Hi there, we are Kim Cooper and Richard Schave, the owner-operators of Esotouric (established 2007), and since late September 2020 the hosts of Saturday afternoon webinars exploring the cultural history of Los Angeles.
This is the story of how we got here, with technical advice for fellow tour guides, storytellers and public historians who are looking to make the leap from real world events to webinar production.
Our family business—giving a tour focusing on Los Angeles true crime, literature, architecture and public policy most Saturdays on a chartered coach class bus—has allowed us to spend the rest of the week advocating for historic preservation, exploring local landmarks, writing books and haunting libraries and archives.
In early March 2020, all of that changed.
As news rippled around the world about the spread of the mysterious new coronavirus, we chose to cancel all of Esotouric’s upcoming tours and forensic science seminars on March 11, before any City, County or State restrictions, because we were so concerned about the possibility of COVID being passed among our guests.
We hoped that by letting the subscribers to our large mailing list know how seriously we were taking the pandemic, and by sharing links to trusted resources, we’d help our treasured fans make good decisions about their own health and safety.
Eight days later, California was shut down.
Hopeful that the shut down would contain the virus and we could resume giving tours in a few months, we hunkered down at home and stayed busy, recording six new “In Quarantine” episodes of our Los Angeles history and preservation podcast, performing surgery on a monarch butterfly, and completing a long overdue website redesign, featuring almost 1000 photos from past tours, which seemed increasingly nostalgic.
As spring turned to summer, we realized it wouldn’t be safe or legal to gather dozens of people on a chartered coach class bus in 2020.
Some of our colleagues were experimenting with masked, small group walking tours, but after giving many free walking tours, we felt that they were frustrating, with too small a footprint, less accessibility—our older guests appreciate the air conditioning and comfortable seats of a bus—and no video monitors to share vintage photos and film clips.
Besides, the whole point of an Esotouric tour is getting 50 strangers together to connect with each other while exploring a big swath of the city, not strolling outside with six people from the same household. Walking tours weren’t for us.
Meanwhile, our fans kept emailing. Was Esotouric coming back? Would we be rescheduling the postponed spring tours, or offering replacement events? We told them to stay tuned and we’d let them know when we knew.
In May, the State of California began to allow restaurants to reopen under limited capacity restrictions. We talked about relaunching our Literary Salon series, which had been so successful at the Musso & Frank Grill in 2012-13, at a nice restaurant Downtown.
With a big room, we could spread guests out, have a screen, mic and podium at the front and give a talk after dinner. While it would have to be expensive due to the reduced capacity, we knew we had an audience for such events. But would they still be comfortable leaving home to eat with strangers? Would we be comfortable?
We never got the chance to find out. A few weeks later, California shut down again.
And for the first time, we started to talk seriously about what it would look like for Esotouric’s programming to go online.
Our four-hour chartered bus tours are carefully scripted experiences, with the narrative unfolding over the course of an afternoon, through stops to explore time capsule locations, with window views of passing landmarks, and with conversational snack stops. From the outset, we knew we didn’t want to offer “The Real Black Dahlia Tour: The Virtual Edition.”
We started to brainstorm and soon had a long list of discrete topics that could be expanded into illustrated lectures about Los Angeles history, landmarks or preservation.
But what would Esotouric Online look like?
We were resistant to the idea of broadcasting a digital slide slow with a voice-over, cutting away to our talking heads. Too dry. Yet we didn’t see ourselves clowning around like YouTubers in a test kitchen, trying to replicate the energy and activity of a group tour on our own. With the virus spreading in the community, we weren’t comfortable recording a video presentation out in the field—and besides, we wanted to broadcast live to interact with our audience, though we weren’t sure how that would work.
Then we heard about a new piece of software called mmhmm, which aimed to make video conferencing visually compelling. It looked cool, and nothing at all like a City Council meeting.
We could appear on screen interacting with still photos or videos, or clicking through one of Craig Sauer’s 3D scans of a Los Angeles landmark. It was Mac only, which worked for us. We applied for a beta license, installed and loved it, and could finally begin to see what Esotouric Online could be.
With mmhmm turning our slide shows into immersive virtual environments, we were almost ready to launch a ticketed visual storytelling series. The only problem was Zoom.
It seemed like everyone was using Zoom in the early months of the pandemic, but trusted privacy advocate sources were concerned about how they were using data. From the production side, it seemed like Zoom was nickel-and-diming users, making the costs of creating and hosting content for a growing audience nebulous. And Zoom’s basic service, a two-way audio-video meeting with multiple participants, had a lot of features, but very few of them were what we needed to host Esotouric Online.
Zoom was too much, and not enough.
We cast around for alternatives, and after quite a bit of research discovered the world of dedicated webinar hosting services. Pre-pandemic, these platforms were mainly used by people who sell educational, training and marketing videos and livestreams, which proved to be a good model for a cultural tour company transitioning from public tours to virtual events.
We looked at a number of options, and settled on BigMarker as our webinar platform.
BigMarker appealed to us with its simple interface, the varied types of webinar we could host (including the hybrid model of partially recorded content, partially live), the simple pricing and the integrated payment gateway that let us scale up to the 500 person per webinar rate and immediately receive ticket proceeds through our Stripe account.
