Blog: My Brain Dump

Facebook’s Sharp Stick In The Eye

As of the end of 2011, there were 37 million Facebook pages (aka “fan pages”) for which 10 or more people have clicked the “Like” button. They range from major brands like Pepsi to creators of witty word graphics to indie musicians. Almost everyone knows that Facebook profits greatly from the use of the personal information of its users…but now, they have a new profit center to target: owners of Facebook pages with more than 400 fans.

As the owner of several FB pages in service of a number of my web sites, I spent a lot of time building up the fan bases over the past couple years…including spending money on Facebook ads…to get the word out to those who might be interested. As a fairly heavy Facebook user myself, I felt it made a lot of sense to connect with people as part of their daily FB activity to let them know of new postings on my sites which they might find of interest.

My 3 most active FB pages have 650, 2100 and 7100 fans respectively. To be clear, none of these involve sales of products…rather, they notify particular niche audiences about free music, stories, coloring pages and music videos, which (obviously) many people have found valuable enough to express interest.

I also have a number of friends (music artists, mostly) who started out with standard Facebook accounts…hit the 5K-friend hard cap…and were forced to try to get their fans to switch over to FB pages. These pages are, by nature, less appropriate for interaction with fans…and most of the migration efforts were marginally successful, at best. And then, FB came along and told them they really should have just had people *subscribe* to them anyway. Talk about mixed messages!

So, back to the point: After this investment of time and money to maintain and grow these pages, I am now informed (initially by a blog post from Shane Eubanks) that only a small percentage of those who thought enough of my pages to press Like ever see the posts I make on their behalf.

What percentage? Hard to say definitively…due to a bug in in the Facebook interface at the moment, I can only check one of them. But on that one page, my posts this week ranged between 1% and 7% of my 2000+ subscribers. In other words…almost no one.

As an average FB user, I have always resented being told that Facebook knows better than I do what I want to see of my friends’ activity. But, that’s a minor irritation compared to them blocking my subscribers/fans from seeing what I posted based upon their declared interest! I respect Facebook’s need to make a profit, but I consider this move on their part awkward, ill-considered and utterly unjustifiable. And yet…they do try to justify it.

First off, things *have changed about how your posts are shared. They are barely shared at all. Just because the sharing mechanism remains the same hardly excuses such a statement. And, they also don’t say that most people have a limited view of activity because Facebook controls it instead of allowing you to do so. And it’s a flat-out fabrication to say that “many of the people connected to your Page may still see it”. Not when only 5% of the subscribers ever have the chance!

So, Facebook sees a potential goldmine here. And…how do they choose to implement it? By charging page owners for every single post they make on their page (assuming that the owner wants their subscribers to actually see the post)!

I can understand Facebook seeing page owners as a potential profit center. And a small monthly or yearly charge might be reasonable for many/most active page owners, considering the potential value of connecting with an interested subscriber base.

How will fan page owners react?

  • Will they be satisfied with only reaching 5% of their subscribers for free?
  • Will they pay $5 per post (or whatever Facebook demands at any given time) to reach up to 70%-80% instead?
  • Will they shut down the pages entirely…and attempt to drive fans back to their web sites or email subscriptions, where everyone at least has the *chance* to see everything in which they’ve expressed interest (also, thereby depriving FB of the opportunity to show display and profit from their own ads)?

Or is it possible that, as word of this gets out, that the backlash from page owners will force Facebook to relent and offer a more reasoned approach?

By the way, I’d LOVE to find out that I’m wrong about this…either Facebook’s actions or my interpretation thereof. But as of now…the evidence seems fairly clear: Page owners are screwed.

New Kids Music Video: Water Slide

I’m pleased to announce the release of my latest music video for kids. It’s based on the song, Water Slide, which appeared on my first Chuckleberries album, Yellowberry Jam. Enjoy!

(UPDATE: November 2018) This video was received nicely on YouTube initially, as were most of my videos. If I recall correctly, after about 5 years it had amassed some 40K views, which made me happy. But…somewhere along the line, something changed. Someone, somewhere linked to it from a high-traffic site or shared it in some large forum and it just exploded. As of this writing, it has amassed nearly 2.5 MILLION views. Thanks so much to all who have viewed and shared it over the years! 🙂

Harmony Magazine: Interview With Phil Keaggy (March 1976)

Over the Easter weekend in 1975, my friend Bill Gray and I traveled to Ithaca, New York to interview guitarist/singer/songwriter Phil Keaggy. We had actually interviewed him over the phone earlier in the week, but due to a bit of technical incompetence on my part, the quality of the phone recording was indecipherable. Bill and I were both fans of the Scott Ross radio show (which aired Sunday mornings in Central Ohio on WNCI), and we had always been curious to see the church where Scott was a leader and Phil Keaggy and Ted Sandquist were involved in the music program. So we used the occasion of my technical bumbling to head to Ithaca, to visit and interview Phil at his home…with plans to attend Easter services on Sunday, before heading home.

