Broadcasting Live Rituals: Some Lessons Learned

Isaac Bonewits, founder of ADF, wrote in his “Vision of ADF:”

“We see globally televised Samhain rites at Stonehenge, and Beltane ceremonies attended by thousands in every major city.”

Times have changed since he wrote those words, and television is not the same “global force” it was in 1984, but today we have many more tools at our disposal, including live streaming on the Internet, and this article is about the joys and challenges of that experience as we dip our toes in.

At our last two rites, Samhain and Winter Solstice, Three Cranes Grove, ADF, has experimented a bit with live streaming of our rituals. This has been a fascinating experience, one very different than we expected.

On the one hand, the entire process was really quite successful: it brought our rituals to a very diverse and far-flung audience that usually would never get to experience a rite of the size and sort we put on here at 3CG.

On the other hand, it also added new concerns into the discussion of what it means to be “public” in our rituals, which we’re working to address.

A little history and context: We get about an average of 60 people to our rites, depending on the weather and the season, and our cameras have been pretty obvious for some time now (probably about 5 years with consistency, and on occasion before that). We mostly got into this game with an eye toward providing a view of what a really high-churchy Paganism could look like at our Dublin Irish Festival rituals (which get around 250-300 people on average: check out our most recent recording of a DIF rite on YouTube).

Of course, then we had the tech to record all our rites, and so we started setting up the camera more and more often (why use an investment of that size once per year when you can use it 8-15 times per year?). Over the last few years, we’ve put a lot of money into Grove-owned technology (plus some individually-owned tech), but we started with a $100 point-and-shoot camera that wasn’t even high def back in 2010. The Grove now owns five video cameras and a small mess of peripherals to go with them.

Our Grove has come at this from a perspective of, “We can extend our public ritual invitation to people in an immediate sense.” What we’ve so far aimed to do with our live streams and video is to let you have a window into our ritual space, to experience the joy of community and the blessings, no matter how far you are from us. To that end, it’s been very effective, and even though our interaction with viewers is small, we feel their presence in ritual in a way that’s hard to describe.

Do you want to do this with your Grove? Here are our (initial) tips on how to manage the process:

Equipment:

Here’s my short list of required equipment to stream live at this point:

  • Your smartphone/tablet
  • A tripod
  • A tripod mount for your phone/tablet; I use one of these two:

You must have a tripod or some way to steady the shot, honestly, to get a decent shot. If you don’t, you won’t be happy with the video, not really. So, with a $25-$50 investment for the cheapest tripod and mount you can find, your Grove can also start streaming.

Really, that’s all you need to get started. I’m serious.

Streaming Platforms

Platforms are the key to both reaching your audience and connecting. At this point, we’ve tried two distinct platforms that I want to give you the pro’s and con’s of: Periscope and Facebook Live.

Platform 1: Periscope

At Samhain, it was a very “spur of the moment” decision to go live. I hadn’t done any research into this, I just knew that Periscope was an app I could use to stream stuff (one of our Grove members had been using it and turned me onto it). Having never in my life run a live videostream before using this service, I just turned it on and away we went.

You can watch a recording of that rite on Periscope, and get a notion of the streaming experience  (Spoiler Alert: it wasn’t great).

Despite all of that, we had 167 people tune in during the broadcast. 167! Literally the only announcement that took place was that it popped up on Twitter when we started, got shared to my personal Facebook, and shared to the Grove FB. With zero warning, we had 167 people join the 55-or-so people in the room. Periscope can also notify its users when someone goes live in their area, so we had a few who had no idea what was going on tune in (you can see their comments on the stream; it’s kinda amusing).

Here’s what I learned from that:

  1. Only use a service that allows you to save your broadcast to your device if possible. Periscope offers that, but I didn’t save it (because I hadn’t done the research to start with). The video I have been able to save after-the-fact is one step up from unusable garbage… and I’m glad I didn’t have to use it. If I had been able to save it to my device, I think it might have looked pretty awesome.
  2. Bandwidth is king for quality. At your pre-ritual briefing, you gotta tell people to shut off their wifi on personal devices so your signal remains strong. I had issues connecting to the wifi at the site, particularly in the first position I set up for the camera, and so I had to move the camera nearer to the hotspot to get it to even turn on and go.
  3. All streaming products use their own proprietary apps. Periscope does as well. I figured you could just watch without an app, but on iOS and Android, it prompts you to watch on the Periscope app instead of in your browser. I found that terribly annoying as a content creator. When it’s something like FB or YouTube, which virtually everyone owns, it’s not a big deal, but asking people to download an app they don’t have is a bridge too far for many.
  4. There’s a serious thirst for content out there. If you build it, even without warning and requiring people to download an app to see it, they will come.

So, with Samhain behind me, I decided to get a bit more proactive on the research front, and started looking into options. Unfortunately, another opportunity to test wasn’t far behind: after Thanksgiving, The Ohio State University community was attacked by a guy who rammed some students and started slashing them with a knife. Jan and I got together at The Magical Druid to open up the community altar since we’re just a bit down the street. We decided on another impromptu livecast, but this time (unhappy with the experience with Periscope), we went with Facebook after realizing that YouTube wasn’t an option for livecasting from their app.

Platform 2a: Personal Facebook Live

You can watch that video from our impromptu Livecast on my personal Facebook page:

Now, I ran this one on my personal page on FB, which (in hindsight) was a mistake, but I left it public. We had about 52 people log in to view during the event, I think, and since then it’s been viewed about 500 times. That’s not bad for 3PM, on my personal page, also unannounced.

