The ME Show
It's 11 a.m. on a Wednesday, and Christian Brower steps over the doggy gate into his office, adjusts the shutters on the window facing the front yard of his home on a quiet residential street in Gilbert, and gets to work.
Sitting down in front of his computer, Brower pulls up a little something he typed out earlier and begins reading it aloud.
"The other evening, my wife and I were discussing how we should have our wills drawn up, when she asked me if I wanted to be buried or cremated. Now, I didn't think I really had any strong feelings about the subject, until I thought about all those zombie horror movies."
It's a blog, basically. Yet another one of those rambling, folksy, Reader's Digest-style personal anecdotes that have been clogging the Internet since simple text-transmitting tools and free blog-hosting sites made updating personal Web pages as easy as sending e-mail.
Only Brower is doing his blog a bit differently. Facing a Sony video camera and a pair of halogen lamps and sitting in front of a blue screen, Brower reads from a window on his computer that begins scrolling like a professional news TelePrompTer while he speaks. Ninety seconds later, he saves the file and sends it to his blogging host, where it's automatically inserted at the top of his Web page.
In little more than the time it takes to write and post a new diary entry to a traditional text-based blog page, anyone with a camcorder and the right $99 software can now become a "vlogger," or video blogger -- the latest advancement in the 4-year-old weblogging phenomenon that Forbes recently proclaimed as "the 'it' thing" in tech trends for 2005.
Well, not everyone can make the transition to video. As a quick perusal of the still-small selection of available vlog sites makes glaringly apparent, there's a reason most of the Web-addicted, opinion-spouting recluses who write daily blogs are better read than seen. Awkwardness, homeliness and incoherent mumbling run rampant.
But the handful of bloggers out there with genuine TV appeal -- former AV geeks, mostly, with some public speaking classes or stage experience under their belts -- are discovering there may be some actual star potential in moving to the tiny QuickTime screen.
Already, a few vloggers are beginning to emerge as must-see personalities on the Web and through the viewing panels of a growing number of applications that automatically find and download vlogs to your computer just as invisibly as online newspapers send daily news feeds.
Boston video producer Steve Garfield, a Seinfeld look-alike whose inexplicably amusing clips about nothing -- one day he's shoveling snow, the next he's shopping for OJ and oatmeal cookies with his reluctant wife, Carol -- has attracted the attention of Time, BusinessWeek and Nightline. Rocketboom, a popular site offering daily satirical news briefs hosted by a former reality TV star named Amanda Congdon, seems to have already filled a niche as the wired world's three-minute The Daily Show.
Christian Brower believes he's got what it takes to be a vlogging star. He's definitely got the face for it. While he's never appeared on TV, the 36-year-old Valley computer specialist has the oddly familiar look of someone you've seen pitching Toyotas or discount legal services on late-night commercial spots. His animated voice and naturally cartoonish facial expressions seem inherited from a long line of Opies and Richies and two generations of Darrins.
"I think it's like that thing where after a while, people start to look like their pets," says Brower, who admits he grew up with his face glued to the tube and has probably seen every episode of Bewitched five times. "It could be that because I watched so much TV, maybe I project my life like a TV show. That's how I talk, how I look. I know that's where I get my timing."
Brower's so certain that vlogging is his future, he recently ditched the hosting service he'd been using to store his files and manage his bandwidth in favor of his own dedicated server (at www.vlogmania.com), to handle the increases in audience traffic he expects his vlogs to get. Right now, he's paying about a hundred dollars a month on bandwidth, but he expects increased traffic to push that monthly cost to $2,500 before long.
"For the first time in my life, I'm one of the first people on a bandwagon that I know is gonna get huge," he says, confidently. "It's only a matter of time before one of the people doing this really catches on and makes it big. So I'm kind of in this race right now, one that's gonna get a lot more crowded soon."
Shortly after getting married last year, Brower announced he was quitting his full-time job to seriously pursue do-it-yourself video stardom. At his disobliging wife's insistence, Brower recently took on a 3:30-p.m.-to-midnight IT job at a local company to pay his share of the bills.