The interview was a wonderful experience. Phil and his new wife, Bernadette, were extremely gracious…despite the fact that I was an awkward 17 years of age at the time. After the interview, Phil pulled out his guitar and shared with Bill and I the song he had just recorded for his Love Broke Thru album…As The Ruin Falls (a C.S. Lewis poem, set to Phil’s lovely composition…still a favorite to this day). Afterward, I shared with Phil that I had recently begun to write songs as well. He handed me his guitar and asked me to play one…so I played the most complex song I’d written to that point…which was Proverbs 4:20-23 set to a contemplative melody. I was pretty proud of the song, as I had used a lot of unfamiliar chords pulled from the back page of a book on guitar lessons…but after I was done and handed the guitar back to Phil, he ran thru all the chords effortlessly. Of course, I was stunned!

The next year, in 1976, I moved to the Pittsburgh, PA area for a few months to work in radio. First, at WPLW, a small and very conservative station. That didn’t last very long, as contemporary Christian music was a real stretch for them. But then I got a call from WPIT-FM (now WORD-FM) in Pittsburgh (you KNOW a station has been there for a long time when they have the first three letters of the city’s name in their call sign!), and they wanted to talk about adding some contemporary music to their very conservative format as well. So I began playing Christian music there in the afternoons…and apparently, with a few bumps along the way, that’s still the general format of the station today…35 years later!

I also was living with a family just north of Pittsburgh at the time…the Hanchericks (Lou, his wife Peggy, and their kids). Lou was the publisher of Harmony Magazine, which was one of the earliest publications dedicated exclusively to the emerging genre of Jesus Music (later known as Contemporary Christian Music (or CCM). I still had this Phil Keaggy interview, which had only aired once previously on local radio in central Ohio…so Lou decided to make it the cover story of the third issue of the magazine (spring 1976), and then the interview was completed in the following issue (I don’t have a copy of this one anymore).

I thought it might be fun to scan the cover, the table of contents and the 3-page interview and post them here (click on the thumbnails to see the full-size scans). I hope you enjoy it!

New Kids Music Video Released: Hovercar

I’m pleased to be able to announce the release of the third in a series of “legit” videos for kids. The first was Yellowberry Jam, released in early March 2011. The second was The Fantabulous Cumulo-Nimbuli Pump, an animated story released a couple weeks later.

This new one is called Hovercar, and it’s based on a song I wrote some years ago about a boy who own a hovercar…which he loves for all the obvious reasons, but feels he has to keep a secret because he doesn’t want word to get out, less people feel jealous that he has such a cool toy and they don’t.

Rather than sing this one myself, I invited my friend D. Skite (Dave Schuiteman) to sing it. I created the music tracks, but they were significantly enhanced by my friend Dave Matchack, who then mixed and mastered it, and I found a fellow Ohioan named Kyle Akers to take my vision of a LEGO stop-motion animation and kick it up about 10 notches! Finally, I added the sound effects to help bring it all together.

I hope you enjoy it!

Decent-Quality Podcast Audio Doesn’t Come Naturally

The fact that podcasters are often subject-matter experts doesn’t necessarily carry over into the actual process of producing the podcast audio. As a heavy-duty podcast listener, I can tell you that audio quality is often very poor…sometimes bordering on unlistenable. Wouldn’t it all be great if you could afford to outsource the audio production to a qualified audio engineer? But…that’s not the real world. So, while I am NOT an audio engineer, I did play one on TV. Well, that’s not exactly true. But I *was* employed as an audio engineer on more than one occasion…and my daily work as a professional voice talent *does* require me to record, edit and process my own audio. So I do know a little bit about what’s required. I’m sure there are better ways to do what I’m going to share with you here. Practice “safe audio” and consult your (audio) doctor before making life-altering changes. I’d also recommend that you contact Cliff Ravenscraft (The Podcast Answer Man) for more specific advice regarding equipment recommendations and the production process.

1. Recording: Get a decent-quality audio capture device. Halfway-decent microphones can be had for around a hundred bucks. Avoid using your laptop’s built-in microphone if at all possible. And when you get it, do NOT put your mouth right on top of it. If you can’t afford a “pop screen” (basically some panty hose stretched over a metal hoop), then angle the microphone off to the side a bit…at about 45 degrees from your mouth and talk PAST it…not toward it. Depending on the engineer…you’ll find recommendations from 6 to 18 inches from your mouth. Experiment with it and see what sounds best to your ears.

