The last time Bill Streeter made a professional appearance at the corner of Michigan and Huron in downtown Chicago, he shoveled shit for a living.
Well, not entirely, although horses do defecate prodigiously, and Streeter was a carriage driver, ferrying tourists around in an equine-powered buggy docked across the street from the ritzy Allerton Hotel at the foot of the Magnificent Mile. A Baptist minister's son whose G.I. Bill dried up a few quarters shy of a college degree, Streeter also held down the graveyard shift at the Allerton for a spell, shuttling laid-over Amtrak employees to and from the train station in the hotel van.
For many a Midwesterner, Chicago is a city of destiny. For Streeter, who was reared in Peru, Illinois (population 10,000), about 100 miles southwest of Chicago, it symbolizes a decade-long struggle to support his wife and young son in a rough Puerto Rican neighborhood on the city's west side. Streeter walked dogs. He drove a delivery truck. He waited tables at a restaurant that traded exclusively in mashed potatoes. Mashed potatoes with gravy, mashed potatoes with nacho cheese, mashed potatoes with caramel and pine nuts whatever the customer wanted. Whatever made rent.
"Chicago's a great city and all," Streeter reminisces. "But I couldn't afford to do shit."
When Streeter's clock-punching steam grew too thick to ignore blowing off, he took to cheap rock & roll dive bars in less gentrified burgs. And then there were the occasions when Gold Coast yuppies would invite the chariot jockey up to a soiree he and his horse had been hired to trot them to. Streeter would inevitably get his money's worth at the punch bowl, leaving the post-party navigation to his thousand-pound copilot.
"The funny thing is, the horse knew exactly where it was going," he insists, gazing up at the sign for his erstwhile carriage stand while a massive holiday parade buzzes down Michigan Avenue on a crisp Saturday evening in late autumn. "So I didn't have to worry about bumping into anything."
Standing near the entrance of the gleaming white Apple Store here at Michigan and Huron, Streeter is accompanied by Richard Hall, a mellow, bearded college professor from Rolla with a desert-dry wit. Having rendezvoused in St. Louis earlier that morning, Hall and Streeter have driven four and a half hours up Interstate 55 to co-headline Meet the Vloggers, the first major regional summit on the burgeoning art of video blogging. Also known as "vlogging" or "video podcasting," the discipline is akin to a standard blog, except with an audiovisual content focus, and is to traditional podcasting (i.e., audio-only webcasts that can be downloaded onto iPods and various other multimedia platforms) as moving pictures are to radio.
"A lot of people say, 'Why not just do a podcast?'" Streeter tells the crowd of 60 or so who fill the tiny amphitheater in the back of the massive Apple-teria. "I think the face is what does it. It's the theater of the face."
But for Josh Leo, a college-age co-presenter and fellow vlogger (see joshleo.com), it's about much, much more.
"Think how great it could be if your grandkids could look at a video clip from when you were twenty and say, 'Wow, look at what a weirdo my grandpa was,'" says Leo, before veering wildly idealistic. "If everyone had a video blog, there might be less conflict in the world. Let's say there's a vlogger in Baghdad. He's not filtered through mainstream media. He's coming directly to someone's desk from Baghdad."
"I mainly film rock & roll bands," Streeter demurs. "I cover things in my town that people in my town may not even know about."
Streeter's town is St. Louis, which has flowered into his city of destiny since his move south from Chicago in 2001. This past February Streeter debuted his video blog, lofistl.com, featuring live music videos of high-energy local acts like the Vultures and Casey Reid along with short documentaries about cultural institutions like the South Broadway Athletic Club and Frederick's Music Lounge.
"Bill's in love with this city, which is pretty unique," says grunge-rock poster pioneer Art Chantry, a Seattle transplant whom Streeter recently profiled in a Lo-Fi Saint Louis short. "He's building attention for the culture he lives in. Bill is one of the most unselfish people I've ever seen in this regard St. Louis needs more people who do that sort of thing."