But he's already counting down the days until he can make a living doing nothing but dispensing his personal observations on suburban life and videotaping his lunchtime trips to the fridge.
Thanks to the addition of video and audio, blogging's not just about sharing a diary with your friends anymore. It's fast beginning to look like the hot new career field for the self-obsessed slacker.
"In five years," Brower says, "I don't want people to be saying, 'Oh yeah, remember that guy Christian, who was one of the first vloggers? Now he's working at Chili's.' You know? I want to be one of the stars of this thing."
If vlogging is the next big thing, podcasting is the hot blogging trend of the moment -- and the model for Internet stardom vloggers are closely following.
Powered by the same technology that's making vlogs so easy to send and receive ("Feed Your Head!"), podcasts are essentially audio blogs that can be "subscribed" to -- for free, like a news feed -- and automatically delivered to your desktop overnight. Plug in an iPod or other portable MP3 player that's synched to download new music files from your computer, and that portable player becomes a self-run radio station, one you can load with the wildest variety of home-brewed programs imaginable -- including many the FCC would never allow on the public airwaves.
Since the first official podcast, by former MTV VJ and current podcasting guru Adam Curry, appeared just last August, an amazing 3,000 regularly updated programs have become available on PodcastAlley.com, the leading directory for the exploding community.
As in vlogging, a handful of podcast stars have already begun emerging from the pack.
Dawn and Drew, an irrepressibly frank married couple living in an old farmhouse in Wisconsin, who exude an instant chemistry -- she's an unguarded artist/musician with the mouth of a longshoreman; he's a Christian computer geek who's incapable of swearing -- regularly rank number one on Podcast Alley, with average downloads indicating between 20,000 and 30,000 listeners a day.
Even with their mass audience (20,000 people heard when Dawn gave Drew a three-day warning of her impending period -- and Drew still missed his window of opportunity), Dawn and Drew's only windfall so far from the show appears to be free swag, ranging from homemade peanut-butter brownies to engraved iPod Photo players, donated by their adoring fans.
"The majority of the podcasters are newbies at broadcasting," says Michael Mennenga, a former broadcast engineer who now makes his living as a sci-fi writer in Phoenix. "They're basically doing this as a hobby, and if someone throws them $50 of free merchandise, they're all giddy and atwitter. 'Oh my God, I made money at this!'"
"And most of 'em don't really care," adds his friend Evo Terra, a practicing herbalist and Web site developer who listens to nine or ten hours of podcasts a week on his commutes to the Valley from his home in Cottonwood. "For the majority of the people doing this right now, it's a labor of love. You do it because it's fun, or because it's therapy, or because it's a thrill just to think people are listening to you."
Mennenga and Terra do their own weekly podcast, too -- a freewheeling talk fest on science fiction and fantasy books called The Dragon Page (dragonpage.com) that often features phone interviews with such notable authors and illustrators as Ray Bradbury and Boris Vallejo.
But the duo, who record their program every Sunday afternoon in the former rec room of Mennenga's northeast Phoenix home, approach the new art form with a more businesslike attitude. For the past three years, Mennenga and Terra have been recording their program and sending it out to radio stations across the country to syndicate. When their local carrier, Phoenix talk radio station KFYI, decided to drop The Dragon Page from its Sunday-night lineup last month, the two decided to pursue podcasting more seriously.
They're not alone. "The question right now, in the podcast discussion group, is who's gonna make money in podcasting," says Terra. "And when. No one's asking is anybody gonna make money. Somebody's going to."
Just how anyone will make money in podcasting is another matter.
"It's very difficult to build an advertising model for podcasting right now, because you have no idea how your impression is gonna work," says Mennenga, who's not ashamed to admit he's thought about how to make this thing profitable. "If people download your show, it may be tomorrow that they listen to it, it may be next week or next month. Advertisers don't like that."
"And people don't want commercials on podcasts anyway," Terra adds.
Selling banner ads on Web pages is out, too, since programs like Curry's iPodder, which automatically finds and downloads podcasts of the user's choice, bypass the need to open a browser or even be at your computer when the files are downloaded.
