The Evolution of Live Video Streaming at Unity of Fairfax

Sometimes it takes one person to kick start a village (plus the right technology and timing).

I discovered an urge to communicate visually while cave exploring with college friends in southern Virginia. I experienced the joy of taking photographs and sharing them with friends and family. My interest and skill progressed from crawling around with my Brownie Hawkeye camera to making college annual photographs and later taking a job at National Geographic based largely on my cave exploring photography. My career in corporate photography and video services followed and evolved into my service to Unity of Fairfax (UofF) as a volunteer photographer, podcast developer and videographer.

When I arrived at Unity of Fairfax in Oakton Virginia, in 1996, Rev EJ Niles was the minister and I just blended into the background as many “newbies” will do. Rev. Donna Johnson followed Rev Nile’s ministry. During Rev Donna’s tenure, the congregation and facilities grew significantly and I became more involved in communications—contributing to the Lovelight newsletter and creating audio (cassette) recordings and lots of photography. We began video recording (VHS, etc.), video productions and archived programs that show many years of Unity of Fairfax history.

 

Early Efforts

One day—around 2007 or so—I asked Rev Donna if she would like to have me set up a live video streaming capability for the church services. “Sure,” she said. “Go for it.” That began our journey, with many a speed bump in between, to the outstanding capability we have today.

At the time of our early efforts, neither the Internet nor video technology was up to the task of live video streaming at the non-professional level. We made two, successful, trial broadcasts and learned that a livestreaming program required a strong promotional focus and resources in order to thrive.

With the growing interest in audio podcasting of our minister’s message, I focused on putting Rev Donna’s services online as a podcast. Today, our podcasts continue to be well received. I post our podcast weekly to bring the voice of Rev Russell Heiland’s Sunday messages to any listener via a simple “click” on our website’s podcast link.

Midd Hunt stands while Sharon Sobel and Bob McMillan sit at our streaming equipment booth.

Launching Livestreaming

My interest in video streaming continued before and after Rev Russ’s arrival in 2013. By 2015, the ever-evolving progress in video streaming technology made it possible for the more or less “average” consumer to purchase and operate livestreaming video gear. When Teradek Corporation announced the VidiU Wi-Fi-capable, battery-operated equipment, I was an early purchaser. My goal to actualize UoF streaming was within reach using my available camera equipment and the new VidiU encoder.

And it has worked just fine. Using any of my HDMI-capable video cameras and the VidiU, I teamed up with the spiritually-oriented streaming host Sunday Streams to bring Unity of Fairfax Sunday worship services to the Internet audience worldwide. Our webmaster Steve Marcom embedded an appropriate link on our spiritual community’s webpage so that Unity seekers can now see us live each Sunday and/or view archived services with a click on the “live stream” button. No special software or download is needed; it’s click and play on any device—computer, tablet, or phone.

“Have Unity, Will Travel” could be our UoF video streaming motto.

Through a grant from Unity Worldwide Ministries and the John Templeton Foundation, we were able to purchase video streaming equipment for our community. The $6,250 matching grant helped to upgrade two wall-mounted, remotely controlled video cameras and a multi-source video switcher. We take an audio output from the house mic mixer, combine that with a feed from either one of the two cameras and/or PowerPoint images and send the program output to the Internet via our host Sunday Streams. Sunday Streams then provides the livestream back via a link on our web page with a round-trip delay of about 20 seconds. Fascinating! After some processing by Sunday Streams, the full archive is available for viewing each Sunday evening. We are found at www.unityoffairfax.org.

 

Getting Started at Your Community

Here are resources and tips for starting a live streaming program:

  • Any video camera with a HDMI output. This is standard on prosumer (production by a consumer) video gear these days.
  • A streaming encoder such as the Teradek VidiU—$750.00.
  • Camera support such as a tripod capable of smooth pan and tilt movements, or other mount.
  • Ability to take in your ministry’s audio mix. I use a XLR audio cable and XLR audio adapter on my camera to get the best sound from a mix of all the mics used during a service.
  • An account with a host provider. Some hosts are free but may carry commercials or limit bandwidth—experiment as you like. I chose Sunday Streams because of their fantastic customer support and reliability. Cost is $ 49.00/month with the first month free.
  • A robust Wi-Fi capability at your church if using the equipment (VidiU) over Wi-Fi. Absolutely no wires are needed for either the battery-operated camera or the streaming encoder equipment. The output is over Wi-Fi so no external connections are required.
  • Staffing. I supplied all the equipment to get this started beginning in the fall of 2015. Our team of videographers is small but consistent. Once you start livestreaming, it’s imperative for your reputation to be a reliable livestreaming provider to meet your viewer’s expectations. That said, there might be a “glitch” in your program production at times. Planning and operator training are very important but if an error or bad connection zaps your output don’t be too alarmed. As the British might say, “Carry on” as best you can.
  • Charge your batteries.
  • You may experience that building an audience for livestreaming is slow. Not all congregants are comfortable with computer equipment or own and use smartphones. I’ve found that people will forget to “tune in” when missing a service as they are not used to having the added benefit of livestreaming. Build your audience by making the streaming link easy to find on your website and then promote it well. Lastly it is important to add a “donate now” button associated with this feature. You may find the livestreaming service becomes a positive financial resource that more than pays for itself.

A Powerful Tool

An ongoing review of Unity of Fairfax website visits shows that the livestream link is the second most accessed feature. A year ago it wasn’t even in the top ten page links clicked. Livestreaming is certainly a case of “build it, and they will come.” With live video streaming, we’ve found a powerful tool for communicating with both our own congregants and folks searching for a Unity home.

 

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