"It seems like Bill's vlog gets a lot of exposure outside of St. Louis," says Jeff "Kopper" Kopp, Streeter's next-door neighbor and the host of The Wayback Machine on KDHX (88.1 FM). "But it doesn't seem like many people here are aware of it."
Indeed, in the international vlogosphere, Lo-Fi serves as the civic point of entry for 2,000-plus Web surfers per week who are directed to the site after punching in our city's coordinates on various search engines.
"Bill was one of the early video bloggers with a feed," confirms Josh Kinberg, a New York-based vlogger and software developer who made headlines during the 2004 Republican National Convention after he was arrested for electronically rigging a bicycle to write text messages in chalk on the pavement inside a no-protest zone. "Both my parents grew up in St. Louis, and I never knew there was a thriving music scene there. The bands Bill chooses make me want to go out and by their CDs."
Bill Streeter's brick bungalow near Tower Grove Park used to belong to a marble floor manufacturer, confirmed by the fact that his basement floors are made of marble. This is where Streeter has constructed Lo-Fi's "studio," which primarily takes the form of a set of twin interactive monitors, a hard drive and a small video camera perched atop the computer screen that his gray ten-year-old cat, Nick, likes to nap on.
Only six vloggers have signed on to a 7 p.m. videoconference that Streeter participates in weekly, so he wanders to the basement fridge for a bottle of Grolsch before things get cooking online. By the time he returns to his chair, a gay activist vlogger from New York City, visible in a real-time window on one of Streeter's monitors, is offering his thoughts on how Enron raped Californians during the state's infamous summer of rolling blackouts.
"You can actually meet these people and have serious conversations with them even Amanda Congdon," says Streeter, invoking the vlog anchor of the popular nightly-news parody rocketboom.com. "It's not like normal TV."
Streeter wants to weigh in on the California energy debate, so he clicks the "join queue" button on his screen, the vlogospheric equivalent of raising your hand in class. Once it's his turn, he stares into a mounted camera with a protruding microphone and talks about how everyone should run out and see (or download through dubious means) the critically acclaimed documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.
"It was brilliant, just brilliant," he raves. "They talked about how [Enron] fucked California really hard."
A San Francisco vlogger named Schlomo Rabinowitz backs the sodomy allegation: "We took it. We took it like men."
Then Adam Quirk from Hoboken lightens the mood by playing a video clip of Squeeze singing their sugary '80s hit "Black Coffee in Bed."
"Little fiery Hoboken's gonna kick Streeter's ass," jokes Rabinowitz, who's obviously familiar with Streeter's vlog.
"You could be like the godfather of lo-fi vlogs," Quirk puts in. "It could be a big national network."
"Yeah, but nobody does lo-fi like we do in St. Louis," Streeter counters. "We're just a lo-fi town."
Now 38, Streeter married Mitzi, his wife of fifteen years, shortly after serving a four-year stint at Whiteman Air Force Base in Warrensburg, Missouri. The couple has one child, a nine-year-old son named Ainslie. Mitzi works nearby at the Missouri Botanical Garden, while Bill's day job takes him downtown, where he digitally lays out print ads for the AT&T (formerly SBC) yellow pages.
While stationed at Whiteman in the late 1980s, Streeter forged what would turn out to be a very serendipitous friendship with Jeff Kopp, who at the time was a student at Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg. Years later, when Streeter's search for a better standard of living brought him to St. Louis, it was Kopper now 40 but sufficiently boyish-looking to get away with flashing his old student ID for discounts who hooked him up with a sweetheart deal on the house next door to his on Humphrey Street.
The two shared an interest in hard rock and underground culture and collaborated on a short-lived zine called Head in a Milk Bottle, followed by garagepunk.com, a Web site for area punk bands where Streeter nurtured his interest in emerging technology as the site's message-board administrator.
"The Internet did not begin as a very social medium," he recalls. "The first Web sites were porn sites driven by geeks. But the message boards were intellectually stimulating for me."
