by Rebecca Greenway, University of Missouri Graduate Student
NPR Video Producer Kara Frame got involved with live digital reporting when Facebook first launched its live video capabilities in 2016.
Just a couple of years later, Facebook reported that one in five videos were shot and shared live by the platform’s millions of daily users. This month we talked to Kara about lessons learned for NPR’s launch of live digital video including the tools she and the video team used to create high-quality segments and news stories with DSLR cameras.
Greenway: Could you tell us about your involvement on the live video team and some of the highlights of working with these tools?
Frame: I got involved with Facebook Live at NPR right before my internship was ending and Facebook Live was starting. This was before Facebook Live was really a thing, and the video team at NPR saw an opportunity there to help introduce video to a radio-focused newsroom.
One benefit is that [live video] allowed us to use resources that were already there. We have correspondents and reporters that already go out to the fields getting sound-rich stories. What would it look like to take the audience there with video? That’s really how it got started.
One thing that we learned very early on creating these videos is that most of the people watching don’t watch with the sound on, so we needed to make videos that had value even if you didn’t click on the sound. However, if you did click on the sound, we intentionally made it so there was value-added. In one instance at the Baltimore aquarium, two colleagues went to the jellyfish tank at around 7 a.m. so they could stream it just as people were waking up or heading to their bus stop. Without audio, it offered a beautiful experience but, if you did click the sound on, there was value-added where we talked to experts at the aquarium about the jellyfish. In a similar video, we went to a penguin enclosure at the Baltimore Zoo. Again, if you didn’t click the sound on, it was all of these little penguins walking around. If you click the sound on, there was value-added, because we talked to someone that worked there. It was like sitting down with an expert from the comfort of your home.
Greenway: I saw another series called, “Head to Head” where NPR allows people to write-in a headline and see if it is selected to publish by your headline writers. Where does the process for creating these live experiences begin?
Frame: It is usually just figuring out two things: (1) What’s going to make the audience engage because the whole point of a live video is having people there in the moment and having that interaction where people can comment. (2) Something that is approachable and gives people an inside look at NPR.
During “Head to Head,” we had two of our best headline writers battle the audience in writing headlines for a real story that NPR was publishing. The editor of the story would choose between audience write-ins and the two NPR employees without knowing who wrote what. It was really fun when the audience won because it’s cool for people to see their ideas represented on NPR.org.
Greenway: What is a producers’ typical set up for going live?
Frame: If it was a video producer going out for the shoot, we would use a Canon EOS C100 because that is what we already had in house, and we worked with Teradek, which sends a cellular signal back to NPR. The biggest thing to remember working with the Teradek is to arrive early enough to establish the signal before going live, which also includes walking the whole potential path of the shoot to check for any chance of the signal dropping.
It takes a lot of preparation, but when you go live it is a lot of pre-production and no post-production whereas normal produced video is some pre-production and a lot of post-production. The biggest thing when working with live video is to let the small things roll off your shoulders because you don’t always have control over the signal. Things can go wrong and you just have to restart and go again.
Greenway: In one of your videos, you showed field reporters going live from across the globe in a lot of different settings. What does training look like for helping journalists add this component to their daily reporting and create quality live experiences for their audience?
Frame: Anything that was a bigger lift than just a selfie stick and a phone, we would have a producer for, which was a much different learning curve than an audio-reporter adding video to their toolkit.
A really important aspect for us as video producers training a reporter was to keep it really simple, because the last thing that a reporter wants to do when they're abroad, getting audio for their radio piece, and filing stories is to add something really complicated. To keep it simple, we’d use their cell phone and give them monopods to put on the ground. If we knew that someone was going abroad, we’d meet them for about a half-hour and have them go live to a testing page. A lot of people tried it and didn’t like it, but a lot of people also tried it and loved it. We just worked with people that really enjoyed doing it and wanted to go live. It is pretty easy to pick up when you keep it simple.
Greenway: What are some of the biggest benefits you’ve found through the different tools such as between a DSLR and mobile kit?
Frame: I don’t think using the Canons offered so much more aside from better audio across the board. You can use shotgun mics and lavaliers to collect better audio through a mixer. On a phone, you’re limited with the amount of audio you can gather, so we were using something called a Shure Preamp Motiv to use multiple audio lines. If we wanted to have a host or reporter interviewing somebody while still having ambient sound, that’s three microphones right there. Being able to use a Canon kit allowed us to continue offering NPR-quality audio while adding video to it.
Greenway: What are the biggest lessons learned and anything else you’d like to add?
Frame: As a newsroom, we’ve learned more about the value of video through Facebook Live. For example, Ari Shapiro went live right after a hurricane, and that was really popular because it took us to the ground and is much different than a television newscast. It is less produced and polished, and you feel that you are there walking with the reporter in the middle of everything. It’s live, and anything can happen.
As the visual team began Visual Newscast for smart devices, we used some lessons learned from Facebook Live to do low-lift but high-impact videos. For example, one Facebook live video we still produce is called “Headlines” and it’s with Korva Coleman at 10 a.m. each morning. We’d go in with an iPad and broadcast their newscasts live. It’s very low lift, but people love seeing the faces of the voices that they hear every day. It’s something that translates well for smart screens, and the team has been able to put the daily newscasts on the screen with Korva introducing the segment.
Editors note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.