Still, ideas abound -- and arguments are heating up. A battle between podcasters and vloggers has even begun, as rapid developments in hand-held video players and even cell-phone TV put the prospect of an iPod for video just around the next bend. A young British vlogger named Ian Mills, who has publicly vowed to create a video blog every day in 2005, recently posted a simple clip of himself drawing a stick-figure cartoon to the music of The Buggles' MTV-heralding "Video Killed The Radio Star" that closed with the text, "You can't do that on a podcast."
"Up until now, we've been in the friendly stage, where everybody in the podcast community is nice to each other and offering advice and suggestions," says Terra.
"That's quickly coming to an end," he adds, laughing. "It's about to get ugly."
Renee Brower admits she still has a little trouble grasping what her husband Christian does all day while she's busy plugging away at her 9-to-5 job at Honeywell.
"I leave for work and he goes into his home office and does his little thing," she says one Saturday morning while the couple shares some rare time together at the dining room table. "And once in a while I go to his Web site and say, 'Oh, okay, this is what he's doing.'"
Christian recalls the day Renee called from the ol' aerospace job while he was busy shooting his 90-second take on the food at Long John Silver's.
"She called from work and said, 'What are you doing?'" he says. "And I said, 'Making a pirate hat!'" Christian does a slow burn and imitates an irritated wife clearing her throat. "'All right, well, make sure you take the meat out of the freezer and move the towels to the dryer. Okay?'"
Christian, who spends hours each day checking stats and trying to determine what his audience wants more of, says it gets his goat when Renee calls what he does "playing."
"Well, in a way, it is," she insists, adding that she was raised by hardworking Midwestern parents who stressed the importance of the old-fashioned work ethic. "I'll be sitting at work earning a living, and he's sitting at home playing with a computer and a pirate hat. What's wrong with this picture?"
Renee, five years older than Christian and the owner of the house he moved into when they married last year (occasionally, she'll add a comment to one of his goofy videos, like "It's interesting where you like to spend your money," and sign it, "The Landlord"), initially tried to get her new husband to sell real estate.
Christian got the real estate license and actually did sell a few homes, but soon he got distracted by the idea of making Web videos for the top real estate agents.
"All these real estate people always want their face on a sign; they put a color picture of their smiling face on the card they stick in your door every week," Brower explains. "It's all about smiling faces. But if you go to their Web sites, there's nothing on them. I figured, why not put video on there? I could show up at their offices with a blue screen, lights and a camera, and shoot a little video to put on their Web site."
Brower, whose show-biz fixation was already known to Renee before their wedding day (he persuaded her to take their honeymoon in Hollywood), talked the wife into letting him buy some portable video gear. "I got myself a new camera, got these halogen lamps, built this little stool for the TelePrompTer," he says, giving a little tour of his home studio.
To his chagrin, Brower discovered the seemingly vanity-prone real estate agent wasn't interested in going to video. Of the 100 direct-mail solicitations Brower sent out, zero came back.
"So then I said, 'Well now, I've got all these cameras and lights and equipment. What am I gonna do?'" he recalls. "I still wanna make videos. And if no one else is gonna pay me to make videos for them, I'm gonna make videos for me!"
Renee wasn't exactly jumping for joy over his decision. "When he came home from work one day and said, 'I'm not going back to my 40-hour-a-week job,' I was like, 'Huh?'" She agreed to back off a little and let Christian follow his creative urges -- "as long as he could find a way to make some money from it."
Christian became determined to show his wife there is money to be made from vlogging, regaling her with success stories of online Flash animation and video-of-the-day sites and showing her the hit counts and comments on his page. Sometimes, that only mystifies her more.
"I just find it kind of bizarre, because I watch these things and I'm like, 'Um. Okay. Whatever,'" she says. "And then I'll see all these hits he gets and all these comments people make and I'm like, 'Do people really think he's that funny?'"
Renee says she's yet to tell anybody at the office what her husband does when he's "working" at home.
"I don't tell people at work what he does," she says flatly. "Because the people I work with are all of the mindset that you go to a job every day and put in 40 hours a week to earn your paycheck. It just seems so different. For people to be able to stay at home and be creative and earn a living off of that -- that's so different from the way most people think."
