Recently on a trip to the US I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the TWiT studios (known as the “TWiT Brick House”) in Petaluma, California, taking a look at exactly how this podcasting juggernaut operated and get a peek behind the wizard’s (Leo Laporte), curtain. The great thing is anyone is allowed to go and visit, you don’t have to be a bumbling amateur tech journalist like me, but in case you can’t let me tell you all about it.
"Petaluma" Image credit: Raj Deut
Petaluma (map) is not a name you normally associate with the ever-hip tech industry occupying the Californian landscape. San Francisco, Palo Alto, Cupertino, the more likely candidates strewn across tech headlines but Petaluma is where one of the world’s largest independent podcasting centre belongs. TWiT founding father Laporte has called the small city home now for over twenty years and was broadcasting his “Leo Laporte: The Tech Guy” radio show from it long before TWiT came to fruition. The city’s closest major port is San Francisco. Getting from downtown San Fran to Petaluma can be achieved in a variety of ways but the cheapest and most convenient is simply taking a bus. The nigh-on two hour ride is refreshingly pleasant and relatively uncrowded as the morning’s commuters are traveling the opposite direction. If you’ve not visited San Fran or its major sights before the ride takes you straight across the Golden Gate Bridge and offers some beautiful views across the bay towards the city so have those cameras at the ready!
Petaluma itself is the epitome of country America. A wholesome small town with banners strewn across the local business’s windows congratulating the little league baseball team of their recent feats and people actually smiling and waving hello as they pass one another on the street. Later when you realise that parts of the films “Pleasantville” and “Flubber” were made there you can be forgiven of the Hollywood stereotype it purveys at first glance and understand that it’s actually a fairly large centre of around sixty-thousand people and sprawls outwards. And there’s a Starbucks. Of course.
"TWiT Brick House wall" Image credit: Raj Deut
A short walk from the Golden Gate Transit stop will have you on Keller St, home of the TWiT Brick House. Named so because during its construction donations were made by the public whom in return would be immortalised on the interior wall of the reception area to the new studio, their name etched into their own brick. With an estimated construction budget of US$1.2 million you can only imagine the bricks, while a nice sentiment, can not have even pretended to have coming close to being the sole source of funding. Introductions to reception and short couch sitting complete the “audience area” was apparently arranged to a satisfactory standard that I be allowed to pass through the darkened glass walls and enter the studio. If you’ve ever watched the TWiT live stream, or any of the network’s shows you’ve seen the studio a hundred times, you know the sets, you can visualise them in your mind as to where they are in relation to each other amongst the open-space layout but to see it first hand is somewhat of a surreal experience. Immediately to your right is “The round table” studio with Leo’s frankensteined Arne Jacobsen Egg chair, to your left “The living room”, the “TNT newsroom” in the distance beyond TWiT’s central broadcast control desk.
"TNT crew" Image credit: Raj Deut Ushered to my seat before Tom Merritt and the Tech News Today (TNT) crew you begin to appreciate the amount of work and exactly where a lot of the initial setup costs went. Lighting rigs gorged with a mass of LED lights surrounding each set, teems of HD cameras hanging from overhead supports and standing on arms from positions below, the control desk and production equipment switching between them all and pushing it all to the servers beneath and onwards, TV’s littering the walls and serving as virtual heads for Skype linked guests on ready-moveable platforms not to mention the laptops and computer of hosts and staff.
Shortly after I sat down, with a hello and a wave from Tom & co I was joined by a man from Chicago. He’d come to California on business and purposely added an extra day so that he’d have time to hire a car and travel to Petaluma and visit TWiT HQ. The two of us sat there, our heads pivoting between the cast sitting before us slightly off to the left and the produced output being displayed on a TV and streamed to thousands via Jason Howell’s fingers tips at the control desk beside our seats.
"Central control desk & audience" Image credit: Raj Deut
During the recording working life continued on in the immediate environment as if the hosts were no more than a group of staff members chatting around the water cooler. The subtle differences between TV broadcast studio and “podcast” studio started to become apparent and whilst TWiT is by far the most advance and professional new media studio I’ve visited there were remnants of podcasting’s amateur upbringing. Street noise was clearly audible through the large windows lining the west side of the building for example, admin staff tapped away at keyboard mere metres from the open facing sets, the ever stereotypical Web 2.0 dog pawed its way around the building and between the legs of currently on-air hosts whilst techs went about setting up the opposite studio for the next show to begin immediately after. TV execs would call this “Broadcasting on a budget”, but this isn’t TV, it’s new media, it works, its output is professional and its content revered. The distance between TV is further widened by the activity between shows, advertising isn’t streamed instead the general live feed of the set persists and hosts take the time to interact with the audience through a chat room. At first I had no idea who they were talking with, Tom clearly speaking out loud but referring to names I was sure not present and on very different topics with each outburst. I’d never watched the streams beyond a show’s end before and wasn’t aware of the back and forth between chat room and host. It came across like everyone was at a party and the hosts were the guests of honour, crowded by those wanting to say hello and introduce themselves. Occasionally the hosts would interact, occasionally they’d chat to each other until whence it was time for the next show, MacBreak Weekly, to begin and the feed jumped across to the new set where Leo continued the conversation until official recording began.
"Leo @ the round table" Image credit: Raj Deut
TWiT is a unique balance of old and new, a fact reflected in its sets of Bioshock Rapture-eque nature. Shows are punctuated with radio-like advertising read by hosts yet their video is beamed electronically through a series of lenses, cables, servers and pipes around the world instantaneously without cost to the viewer and with a revenue target in excess of US$6million this year they’re proving that it can be done without the middle men of the TV world. If you’re headed to San Francisco any time I’d definitely recommend a trip out the TWiT Brick House if only for the fact you’ll probably get yourself on screen at some point! They’re extremely friendly and open to you taking photos, meeting the hosts and asking questions, all providing time permits of course. I myself will be returning albeit virtually Tuesday morning at 3am where I’ll be a guest on TNT. I wouldn’t say you should all stay up and watch live but do feel free to watch the taping and let me know your thoughts.
About the author Raj Deut is the lead developer at Melbourne based web development agency Efront. When not programming he likes to think of himself as a tech journalist and travels the globe collecting media passes and interviewing strange nerdy people.