By Robin Lundberg
NEW YORK — There are a lot of reasons we speak into the microphone or stand in front of the camera, but there is one thing that all of us in talk have in common (besides a large ego and a need to be heard). It’s the thing we build into our contracts. We lobby for it in editorial and production meetings. It is what we expect when our name is part of the title of the show.
It turns out that the nature of on-air control for television and new media is quickly evolving and the result is a dream come true for hosts.
I got my first look at these changes while developing my online TV show “Stick to Sports” with Talk Center America. The show is a first-of-its-kind sports talker that features live video calls with passionate sports fans from across the country and beyond. Built around production techniques and technologies developed by the team at the Video Call Center, it’s a showpiece for a radical shift in host-based production control and an overall exhilarating experience.
Production control can refer to a lot of things: the topics, direction and flow, and the timing of when to bring a new person to air, whether it’s a VIP guest or an audience member. Of course, my highest priority is to be entertaining and engaging. Sports, as well as politics and other topics, features quite a bit of audience participation. The trick is finding a balance that gives the fans a voice while maintaining the show’s proper pace and identity.
That’s where the production platform comes in. It dramatically changes how I interact with my audience and lets me host in a manner that has literally never before been seen. The video production platform lets callers, and I mean multiple, simultaneous video callers, join the show. They can call in by video chat using Skype, FaceTime, or really whatever app they have handy on their smartphone, tablet or PC. They can even just reach me through a web browser using WebRTC.
Having video callers on air knocks down the wall between me and my audience. The experience is a blast for everyone. Just check out this first time caller http://www.thevcc.tv/caller-reaction/. What’s amazing is that I feel the same way, every show. I’ve had the good fortune to be on some of the biggest sports networks and “Stick-to-Sports” is like no hosting experience I’ve had before.
Putting a couple of people on air via Skype or FaceTime is not new, but the VCC platform is the first time I’ve seen it done reliably with many callers in each show. I’ve never lost a caller, and that’s with multiple people and high quality. The folks at the VCC tell me they have placed more than 5,000 callers on air during the nearly 500 programs they’ve produced. Best of all, I am in total control of what is on air and we do it without the need for a traditional video control room. The ability for me as the host to manage multiple callers on air is a game-changer. Viewers get the conversational interplay of TV shows that feature multiple guests (think “Around the Horn”), the audience engagement expected from Internet comments and talk radio, and at the center of it all is me, orchestrating the whole thing.
When I’m on camera, the VCC gives me a control panel and a heads-up display that allows me to play the role of host, co-producer, and director all at the same time. Without ever breaking eye contact with the camera, I can bring callers in and out of air, pop on graphics or videos, even flash up web content. If LaVar Ball tweets something while I’m on air, my producer puts a screen grab in my queue and I can weave it into the show to immediately spark conversation. No one has ever made TV this way, having this much capability without needing an entire control room with a huge investment in equipment and personnel.
The result is a lean, cost-effective approach that maintains high production quality. We don’t need a full camera crew or production staff. For “Stick to Sports” it’s really just me, a producer and some great call screeners who make sure that callers have a decent Internet connection, are reasonably well lit, have something on their minds, and are generally presentable.
Things are different when I get to see audience members react and can read their facial expressions. Body language and non-verbal communication are completely absent from radio. Even TV shows that include callers rarely show the speaker as anything but a still photo. With video calling I get all of that elaborate human expression, resulting in a rich and more modern experience.
Video callers can use props or dress their part. We’ve had callers appear dressed in full hockey gear promoting their favorite teams, or with banners or holding up signs to diss their counterparts. I even had one caller show up in attire meant for a battle in “Game of Thrones.” They can present themselves as they want the world to see them.
What this means is that callers are invested in their presentation in the show in ways that a caller stuck in rush hour traffic in his car has never been able to offer. They are on “TV” and they love it. The finished product brings the pacing and dynamic host-audience interplay familiar to sports radio to live television. It’s an ideal combination of engagement and participation that really works for young, socially engaged audiences. They get to make their point and see themselves doing so.
Over time, the format has yielded repeat callers who have become part of my cast of characters. I relish the opportunity to interact with my audience on such a personal level. As I say all the time, no show could exist without them.
Robin Lundberg is an American sports broadcaster who came to fame at ESPN Radio. He currently co-hosts Sports Illustrated’s “SI Now Live” and his own “Stick to Sports” programs. He can be emailed at email@example.com.