Present your community to the world with Internet video and audio

Present your community to the world with Internet video and audio

By Sr. Judy Zielinski O.S.F.

WHAT'S A PODCAST? Why all the buzz about it? And what does it mean for vocation ministers?

Podcasts are video and/or audio files distributed over the Internet. They have everything to do with media freedom—and the ability of the “little person” to speak and find an audience. No longer are broadcasting and world media distribution the exclusive domain of NBC or CNN or United Artists; anyone with a computer can now be part of the media. You and I can make a speech, screen a homemade film, conduct an interview, vocalize an opinion, sing a song, tell a story—perhaps a vocation story—and be heard by hundreds…thousands… possibly millions.

This new communications reality holds the potential for vocation ministers to reach out in a new way to young adults. Podcasts are cost-effective, and audio and video messages can carry great emotional punch.

It helps to understand the history and context of podcasting. Most vocation ministers grew up with a communication model that unified and in many ways, shaped our society. We had three national TV networks: ABC, NBC and CBS. We gathered at 6 p.m. for the “evening news” and depended on these outlets—as well as our daily newspapers— for summaries and analysis of national and world events.

As for entertainment, we knew on which nights and times our favorite shows aired. They were broadcast to the entire country at 9 p.m. eastern/ 8 p.m. central, and again, we either saw them or missed them. This was our media universe until fairly recently. The advent of CNN and various cable news outlets within the last 25 years or so revolutionized news delivery, allowing us news on demand 24/7 and the experience of events happening halfway around the world almost instantly. Still, it took a simple musical application to blow the “media slavery” chains away.

In the ‘90s, as the Internet and digital revolution gained traction, a file named the “MP3” was invented. It allowed any audio event—a song, a speech, a radio interview—to be digitally compressed, e-mailed, filed, copied and played on a computer—over and over again without any loss of pure digital quality. This was a media quantum leap akin to the scene from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey where a bone thrown upwards by an ape morphs to a spaceship.

The MP3 format allowed ordinary consumers unparalleled musical freedom and threatened the economics of the music industry. Suddenly kids all over the country—via musical “file-sharing” programs like Napster—were “ripping” (choosing) and “burning” (copying) individual songs from CDs and “mixing” their own collections of favorites, leaving behind whatever songs didn’t measure up. CD sales plummeted as kids took to file-sharing. Why buy the whole CD when you could get the best songs free from your friends around the corner or around the world? (This dilemma resulted in years of litigation between the music industry— claiming copyright infringement and theft of intellectual property—and the owners and users of various file-sharing Web sites and programs. Today, the ability to purchase most individual songs for 99 cents each has largely quelled the hostility on both sides.)

Then along came the iPod, a sleek, compact, intuitively easy-to-use MP3 device that allowed owners to download thousands of songs and listen to them via earbuds. The iPod spawned a host of MP3 competitors, but remains the Cadillac of the crowd. Over the last several years, various iPods have appeared; the latest models can playback not only MP3 audio files but video files as well (in MP4 and other video formats.)

Now one can not only listen to thousands of songs on a portable device, but can download TV programs, radio broadcasts, interviews, and film clips from the Internet and listen at any place, any time. This, in short, is what we call a podcast: someone is “casting content” to your iPod! (The “pod” prefix was awarded as a nod to the overwhelming popularity of the iPod over all other MP3 devices.)

If this short history has seemed technical and “so-what” so far, it may help to make it personal. I own an MP3 player (though not an iPod), so I am able to download audio files only. I’m an avid fan of “This American Life,” a first-person collection of themed stories and interviews aired on public radio. However, my local station plays the show on Saturdays from 4-5 p.m., a time slot during which I never seem to be in the vicinity of a radio. This frustration drove me to tackle podcasting. I simply went to the Web site for “This American Life” and followed the directions to subscribe to the free podcast. Every week the program automatically downloads to the audio library on my computer. I then transfer it to my MP3 player and listen to it at my leisure

Podcasts can also include video. Without getting too technical, video files are not the same as MP3s, but they are related. Both MP3 and MP4 files are able to “compress” the huge size that sound and picture files demand and squeeze that into manageable “data packets” which then appear on your device’s small screen. The video files (MP4 for iPods—Flash and MPEG and others) can be downloaded and saved. I have not been able to download TV episodes to my device since I have no way of playing them back, but I can and do watch them on my computer. This is technically not a podcast, but what is called “streaming video.” Here’s another real life application: I am a “Lostie”—an adherent of the popular ABC series, Lost. When ABC decided to make available the full episodes of all of its major TV programs free from its Web site last year, I was thrilled. I could catch the programs I had missed or just wanted to watch again. If I couldn’t be in front of a TV on Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. to see Lost, I could watch the episodes on my own computer in my own time. (No, it isn’t as comfortable as the living room, but I can still follow the action.) If and when I ever come into possession of an iPod with audio/video capabilities, I could download the episodes and watch them anywhere—on an airplane, in the back seat of a van, a hotel room, the back yard, etc.

