An Introduction to On-Demand Streaming
Three years ago, sometime after midnight on an otherwise non-descript night in December, I discovered on-demand streaming. It was quite accidental. I was on the Internet, and I began to search for sermons by Charles H. Spurgeon, a great British preacher from the 19th century. I wanted to “hear” rather than read Spurgeon, and I was sure a dramatic reading of some of his sermons existed somewhere. Surely I could order tapes on the Internet and have them sent to me a few days later. That night, instead of ordering tapes that I never found, I “streamed” a Spurgeon sermon – right there, while sitting at my computer in the middle of the night in Arlington, Virginia.
At one level, I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, I was simply downloading a digital file to my computer and accessing its contents. I downloaded images every time I accessed a web page on the Internet. To a computer, a digital file is a digital file. It’s a bunch of ones and zeroes. If I could download image files, then why shouldn’t I also expect to download audio files?
But at another level, the experience was revolutionary. “You mean, I can listen to anything I want, at any time, from anywhere? That’s incredible!” At once, I recognized the power of digital delivery, and the potential it had for revolutionizing the way we communicate. In particular, I recognized the potential there was for Christians to harness this tool for the spread of the Gospel to all nations.
Duncan Rein, who would eventually become my business partner, had a similar “Ah ha!” experience a few months later. Preparing to go to graduate school, he was helping his pastor adapt a series of sermons into a book. Thinking it helpful to actually listen to the sermons, he went into a closet where the master tapes of over seven years worth of sermons were stored on decaying analog tapes. What an investment of time those tapes represented! How many people around the world could benefit from that teaching! A message delivered five years ago could help someone today! One sermon in particular was helpful to Duncan, and he wanted to send a copy to some college friends. It took him two weeks to duplicate the tapes, find his friends’ addresses, and take a trip to the post office. There had to be an easier way that required less legwork! Soon, Duncan would also discover digital delivery, and its application for the spread of the Gospel.
Definition of Terms
This is an article about streaming and digital delivery, and before going any further, I want to provide you with a crash course on definitions, terms, and concepts. There is no embarrassment if you’ve never heard of streaming. Just one month ago, my own sister asked: “What’s streaming?” Never mind that I’ve been working to help Christian ministries to do this for 2+ years – the point is that streaming is still a relatively new technology.
Streaming is the popular name for sending audio and video content over the Internet. When you stream an audio file, you are receiving the file as a continuous stream of “packets.” Rather than send the file all at once, your computer receives smaller, more digestible pieces of the file. When it receives the first piece, it begins playing it, and in the meantime it is receiving the second piece. When it begins playing the second piece, it has begun receiving the third piece, and so on.
Think of your connection as a pipe, and the audio file as a stream of water. If you have a very narrow pipe, it takes a long time for a gallon of water to flow through it. Likewise, if you tried to take a file off a 74 minute CD and download to your computer through a 56kbit/sec connection, it would take over 26 hours! The breakthrough invention that made streaming a reality was the development of various compression algorithms. The compression algorithm searches through an audio file and removes the frequencies that will have the least effect on sound quality. The result is an audio file that is much smaller than the original. With current technologies, we’re able to compress a file 20 times without any noticeable loss in quality. Many streaming media files are up to 100 times smaller than the originals. This allows you to listen to it, as it is being downloaded.
Many algorithms exist today that create compressed file formats. The three most common formats are Real Media, Windows Media, and MP3. The algorithms can also create files of varying bit rates. Bit rate is a measure of how much information is stored per second of content. The lower the bit rate, the smaller the file – and the lower the quality. A 64 kbit/sec MP3 file is twice as big as a 32 kbit/sec MP3 file of the same length, because there is twice as much information stored per second of audio content. A 16 kbit/sec Real file is the same size as a 16 kbit/sec MP3 file. The two files may differ in quality because they have been created by two different algorithms, which remove different frequencies from the original file.
