They call him the hardest working man in podcasting. Now he’s extended his TWiT empire to include a live, hi-res video stream. Oliver Lindberg talks to the one and only Leo Laporte about being the glue that holds together an online community
No broadcast journalist has embraced new media as much as podcast guru Leo Laporte. Although he’s still got one foot in traditional broadcasting (he hosts syndicated show The Tech Guy on US satellite radio), he’s managed to build up a small empire of podcasts, or netcasts as he prefers to call them, since the launch of the original TWiT (short for This Week in Tech) in 2005. It’s no coincidence that he’s often called the hardest working man in podcasting.
Leo Laporte laughs at the use of the word ‘empire’ to describe the 14 hugely popular shows he hosts on the TWiT Netcast Network. “I guess it’s an empire,” he says, “a very small empire, but I serve at the pleasure of the community. I can never say it’s mine. It’s not mine, it’s ours.”
So, when Leo launched his latest project, a live video stream called TWiT Live, the community was already there. The show, which currently goes out five days a week, very quickly reached 3.6 million viewers a month – not bad considering 4.6 million people download the TWiT netcasts every month. Whatever Leo touches online seems to turn to gold. He’s got more than 50,000 followers on Twitter – only Kevin Rose and Barack Obama have more.
“It’s funny – I’ve said for a long time that I wouldn’t ever do video because audio is easier for people and it’s cheaper for us to produce,” Leo explains. “You couldn’t do live streaming before. Until a couple of years ago, when companies like Stickam came along, it wasn’t technically feasible. But there’s something about live that’s really fun, so when it became technically and economically possible, people kept asking me for it and I finally said I’d do it. I started doing it on the radio show – a cheap, crappy version – but people wanted more and more. There seems to be this demand – I’m actually surprised more people aren’t doing live streaming. My eyes have been fully opened here. I think streaming video is the next big thing and I’m very excited about it.”
It’s always struck me that live is ultimately what the internet should be because what’s different from broadcasting television and internet television is that it’s interactive, it’s fully two-way
Initially, TWiT Live will show how Leo produces his podcasts from his cottage in Petaluma, California, but most of the shows won’t go to video. The longer term plan is to add content in between. The live show will include interviews, conference coverage and breaking news stories like the recent 24 Hours of iPhone event, which tracked the launch of the iPhone 3G around the world and attracted 271,733 viewers in total. Eventually, Leo wants to produce 40 hours of really interesting content a week. “It’s always struck me that live is ultimately what the internet should be because what’s different from broadcasting television and internet television is that it’s interactive, it’s fully two-way. You’re not really fully interactive unless you’re live, so we take live questions in all the podcasts now. We want to do more and more of that live topical coverage. Ultimately, I see this becoming kind of a populist CNN for geeks. So if there’s a big breaking tech news story, you immediately turn it on and know that we’ll be there talking about it and have experts on. You’ll get the story as it develops.”
When Leo announced his plan to use Stickam, many people were surprised. After all, the most prominent live streamer on the web, Chris Pirillo, is on Ustream. “In the first year I did both Ustream and Stickam informally, without any relationship with either of them,” Leo explains. “I also used Justin.tv, BitGravity and Yahoo Live. I tried all the services and they all did really good jobs with it. They’re all doing essentially the same technology, so it really came down to which company was going to give me the things I needed. Stickam is really helpful with programming. They’ve given me a special 16:9 window and have gone the extra mile. They’re giving me a lot of bandwidth – we’re able to handle 10,000 people without a problem. I think we’re a really good team because Stickam is really interested in figuring out what needs to be done to make this work and develop this platform.”
Bandwidth issues – especially for Leo’s show, which is sent out on 16:9 high definition resolution – are still critical. Usage is pretty steep and consistent, even when only 2,000 people are watching at the same time. Stickam put TWiT Live on a dedicated server cluster, which ensures it can scale to more viewers without slowdowns.
Once past the technical problems, the main challenge that’s left is finding the content. This has never been a problem for Leo, who’s got more ideas than time and resources. “The audience is pretty tolerant,” he says. “They seem to understand that it’s an informal broadcast that’s not CNN and they kind of like that, I think. I don’t have too much trouble filling the time and they seem to be patient when, for instance, I have to get up and go to the bathroom. We don’t have commercial breaks and so they just have to sit and wait while I do that.”
In fact, the community is active whether the cameras are on or off. When the show is over and the chatroom is open, thousands of people stay all night long to talk to each other. “The programming is the anchor for the community. As a programmer you’re really providing the core, the reason for getting together, but ultimately what makes it work is the people. They become part of a community and so the chatroom is critical to the whole thing. It’s very important to have a chatroom attached to the video, so that people who casually wander by know immediately, ‘Here’s the community and here’s how you can be part of it.’ It really changes the experience of watching TV when you’re watching it with other people in a community.”
It’s hard to turn the cameras off because it’s so much fun. Yesterday I finished with TWiT at 4.30pm and I was still talking to people for another two hours
Although Leo’s on the other side of the camera, he still sees himself as part of the community. “I’m staying on air as long as I can every day because ideally I’d like this to be 24 hours, which means I have to get more hosts. It’s hard to turn the cameras off because it’s so much fun. Yesterday I finished with TWiT at 4.30pm and I was still talking to people for another two hours. I’m part of the community too, and just as people find it hard to leave the chatroom, I find it tough to leave the community and get on with my regular life.”
Originally, Leo didn’t want to include any advertising on TWiT. He wanted it to be a direct medium supported by the people who listen to it, but that turned out to be too idealistic and few people were donating. It was enough to support the network initially, but to grow it to the size it is today, Leo had to strike ad sharing deals (as happened with Stickam). Now TWiT is a proper corporation with four employees, including an accountant and a book keeper, and Leo expects to gross a very respectable $1 million this year. However, he says he still makes his living with radio show The Tech Guy and ploughs all the money he’d be making back into TWiT to develop it.
In the future, Leo would like to add a gaming, a mobile phone and an audio book podcast, but right now the resources aren’t there. The focus is on beefing up TWiT Live. Only recently, Leo installed a Tricaster Studio (newtek.com/tricaster), which means he can switch between up to six cameras and several computer screens to show the Skype callers. “That’s the advantage of being the sole proprietor, the guy in charge,” Leo laughs. “You get to do what you want. Internet broadcasting gives you complete and utter control. I have to say it’s very intoxicating, it’s very addictive. Once you have control over what you’re doing and the audience you reach, you don’t ever want to do it any other way. The mistakes you make are all your own, and I made more than my share, but I get to do what I want and that’s the fun part of the creative process.” And so, at 51, Leo Laporte doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine the web without him. He is both the voice and the face of internet broadcasting.
Job: Tech broadcast journalist
Education: Studied Chinese History at Yale University
Previous career: Creator and co-host of Dvorak on Computers, managing editor at Ziff-Davis Television, host of Call for Help, The Screen Savers and Laporte on Computer