rocketboom launched, we included the enclosure feature and I even tried to create a standard for multiple enclosures (no one was listening to me then) but it was all of these different file formats that called for it. Yet when we launched we had multiple feeds. Anyway, I think it's strange but there really has not been much at all coming down the pipes. Most videobloggers are personal diary oriented or esoteric fine artists, which does not really equate with a regular audience, though RSS works really well for all of the videobloggers to keep in touch. Also, the biggest advantage of course with RSS enclosures is delivering large file sizes in the middle of the night (when the audinece member is away from the desk) so that when they arive, the file is local. This opens up the barrierrs for emerging countries that have low band, but a desire to have the media.
C.K.: Have you seen a shift in your audience since the Stevenote and the mention of Rocketboom during the Front Row and video-capable iPod presentation?
Andrew: Yes, a little bit. It has added a lot of audience that comes in and has to learn all over what we have been learning ourselves for the last year. So I think people are having a hard time understanding what [Rocketboom] is and when at first glance it looks too raw, I think it's because they are used to story telling via production standards.... A lot of trolls.
C.K.: Ah, trolls ... the best indicator that you've "made it" on the Internet.
Andrew: We delete comments everyday. Most of the ones we delete are sexually oriented (we always try to stay away from being provocative in that direction - we just really don't appreciate it when people can't control themselves) and also we are not trying to be objective. We have political opinions and personal opinions that often get people all worked up. While arguments are great, some people get off topic and just blab about unrelated problems they are having with the production. Actually, we have pretty much heard it all, but I will say that it's the audience and their comments that is absolutely amongst the most important things to us, and for better or for worse, we play into the- we take their advice. We all work this out togther I feel. That has happened since the beginning.
C.K.: Yeah, it's amazing how one positive reader/viewer comment makes it all worth it and helps strengthen the process.
Andrew: Totally. I often try to remind myself that I shouldn't let a single comment get me down when its just one of thousands and thousands.
C.K.: Earlier you mentioned RSS being a means for the video blogging community to easily stay in touch with one another; do you think that Apple's sudden adoption of podcasting in iTunes and their most recent changes are helping or hurting that videoblogging community? Or do you think the sudden mainstream click and subscribe of iTunes is just a drop in an already highly-populated pond of podcast savvy programs?
Andrew: Well, I don't think anything can hurt the videoblogging community. It's pretty much invincible by nature. It definately will call more attention to videoblogging, but it's kinda strange how the terminology can affect so much. For instance, videoblogging, in my mind, is an extension of blogging; blogging with video (e.g. we talk about blogs and give commentary on the bits of internet data that we find around - we have comments, permalink, chronological organization, serial publishing, etc.). Even though we use RSS though, podcasting, for instance, is coming from a different angle. Podcasting is like an evolution of radio, more than blogging. Radio has had a format that has been "show" oriented. Blogging has been "behind the scenes". So "video podcasting" is different, kinda, than "video blogging" and that's different than "IPTV", and the terms go on and on, Video on Demand, Internet Video, whatever, based on format mostly.
C.K.: Yes, as has television, and that's now what videocasting is becoming in opposition or alongside video blogging?
Andrew: Yea, so there is a lot of crossover as well. I think Rocketboom, for instance crosses into videoblogging and video podcasting.
C.K.: Yes, and Rocketboom as a video blog sort of pokes fun at a TV standard: the newscast.
Andrew: This gets to the reason why most videobloggers, I would argue (the personal diary ones) don't understand the weblog medium very well. They asume it's all personal or "down to earth" or something. The blogs I read have very intense, high-level information from experts that parallels the best in field, and it's this very important, very precisely thought out threads of information that I appreciate in weblogs and find reliable and trustworth enough to rely on. This is a kind of mentality that we strive for (and have a long way to go). But I think we very much adopt the weblog format. I know I get all of my inspiration from weblogs.
C.K.: So there's more of a journaling vibe in the video blogging format?
Andrew: I think it's two fold: diary videoblogging makes up most of the long-tail and video blogging for other people is the rest.
C.K.: Shifting gears slightly: Do you have one of the new video-capable iPods? Do you want to get one? And what do you think this *thing* is going to do for video blogging?
Andrew: I WISH I HAD ONE!!! I still havent even seen one yet! But I think it will be so awesome. Apple has done the world a big favor by replacing their old iPods with all video iPods: they are forcing people to have video which will make them open their eyes to a lot of content that they have never seen before from all around the world (helping to break down poor cultural relations ultimately) and also will inspire all kinds of people to generate content from diarists to citizen journalists to professional content creators. As for videoblooging, it's what videobloggers want: more people to spread more video online. But also, it just seems Apple is not really a company that focuses so much on this part of culture. They support it I assume by providing products, but it seems like iTunes is a marketplace and personal diaries don't really fit into that marketplace too well, so far. I don't know what it would take to generate a revenue for the videoblogger who is not catering to anything specific.
C.K.: Yeah, it seems like Apple provided the space for the podcasting, but then just kind of leaves it there without really doing much for it. Speaking of video bloggers: any personal favorites? And how do you get them? Do you visit the individual sites? Subscribe in iTunes? Or use some other program?
Andrew: I actually use Fireant [link], but mainly because I watch all kinds of videos, not just QuickTime videos. It handles a huge amount of formats and also includes hyperlinks like a blog post so it's easy to navigate around the videos (iTunes does not have hyperlinks in the post).
C.K.: Yeah, FireAnt is a cool tool we've mentioned before.
Andrew: Zadi [link; who also blogs for TUAW sibling blog, DVGuru] is one of my very favorites. I always though she was amazing right from the start just because of who she is; I can't really explain it. I love all of our correspondents of course! I really like the superman videoblog, Blue Tights [link]. I also like the Kong videoblog [link]. I like diggnation [link] too. Not sure if they call themselves a videoblog, I think its a video podcast.
