Monday, August 04, 2014

A visit to podcast Mecca -- the TWiT Brickhouse studio

Zen and the art of podcasting

I visited Podcast Mecca last week -- Leo Laporte's TWiT Brickhouse broadcast studio in Petaluma, California.

I got there just as Leo was starting Windows Weekly, Episode 373. There are several sets in the studio, and Windows Weekly is broadcast from one in Leo's office.

The start of the program

Here are some random impressions of my visit.

Seven of us were crammed into the office, facing Leo, as he did the show. There were two couples and three fan boys. (My wife was wandering around Petaluma -- not interested in coming in). The audience demographic surprised me -- several of us had gray beards. That was just the people in the room -- Leo's dog Ozzie was also a member of the office audience.

My first impression in seeing the small set/office was of clutter -- all sorts of geek brick-a-brack, old tech books, and tons of monitors, mobile devices, keyboards, cameras and lights. A box with a Harry's shaving kit was also on Leo's desk -- ready to be shown in a commercial.

Leo's cluttered office/set seen through the window

Leo is super friendly and informal -- "flirting" with the small audience in his office. One of the guys had a full beard, which his wife didn't like. Leo teased them and, after the show ended, he gave her the shaving kit. (I overheard one of the staff complaining that he had given away their only kit).

It seems like Leo is just shooting the breeze with his co-host (Paul Thurrott in this case), but he is watching monitors showing the co-host, chat room, on-the air stream, topic rundown, queued stills and videos, his large-screen Mac, etc. He juggles all this effortlessly with his right hand on the console shown below.

Leo controls the show using the console on the right.

Leo multi-tasks during the program. The console on his right has a button that toggles the studio on/off the air and he is constantly going off the air to do things like unpack a new phone that arrived during the show, fiddle with a tablet, order lunch, eat bites of lunch, yawn, drum his fingers on the desktop, etc.

At first, you wonder if he is bored or not paying attention while off the air, then he toggles on and offers an astute comment or asks a good question -- he is attentive to the on-air conversation at all times.

Leo fidgets a lot, but is not nervous -- he seems totally relaxed while he rolls around or bounces on the large rubber ball he sits on. That relaxation shows through in the show.

Leo is meticulous -- after unpacking his new phone or the Harry's shaving kit, he carefully repackaged them during off-air moments. He (and therefore TWiT) does things properly, without loose ends.

As soon as he finished Windows Weekly and posing for souvenir photos, Leo switched his attention to the upcoming episode of This Week in Google -- he had switched context as completely and quickly as when he went off-air for a bite of lunch. He seems laid back, but is focused and mindful.

The guy is a total broadcasting pro.

The TWiT studio is also highly professional. It is filled with workstations for monitoring and controlling broadcasts and editing video.

There are several sets and control stations in the studio.
There are other sets -- for groups of in-studio participants and other shows. A few minutes after the end of Windows Weekly, Leo had moved to another set where he was preparing do This Week in Google with Jeff Jarvis and Gina Trapani. As shown here, the audience sees Jeff and Gina in monitors behind Leo and he sees them on monitors behind the audience.

Leo on a different set, ready for This Week in Google

Leo's professionalism was underlined at the end of Windows Weekly. If you are a TWiT fan, you are used to the format in which programs begin with a brief summary of the upcoming episode, its title and a short promo for each of the sponsors. As soon as the show went off the air, Leo asked the chat room to suggest a show title -- and then extemporaneously recorded what would become the intro to the show when it was posted online. No effort, totally natural and done in a minute.

If you are interested in seeing a state of the art podcasting facility and having some fun, I heartily recommend a visit to the TWiT Brickhouse. The technology and buzz are reminiscent of the pre-slick, early days of live television, when you felt the sense of good humored, spontaneous experimentation and often saw the technology -- the cameras, cameramen, lights, etc. on screen.

It felt like the early days of live television.

Just in case you think I am making this up -- check out this picture with Leo after the show -- wearing the obligatory TWiT fezes.

After the broadcast

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Update 8/10/2014

I've noted Leo's ability to multitask and remain present in the on-air conversation. I just listened to TWiT 468, the episode recorded the week after my visit to the studio, and Leo confirmed my observation by discussing his attention deficit disorder (ADD). He told his on-air guests (who also claimed to have ADD) that when he is on air "I've got people in my ear, i've got things going on -- I just took a walk around the block while you were talking ..." (About 1 hour 10 minutes into the recording).

He and the guests seemed to agree that having ADD was helpful in their work in tech journalism, and Leo wondered about causality, asking
Are ADD people naturally attracted to tech or, and I think there might be some evidence for it, is all of this stimulus making us all a little bit ADD?
There is some evidence that the latter is true -- -- I know it is for me -- but I am not sure about the former.

This focus on ADD and multitasking reminded me of a biography I'd read of the writer D. H. Lawrence, who was said to be able to write and carry on conversations at the same time. (Conversing and drawing at the same time is pretty easy -- try it). Was Lawrence a super ADD multitasker? Is Leo? Is the Internet giving us all a bit of ADD?