Thursday, April 22, 2021

Hemingway Event

Frank Boles

After a year of online presentations that I have helped organize for the Clarke Historical Library speaker series, the Hemingway evening event, held March 31, that preceded the airing of the three-part Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary on the life of Ernest Hemingway on PBS, was organized by WCMU with the help of the Clarke staff. It was fascinating to me to see how true professionals make a live broadcast happen.

Over the past year, I have become an amateur, online event coordinator. This was not a job I sought out. The pandemic made it necessary for the Clarke speaker series to move from on-campus presentations to online events. And, all things considered, I thought we had done a pretty good job. I had much to learn from our friends at WCMU.

Clarke speaker series events were unscripted and unrehearsed. I usually contact a speaker about their willingness to discuss a topic. If they agree to speak, we talk briefly about some basic concerns that I would like them to address, but this is usually a relatively short conversation since the topic is “your new book” or a similarly obvious subject. A few details, like the length of the presentation and perhaps a question or two I think the audience might like to know about and that I hope the speaker will discuss, also happen. But the detailed outlines of the talk’s content, are left up to the speakers.

A day or two before the public event I, with the help of Bryan Whitledge, hold a brief “technical meeting” with the speaker. We schedule an online presentation that is identical in every way to what will happen on the evening of the public talk, but do not “publish” the meeting publicly. It is the kind of meeting that, if you know, you know, and if you don’t, no one tells you. It gives us the opportunity to test the software platform, give the speaker some experience in making the software work, and to be sure whatever visual and audio material the speaker plans to use plays properly.

If everything goes right, this meeting only takes ten or fifteen minutes. If everything does not go right, we have the time to determine what is happening, and develop a fix or a work around that we can use in the “real” presentation. Whatever the problem, it is much less stressful fixing it in this environment than discovering the problem five or ten minutes before a public presentation is beginning. That’s happened too – and it did not make for a fun time as we struggled for a fix with one eye on the clock.

Matt Ozanich and the other staff at WCMU are a far more organized in making sure an event is worth the time of the audience. Preliminary meetings were held to discuss what questions he would ask or should ask since we were welcome to propose ideas and answers were offered.

Michael Federspiel(left), Matthew Ozanich(right),
Frank Boles(bottom)

The week of the broadcast, Mike Federspiel and I sat down with Matt for a dress rehearsal. Using the software as we would for the live program, we tested all the necessary features. There were bugs – it took me about fifteen minutes to get into the practice session. We also ran through the questions, and the answers, to agree who would answer which question, for content. Finally, we “did” the broadcast, against a stopwatch to make sure that in the aggregate we were neither too brief nor to long winded.

On the night of the event Mike and I signed in about a half hour early, along with Lynn Novick, the documentary’s co-director, and Sarah Botstein, the documentary’s producer, who joined us from their homes. The four of us again reviewed the outline of the evening’s presentation and the broad sweep of the answers to Matt’s questions.

When a broadcast begins, the speaker’s perspective is very different from that of the host. Having hosted many an event, my job on those evenings is to essentially get off the stage as quickly as possible and enjoy the show. A speaker, on the other hand, is the show and must keep their thoughts organized, their comments at a reasonable length, and try as hard as they can not to say something really dumb! It is surprisingly hard work.

One of the most interesting parts of the live broadcast was the time when the audience was seeing various videos cued up by the WCMU technical staff. Because of a limitation of the software, those of us actually involved could not see what the audience was seeing, so Matt explained what the audience was seeing, and the four of us (on a channel that was not being broadcast) discussed if there were any “likely” things we needed to say to follow the clips or any questions that the clip might raise.

As the clip ended, Matt would “count us in” to when our microphones would again go live, and often pose a question we had just both framed, and to which we had just developed what we hoped was a reasonable answer.

It was truly a pleasure participating in the program organized by Matt and which featured Mike, Lynn, and Sarah. I hope you enjoy the recording of the event, which can be viewed here. But I equally enjoyed watching how true professionals make happen the live, on-air magic that viewers and listeners often take for granted.