Extended snowstorm coverage means hours of carrying the ball on-air and a big focus on roads, power outages and safety. What’s shut down? How big are those drifts? Who’s stranded in life threatening conditions? When might they be rescued? (And in the recent mid-Atlantic region blizzard — what buildings have just collapsed under the weight of record-setting snow?)
This is where a One Man Band can blow away traditional competition with mobility, flexibility and creativity.
Forget about locked down traffic cameras. As a One Man Band, I’m talking about reporting live on-camera from behind the wheel while moving from one breaking news event to another. It’s compelling television and webstreaming content any way you cut it. (And yes, I’ll be commenting on the safety aspects of driving and reporting before I’m finished here.)
With the help of 2 laptops, wireless broadband access, Avid editing, Skype and live webstreaming I was not only reporting live on-camera while driving – but I could simultaneously feed the view from the dashboard of my car while navigating snow-covered interstates. Often, I could also toss to edited voice over video, or even a package, that I has just shot and fed to the station via the same laptops using FTP.
At the scene of one building collapse, I was able to feed video of an imploded historic church — and present the story live from the front of the building, while competitors were still struggling to get snowbound live trucks to the scene on nearly impassable city streets. Later I fed the mayor’s press conference live from a laptop placed on a plastic bag in the snow. By the end of the day, I could compile the information, video and sound I had collected into a clean package for later broadcasts.
I did all of this working completely alone. Many of my colleagues at WUSA are pushing breaking news boundaries in Washington D.C. in similar fashion.
We do this using a combination of hardware and webware including web cams, dv cams, audio filters, skype, livestream, cell phones and laptops.
By leveraging this technology and being flexible, self-directed and creative in reacting to events, WUSA covered more ground, more quickly and more thoroughly than our competition — with a sense of behind-the-wheel immediacy that others could not match.
Here is a typical behind the wheel scenario:
1) Laptop A is connected to a dash mounted web cam pointed at me in the driver’s seat. A microphone is also plugged into the laptop via an XLR to USB filter and adapter.
2) Laptop B is connected to a dash mounted web cam pointed out the window. No microphone is needed here.
Connecting and Getting on the Air:
Both laptops are capable of connecting to the internet from virtually anywhere there is 3-g cellular service via internal wireless broadband cards. This is a simple matter of opening the software and hitting the connect button.
1) Once connected, I use Skype, the popular video calling platform installed on laptop A, to call the TV station. The video call is punched up full screen at the station on a computer that is routed through the director’s board to take as an on-air source. I use this to report from the driver’s web cam and microphone.
2) Meanwhile, computer B is busy feeding video from the dashboard cam via another web-based platform called Livestream. Livestream recognizes encoded video routed from the webcam through Adobe Flash Media Live Encoder software. This can also be punched up full screen and routed to air.
3) I can now report live on-camera on computer A via skype, while from computer B the director can take the shot from the dashboard of live road conditions from the web via Livestream whenever he or she wishes – or all this can be presented simultaneously in a double box with graphics.
4) I take IFB from my blackberry cell phone to an ear bud.
Skpye can be a little finicky about its audio sources. By default, it wants to take audio from the web cam or from the internal microphone in the laptop. This is not usable for television. In its current configuration, Skype will not recognize many types of external microphones used for broadcast. However, an XLR to USB audio filter will do the trick. I use a filter called “Blue Icicle” that I purchased online at Guitar Center on the recommendation of WUSA’s technology manager Richard Gorbutt. Skype is more than happy to recognize this device, although you must go into its options menu to select the proper video and audio sources.
Livestream requires Adobe Flash Media encoding software to be installed on laptop B. It’s important when setting up encoding to limit the stream to 300 kps or less. The options in the encoding software are straightforward, but like any options menu, one bad setting can ruin your day.
You do not always have to rely on web cams. I frequently present traditional looking live shots off tripod using a Sony HVR-V1U connected to the computer in my front seat via firewire combined with the “Blue Icicle” audio source I described above. This was the case when reporting from the scene of the church collapse in Washington. Don’t have a firewire port on your camera? Just about any broadcast or consumer camera can be connected as a video source to the computer using a Canopus conversion box.
An AC power source in the vehicle is also important. Batteries will do in a pinch, but the reality is that the computers need power for the long live streaming sessions required during extended coverage. A wide variety of power inverters can be found at any auto parts store, from models that plug in to cigarette lighter ports, to units that can be permanently installed in the vehicle.