C.K.: Is there anything in the online video space that you don't like? Any misuses of the medium that you've noticed?
Andrew: The typical web crap has hit, like spam sites and hotlinking sites, etc. Domain names have been bought up. I think I'll refrain from ragging on one individual site that I really, really don't like. But overall, I think the videoblogging world is so so awesome as most people want and encourage others to hop on board. It's more of the opensource, community aspect of web 2.0 we keep hearing about.
C.K.: Any advice for would be Mac-weilding videobloggers out there wanting to crank out content for their new iPods and the iTMS?
Andrew: Yes, very, very easy to get started technically. All you need is a video camera and a computer and an idea. As for the idea, again, unlike the random diaries that are just fine, I would like to see more people who are interested in a particular field use the medium to show off that expertise. For instance, if you are one of the Mac-weilding people mentioned above, what do you do for a living? Are you a musician? Create a videoblog telling us about gear, about method, about experience on the road, record deal problems, things along that thread. If you write software, let's see some interviews with people in your field; let's get some tips on how you do it. Just as blogging has helped us get a "real" or "personal" perspective on important information, videoblogging can do that too. The intention of keeping a thread is important to gain authority and build depth to your presentation. It will be good for people with that interest, because they will want to keep coming back because it will be related to them. Otherwise, like a personal diary, you may only like one post and not be interested in the rest. The other great thing is that, if you are revealing information of interest, no one will care if you can't get the production quality right or if you don't look like Tom Cruise or Katey Holmes: it's about the content.
C.K.: Any words of caution? Pitfalls in the technical or production areas?
Andrew: With blogging, and with personal diary videoblogging, its easy to post whatever you did. Otherwise, I would recommend getting into the process and creating several posts that you are happy with before going live with it. But I would say definitely just dive in, even without a theme or an idea, just to get the juices flowing and get the technical stuff down, because there is a lot to it, at the end of the day.
C.K.: Any advice on the technical side of things, assuming someone has all the content in line and ready to film?
Andrew: Yes, consider how the content fits in with this medium. You can't just take old news and throw it up online. Right now new formats are being created due to technology, interactivity, human desires, etc. It's different to sit at a computer, than on the couch. It's also different traveling around with it in your hand. But the most exciting thing for these people with content already is that it's so cheap and easy to get it up and out there, all you need is a college kid to handle the tech end. As for promotion and sales, pay-per, advertising, etc.
C.K.: Speaking of promotion and sales; how does Rocketboom make the money needed to stay afloat and is it prosperous?
Andrew: We are just working out all of this now. We decided from the start to not worry about it and wait until we were actually able to create a value before trying to extract a value. That time has past now as we have a nice market value (by all kinds of different standards) and our growing expenses are becoming quite a burden. The beauty of this all of course is that it can be done for so cheap. Aside from the minimal consumer equipment (laptop and camera) the only substantial cost besides salary (or lack thereof) is bandwidth. Yet bandwidth is so cheap and getting cheaper. The most obvious form of revenue, especially on a large scale, is through motion advertising. Also, Apple obviously created the pay-per video industry. Content creators can also enjoy revenue from licensing to various distribution platforms. It's really a global economy for all content. Subscription for extra content and high quality files is another route. We are working on all of these options simultaneously while building up our own network of websites.
C.K.: If you were Apple and your business model shifted where you really wanted to invest in promoting the video blogging community, how would you go about doing so?
Andrew: I guess I would begin by adding a category in iTunes. Just as they have allowed podcasters and videobloggers to submit their shows under a podcast section, it makes sense to me to have a video section. They kind of have one now, but I'm sure how you access it. When they launched with the video iPod, they presented a video section and included us and a dozen or so other sites. But that is gone now I think, and its back to podcasts. They could add a video category (unless they don't want to distinguish between audio and video podcasts (though I think there is a pretty big difference in the mediums)).
It's a two way street too though. Videobloggers outright reject the word "podcast" when applied to their videoblogs. It's also not apparent how anyone proposes to make money from all of the personal diaries which make up most of the videoblogging content. The human value of these diaries for the world is extremely great and certain in my mind, but the monetary return does not match up (the typical fine artist or teacher scenario). Apple has always been known for having a high quality standard. I don't think it's really their responsibility, or their business model to focus on this part of the world. Though if they did, which of course would be great, perhaps they could get some people to start their own official Apple videoblogs which might help bridge the gap between the videobloggers and Apple, very much like Robert Scoble is very helpful for Microsoft's outreach. Really though, a category on iTunes, even "video podcasting" would really be all it takes.
In the meantime, the videoblogging community, which has been great with tool-building and process creation needs to take more action in developing content.
C.K.: What new things would you like to see come from Apple in the future? (Quad Processor video stations in the size of the mini?)
Andrew: I don't really even know what to ask for except maybe lower prices on hardware. But I would like to see if Apple could somehow devise a plan to maintain their high quality standards, and also be more open as a company. It sucks to care about them and their products, but not ever get to know them or what's going on with them. The growing transparent reality that I find so valuable in the world is their enemy, it seems. I think it's a shame because their level of innovation in all areas of technology and business seems so profound that it's worth study right now, not later. If somehow they could manage their risk from information sharing while also sharing more information on how they do it, why they do it, and what they are going to do next, I think the world would improve by example. It seems like sometimes a more open standard can actually propagate more growth for your own company as well as the rest of the world.
C.K.: Any last comments for our readers?
Andrew: Easy schmeasy, get to it.
C.K.: Thanks, Andrew!


If you're not familiar with Rocketboom, but you caught the video of the most recent Stevenote, where Jobs unveiled Front Row and the new...