Infatuated with the increased ease with which anybody could produce pirate radio-style broadcasts online, Streeter set up an audio channel on garagepunk.com where visitors could subscribe to frequently updated podcasts of hard-rocking bands from St. Louis and beyond. The innovations helped the site's community grow to 2,800 members strong.
Pretty good for a guy who never finished college: In order to attend film school at Chicago's artsy Columbia College, Streeter had to supplement his G.I. Bill stipend with additional funding from a Pell Grant. But then the rules changed. If he wanted the G.I. Bill bucks, he couldn't accept Pell Grant money. Without both tuition streams, he was forced to drop out.
In between the shit jobs, he'd find the occasional gig on a local film production.
"I hated the film business," he says. "It's all hand-to-mouth. You could be making a shitload of money for six weeks, then be out of a paycheck. It's not a very stable lifestyle."
Still, as he plied the carriage reins, the plastic dog-doo mittens, the van pallets and the potato ladle and now the Mr. Happy Crack ads in the yellow pages Streeter's interest in making motion pictures didn't quite fade to black. He just didn't feel like playing by the old rules.
And eventually, with the enhanced affordability of quality Internet production tools, he realized he no longer had to.
"Anybody who can scrape together a couple thousand bucks can have some pretty excellent equipment," says Robin Sloan, a San Francisco-based producer for Al Gore's fledgling Current TV, a subscriber-based cable network that is seen as a sort of bridge between the vlogosphere and Big Media.
The first music video Streeter ever created wasn't really a music video at all. At the Way Out Club this past February, he snapped stills of a Milwaukee band called Bleed. When he returned to his home studio, he cobbled together the digital-camera shots in a robotic montage backed by a live recording of the band's piercing performance.
"I wanted to see if I could make a music video," says Streeter. "But I hadn't even bought a video camera yet."
Streeter had, however, produced a couple of short documentaries one about photographer Bob Reuter, another on Frederick's Music Lounge with loaned equipment for a video-editing class he'd taken in 2004 at Meramec Community College, a course taught by Channel 9 (KETC-TV) producer Patrick Murphy.
"He really liked my stuff and told me I should be doing stuff for them," says Streeter.
Instead, Streeter bought his own video camera, took Lo-Fi Saint Louis live in February 2005 and set out to chronicle the city's artistic underbelly. One of his early challenges was dealing with poor lighting in clubs like Lemmons, where footage of a Bloody Hollies show looked destined for the cutting-room floor until Streeter figured out a way to turn spoiled avocados into guacamole.
"I stripped it of all its color," Streeter explains. "I tried to take a disadvantage and turn it into an advantage, and it worked really well.
"I try to make it all look lo-fi," he adds. "The irony is, it's really high-tech."
Today Streeter's site boasts more than 400 daily subscribers ("subscribers" being a bit of a misnomer: the content's free). And to the dozen or so regulars on his Tuesday-night vlogging videoconference, he's a bona fide celebrity.
"Forget fifteen minutes of fame; it's that you're famous to fifteen people," says Current TV's Sloan. "It's neat to flip the matrix of success on its head, and I think a lot of vloggers are doing that."
Richard Hall's vlog, The Richard Show (Richardshow.com) is exactly as advertised: a video scrap album of Hall and his family, the highlight of which is a hilarious clip depicting the University of Missouri-Rolla prof and his beer gut climbing hesitantly into an icy stream. If his students were to see it, they might mistake him for a bear, Hall quips from the passenger seat of Streeter's maroon Mercury minivan en route to Chicago.
Streeter and Hall are both about six-foot-three and don't miss many meals. But on the Saturday of the Chicago road trip, Streeter's already skipped breakfast. With their presentation set for 6:30, they might have to sacrifice dinner too. Hence a pit stop at a KFC just outside Bloomington becomes a four-helping, whole-bird smelting of three meals into one at Colonel Sanders' ample buffet.
"I could be a vegetarian if I didn't like fried chicken so much," says Streeter, wiping thigh grease from the side of his lip with an undersize napkin.