2. Recording Levels: Many podcasts consist mainly of interviews done over Skype. I’ve barely spent any time on Skype, so I don’t know how to tell you to do this…but keep in mind that the host and the guest should be at close to the same audio level as possible. Failing at this point makes EVERYTHING else harder from here on out. Do some testing. Your guest’s volume will vary…so learn ahead of time how to try to match your level to theirs (or vice versa).

3. Audio Processing: If your audio is clean and your levels are balanced, you probably don’t NEED to do a ton of work here…but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do any. Virtually EVERY home-produced podcast could benefit from a little of these:

  • Normalization: If you weren’t able to control the levels when you did the original recording, you might find that they are simply too soft overall. Normalization can pull everything up into a decent range. This is the first step I use in processing.
  • Noise Gate: Gating can knock out the “sound floor”…i.e., the background noise of the room. It can also soften soft sounds (like breaths) to the point where they become almost inaudible (this is a good thing). Getting a gate set properly will take some tweaking…but if you can get it right, you might find it really helps. If you’re in a really noisy environment, though, I’d skip this…prominent background noise dropping in and out is very distracting.
  • Compression: Think about where your podcasts are being listened to. Much of the time in a car, thru a mono bluetooth headset or ear buds in a relatively noisy environment. Sometimes, sitting in front a computer with decent speakers and low background noise. Best practice would be to produce with the noisier environment in mind. What compression does is squeeze the natural dynamics of audio into a much narrower band of sound. This means the soft stuff gets louder, and the loud stuff gets a bit softer. As a result, the overall levels can be raised a bit without blowing out the listeners eardrums.
  • Volume Adjust: After applying compression…if the compressor also serves an expander function, you’ll often need to adjust the volume back to within appropriate levels so as not to distort your final products. I find that cutting my compressed/expanded audio by 50% seems to do the trick. Your results may vary.

4. Delivery Format: We’d all like to sound like a million bucks, but to be realistic, bandwidth ain’t unlimited and neither is storage space on the iPod. Most non-music-oriented podcasts don’t need to be delivered in stereo at all….and should be using 32 or 64kbps mono. There’s no excuse to go higher than 128. That’s a mid-level music-quality audio format (so it’s overkill for most human voice/interview podcast formats).

5. Cleanup: There are many audio recording and editing programs out there. Personally, I use Sony’s Sound Forge. It’s far from perfect (and it’s expensive), but it works fine for recording and editing. I use Audacity for time compression. It seems to work a bit better than Sound Forge (although I detest its editing environment). Audacity is a free program, and well worth owning. You would be wise to learn to clean up your podcasts (or, if you are completely unfamiliar with the concept and don’t want to learn, paying someone a few bucks to do it for you). Listening thru will often reveal awkward pauses, “ummms” while you are thinking and just filling space, false starts to sentences, prominent mouth noises or electronic flukes that results in pops, click and short buzz bursts. Highlighting these and hitting Delete will make your podcast much easier to listen to, and will give you a more credible, professional sound overall.

6. Time Compression: If you’re a podcast or audio book listener, and given to heavy consumption of same…you may have found that using the iPods 2X feature is the best for you, since you can get a lot more info in much faster. However, you shouldn’t consider forcing that on everyone, lest you drive many away. Rather than chopping out breaths and squeezing, the best tool I’ve found is within Audacity. Select all your audio, then Effect >> Change Tempo. You will find that you can comfortably pitch your speed up in the range of 6-8% without causing additional stress to your listeners’ ears. It also has the indirect benefit of adding a tad bit more energy to your podcast…and many programs could benefit from a nudge in this direction.

7. Upgrade your profile: Once you’ve decided your really serious about this podcasting stuff, hire a professional voiceover talent to do an intro and outro for your show. No, it’s not cheap, but there’s a reason that every TV show you listen to has a professional voice to intro the host: it sounds CLASSIER. Make the script fairly generic, so that you don’t have to have it redone every time you tweak your format. And, if you end up with a commercial sponsor…unless they want your personal voice (which implies your personal endorsement of their product), hire that out as well. Unless you are a voiceover pro, you’re not going to sound as good as someone who is. And if you want to really protect the interests of your sponsor, you should make them sound as good as you can. You can find super-cheap voiceover talent at Fiverr.com. But I’ve only heard a couple voices there that I would consider professional quality. Your best bet would be to visit a site like Voiceover Superfriends, where you have several voices to choose from…folks who have been making their living for years doing this stuff are much more likely to deliver something you can be proud of.

So, there are a few tips for you. I hope you find them helpful. For “honest-to-God” audio engineers, please feel free to provide better options than those I’ve presented, or to correct anything I might not have gotten right. For anyone else who has learned lessons with improving the sound of their podcasts, feel free to share as well.