Real News Network Skypes In Voice of the Common Man
“The voice of the common man.”
That is the identity Paul Jay wanted for his news network. No advertising, government or corporate funding.
Seven years ago, Jay founded The Real News Network (TRNN) as a nonprofit online news network in Toronto. Today, they operate out of the largest soundstage in Baltimore. Their niche is local, national, and international news stories that aren’t covered by the major networks. Many of their interviews involve remote guests, who must be interviewed virtually. Technical issues like frozen screens, inconsistent resolutions, and limited bandwidth were a constant headache, so Chris DeMillo, Studio Manager at TRNN, decided it was time for an upgrade.
When TRNN started picking up steam in Toronto, Jay wanted to bring his company to a new city that had more social and economic turmoil but didn’t have a lot of independent journalism. There were other cities in consideration and Baltimore won out.
TRNN mainly does commentary on international news and Baltimore local news, while trying to stay as unbiased as possible. They receive no corporate funding or advertising, funding is all donor-based. Because of this, they enjoy having more freedom to provide information that isn’t censored by higher-ups, advertisers, or clients.
“We tell stories that our contributors want to hear about. We have several regular reporters who interview professors, economists, and other professionals,” said DeMillo. “We run the gamut of people to interview.”
In addition to interviews, they open up their large downstairs studio for community meetings, inviting people from city hall as well as citizens. This aids in the network’s goal of connecting with the community where they’re based and giving the people an outlet to voice their opinions.
In just a few years, the Baltimore crew of three in the studio and four on the production/editorial side has grown into a crew of 30. The crew can now boast that their home is the largest soundstage in Baltimore, complete with smaller studios for radio and webcam shows. In addition to the network’s website, their shows appear on Comcast On Demand in the region, as well as their channels on YouTube and Roku.
“Online news is a world that, prior to working here, I wasn’t privy to. I didn’t know it existed to the point that it is,” said DeMillo. “Now it’s content overload, and it’s interesting how hungry people really are.”
Quality Control Issues
Because TRNN is primarily an online nonprofit news network, it heavily depends on technology to achieve its mission. The team began using a basic version of Skype via computer, but quickly saw its shortcomings.
“The audio and video would go out of sync a lot of times, it would constantly be changing resolution, which was obviously a bandwidth problem,” said DeMillo. “And the freezing screens was absurd.”
TRNN aims to compete with major news networks and therefore, needs to have the quality to match its rivals. The network produces four to five web shows per day, and couldn’t continue using equipment that was consistently falling short of their expectations. DeMillo decided if they were going to do it right, they needed to fix these problems by investing in the right equipment for the job.
Getting an Upgrade
DeMillo and his team needed something they could easily incorporate into their workflow in the studio, which meant purchasing products that were both compatible with their existing equipment and capable of producing the quality they wanted.
Because they already had the NewTek TriCaster 8000 and 450, they looked first at NewTek’s TalkShow VS-100, the video calling production system designed for television studios and live event producers using Skype. DeMillo’s boss was skeptical because of their previous issues with Skype, so they did several tests using Zoom, which is another direct video link conference call service, and other tests using 4G phone data on a cell phone, just to see if the machine could put out a decent broadcast using some of the lowest quality bandwidth. They were impressed enough with the demo to buy one to add to their studio.
Unlike their old workflow, using this system gave them the ability to autocorrect color and white balance and set a bandwidth threshold.
“When it drops below 640p resolution, it can go to a pre-shot photo you’ve taken of your guest,” says DeMillo. “It’s nice to have that versus having a weird frozen face or going black.”
**Incorporating New Additions Into the Workflow**
The interviews take place in the largest soundstage at TRNN, usually with the interviewer sitting in a virtual set (built into TriCaster) with a green screen background. TalkShow is used to bring in the interview subject via Skype. The interview subject can choose to use their home computer with their personal Skype. Video from the Sony HXR-NX5u cameras in the studio goes into the TriCaster 8000 or TriCaster 450.
DeMillo’s team uses Sony PMW300K1 for large-scale productions, Sony NEX-EA50 cameras in the field, and three small PTZ Sony EVI-H100S cameras in the studio in case people want to record themselves doing a podcast or radio show. It makes it possible to have just one person in the control room to record audio as well as operate a 3-camera shot.
In preparation for a show, a producer will call the guest to set up the date and time of the interview, and put it into the production schedule. 15-30 minutes before the interview, the interview guest is called to do a “tech check” to make sure their connection, lighting, and audio are good. If something isn’t right, there is time to adjust those things as much as possible before the show goes live.
DeMillo prefers to set the resolution at 640p, but occasionally has to lower it to 320p for guests who are international or don’t have a good connection to begin with. He aims to have the best resolution possible.
Sennheiser wireless G3 microphones are used in the studio, and Shure SM58 wired microphones are used for audience Q&A and in the field. Audio comes out from the TalkShow into a Mackie 1604 mixer, and Blackmagic Design converters/routers are used to communicate information between equipment. An Electro-Voice PA system is used for concerts held in the large studio.
As soon as everything looks good and the sound isn’t jittery or broken up, the guest is transferred to the host who is in the green screen studio. The guest is patched through the earpiece and they begin the interview.
Most interviews don’t require much work in post-production, as their new equipment makes their workflow more streamlined by enabling them to make adjustments ahead of time. Videos are posted on their website as well as their YouTube channel, Roku channel, and on Comcast On Demand in the Baltimore region.
DeMillo hopes that with this upgraded workflow, TRNN will continue to be a testament to the fact that people crave a reliable and independent news network that can provide the kind of consistently high-quality video content offered by the major networks.
At a Glance
- The Real News Network is a non-profit, viewer-supported daily video news and documentary service. They are sustained by donations and earned revenue.
- TRNN began in Toronto (pop. 2.6 million) in 2007, and now inhabits the largest soundstage in Baltimore (pop. 622,104).
- The team is a crew of 30 people.
- The interviews take place in the largest soundstage at TRNN, usually with the interviewer sitting in a virtual set with a green screen background.
- The NewTek TalkShow VS-100 is used to bring in the interview subject via Skype TX software. The interview subject can choose to use their home computer with their personal Skype.
- Video from the Sony HXR-NX5u cameras in the studio goes into the TriCaster 8000 or TriCaster 450.
- A producer will call the guest 15-30 minutes before the interview to do a “tech check” to make sure the connection is good, the lighting is good, and the sound isn’t jittery. DeMillo makes any adjustments before the interview begins.
- Sennheiser wireless G3 microphones are used in the studio, and Shure SM58 wired microphones are used for audience Q&A and in the field.
- Audio comes out from the TalkShow VS-100 into a Mackie 1604 mixer, and Blackmagic Design converters/routers are used between equipment.
- Most interviews don’t require much work in post-production.
Videos are posted on their website as well as their YouTube channel, Roku channel, and on Comcast On Demand in the Baltimore region. Gear
- TriCaster 8000
- TriCaster 450
- TalkShow VS-100
- Sony HXR-NX5u
- Sony PMW300K1 for large-scale productions
- Sony NEX-EA50 cameras in the field
- Sony EVI-H100S cameras in the studio to record podcasts or radio shows
- Sennheiser wireless G3 microphone kits
- Shure SM58 wired microphones for audience Q&A and in the field
- Mackie 1604 mixer
- Blackmagic Design converters/routers
- Electro-Voice PA system used for concerts held in the large studio.
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