Christian, on the other hand, loves the new work model of the video blogger who sells ad space and tee shirts by playing show-and-tell with his day-to-day life.
"I remember George Orwell's 1984," Brower says, "where it predicted that in the future, everybody stays inside and does whatever they do without leaving the house for the corporation. And he was writing that as a bad thing!"
Brower, who still works the swing shift as a corporate IT guy and takes on the occasional Web design job to split the couple's bill-paying responsibilities ("There's always a running tally going on in the background"), admits he doesn't even tell his own clients and co-workers about his Web site.
"It'd be kind of bad if I'm late on a project and have to use the excuse, 'I've been really busy' -- and then they go and see the video that's date-stamped in my blog!" he says, laughing. "They'd be like, 'Yes, I see. Just how long did it take you to get that pirate hat to fit?'"
At his software-engineer job in Tempe, Chris Hagedorn listens all day to the podcasts he downloads the night before and reads up on tech news from a variety of Internet sites. When five o'clock rolls around, Hagedorn gets in his car, switches on his iRiver portable recording device (or sometimes his Powerbook, which he props up in the passenger seat), and records his own podcast on the long commute home to Avondale.
Some call the practice "freeway blogging." Hagedorn prefers the less dangerous-sounding "commute-casting."
Most of the time, Hagedorn talks tech -- podcasting's early adopters are still primarily geeks.
But Hagedorn is also openly gay, a voice you don't normally hear on regular broadcast radio, unless it's accompanied by a flamboyant lisp for yuks on the "Morning Zoo" shows. On a typical podcast, Hagedorn may switch from authoritatively discussing the latest coding challenges in Apple's XML parsing engine to craning his neck to see who's driving the car in front of him with the rainbow sticker in the window ("Oh, it's two women. And they're smoking.")
Hagedorn, 28, fits the profile of the average "newbie" broadcaster Mennenga and Terra describe. While a few popular podcasts strive for the polished "real radio" feel The Dragon Page's co-hosts bring to their show, many more, like Hagedorn's, consist of regular people riffing on whatever topics they're into -- and amazed when they check their own download statistics and find that their glorified "notes to self" are being picked up off the nightstand by so many interested strangers.
"That blows me away!" Hagedorn says over a lunch break at a nearby Starbucks, pointing to a stat sheet he's printed out that says he's already had 32 people download the ramblings he recorded on his way home from work last night. "I'm amazed. Why are all those people giving a crap about what I have to say?"
Hagedorn says that's what drives him to keep doing the things every weekday. "For a lot of podcasters, it's just another outlet in which to say things you couldn't say elsewhere," he says. "Or to spark a conversation with people who may not be in the same city as you, or who are very much spread out."
For gays and other minority groups, that sense of community is particularly gratifying.
"I think any group that doesn't feel like they fit in with mainstream media, or feels like they've been shut out of mainstream media, is gonna gravitate toward podcasting," Hagedorn says. "And gay people are definitely included in that. There are a lot of gay podcasts, for some reason. It's definitely an outlet for people you know would never get on the air anywhere else."
In that way, podcasting -- and vlogging, too -- remain close to the soul of text blogging, which has weathered its own media fury to become primarily a peer-to-peer publishing system that gives voices to the little guys and creates community through feedback and hyperlinks.
Athena Simpson, a 21-year-old ASU broadcasting major set to graduate in May, has learned more about TV and radio than most of the people making podcasts and vlogs today. Yet she still prefers banging out text on her MySpace blog page, and thinks all the star-struck vloggers and podders poised to take control of the media need to intern at Clear Channel, as she did in Denver before enrolling at ASU, for a quick reality check.
"What I like about blogging is you get to express yourself and get feedback from people who don't necessarily know you, so all they can tell you is what they think based on what you write in your blog," she says simply. "It's point-blank advice -- not the usual sympathy or comments you get from friends and family, who are biased in that they know you more and can't give you an objective view."
Like most bloggers, Simpson likes the idea of building a community of online friends through group-joining and interest-sharing and fears that community would be obliterated if all she focused on was becoming the number one blogger on the Internet. And she also wonders how turning the activity into a career would ultimately effect her freedom of expression.
