Streaming media gets down to business

You’re first experience with streaming audio and video on the Internet was probably listening to music or watching a movie clip. However, more businesses are beginning to use streaming media as a business tool.

Audio and video grab people’s attention and are highly effective in selling, advertising, motivating, training, and instructing. For businesses, these advantages translate into increased revenues, greater efficiency, and decreased costs for information delivery.

Steve Mack has spent the last seven years at the forefront of the streaming media industry. He has produced some of the largest Internet broadcasts, including U2 live from Notre Dame (Yahoo Internet Magazine’s “Top of the Net for 2001”), the Rolling Stones Bridges to Babylon tour, Elton John’s Oscar Party, the WOMAD festival, Bumbershoot, the Tibetan Freedom Festivals, The New York Digital Club Festivals, the MTV Europe Awards, President Clinton’s Inaugural address, and the first ever public live Internet broadcast of a Seattle Mariners game in 1995.

Mack’s new book, “The Streaming Media Bible,” is a guide for producing streaming media over the Internet. He currently is the proprietor of Smacktastic Consulting (, specializing in all areas of streaming media. Mack also contributes a monthly column to Streaming Magazine.

Q: How did you get into the streaming media Industry?

Mack: Well, if you go back into the Stone Age, back in the days before personal computing, I was studying at the University of Washington when we heard mumblings of a project down in Palo Alto about the personal computer and graphic user interfaces.

On the verge of getting my degree in computer science, I decided that it was absolutely paramount for me to get away from the U.S. and go to Europe for a while. What started out to be a six to 12 month break became an eleven-year sojourn during which time I was a musician and recording studio owner.
When I got back to Seattle in 1995, I had a mixed bag of experience, mostly in the audio production area. A friend of mine said, “Hey, you should work for this company called Progressive Networks.” At the time, I had dreadlocks going halfway down my back and thought that there was no way a company would hire me. It turns out that Progressive Networks was pretty crazy in those days.

They hired me on the spot because they didn’t have any audio engineers. Progressive Networks went on to become Real Networks, and the people who started streaming media with Real Audio. They didn’t invent it, but they came out with the first freely available commercial model.

You didn’t have to be a genius to learn how to use Real Audio. You downloaded the player – and it just worked!

When I joined there was about 30 people and by the time I left five years later, there were over 1,500 employees. So I was there when streaming media was pretty much “make it up as you go along” until the end when we started to see some standards emerge and some cooperation between different vendors.

Q: When did you decide to write “The Streaming Media Bible”?

Mack: My book came out in April. When the company first pitched me last year, it was a pretty rotten year for all of us in the tech sector. I thought, “Hmmm – I’m out of work” and my friend said, “You should just download everything you know into a book.”

When I was at Real Networks, I did a lot of traveling all around the world to evangelize streaming media in general and Real Networks format in particular. I was continually amazed that, after five years of me traveling all around, I still heard the same questions over and over: “What kind of microphone should I use? Where do I put it in? What do I do after I record it?”
I realized there was a lot of stuff I took for granted which I learned by osmosis being an audio engineer for 11 years and then learning streaming media and helping sort of pioneer it over a five-year period.

Q: Why did you write the book?

Mack: The big problem with the streaming media sector – and really the entire tech sector – is that it’s moving so darn fast and most programmers don’t know how to speak English. So even if you do get documentation with the program, chances are it is absolutely useless and you can just chuck the book out the window.

When you go to these manufacturers and say you know this is completely unintelligible, they then spend the next half hour telling you why you’re wrong. So I decided to go do it myself because I can explain that this stuff isn’t rocket science, and just needs to be explained in a simple, straightforward manner.

Q: A lot of corporations are talking about how to leverage streaming media. What is your advice to them about the business advantage and their return on investment (ROI)?

Mack: The biggest mistake during the last five years is that most people didn’t even think about it. Business leaders would say, “Hey, here’s this shiny new thing and the sales guy says I’ve got the have it.”

Then they realized two or three years down the road all they’ve done is hemorrhaged a ton of money and didn’t get a lot of return out of it. That has done a complete disservice to the industry because a lot of people are immediately turning their noses up at it and saying, “I need to cut all our new stuff and focus on the bottom line.” The reality is, particularly now, streaming media can really help the businesses bottom line. I’ve been in the industry for five years and I drank the Kool-Aid and I believe this stuff.

Be that as it may, a company spends an immense amount of money giving their message out. Whether its for their customers, whether it’s to their employees, whether it’s to their partners, their VAR’s (value added resellers) – there’s just an immense amount of information that has to be distributed. Traditional methods of distributing this information are not timely and very expensive. This is where streaming media is a complete win-win situation.

Now if somebody came to me and said, “I want to start a company and broadcast full-length movies on the Internet,” I’d just tell them, “Look, you’re smoking crack. Don’t even think about that now. The infrastructure is just not there.”

However, if a company came to me and said, “We have a huge training thing that we have to fly employees to who-knows-where and we have to sit them down for three days and we have to put them up in hotels and pay for their meals and it’s costing us an arm and a leg,” I’d say that the perfect situation is to implement streaming media.

You can digitize all this stuff. You can put it online. You can monitor to make sure people watch it. You can give them a chat interface if you need to have live feedback. While the up-front cost may be somewhat substantial – to build out a streaming media infrastructure, you’re going to have to invest a little bit of money – the immediate ROI is just so simple to see when you pencil it out.
I see the big win for streaming media today is in the enterprise area. It’s not so much going to be a profit center. It’s great to be a savings- type of investment.

Q: It’s being able to communicate without the geographic boundaries.

Mack: In the climate we’re in right now, where people are a little leery of flying around anyway and have got to cut the bottom line because people aren’t buying right now, businesses want to know how to make money. The answer is they’re going to save and streaming media can save you a ton of money. It’s that simple.

Q: Let’s go through the different steps involved in setting up for streaming media, whether you are doing it internally or going through a service provider.

Mack: Regardless of whether you’re broadcasting live or you’re creating programming for people to watch whenever they want – an “on demand” broadcast, the process essentially breaks down into four parts.

There is the creation. You’re creating raw programming yourself with a microphone and a camera or maybe you have existing assets like videotape, CDs or audiotapes. You take that and put it into your computer. You have to digitize it in some way.

The next step is to encode it, because raw video and audio cassettes take up a ton of space. Most people now understand that on a CD you’ve got 650 MB of information. Well, to download that over a phone line is virtually impossible since it takes too long and people will never wait for that.

Streaming media technology has enabled you to take all that information and shrink it down to a size that is actually small enough so that you can stream it in real time across the Internet – called “progressive download.”

The next step is to make it available to the public. You ask yourself if you’re just going to put a link on a Website or build a super-cool SMIL interface for in MPEG 4 implementation. This is the offering stage. It can be as simple as writing “click here to watch the training video” and a player pops up and you watch it. Or you can build something more substantial.

Once you’ve built that and tested it locally, the final stage is to put it on a server. The streaming server responds to requests by sending out a continuous connection for the stream. Let’s say somebody is watching this training video and they want to rewind to watch a section again. Well, the server has to be listening to know that Listener #532 wants to back up five seconds and check it again. Essentially it’s just a piece of software that sits on a computer and answers requests from all the people who are watching your streaming media.

Steve Mack can be reached via his Website at The full audio interview with Steve Mack can be heard anytime at

Dana Greenlee is a Web designer and co-host of the WebTalkGuys Radio Show, a Tacoma-based talk show featuring technology news and interviews.