The Amaz!ng Meeting 5.5 (25-27 January 2008) – Report (Part 1 of 3)

TAM 5.5 Background


The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) has been holding TAMs only since 2003. At that first meeting, held near JREF headquarters in Ft Lauderdale, 150 people attended. Since then, this annual January meeting has moved to Las Vegas and grown to over 800 participants. At TAM 5, JREF organizers announced the moving of TAM 6 (19-22 June 2008) to the summer period in order to enable more students to attend, but for the regular January attendees, they decided to try holding a mini-TAM this year. They went back to their roots by hosting TAM 5.5 in Ft Lauderdale. With over 160 attendees and a line-up of great speakers, it is safe to say that the trial was a success.


I met Dr. Martin Rundkvist of ScienceBlogs’ Aardvarchaeology in the audience before the conference started. He wrote his own TAM 5.5 review, which includes many pictures of the meeting. He told me about going to dinner with Bart Farkas (see below) and Jeff Waag (JREF webmaster) at the Denny’s next-door the previous day. They were discussing skepticism and atheism around the table when suddenly a woman in the next booth confronted them with a Christian witness to save their souls before leaving the restaurant. Martin thought it was an appropriate start to the meeting.


Friday 25 January

How to Be Heard Online Workshop – Rebecca Watson, Brian Dunning and Bart Farkas


The workshop on the Friday before the main conference focused on the technical aspects of podcasting and blogging as means of promoting skeptical activism and engagement.


Bart Farkas, a Canadian writer who lives near Cochrane, AB, has published a number of computer-based books, most appropriately Secrets of Podcasting: Audio Blogging for the Masses. He provided a number of technical tips on equipment and software for podcasting. He advocated for mid-range audio hardware and software products that are better than those that come standard with computer systems but are more reasonably priced than professional ones. With podcasting increasing in use and popularity, these mid-range products are becoming more available and better in quality.


Rebecca Watson, a commentator with the Skeptical Guide to the Universe (SGU) podcast, related her experiences with her Skepchick website. She discussed her use of GoDaddy, WordPress, Google Alert, Technorati and Google Reader. She confirmed the persistent time pressure of writing articles and moderating blog comments. For the articles, she offsets the workload by using contributing writers; while for moderating, she feels that the time burden is less for blog comments than for discussion forums. The ability to require user registration, automatically ban words, block IP addresses, get e-mail notification of comments and establish a moderation queue helps eliminate spam and handle trolls. She talked about cross-postings, blog carnivals and other ways to get your blog known.


Rebecca admitted that commenting for the sake of commenting, especially on already popular issues, is still worthwhile because it serves to get the word out and engage fellow skeptics. However, becoming recognized requires clearly identifying the target audience, focusing on the appropriate tone and content for them and keeping in mind what is trying to be achieved. Above all, renown requires “compelling content that provides something new to the conversation.”


Brian Dunning, of the Skeptoid podcast, focused his discussion on time management and discipline. He indicated that you can only build an audience if you deliver consistent content on a dependable, regular basis. Achieving this requires the dedication of time with firm schedule rules. It is the difference between treating skepticism as a hobby and treating it as a profession. In order to produce his short-format show each week alongside meeting his career and family responsibilities, he spends one hour every morning and a few hours on the weekend to write, record and edit it.


Rebecca explained how SGU produces their podcast using Skype to record double-ender interviews on separate tracks and then resynchronizing the tracks and editing the show together. The workshop panel spent some time discussing microphones, digital recorders and audio processing software. They agreed that the production factor for a show is between 2X and 6X the running time. They also emphasized the importance of iTunes for product distribution.


During the main conference, a panel on podcasting featured Rebecca, Brian, Bart and Michael Stackpole (see Part 3 of the Report). They added the following points:

  • Brian was worried about covering old ground for his skeptic topics but found so many newbies to skepticism in his audience that he decided to stay with the basics.
  • Michael warned that no one person can hold an audience’s interest for more than 25 minutes, so he recommended staying short or including more voices.
  • Michael advised thinking in terms of a season of, say, 10 episodes before retooling the show for improvements, since regular listeners like predictability.
  • Rebecca pointed out the need for a podcast site to have a forum as a way of developing a listener community. Michael found a similar community building model by having subscribers submit book reviews using a specified format.
  • Michael suggested that posted transcripts are important to provide for searchable content and/or to sell as PDFs. Brian has, in fact, collated his Skeptoid transcripts into book form for sale.
Author’s note: I have attempted to represent accurately what the TAM speakers discussed, but I don’t claim to speak on their behalf and will be the first to admit that I have mistaken parts of what they said.

Go to Report: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

10. February 2008 by barry
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