Video and Audio Quality:
No, it’s nowhere near perfect. There are glitches, frozen video, fuzziness and audio dropouts. I make a point of explaining to the audience that we are “pushing the boundaries” of our technology to cover unfolding events. In fact, it may be that the roughness adds a compelling sense of urgency and edginess that isn’t there with the usual locked-down live shots at snowy intersections. In the history of doing this at WUSA, there have been NO viewer complaints about video and audio quality.
Obviously, you cannot open software, fiddle with cameras and microphones, and establish connectivity and IFB while driving. Pulling over to a safe spot is mandatory (and I don’t mean the shoulder of and Interstate — I mean a rest area or gas station). However, once the laptops are up and running, the shots are established on Skype and Livestream, and IFB is connected on cell phone — I consider the driving distraction risk minimal for a comfortable professional broadcaster.
This is no more distracting than talking on a cell phone with a hands free device. In fact, This is done with BOTH HANDS ON THE WHEEL and EYES ON THE ROAD. It’s as simple as driving and talking.
Embedded with other journalists on the US Naval hospital ship Comfort, I was among those who ventured ashore to document the stunning medical crisis that had unfolded in Haiti in the wake of the January 2010 earthquake.
(January 22, 2010) Jugard DeCastillion lay dying before my eyes. The 21-year old man’s mother fanned his face as if it might force more air into his failing lungs. He gasped. An embolism, the doctors said. He’d been crushed by falling walls when the earthquake struck in Port au Prince. Eight days on, it had come to this.
A portion of one hand was amputated. His organs were likely damaged and failing now.
Infection. A young man’s last hours. There was struggle to breathe but no panic.
He gasped again, and rolled his eyes toward me. Who was this guy standing over him with a video camera asking his mom muted questions in broken, elementary French?
He was lying in a steel-framed hospital bed apparently salvaged from the wrecked hospital. It had been carried outdoors into the courtyard of the St. Francois de Sales hospital in Port au Prince. The blue plastic tarp that shielded him from the sun gave the light a surreal tint.
Thank God it hadn’t rained.
At least 86 other men, women and (mostly) kids shared this outdoor hospital ward. Mercifully, a light breeze carried the stink away.
Women sang rhythmic hymns in Creole as they wrapped bandages.
Less than 50 meters away, the main hospital building was a stack of broken slabs. The bodies of at least 35 patients and staff had been buried somewhere under the ash-colored rubble, according to one of the doctors.
The survivors couldn’t get to all the victim’s bodies. But they did find a way to tunnel through a section of the pancaked building’s remains to break into the wrecked pharmacy and recover what medications and supplies they could.
I visited other makeshift hospitals too. Places where amputations, Cesarian sections and even brain surgery had been performed, by necessity, outdoors in shocking, non-sterile conditions. Volunteers pulled doors out of rubble and used them as litters and operating tables.
Thankfully, I didn’t witness any of this horrible surgery in progress. But I saw the survivors who would either heal or die under tarps, with their families clustered around to shoo the flies away, feed them, and carry off the stinking bedpans. There were tens of thousands of horribly injured and sick people all around Port au Prince.
Back at St. Francois de Sales, several one-story wings and annexes to the original main building still stood on the hospital grounds, but frequent aftershocks reminded patients and doctors why they preferred to stay outdoors despite the flies.
Some Polish soldiers had arrived with relief supplies. Volunteers from Catholic Relief Services and the Archdiocese of Baltimore had found their way here to help.
A padlocked iron gate kept the chaos outside the hospital grounds away.
The wounded at Gettysburg or Shiloh had it about the same nearly 140 years ago, I thought.
Maybe a miracle would save the man gasping for breath who was lying before me.
Working alone, now it was time to shoot the video, knock out the interviews. Show the world. Give ‘em a look at reality. Keep your cool. This was just one tragic vignette and our local guide was offering to take a small group of us to see more of his shattered city if I hustled. A fellow reporter held the camera for two quick standups. Above all, I had to make it back to the landing zone for a flight back to the Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort to write, trac, edit and feed before 11 p.m. back in Washington.
News doesn’t sleep. After witnessing this, sometimes neither do I.
Video: the following report aired about 10 hours after I visited St. Francois De Sales. A second report summarizes much of what I witnessed in Port au Prince and on the USNS Comfort.
Postscript: James Lea, a North Carolina-based freelance journalist who is also in his third year of medical school consulted with doctors at St. Francois de Sales about DeCastillion. A decision was made to have Lea accompany DeCastillion in an ambulance back to the field medical evacuation station at Verreaux where the Navy had dropped off embedded journalists by helicopter that morning. Thanks to Lea’s advocacy, DeCastillion was flown to the ship. However, the Navy’s admissions records do not match the ID information DeCastillion’s mother gave me. As a result, his fate is a mystery to me.