Back in the car on the home stretch, Streeter reveals that the erstwhile late-night USA Network program Night Flight is a huge aesthetic influence, especially as it pertains to Al Lien, a toilet-mouthed extraterrestrial alter ego Streeter invented to introduce some of the harder-edged acts on his site.
"There was no hard-and-fast format," Streeter says of Night Flight, popping a cassette adapter attached to his little black iPod into his van's tape deck. "It just had to be weird."
Love them or hate them, iPods and their brethren are irrevocably altering the role of mass media in society. Case in point: Not once during Streeter and Hall's nine-hour round trip to Chicago do they listen to traditional radio stations, or even compact discs. Instead, they alternate between downloaded tunes and podcasts Streeter subscribes to, which are automatically updated via Real Simple Syndication media aggregation software Streeter describes as "TiVo for the web." Instead of having to surf from site to site to check for newly updated content, RSS users (there's also a like-minded program tailored to video content, called FireAnt) have fresh material automatically fed to their hard drives or iPods from sites they choose. Streeter goes to bed at night knowing that when he wakes up, dozens of videos and podcasts will await him.
Streeter's favorite podcaster is a gay Chicago-based performance artist named Richard Bluestein, who inconspicuously sat in the back of the Apple Store during the "Meet the Vloggers" confab. Bluestein was able to maintain that low profile because on his podcast he's not Richard Bluestein he's Madge Weinstein, host of Yeast Radio (yeastradio.com), a cross-dressing "bloated Jewish dyke" and breast-cancer survivor with a penchant for left-wing politics, flatulence jokes and yeast-infection advocacy.
The self-proclaimed "shock jock with no cock," Madge refers to the vice president as "Penis Cheney," liposuction as "thigh abortion" and promises potential advertisers, "If you sponsor me, I'll lick your balls."
"Madge is really what Howard Stern wants to be," says former MTV veejay Adam Curry, who has started Podshow.com, a virtual podcasting network that is attempting to monetize the audio-only segment by selling premium content and sponsorships for its stable of programs (which includes Yeast Radio).
"There's no way these corporations can build into their DNA the type of programming that's being made in podcasting," adds Curry, a self-described "jetrosexual" who splits time between San Francisco and the English countryside. "I come from that industry; it's just not going to happen. When it comes to specialty shows, they don't have the resources or seconds in the day. We have no limitations in terms of frequency and time, and that is a very bleak picture for the radio industry. People are running away from what we're hearing on mainstream radio, not just because of the time-shifting element, but because of the content itself."
Señor Stern, of course, is among the sprinters: This month he shifted his wildly popular FCC whipping boy from morning drive time to the unregulated, pay-to-play Sirius Satellite Radio Network, where he joins none other than Madge Weinstein, already a prominent personality on a channel devoted to Podshow talent.
"Tens of thousands of people in the radio business have these filters," explains Curry. "It's not just the 'Seven Dirty Words'; it's what's wrong politically for the company. MTV was way like that. It was horrible. The talented people are saying: 'Screw this, maybe I can be my own man.'"
Unlike most vloggers, who dabble in text blogging and audio-only podcasting before graduating to video, Richard Bluestein actually started by vlogging. Back in 2001 when he posted his first video online, it didn't have a name. A year later he came up with Madge, almost by accident.
"Some friends of mine were smoking pot and they called me and said they wanted to do a mockumentary like Spinal Tap, except with lesbian riot grrrls," recounts Bluestein, who despite podcasting for a living fervently maintains a video blog on the side. "They wanted me to play the manager of the band this big Jewish woman who wants to fuck all the girls. So Madge just came out of that."
In elevating to relative superstar status a gay man portraying a Jewish lesbian, the podcasting community is already leaps and bounds ahead of mainstream media in reaching an underserved demographic.
"Yeah, this is a well-recognized audience with some advertisers, but you really reach them when you're reaching them through them, because it's all about them," says Curry. ("Enough about me. Let's talk about you. What do you think of me?") "This is going to be a huge community that is very tight-knit, thanks in no small part to Richard Bluestein. They're finally having their voices heard. It's so way different from Will & Grace."
