When blogging was young you could tell there was an emerging set of writers with real talent. It wasn't new as a medium, there were probably tens of thousands of LiveJournal blogs around with people expressing opinions and personal thoughts on everything from politics to what they had for breakfast. It's what these talented writers did with the medium that took it to the next level. There's a thousand ways things could have gone wrong for those early pioneers. But with a combination of talent, entrepreneurial skill, and the luck of being in the right place at the right time we've got the vibrant online world we have today. And we have a track record of lots of wins to look back on.
We've got a similar set of conditions brewing in the video broadcast world right now. Turn the dial on your TV and you'll mostly find right-wing ownership of the air waves. News organizations have cut their budgets around the world for sending correspondents out to cover conflicts. And the local TV coverage is mostly a joke. The technology to cheaply record video has existed for quite some time, most people have the ability to do that from their smart phones now. The technology to stream video in real-time has become incredibly easy to use and free. You'll see coverage of all types of events, concerts, discussion panels, and you're even seeing some people broadcast live from Occupy protests.
I wanted to tell the story of someone I feel stands out from the crowd and has been doing something unique and valuable. I'd like to introduce you to Spencer Mills, better known as @OakFoSho on twitter. He broadcasts from the OccupyOakland channel on Ustream.tv and you can find him on the web at OakFoSho.com.
I interviewed OakFoSho last week because I wanted to tell his story, but I also wanted to share insights with the broader community so that everyone can do their own take on this whether they'd like to cover other Occupy encampments or things going on in their own communities. And I hope that it shows you that you don't need to be Steven Spielberg to go out there and shoot video. There's a lot of anxiety when the topic of video is brought up, but don't caught up in being so professional that you shy away from it completely.
<Me: How'd you get started doing this? Did you have any training or experience with this previously?
OakFoSho: I've been at Occupy Oakland from the beginning, even before the camp was constituted and a small group was just meeting about it. I was really inspired by what they were doing in New York. I just considered myself a protestor, and I've been involved in politics a long time. I turned 18 the summer before the 2000 election; voting and volunteering for Al Gore was my first experience in politics. And I've been involved ever since.
I finished my MBA in 2008 at Loyola Marymount when the economy collapsed. I worked for the Obama campaign as a traveling volunteer doing field organizing and student organizing in Nevada and here in the bay area. Then I came back home and couldn't find work. I tried starting my own small business, eventually I got a job doing some political consulting and fundraising but then I ended up unemployed after the 2010 elections again. I ended up working at a gym, losing 70 or 80 pounds there and that gym changed my life. It was a really difficult decision to leave that, the people there are great friends, but there are times in life when it's important to take risks.
I didn't consider myself a citizen journalist or anything. I'd been posting photos and tweeting about what was going on, I'd even been doing that as far back as the Oscar Grant protests. I just thought I was an Oaklander getting the word on Twitter.
My first live Ustream was the night of the general strike, November 2nd. I'd just heard from someone, hey you've got a Droid X phone, you can download this upstream app, broadcast and people will follow and watch. I didn't have any idea what it would turn into. It turns out I was the only broadcaster there that night and all of the traditional media had left earlier in the evening. So the traffic just skyrocketed that night, with my channel and the mirror over at Global Revolution we probably had between 10,000 and 15,000 viewers. We were basically a small cable TV show broadcasting from a cell phone.
It only really takes one event where you're the only real source for things to blow up, and that's true. If that night hadn't happened you might be talking to someone else.
Me: Let's talk tech. I've been tuning in recently and the rig you've got is pretty impressive. Six cell modems, great quality on the stream, night vision. How does it all work together?
Note: If you want to check this out for yourself, Ustream has tech and leasing information on their site.
OakFoSho: I'm not really a tech guy, but let me tell you what I know about the equipment. The equipment itself was loaned to me from the folks at Ustream. The people following me on twitter were all pinging Ustream and asking them to get me some real equipment. This was going on before the big raid in New York happened, and this was the first of these packs they gave out. They invited me to their office in SF and got their tech guys together to show me how this works.
It's basically a backpack, and inside is a modem that has six cell connections. Two on AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon. It sends 1Mbps of high quality video. Then there's a firewire cable that can be plugged in to any firewire compatible video camera. I didn't have a video camera so they loaned me a sony handy cam.
It's really easy to use, you just push a button to connect and then once all the connections are done you connect the camera, do a screen test, and then hit play. As long as the batteries are good you're able to stream, so I have quite a few extras. The most delicate part of it is the firewire connection into the camera so I reinforced that with some tape.
Going with the better equipment, HD video and getting rid of issues like having the video be really pixellated at night led to a much bigger following online.