Streaming, webcasting, on-demand streaming – these terms are all used fairly interchangeably – but, the important thing to know is that there are basically 2 types of streaming: on-demand streaming and live streaming. And, fortunately these terms are fairly self-descriptive. With on-demand streaming, messages can be archived and the user can listen to them at any time. With live-streaming, the content is “live” – and so the user must tune-in while it is happening. While “live” or programmed streaming is very similar to a radio broadcast schedule, on-demand streaming is the radical and revolutionary departure: any message can be available at any time to anyone – and, rather than the program producer setting the schedule – the user can decide. This has obvious implication for Christian broadcasters who want to make their messages available for people to listen to after they are aired.
We’ve been working full time for over two years, introducing ministries to digital delivery, and we’re still amazed by the technologies that enable it. But taking advantage of these technologies shouldn’t be a pursuit in and of itself, merely because the technologies are “cool” or “cutting-edge”. No, it is essential that we as Christians should familiarize ourselves with these technologies because they will increase the effectiveness of our ministry, as they are employed. The invention of the printing press revolutionized the way the world communicated, and Christians were among the first to capitalize with the Gutenberg Bible. Digital delivery over the Internet is no less revolutionary than the printing press, and it is incumbent upon Christians to embrace these new technologies, if we are to win the world for Christ.
The secular world sees the obvious benefits of the digital revolution because it lowers their costs and increases their reach. We in the Christian world need to recognize and embrace these benefits to an even greater extent because our messages do not profit a man in this life only – but so much more so in the life to come. “Faith comes by hearing the message, and the message is heard through the Word of Christ”(Romans 10:17).
Digital delivery means that the barriers of time and geography are eliminated! The greatest message ever proclaimed can be accessed by anyone in the world at any time, immediately, and at a fraction of the cost associated with sending a physical product! Together, let us change the world by flooding the Internet with life-giving teaching!
The Nuts and Bolts of Digital Delivery
Something so revolutionary must be really complicated and really expensive, right? Actually, the opposite is true. In fact, it is relatively easy and inexpensive to web-enable your teaching ministry. At Lightsource, we’ve written a ten-page manual, explaining in great detail how to convert your audio and video messages into compressed, digital files (also called encoding). You can request a copy of this manual by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Below is a simple 3-step process for getting audio files online. The process for video is a little more complicated, but it’s also described in our detailed manual.
Step 1: Convert your messages into a digital format
If you have the original on CD, the good news is you already have the file in digital format. To rip it off a CD onto your computer, we suggest the Xing Audiocatalyst (it can be downloaded from www.xingtech.com for about $30).
If you have the original on a cassette tape, you will need to create a digital file (“digitize”). To do this, all you need is 1) a computer with at least a 200 Mhz processor and a decent sound card (any computer that’s been purchased new in the last 2 years will be more than enough); 2) a tape deck – again a decent $200 deck at any electronics store will do; and 3) editing software for your computer – we recommend Cool Edit (It can be downloaded at www.cooledit.com for about $70). That’s basically it. You hook up the tape deck to your sound card, hit “play” on the tape deck and “record” in Cool Edit. It’s a real-time process; it takes thirty minutes to create a digital file of a thirty-minute message, but it is very easy.
If you have a large tape archive you would like to digitize, perhaps we could help. We’ve built a system that enables us to do multiple tapes at once. For as low as $9 per tape, we can digitize up to 500 messages in less than a month. We’d urge every ministry to digitize their archives. Tapes have a shelf life of anywhere from three to six years. If you don’t digitize them, they will be lost forever.
While digitizing past messages is a great reclamation project requiring a lot of time, future messages can be captured digitally, as they are delivered. There are many ways of doing this. You can send an output of your sound system into the sound card of your computer. Or you can buy a nifty little MP3 recorder. This device allows you to record to an MP3 file on-the-fly, so you can skip steps 1 and 2 (you can read about the MP3 recorder on www.archos.com).