We liked that communication with ticket holders was fully automated, with every attendee receiving a confirmation email and reminders with all the information they’d need to tune in when we went live.
Although it is possible to use Zoom in your browser, that information is hard to find, encouraging viewers to download an intrusive piece of software that they don’t need. BigMarker streams in a modern browser window, working on any computer or phone. BigMarker could host large video files without additional cost beyond our monthly plan, allowing us to maintain and sell a library of Esotouric On-Demand webinars.
And most importantly for us, BigMarker is a small company with an extremely responsive tech support department. We had a lot of questions, and BigMarker’s team answered them all promptly and thoroughly. We felt like we were in good hands.
So it was time to run a test webinar with friends who would be tolerant of technical glitches and let us know what was working and what needed fine tuning. That’s when we realized that our older workhorse MacBooks couldn’t handle streaming such a CPU-intensive application as mmhmm.
With mmhmm installed, a BigMarker subscription and the new Mac fast enough to process the visual data, we were nearly ready to go live. We debuted at the end of September with a program about The Bradbury Building, and couldn’t be happier with how things are going.
Here are some of the tools and techniques we’re using to make our live Saturday webinars run smoothly. (If you buy anything after clicking the links, or become a BigMarker customer, we’ll get a small affiliate fee.)
• We got a 5’ x 7’ green screen backdrop and hung it on the wall behind our production space.
• And on a tip from a friend in video production, we picked up a set of zippered sandbags, which we stuffed with bricks from demolished Los Angeles landmarks and use to weigh the green screen down. A wrinkle-free green screen is a happy green screen!
• We laid in a set of of rechargeable USB clip-on variable tone and brightness LED reading lamps, to cast a warm glow from several directions. We clip them onto an empty rolling garment rack that we set up behind the table from which we broadcast.
• We use a couple of gooseneck spotlight LED lamps to illuminate the green screen evenly, allowing us to melt into the backdrop.
• We called the phone company to bump up our data plan.
• We ran a 50’ ethernet cable from our modem to the broadcasting MacBook, to avoid any drops in service. (This is really important. Trust us: don’t use your wireless network to host a webinar.)
• We use a thread adaptor to mount a Blue Snowball iCE USB Mic on a mic stand which can be placed a little closer to Kim—she’s quieter, except when she gets riled about crooked politicians destroying landmarks—than to Richard.
• We set up one of our old workhorse laptops to stream the webinar as an attendee (muted), so we could visually confirm that the broadcast looked good. On another old workhouse laptop, we installed a piece of audio software so we could monitor the audio output quality without having to listen to it while broadcasting. Animus is a free 3D music visualizer that responds in real-time. The graphics react to live input from the microphone or line-in, giving us a visual confirmation that the attendees are receiving sound. It also looks really cool. We run Piezo on the attendee-view laptop, which floats above the webinar video and confirms that both audio and video are coming through clearly.
• When we have a guest host who joins the webinar, and whose upload speed isn’t as good as ours, we use an audio switcher, so we can quickly switch over to confirm that their sound is broadcasting cleanly, using headphones so the slightly delayed audio doesn’t bleed into the broadcast. We have found that BigMarker cleans up any hiccups that we notice from our guest’s live audio feed, but it’s calming to double check.
• We set up a private Slack channel to suck up viewer comments and questions posted through the BigMarker interface, so we can check them on a phone instead of the laptop screen.
This is how we’ve transformed our tour business, and are hosting a live interactive webinar every Saturday at noon, with the recording available for a week, and then become available for purchase in our growing Esotouric On-Demand library.
Since launching the webinars at the end of September 2020, we’ve presented programs about Raymond Chandler, The Dutch Chocolate Shop, The Bradbury Building, The Black Dahlia murder investigation and the tunnels beneath Downtown Los Angeles, with a new program coming every week.
We do a weekly pre-broadcast AV check by going Facebook Live every Friday to encourage folks to tune in tomorrow, and announce the theme for the webinar two weeks out.
Also on Fridays, we publish a newsletter with historic preservation links and a preview of upcoming webinars. When we stopped giving tours, we dropped our paid monthly Mailchimp subscription and switched to Substack, a writer-focused service that supports unlimited free subscriptions, and takes a percentage of paid subs. We offer both type of subscriptions, with paying subscribers getting a monthly post featuring unpublished gems from our travels and archival researches. Subscriptions were a source of support and encouragement when we had no income, and are a nice bonus now that we’re again selling tickets to regular events.
Every Saturday, we look forward to spending the best part of the week with friends near and far, to share the stories of Los Angeles, answer their questions and send them off with recommended reading and films on the day’s theme.
And even though we don’t know when we’ll be able to again gather groups together to explore the city we love, it feels so much better to be creating these virtual events and to have a regular schedule that keeps us busy doing research, organizing slide shows, promoting upcoming events and interacting offline with our wonderful viewers.
We hope this blog post helps our colleagues in the cultural storytelling world with the transition from in-person to virtual events. We’ll update it if we learn anything new and useful. You can do this! Please let us know if you start broadcasting.
Stay safe out there, use the ethernet cable to plug into your modem, keep telling the stories that connect us, and we’ll see you on the other side.
yours for Los Angeles,
Kim & Richard
Esotouric tours & webinars