Gillmor Gang: Home Stretch

Steve Gillmor
·5 mins read

On this edition of the Gillmor Gang, the live recording session was briefly interrupted by a rolling upgrade from Zoom. We’ve been using Zoom to virtualize what we’ve been doing for years with a combination of video switching hardware (Newtek’s TriCaster), a bunch of Mac Minis hosting Skype, an audio mixing board, and a backchannel pushing the switched Program Out to the members of the group. At first, we partnered with Leo Laporte on his fledgling video network. Subsequently, I copied Leo’s early studio setup to make the transition to streaming.

At that point, streaming was an emergent model. No Netflix, no Facebook Live, certainly no transition from RSS and podcasting to what we see now as Streaming From Home is adopted. Not just by the technocrati but mainstream cable networks, the remnants of broadcast television, and commercial streaming networks like Hulu, Amazon Prime, Disney +, and even Apple TV +. Cable news uses a version of our studio model to bring together roundtables where even the hosts are using Zoom’s background replacement feature or the like to simulate their usual broadcast locations. The 4 or 5 second delay over TCP/IP gives away the tech, but just as with the smaller delay we’ve gotten used to with the translation from landline to satellite and now to cell service, we accommodate this seeming lack of attention being paid.

There are limitations with this new virtualized studio, but with a great deal of tweaking, the relative ease of onboarding Zoom offers, and the ubiquity of use that the pandemic has mandated, a new experience has emerged with recording the show. It’s more relaxed, a subtle hybrid of a “show” and a conversation among friends. As I’ve mentioned before, we use a multi-streaming service called Restream to do just that with the edited Zoom feed to broadcast the live session on Facebook Live, Twitter/Periscope, and via an embedded YouTube window, to our newsletter feed on Telegram. After postproduction, we release an edited, sweetened, titled version on TechCrunch.

From the beginning of the Gang, back in 2004 when it was an audio production only, we leveraged an early social network called FriendFeed, to engage listeners in a realtime chat. FriendFeed was essentially a blend of Facebook and Twitter, so much so that Facebook ultimately acquired the startup and made co-founder Bret Taylor CTO. Those playing along at home might recognize Bret now as President and COO of Salesforce, where he went after his next startup, Quip, was acquired. The FriendFeed backchannel lasted for a few years, opensourced at the time but eventually shut down by Facebook.

To explain the magic of the backchannel, I refer you to a book by an old friend, Harvey Brooks, bass player and right-place-right time musician who recorded with a dazzling set of greats from Miles Davis to the seminal first stop on his journey, Bob Dylan. In an age without liner notes, he’s a living example of the magic of producing the right notes at the moment of creation in the studio. With Dylan, that moment came in the recording of Dylan’s first fully electric record, Highway 61 Revisited. He’d just recorded the single Like A Rolling Stone when Harvey was recommended by his friend Al Kooper, who had famously sat down in front of an organ he’d never played before and survived Dylan’s recording process.

Dylan would run down a song with the musicians a couple of times and then begin recording. The players would glean the structure of the song by watching the artist’s hands; Harvey quickly made notes of the chords in the first couple of run throughs. Then it was off to the races with tape rolling. Often that first take would be the keeper. To break it down further, my analogy would be that this was Dylan’s version of the backchannel, where each player’s intuitive feel would be communicated not just to Dylan but to the other musicians, who often were strangers to each other as well.

In recording the Gang, the trick if you will is to capture that moment between the first time you hear something to the time where other takes don’t improve on that spark of creation. A later take may be more studied and practiced, but it may lose that magic of the spark. In the case of the conversation, it’s not quite an improvisation, but what takes it somewhere else is the backchannel, where we all live and communicate between sessions. It’s not quite a newsletter, where the goal (or at least my goal) is to provide stepping stones between rocks in the stream and not the pebbles that form the rush of news and attitude that overwhelms us.

These days Trumpstock is everywhere, not to be avoided but necessary to be survived. Then there are the glimmers of tech, like the media story about Disney’s reorganization around streaming. The ripple effects of surviving the pandemic’s direct hit on Disney’s park revenue and the need to shift investment to Disney + content production are a major signal of where winners are going to emerge in the entertainment industry’s move to a direct relationship with consumers. The backchannel is a powerful tool for giving us direct access to the underlying information required to make strategic decisions about where and how we live as we recover.

Sometimes the winging-it approach bears fruit; sometimes it crashes and burns as elements of this loosely-coupled cloud mashup unexpectedly shift. In this case, our carefully constructed production flow broke down just as we went live. It took some time and a restart to regroup, and a post show debugging to figure out what had changed in a Zoom autoupdate. This is the process. It’s not perfect, but it works when it works. When it doesn’t, it gets better. Join us on the backchannel.

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The Gillmor Gang — Frank Radice, Michael Markman, Keith Teare, Denis Pombriant, Brent Leary, and Steve Gillmor. Recorded live Friday, October 9, 2020.

Produced and directed by Tina Chase Gillmor @tinagillmor

@fradice, @mickeleh, @denispombriant, @kteare, @brentleary, @stevegillmor, @gillmorgang

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