As good as podcasting has been to gays and lesbians, Bluestein sees more potential in the vlogosphere.
"I think the podcasting medium is very open," he says. "But if you're talking about acceptance, I find the video blogging community much more accepting. Anything goes in video blogging."
"Some people are going to do home videos, and that's all they'll want to do," says Current TV's Sloan, whose network often airs submissions from video bloggers. "But some of the best stuff we've gotten is from people with these cameras or computers. It's stuff that mainstream media doesn't have the interest or focus to fill."
Which in turn speaks to the virtual medium's commercial viability.
"The potential for advertisers is being able to target a very niche market they wouldn't necessarily be able to get to," says Streeter. "Maybe a liquor distributor might be interested (in sponsoring Lo-Fi clips). They're kind of shut out of mainstream media, and I have a large community of people who have some commonality with how they consume things."
"It's been so under the radar that I don't think anyone's taken advantage of it nearly to what they could as an advertiser," offers St. Louis-based Core Audio/Visual designer Jason Stamp. "You're reaching a whole group that isn't watching prime-time TV that advertising people can't figure out how to get to anyway. Eventually somebody's going to pick up on that and sponsor viral movies, and it's going to make their product cooler. Once it happens once, it'll happen a thousand times. Advertising people will give it some catchy name, and you'll buy it like you'll buy any billboard.
"It used to be you had to go to years of schooling to get into the commercial realm," Stamp continues. "Now it's the idea that's king whether you're in eighth grade or have years of experience. You can create these web movies wherever you are. If it's great, it's going to get swept up and seen around the world. And I don't think that's ever happened before."
KETC-TV's Patrick Murphy remembers his former pupil Bill Streeter thus: "He's got the skills that we've got, but he doesn't care. That's not where he's at."
While Murphy dismisses the notion that the vlogosphere poses a serious threat to mainstream television's market share, the local PBS producer does discern a compelling trend in terms of how vlogs and their ilk are affecting people's information-consumption habits.
"Video blogs represent, to me, a move from a mass audience to audiences that are much smaller and specialized," the producer explains. "It's this incredible democratization of media, with all the good and the bad that democracy involves. It sort of turns the model upside down in a lot of ways. In a broadcast operation, we're setting the schedule and you basically watch by appointment. With a video blog, you can visit it absolutely any time you want."
"We're in this transition away from mass media to custom media," agrees University of Missouri-St. Louis journalism professor Tom McPhail. "Advertisers are losing great demographics and they can't capture them by advertising on mainstream television anymore, because they don't watch it. The whole area is up for grabs."
"This is all major, major stuff coming down the pipe," says Sreenath Sreenivasan, dean of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. "These are all eyeballs that are distracted by other stuff that used to look at me. So we have to play in that space somehow, and have our own equivalent of these things to figure it out.
"Big media didn't pay attention to bloggers until very late," Sreenivasan adds. "They're not making the same mistake with podcasts. They say: 'Send us your pictures, send us your video.' Some of the best stuff from the London bombings was from video blogs and cell phones. It's a rear-guard action against all this stuff."
Possibly the deftest appropriation of the medium to date came last month when NBC made a clip of a Saturday Night Live skit entitled "Lazy Sunday" available for free on a variety of video-sharing Web sites. The clip, a rap spoof billed as a "digital short" that had aired on SNL December 17, became an Internet sensation, clearing 1 million downloads within ten days (and providing an elusive silver lining to an otherwise painfully humorless season of SNL).
When it comes to infiltrating pop-culture consciousness, is the Internet now a more influential medium than network television?
"I think that's fair to say, though it's because of the power of SNL that it became as big a thing as it did," hedges Columbia's Sreenivasan. "It was easy for people to say, 'You missed this on SNL.' I think what's interesting is that SNL chose to give it away on iTunes. That was a very smart move, and it made a big difference. They knew this was going to be big why not get the word out there and make it a really big, big thing. I think it was a lesson to broadcasters who are very timid about using the Internet in a smart way."