"What happens if people do start getting advertisers for their blog site, and if they have to start worrying about keeping an audience?" she says. "Eventually, you're gonna feel like somebody's telling you what you should say. And that's the exact opposite of what blogging's supposed to be about."
"Some people see it as the next big thing and they're gonna make money off of it," says Chris Hagedorn. "To me, podcasting is just an audio version of blogging. You can just hear them now."
That's not to say Hagedorn hasn't found his own angle on how to profit from the phenomenon. Like most of the participants in multimedia blogging, Hagedorn is familiar with the truism (it was probably recited on somebody's podcast) that in the great California Gold Rush, the people who made the big bucks were not the miners but the guys at the general store who sold the pickaxes and dungarees.
Savvy venture capitalists are already buying up stock in companies dealing with RSS feeds, the technology that drives the on-demand delivery of both podcasting and vlogging media.
Hagedorn, meanwhile, has developed a "podcatching" client called Podcast Tuner to compete with Adam Curry's iPodder. The application, which has been gaining popularity (some report it's faster than iPodder) is currently offered free at Hagedorn's Web site (thenowhereman.com), but soon he plans to start charging $10 for a more full-featured version.
He's not planning on quitting his day job, though. "I would love to turn one of my hobbies into an income," Hagedorn says. "But that's not how hobbies work most of the time, and I don't think podcasting is an exception. For people like Adam Curry and Dawn and Drew, maybe they might be able to turn a profit. But for most of us, that's not gonna happen.
"Which is fine," he adds quickly, "because that's not why we do it."
It's been an hour now since Christian Brower posted his little vlog about the pros and cons of cremation -- in which he concludes that if there's a remote possibility of coming back from the grave as a zombie, "I've chosen instead to be buried near a nuclear waste dump or a secret government-run chemical weapons factory" -- and he's excited to see on his screen that one of the 22 visitors to his page in the last sixty minutes has left a comment.
"All right, let's take a look," he says, clicking on a link below the clip that shows the comments posted.
"'You are deliciously insane,'" Brower reads aloud, smiling. "'Don't change.' By golfwidow."
The demographics of the people who come and comment on Brower's site has become a concern to him. In comparison to the hipper cinéma vérité created by the artsy Bay Area film-school grads and gutsy New York "citizen journalists" who dominate the still-infant field, Brower's vlogs are tame, scripted commentaries on mainstream topics ranging from his personal take on the Michael Jackson trial to his opinion on the hot-dog combo at Costco.
"For some reason, my fans seem to be women in their 40s and men in their 50s," Brower says, somewhat disappointedly. "That's not the most coveted market. The ones advertisers are always going for is the 18-to-25s."
As he always does when he gets a comment, Brower proceeds to dig out the identity of the new fan, clicking on the screen name that automatically links to her text-based blog page (at this point, he's only assuming it's a "her"), and skimming through her entry titled, "Fifty random things about me."
"Let's see," Brower says, scrolling quickly down the page. "'I love the Food Network. I hate Emeril Lagasse. It's been 935 days since I quit smoking.' Yep," he says, glumly. "I'm thinking it's an older woman again."
For hip inspiration, Brower has checked out the vlogs made by the movement's younger players, but feels a bit removed from their angst and naive idealism. "Most of the other vloggers are in their 20s, thinking they're gonna take on the world," he says. "That's how you are when you're that age. You have grand dreams and think you're gonna contribute to the great Utopia that's coming just around the bend. The truth is, you just haven't been whacked yet by the staff of life."
For a while, Brower says he tried affecting the attitude of the "angry-at-the-world guy" in his vlogs, but the approach seemed to alienate the core audience of older fans who keep coming back each day. Square stiffs or not, he doesn't want to lose them.
"My most popular vlogs are the G-rated, funny stuff," he says, showing some resignation. "Maybe that's just my niche."
Nevertheless, a couple of weeks later, Brower begins testing out a new vlogging character: a cotton creation named Tony the Angry Sock Puppet -- with three eyes and plenty of attitude -- who curses like a rap star at the end of his angry rant.
"Hmmm," Brower writes beside the clip. "Could there be a series?"
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