Me: Ok, so having good tech and being at the right place at the right time is part of it, but I don't think you should sell yourself short here. You're not only out there telling people's stories directly, but there's also an activist component to what you're doing. And that makes the broadcasts interesting, not passive. Can you talk a little bit about your approach to interviewing protestors and also shining a light on police actions?
OakFoSho: What happened with Scott Olsen, the Marine that was hit in the head with a tear gas canister in Oakland and critically injured, really taught us all a lesson. What a lot of the cops in Oakland have been doing is against procedure and illegal. So I'll go up and down the line and call out badge numbers and names. I'll specifically look for and note individuals that are holding riot control weapons like tear gas guns or beanbag and rubber bullet shotguns. Those individuals are carrying less than lethal equipment, but they have the ability to kill someone if they don't use it according to procedure. So I want to hold them accountable. I want everyone to know exactly who they are, and I want them to know everyone knows who they are. All of the cameras out there are essentially the buffer against them doing something stupid. It makes them think twice when you do that.
So if you're going out to the protest then download the Ustream app and start broadcasting. It doesn't matter if you have a large following, that broadcast is a check on police power and if something happens that's something that can be used in case.
Even last week in LA, we had an officer that had his finger on the trigger and pointed his rifle directly at my head (video of the incident). That's not ok, it's against procedure and there are people telling me I should press charges. You've got to hold them accountable. Their duty is to protect and serve not to point and shoot.
I'm definitely an activist, some people get upset that I editorialize. But I'm a protestor too. I consider myself viciously non-violent, but non-violent doesn't mean silent. I walk the line in-between.
I'm definitely against corporate money in politics, and I believe that as long as elected officials are taking money from the interests they're supposed to be regulating that the system is fundamentally broken. That's why I'm there.
Me: You've definitely got a unique set of things going here, I just have to say the interactivity of your stream is by far the best I've seen. You were responding in real-time to things said in the Ustream chat room, on Twitter and through texts you were receiving. That seems like something really impressive to manage, how do you pull it off?
OakFoSho: When I went down to LA I travelled down there with a friend from SF, PunkBoyInSF, he was shooting from his phone and providing some different angles on the night. Another Occupy Oaklander came down with me and she was just walking with me and reminding me to do things like drink water, giving me trail mix to keep my energy up and stuff like that. And then I had a friend back home in the bay area, @OccupyMills, that was monitoring things online and texting me updates.
So I consider myself autonomous guerilla media. I'm in touch with people on the Occupy Oakland media team, but I'm not officially part of it. And I can't be officially part of it until a policy of nonviolence is adopted in Oakland. Right now it's a policy of "diversity of tactics."
So I'll walk around with the pack and film, sometimes I'll pull up Facebook, Twitter, or the Ustream chat and just start answering questions on camera. And then my friend @OccupyMills was giving me updates as text messages as she was watching at home, texts are easier to deal with than 100's of @ replies.
And on my stream I'll ask people for information and then my friend would listen to the responses, do her own research and then text me answers or updated info.
I also had just a homemade, laminated press pass that I had around my neck and if I got questioned by the police I'd just pull it out and act the part so they'd let me by. That gave me the freedom to move around and cover different things.
Me: A lot of the people we serve are activists or organizers for non-profits or labor. Covering the conflicts and stories in the Occupy movement is unique, but what advice would you have for people that might be looking to tell stories from the picket line or at rallies and direct actions or even in communities they're serving? Let's say someone wants to get started here. What advice would you give them?
OakFoSho: To tell the story you need access. The equipment gets me in a lot of places, because it's the same kind of stuff professionals have. They might have better cameras, but the same backpacks. Before I made up that press pass I'd just show someone the backpack if I was questioned.
But as far as documenting something, the equipment helps but I just try to be honest with how I feel and what I see. For example, when LAPD was doing a good job by not hitting people or following procedure I'd say that on the stream and give them credit. Try to show your viewers what you want them to see as unfiltered as possible.
And you have to just get started somewhere. The first night I did it, I didn't really think about it I just went out there. You might not have many viewers, but that's ok too. I always told myself if one other person was watching then it was worth it. Not all the videos I do get thousands of viewers, some of them only have a hundred. But there are that many more people that are informed. So just download the Ustream app and press record. You never know what's going to happen, whose life you'll affect, what you'll capture.
What people seem to like is my commentary and views, so just go out there and talk and interview people. Don't worry about trying to be some kind of neutral journalist. If you've got a passion for something then make that clear.
Me: Last question, how can we support you? Do you take donations?
OakFoSho: Yeah I've got a web site up at OakFoSho.com with a donate button. People have been getting in touch to donate things like airline miles. I'll be putting up an equipment and technical needs page. We're going to be improving this site soon and I'll be fully transparent about how the money is being spent right on the site.
I'm completely supporter funded, so head over and donate what you can.