Two weeks ago, on a Tuesday, the Executive Producer of the Scott Mills Show came to me and said "we want to put Katy Perry in a room for an hour, streamed live on the Internet, and for the audience to be able to tell her what to do. Can we do that?". Sure, I said, when? "On Thursday". Oh, OK then.
Well it wasn't exactly like that - we'd been thinking of Katy Perry ideas for several weeks, since her management had come to us and said "lets do something other than just a straight interview - Katy's up for most things". Various ideas had come and gone through the process of feasibility and approval, and I'd had wind of the U Ctrl idea a few days earlier, but it was only on the Tuesday morning that it was green-lit by Katy's management, meaning we had 48 hours to make it happen. The first things that go through my mind on an occasion like this are the following.
Where will we do it?
It obviously has to look right (in this case a big white space, like off of Willy Wonka), but it also has to be easy for Katy and Scott to get to (within 10 minutes of the radio station). We toyed with the idea of dressing one of our meeting rooms at Radio 1 Towers, but ultimately decided this would look crummy, and besides we had only 48 hours to build it (in fact less, if you consider the time needed to then rig cameras etc). Wherever it was we also had to consider the need for a strong upstream internet connection to get the thing online. Which brings me to the next point...
How will we stream it?
Our technology plan for streaming is well established - we designed it two years ago when we live streamed from Scott Mills' house, and it's done well or us all that time. It involves a video signal, an audio signal, an AV-DV converter that turns them into a combined Firewire signal, and a laptop running free Flash Media Encoder software to upload the stream to the BBC's Akamai accounts. To do this, we need a 1mbps upstream internet connection, with little or no contention.
Thankfully, we found a cracking location just around the corner from Radio 1, which had everything we needed. As a post-production studio, it was used to handling large files, and had something insane like a 40mbps upstream connection. It also had a small but perfectly formed infinity cove studio with a lighting rig. So, we could put Katy in a room, film her, and put it out online. But the last piece of the puzzle...
How will we the audience control Katy?
We have a number of tools at our disposal for this - our Facebook pages, our Twitter, our SMS system, and a chat product called Cover It Live that we've used for more than a year now. The problem here was not the tools, but developing a human process to filter the good stuff out of those various sources (it's fair to say we were expecting a lot of, ahem, unusable suggestions from the audience).
We devised a system where three members of the team would select good suggestions from the audience, and filter them into a shared Google Document - sorting the wheat from the chaff. Scott's producer Emlyn was then the final filter, sorting through the wheat to decide what would get put into the... cake (sorry). He then published chosen instructions to the 'auto-cue' facing into the studio, as well as the Cover It Live window online. I hawked this diagram around all day Wednesday to help explain it to people (made using Popplet on iPad - show off, I know).
Build-up and prep
We announced U Ctrl Katy on that Tuesday, on-air and on all our social spaces. During that time we deliberately encouraged people to think wildly about what they'd have Scott and Katy do. Obviously, during an hour-long broadcast we couldn't materialise props etc out of thin air, so this time was important to let us know that kind of things we'd need to bring to the party. My favourite here was the Potter's Wheel - a listener called Marshall Line on Facebook suggested that Scott and Katy should recreate the famous scene from Ghost.
We also knew that an hour of two people stood in a white room wasn't going to be completely sustained entirely by audience suggestions, so we planned a few other surprises like balloons, paints, swingball etc. During the show, we gave the Facebook and Twitter audience advance notice (5 mins or so) that these props were going to be brought out, to give them time to offer suggestions for instructions.
How did it go?
Well... you really had to be watching it to completely get the surreality of it all. Several people described it to me as like "being inside somebody else's weird dream". We served a good number of video streams - not our highest ever, but good for the time of day. Here's the highlights video and the photo gallery.
The main thing we learnt about this project is about volume! We received more than 7000 suggestions during that hour - that's two every second. Inevitably that led to some disappointed people. Some people even suggested it wasn't live and we'd made it all up - I can assure you it very much was live, which a read-out of my heartrate would have attested. In particular, a popular movement toward the end for Katy to put a shoe on her head wasn't picked up by the process, and was used by the doubters to 'prove' that it wasn't live. I wish that one had got through to us in the studio, but it didn't.
There are undoubtedly better ways to flow that data, perhaps using some automation/aggregation technology, a central control panel, etc. But given we had 48hrs to develop the whole proposition, I'll forgive us not getting this perfect the first time.
I'd love to do it again. In a way, I think it's a shame that we started with one of the biggest stars in the world (though, that's clearly at the core of the audience appeal) - I like the idea of a series of U Ctrl, building up through the chart until we have people controlling Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Beyoncé, R-Patz. Whether anyone else is as open to doing it as Katy though, remains to be seen.