The Rocketboom ruckus
What big media can learn from a hubbub over the departure of a pioneering video blog host.
NEW YORK (Fortune) -- In the saga of Rocketboom can be seen the future of media.
This upstart video blog commands a lot of attention from both web cognoscenti and conventional media that's disproportionate to its size (it has 300,000 or so viewers) - but for good reasons.
Amanda Congdon, the public face of Rocketboom's daily news show and a 49% partner in the company that operates it, left in early July. Her departure ignited a frenzy of coverage in CNET , The New York Times, Business Week, Time , Wired and elsewhere.
Why all the fuss? Although Rocketboom's daily segments only last 3-5 minutes, its high-quality and often funny tech-centric news items resonate with the zeitgeist. The insouciant, deadpan, always-entertaining Congdon may be the first genuine video star of the web era. It doesn't hurt that in addition to being very funny she's extremely attractive, and has no qualms about playing on her sex appeal.
The best coverage, like this interesting AP story, focused on how popular this little daily video had become and attempted to dissect the complicated relationship between Congdon and Andrew Baron, who hired her in late 2004 to help start this daily newscast.
Some of the more tedious articles about Rocketboom posed the sonorous question "What does this say about the future of video blogging?" as if anyone either knew or could care less.
But part of the reason the Rocketboom ruckus is so delicious is that the site has always devoted much of its coverage to the very phenomenon it exemplifies - the rise of consumer-created media. In fact, everything about Rocketboom is very right now.
"We spend $0 on promotion, relying entirely on word-of-mouth, and close to $0 on distribution," the site proudly announces in its self-description. (On the other hand, it has carried so few advertisements that it has probably made about $0 in profit.)
Congdon never said goodbye on Rocketboom but bid farewell to her viewers in a 2-minute clip on her own blog AmandaUnboomed July 5. The intimacy and apparent genuineness with which she shared her experience of leaving the show says a lot about how much more sense of involvement an Internet star can offer an audience than an old-media personality every could.
Congdon's website immediately became a sort of public confessional and entertainment in its own right, thanks in part to Congdon's canny willingness to share her professional psychodrama with her public.
It seems there are conflicting stories between Baron and Congdon about who quit or was fired or wanted more stardom etc. etc. - for all the he-said-she-said soap opera, feel free to immerse yourself in AmandaUnboomed.
She calls her audience her "viewers/friends," and 216 of them have commented on the exchange of letters with Baron she posts on her blog.
Rocketboom has always exploited the potential for a direct relationship with its viewers. On the home page is a link called "suggest-a-story" for people to write in with their own ideas for content. And many shows consist of somebody else's video, but always something high quality or supremely quirky.
Little noted in all the coverage however is how innovative Rocketboom has been. It's some of the best video you'll see anywhere - as much video art as news. The audio is fantastic, the writing consistently sharp, and the subject matter surprisingly diverse and entertaining.
Eccentric, yes, but if you're interested in how crippled wheelchair-bound Kenyans support themselves by selling wireless phone calls, or if you want to see a flock of starlings repeatedly return to a tree in such numbers that they bend it over - this is the site for you. Did you know that online cartoons are becoming a huge phenomenon? Rocketboom will tell you about Diesel Sweeties and Explodingdog.
Some shows are silly and others are completely serious, like one from June where Congdon interviewed investor and political activist George Soros. The site also articulately and humorously examines issues in contemporary technology. On her last official show, Congdon did a very funny and at the same time explanatory riff on network neutrality.
In one episode in April, Congdon simply sat silently and looked at the camera for five minutes with a grave facial expression, occasionally moving a piece of paper on the desk. Such is the freedom that pioneers feel in this new medium.
We old media fogies, burdened as we are by sodden notions of what is "appropriate" for our vaunted brands, may want to ponder whether or not a little more spontaneity and unpredictability is called for in this age of reality TV, user involvement, and easy boredom.
Congdon is gone, at least for now. Both partners say in various online forums that they hope to reunite, so this tale is probably not yet fully told. Some have speculated that the whole thing was just a canny audience-building strategy. If so, it was very well done.
Baron has hired an interim replacement, Joanne Colan, who carries herself somewhat more formally, in keeping with her old media (MTV Europe) training. But the two shows she's hosted are creditable and entertaining. And since Rocketboom isn't really that time-bound, you can easily spend a lot of hours perusing the hundreds of past segments with Congdon and other guest producers in the archive.
Wednesday night my wife and I settled in to watch a few episodes of Rocketboom. It was time we might normally have spent watching a few Tivo'd episodes of "The Daily Show." We were no less entertained.