Things I learned from this:

  1. If you think you ever might want to livestream, get good at it before you need to. Seriously, practice with the thing you’re going to use. There are a lot of options when it comes to streaming, and each service is different.
  2. If you stream on FB, do it from a Page, not from your personal account. Heed this warning (more on it later). Right now, if you broadcast via a personal account, you get a 400×400 square video, and up until about a week ago, you couldn’t download the video in anything better than that. That’s virtually useless for saving, and it *only* looks okay on mobile. In addition, the framerate is awful. I tried to import it for editing and… well, let’s just say it’s nowhere near 30 fps. It was so bad I went back to edit in another camera angle, and I had to drop it to well under standard definition. You can see the result on YouTube. But the most damning thing about not doing it on your FB Page? NO ANALYTICS. Once you have analytics, you’ll wonder why you didn’t go after them sooner.
  3. Picking a good location, sound-wise, and good framing are really important. This was something I didn’t fully understand until I went back to look again. If you watch the YouTube video, you’ll see that the framing is just… well, it’s awful, from both camera angles. In addition, the street noise is an issue: the shop is on a very busy street, and a lot of times, you’ll hear automobile and truck noise over the dialog.
  4. Facebook actually does promote native content better than imported content. If you want your FB friends to see that you’re broadcasting, or if your community has a heavy FB presence, broadcasting via FB live is (I say this with grudging honesty) really the way to go. More on this when I talk about Yule, too.
  5. It’s okay if livestreamed ritual is “messy.” The background noise, the toddler nearly knocking over the camera and chattering during the rite, and not really knowing what to say has advantages over polish in something like this: people don’t log in looking for a perfect experience, just a real one. The comments on the video bear that out.

Platform 2b: Stream Live From a Facebook Page

At Yule, we decided to go another step and let people know that we were going to stream in advance. This put some pressure on to get it right, so we did some preliminary testing. I put up an empty Facebook page I could do livestream tests on, and then I started trying to figure out how it was going to go. I’d record a video live on my phone, watch it on my computer, and see what worked, then delete the video.

At the rite, I got there early enough to check the wifi (and decide it wasn’t strong enough to broadcast, so I switched to cellular data on my phone), set up a decent frame for the video, and this time I paid attention to the camera somewhat carefully. Once I started the livestream (during the pre-ritual briefing), I made it a point to welcome people “attending remotely,” I kept the work in the frame during the ritual, and I acknowledged people watching at home in the rite. It was, really, an excellent presentation of the work we do in our normal rites.

When I ended the transmission, FB notified me that over 500 people had seen the live video feed during the rite. Analytics showed we could claim about 350 people “virtually attended” the rite because they’d interacted with the video in some way (FB measures how many people turn on the sound, go full screen, or even click the “more info” button on the description). Since then, as of this morning, we’ve had nearly 1,000 people watch the video on FB and YouTube (we edited a second version with multiple camera angles and better sound).

You can view our Yule event on FB (as originally streamed) or on YouTube (edited after the fact).

Things we learned at Yule:

  1. Streaming from a Facebook Page (the Pages App allows this) is way better than doing it from your personal page. You get a 16:9 ratio frame, the people who you want to see it will see it (not just the people friends with you), and FB will automatically promote the content (you’re not even allowed to pay to “boost” the stream while it’s live) based on the number of interactions it receives. You can also download a HD version of your stream in case you forget to save the video (N.B.: always save your video to your device at the end of the stream, which is an option on FB streaming: quality is always going to be better if you do that… 720p vs. 400 pixels wide, last time I tried).
  2. I streamed for a bit over an hour, and the final file was just under 1 GB when I saved it to my phone. I assume that it uploaded all that content on my wireless data plan (I’ll find out for sure later this month, when my bill arrives), so… make sure your data plan can handle it if wifi doesn’t work out. But if it really was 1 GB, that’s not nearly as bad as I’d feared, size-wise.
  3. You need some way to check that you’re not having technical difficulties. I popped my computer up in the back and checked to make sure the darn thing was still going once or twice. We haven’t had it happen yet, but I can imagine that it would be very annoying to have your stream drop halfway through and not notice until the end of the stream. We did all we could to mitigate potential issues, including plugging my phone into the wall before we started, checking on it a couple of times during the ritual, and having a person (me) assigned to figure out what to do if it broke down.
  4. It’s clear we’ll need to improve the audio. Of all the comments I got back, no one complained about the picture, but the audio got comments. I don’t think it’s a long-term solution to rely on a built-in microphone in your smartphone or tablet, though you can totally do it to start. I have a new mic to try next time we live stream, so we’ll see how it goes. Having the camera across from the bards and not next to them was very helpful, though: a drum right next to the camera can kill your audio.
  5. A bit of stage lighting goes a long way. I put a little diffused light on the bards at Yule and it really helped them not get lost in the shadows, or washed out by the sunlight that came in the window at one point when the rest of the space was dark.

In relation to point 1 of these things we learned at Yule, I will ask: if you see a 3CG live video come across your FB feed, do us a solid: like it, unmute it (if even for a moment), click for more info, and maybe even share it out. You’ll be promoting ADF content, and if you interact with it, FB will spread that promotion out while it’s live. I’ll happily return the favor.

Conclusions

Livestreaming isn’t for everyone, or every Grove, but man, it’s gotten easier and better really fast. You, too, can provide a lot of this content and work. It’s pretty amazing, actually.

Anyway, I hope this post is helpful. I’m seriously thinking about doing a video of our process for folks to get a better handle on how to do this.

And, of course, I’ll ask that if you want to see how this develops, subscribe on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/3cgvideos and follow us on FB at https://www.facebook.com/threecranes/ and yadayadayada. But seriously, I’m excited, and no matter what, we’ll be producing more stuff.

Keep an eye out for it, friends.

Brightest Blessings,
-Rev. Michael J Dangler

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