Lights… camera… chaos – the perils of hosting virtual events

Susannah Streeter, virtual presenter

Bright lights, ‘manned’ cameras and countdown clocks used to be the backdrop to our broadcasts and corporate events but the pandemic has upended the traditional studio set-up. As Covid-19 spread around the world, TV and radio stations closed their doors and presenters, correspondents and their guests all had to work out how on earth we could adapt to becoming virtual presenters from home.

Coming up with a solution quiet enough to broadcast, professionally, to the world was no mean feat, especially once the schools closed their gates and we were left trying to educate children at the kitchen table.

But nothing, we’re told, is impossible.

Within days, the ‘cupboard of doom’ under our stairs was transformed from an untidy repository for shoes, coats and sports gear into a tiny radio studio. We used an In:Quality Despatch Box to connect to BBC Broadcasting House via sip.audio, which proved invaluable for live programmes, as it apparently grabs the bandwidth before the pesky PlayStation can get a look-in.

As well as keeping friends and families connected, Zoom and Skype have complemented established video solutions, like Globelynx, to enable remote broadcasting from homes around the world. But a cupboard under the stairs doesn’t offer the best background for TV reports, so the lounge also got tidied up. My training as a videojournalist and many years helping crews to set up shots certainly helped, but we still had to go shopping for more cables, some lights and another mic.

I’ve accumulated a fair bit of TV kit, but didn’t have a webcam suitable for quick and easy broadcasting, and the best ones are still in short supply. We were lucky, and slightly surprised, to find we already had one in the house. Contrary to the old adage that your best camera is the one you have with you, you, in fact, might find it’s clipped to the top of your teenager’s gaming monitor.

The largely improvised set-up has allowed me to broadcast live global programmes without leaving the house and host high-profile debates for corporate clients, including discussions between Nobel Prize-winning economists, live from my lounge. It can sometimes be a little surreal but shows that with a bit of initiative everything is possible.

Tips for hosting virtual events from home…

Of course, it’s not just broadcasters who have had to adapt to the new normal of working from home. The nation’s kitchens, dining rooms, bedrooms and even loos have masqueraded as offices over the past six months. We’ve all had to endure dodgy connections, muted colleagues and noisy neighbourhood deliveries, but it’s become clear just how much the skills of TV pros can help improve any video meeting.

Like any TV broadcast, lighting, framing and sound are key things to get right. Never, I repeat, never sit with your back to a window unless you’re auditioning for a film noir, as your face will just be a mass of dodgy shadow. Move your chair and find an interesting but not too busy background. A tidy bookshelf is ideal, but do make sure the titles aren’t too controversial or risqué, unless that’s the image you’re trying to project.

Even the front-facing camera on your phone is likely to provide a much better image than the one on your laptop and a small tripod with a phone grip will provide a steady shot at eye-level. If it has to be the laptop, some hefty books will spare your co-attendees the unflattering angle of your nostrils and pushing it away to arms’ length should help avoid the extreme close-up.

After a tripod and grip to position your phone, a small light to illuminate your face from behind the camera is your next best investment. Some dedicated webcams and affordable tripod kits come with integrated lights but any table lamp will do, as long as the bulb is a warmer white and not too harsh.

Gently illuminating your face will make you much easier to look at, but your presentation shine for all the wrong reasons. Some men in the spotlight might feel that a powder puff is beyond their capabilities or vanity, but I’ve never sat alongside a male co-presenter who would go on air without a healthy pat of pancake, so join the powder revolution.

However visual the medium, it is usually sound that separates amateurs from the professionals. But here too the first £10 can make 90 per cent of the difference. The headset you use with your phone will sound far better than the mic on your laptop, if it has an in-line microphone, though the cables are usually too short to let you sit far enough away. So, a few quid on a couple of metre headphone extension lead would be very well spent.

More frequent virtual presenters with a dedicated webcam might also want to invest in a USB microphone from the likes of Røde or Blue which you can plug your headset into. Remember though, the more sophisticated kit you accumulate, the further under the bonnet you’ll have to get to set it all up, and the more there is to go wrong.

Preparation is everything so you should test, test, test before you go live. Use a zoom drinks evening with your friends to try out your kit, and get them to double check the bookshelf behind you.

Finally, it’s definitely worth investing in a lock for the door to avoid a ‘BBC Dad’ moment. Professor Robert Kelly made a meme of himself when both his toddler and baby ambled into shot while he was being interviewed live on TV, an accidental move that has been replicated many times but never topped.

I’ve had my fair share of near misses when the kids have almost careered in mid-broadcast, so I now deploy a do-not-disturb sign to limit interruptions to a knock at the door. But then such pitfalls of home  broadcasting as a virtual presenter are all part of the ‘new normal’ and perhaps a few childish squeals from off-camera might provide the light relief we all need right now.

Susannah Streeter is a leading broadcaster and financial commentator who has anchored flagship business news programmes on TV and radio and hosted major summits, conferences and events, around the world.