There are literally thousands of pieces of media available for downloading. The overwhelming majority are free, paid for by advertising on the Web site or sometimes by ads embedded at the beginning or even throughout the content.

Podcasting meets vocation ministry

This technology, in its many creative forms, has multiple applications in vocation ministry. For instance, some bloggers (self-appointed writers who post their commentary on the Internet) make an audio recording of their written work and post it with the blog. Their blogs can be downloaded and listened to by people on their way to or from work and school, on their lunch hour, late at night, etc. Vocation-related blogs offer another way of talking about religious life. A quick potential menu might include:

  • The Way We Were (and Are) Mini-meditation recordings about the charism of your congregation; stories of your members, their heroism and generosity in answering the call to serve.
  • Weekly or monthly letter from the missions by which one of your members might give a progress report on a building project; improvements to a clinic; volunteers coming to visit and help, etc.
  • Notes From the Novitiate Your novice(s) talk about their adjustment to community, what they miss, the questions they are struggling with as they walk their journey, etc.
  • I Need Help Your community members reflect on where they live and how they minister (direct service in an inner city; rural health care; parish administration), challenging listeners to consider that particular ministry as part of their own call.
  • The Long View An elderly brother, priest or sister reflects on his or her life, vocation and ministry and invites the listener to consider such a commitment.
  • My Own Prayer Journey Personal reflections on styles of prayer, daily experiences, book suggestions and other aspects of prayer.

Clearly the list could go on, mining the rich veins of community life, spirituality and ministry. In fact, there are religious communities already making use of podcasting, using the Internet to meet potential members that they would never otherwise reach. If you think people are not downloading and listening, think again. There are a lot of those little earbuds out there, particularly among young adults.

So how does one podcast? First seek out a webmaster or a friend with technical skills. While not excessively difficult to do, podcasting does require the meeting of some technical protocols, especially if you decide to set up your own domain name (“BestVocationDirector.org,” for instance) and podcast from your own server. However, many Web sites are eager to offer you a free podcast service—try for instance, www. mypodcast.com. In exchange for allowing free advertising on your podcast (note that you get to choose and approve all advertisers to insure appropriate material), the site will provide you with the software you need to start, tips and help in creating your content, publicity and bandwidth storage on the server that will “hold” your program. As far as equipment goes, a simple microphone and a computer with a sound card are all you’ll need. These are almost universally included with any computer purchased fairly recently.

The other obvious opportunity is media streaming— placing audio or video files on your Web site for people to experience as they visit. Users may not necessarily download these and carry them off on their iPods, but this technique presents another way for you to communicate. Once a video or audio recording is produced, it is a simple matter to save it in one of the popular streaming file-ormats (Windows, Flash, RealPlayer, etc.) and upload it to your Web site. Whoever serves as your web master can easily handle this. Video files can also be placed on popular video-sharing sites such as Vimeo.com or YouTube.com. When I conducted a search for “Catholic vocations” on YouTube, I found nearly 300 pages of offerings, many of them from religious communities. Clearly, some communities are already well plugged into this opportunity! Also, VISION vocation network offers advertisers free video posts of 1-minute, 45- seconds or less. (For details, contact executive editor Patrice Tuohy at 800-942-2811 or pjtouhy@truequestweb.com.)

If you are in touch by e-mail with a man or woman expressing interest in your community, it is an easy matter to steer them to your Web site and its specific links to a blog or podcast opportunity. Inquirers may not be able to download to an MP3 player, but they can always watch or listen from the Web site. And if you do offer a free podcast subscription, they can sign up and receive the episodes via e-mail.

The most challenging feature of podcasting, however, will remain the creative one: What do I want to say, and how can I say it creatively? The number of bloggers is estimated to be as high as 70 million worldwide. Should you choose to join this number, you want your blog or podcast to offer thoughtful, reflective, challenging, funny, moving material. A well-done blog and podcast is a powerful way to reach out and touch people all over the globe. If you offer it, someone will download it. But the challenge is much more than technical— it is the challenge of the heart to say deeply what technology can only multiply.

Judy Zielinski, OSF is a Sylvania, OH Franciscan who has worked in church communications for over 25 years, writing and producing broadcast TV and group media. She is currently Director of Faith & Values Programming at NewGroup Media in South Bend, IN (www.newgroupmedia. com.) collaborating with NRVC members and others on religious media projects.

 



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