Step 2: Create a “Streamable” file
Once you capture the message as a digital file, you will need to compress it into a streamable or downloadable format. Cool Edit will allow you to save it in the format of your choice. We recommend that you make and store all your files as MP3s – as these are the most flexible – but, you also will want to convert them to streamable formats – in either Windows Media or Real Audio (preferably both!). While Real Audio is more popular today, it is likely that Windows Media will be the long-term standard. Here’s a quick litmus test: do you use Microsoft Word or Word Perfect as your word processor?
Step 3: Upload your messages to the Internet
The last step is to make your digital file(s) accessible to people on the Internet. If you host your own web site or have an ISP that does it for you, you might have enough space to put 3-8 messages online. You’ll need to “send” your message to them and, if you’re planning to do live webcasting, you’ll need a high-speed internet connection (dsl, cable-modem, T-1, etc).
Fortunately, there are a number of organizations that can help you. They all offer different services and have different prices. You’ll have to do your own research, but a few groups that we’d recommend that you at least explore are SermonAudio, Oneplace, ACC Radio and FaithRadio.
Of course, we’d also recommend ourselves – Lightsource.com. We offer an affordable solution that provides a very simple way to quickly create a searchable archive of messages that are available for people to stream in Windows Media and Real Audio formats. We can also make your messages available for purchase as MP3 downloads and as CDs. You send us one MP3 file, and we automatically convert it into multiple formats, and generate the links automatically on a page that matches the look and feel of your web site. If you can send an email attachment, you can begin to get your messages online through a relationship with Lightsource.
Establishing an Online Revenue Model
As much as you’d like to give everything away, ministries have to find a way to pay the bills. Currently, you do so through a combination of donations and product sales. Radio ministries pay for radio airtime. As people are helped by your messages, they respond by making a donation or ordering a product to help fund your ministry.
Every time someone listens to a message online, a connection is established between the computer serving the file and the computer downloading it. Data is transferred over a one-to-one connection. If there are 100 people listening at any one time, 100 connections are established. Each connection costs money. We estimate that it costs about 20 cents for one person to listen to a 60 minute message online. If you have enough listeners, this expense can add up, and your Internet ministry can become quite costly.
For many ministries, the big drawback to streaming and digital delivery is that it can easily become a cost center. It’s great if millions of people listen to your messages online, but it’s not great if your ministry can’t afford for this to happen. That is why we’ve incorporated product sales and online donations into the Lightsource service. Our goal is to help our partner ministries, not only cover the costs of their Internet ministries, but even turn them into profit centers that can fund your other ministry efforts.
People listening to a message online should realize that this costs your ministry money. To the extent that it is easy to donate online or purchase products online, then people who benefit from your ministry should help you support what you’re doing online. Online tools will make it even easier for them to do this. Instead of needing to pick up the phone, or write a check and mail it to an address, they can donate money or order a product with a click of a mouse. Better yet, they can sign up to donate a certain amount every month, or indicate that they would like to sign up for an annual subscription, where a CD is automatically sent to them every week or a link to an MP3 download file is automatically sent to their mailbox each day.
The revenue model already works in the offline world, and it will work even better in the online world, especially as ministries begin to develop one-to-one relationships with donors through email. Digital delivery promises not only broader reach for your teaching ministry, but also a broader network of donors, as people around the world are touched by your teaching and respond in tangible ways.
The Future of Digital Delivery
We are just at the tip of the iceberg of the digital revolution. Today, we must dial up to the Internet on 56k modems and listen, as we stay tied to our computers. Tomorrow, your cars will be web-enabled with a broadband wireless connection, and instead of tuning into radio stations, you’ll tune in to your favorite Internet sites. All content will be available to all people at any time. Christian pollster George Barna estimates that by 2010, over 100 million Americans will listen to religious content online. Already, people in over 140 different countries listen to the teaching of Lightsource partner ministries!
The Christian community cannot afford to be left behind. Ministries need to embrace the digital revolution, and you can do your part today. It’s cheap and it’s easy to begin building an online digital archive, and there are many organizations that are ready and willing to help you. Lightsource is one of them. Whether you work with us or with someone else, we urge you to get your messages online! A dying world needs to hear your life-changing messages.