Live from New York

Journalism students transform an iPad into a satellite truck with the right tools.

GUEST COLUMN | by Phil Altiere

PHOTO CREDIT Wasim AhmadStony Brook University School of Journalism wanted to provide students with an innovative experience around what makes live broadcast news so special.

The journalism students had already produced weekly newscasts, but they had not yet tackled “live-to-air.” They’ve always had a safety net, the comfort of editing out the mistakes. We wanted to offer students an experience where they would have to be prepared, well rehearsed and not miss a deadline – all at the peril of causing the live show to fail.

But we did not want to stop with just doing a live show. We wanted to give the students the real “live” experience – multiple, on-the-scene live reports from Stony Brook University’s homecoming events.

By the time our live show came, the students had set up the systems at three locations by themselves.

To pull that off, you would normally need a $100,000 satellite truck. Luckily, we found a less-than-$1,000 solution to this problem: The Padcaster, a device that enables the user to mount an iPad onto a tripod, as well as attach multiple accessories.

With the help of 4G LTE and wireless networks, this tool was used to send live reports back to our studio. With mics, lights, Skype and The Padcaster bringing it all together, we were able to transmit from the scene into our master control room. We used iMacs with the Skype app to receive the feed from the iPad.

You need a bit more than that to pull off a true live report from the field. You need to have communication between anchors in the studio and the reporter. That way they can discuss the story live on the air. You need to send an audio feed that does not have their own voices in the delay loop (also known as “IFP” or “-1”) to the reporters. And seeing anchors live on the iPad (known in the biz as “return”) wouldn’t hurt, either.

The biggest challenge: to have our master control room do this with an iPad. So with some creative wiring, auxiliary audio mixers and a slew of HD-SDI and digital adaptors, we did it.

None of this would matter if the students could not set up this tool in the field without assistance.

The learning curve to teach journalism students, who are not technicians, was very small. Because we are using technology the students are familiar with (iPads, Skype, etc.), they were able to easily comprehend the process. They were shown step-by-step how to connect to the tools, mount it on a tripod and connect to Skype. Afterward, we did a dress rehearsal with students doing most of the work.

By the time our live show came, the students had set up the systems at three locations by themselves. Each location contacted the control room, and we were ready.

The 30-minute live show was a success. Students called it the best broadcast experience they have had yet at the Stony Brook School of Journalism, saying they couldn’t wait to do it again.

To improve the next live broadcast with The Padcaster, I reached out to Apple Education, who put me in touch with Josh Apter, the tool’s creator. He was very enthusiastic about our project and willing to help make it better.

But Mr. Apter’s enthusiasm did not end there. He asked us to showcase what we did at the Content and Communications World (CCW) Expo at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City. Jumping at the chance to show our technique to broadcast professionals, the students and I put on a three-minute “Live News Show” from the convention center using the same techniques we used at homecoming: a reporter in the expo hall reporting back to our anchors at the Stony Brook TV studio. This piqued the interest of experts and professionals at the show. Several came up afterwards with questions for our Stony Brook group.

In an ever-constricting industry, journalists are looking for cost-effective and clever solutions. With the right tool and a little ingenuity, we were able to reasonably duplicate a live news broadcast for nowhere near the cost. It was an inventive learning experience for the students – and one that we hope to build on in coming years.

Philip Altiere is an Instructional Support Technician at Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism. Write to: philip.altiere@stonybrook.edu

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