Either way, this kind of "toe-dipping" (as Current TV's Sloan likes to call it) which includes NBC's recent deal with Apple to offer Conan O'Brien and other regularly scheduled programming on iTunes for a fee isn't going to squelch the organic podcasting realm, argues Adam Curry.
"This is not a matter of 'hurry up and get to market because the train is leaving,'" says the Podshow founder. "There was no train. It's a three-dimensional intergalactic spaceship we're on."
The gist of this high-minded argument is that even Apple, pop-culture trailblazer that it may be, is giving short shrift to the interactive nature of the audiovisual vanguard.
"The iPod is a great device, but it's one-way," Bluestein points out. "They're not thinking very Web 2.0, which is all about two-way communication: You put out a podcast and your listeners communicate back to you. In the short term it may benefit them, because they'll be able to resell all this crap that's being put out on TV, but that's not the point of the medium. They're a little misguided."
The Creepy Crawl would be the perfect place to stage a cockfight. It's dark, and it comes equipped with cheap tallboys of Stag, a fence to separate purple-Mohawk minors from major-league drunks, walls covered with profane posters and graffiti, and loud music. Really fucking loud music.
Suffice to say that when a wispy Asian dude in a white fisherman's sweater enters the black-clad fray followed by a fellow toting a set of decks, it's worth noting. Seems the Creepy's managers have deigned to rent the club to some Everything But the Girl remix lapdogs on this December Friday, boxing the 7 Shot Screamers into a 9:30 curfew.
"Johnnie O and the Jerks could not play tonight because of extenuating circumstances involving techno music," announces the Screamers' lead singer, flanked by a standup bassist wearing a shirt that says "Christ is Life. Everything Else is Just Baseball."
"But they'll be playing the afterparty at our friend's house," the mascara-laden frontman adds before launching into a vicious X cover. "There will be drugs, booze and guys."
As the kids in the fenced-in pen go apeshit, Streeter and a second cameraman, Brian "Bowls" McLean, fight for prime angles. Bowls, who attended college with Streeter in Chicago, is using Streeter's handheld; Streeter has borrowed a larger camera and monopod from a friend. Two days later, the video will be cut, buffed and live on Lo-Fi for the world to stream.
"I can edit most of my clips within an hour," Streeter imparts.
The Screamers purposely drag out their set an extra fifteen minutes to piss off the beat-heads, at which point the Creepy clears out. Next stop for Streeter and Bowl: St. Louis Centre, where a pair of artists are busy pimping out the otherwise-vacant third floor of Middle America's most moribund shopping mall (see related story in this week's issue).
After the quick scoot down Washington Avenue, Streeter and Bowls are greeted in the employee parking garage by Peat Wollaeger, whose latest artistic obsession has been to stencil the silhouettes of his favorite five fat dead comics Candy, Farley, Belushi, Hardy and Arbuckle on sundry walls.
"We've met a lot of very talented people in St. Louis," says Wollaeger, another Chicago expatriate. "There are some skills in this town."
Usually Streeter approaches artists or musicians and asks permission to film them in action. Tonight he's here at the invitation of Wollaeger, who tracked him down via e-mail after stumbling onto Lo-Fi Saint Louis on his newly acquired video iPod.
"I got a free iPod the other day through one of those bullshit spam e-mails," Wollaeger says. "Lo-Fi Saint Louis was the first [video] podcast listed on iTunes. I was like, 'No shit!'"
After riding the freight elevator to the third floor, Streeter hits the record button and asks the artist to talk about the largely vacant mall his installment's going up in.
"It was the epitome of the '80s," responds Wollaeger, occupying his hands by whitening Chris Farley's face with an aerosol can. "At the grand opening, they had Tootie from The Facts of Life and Ricky Schroder there in his white cardigan. Then this mall got pretty rough.
"It's an empty mall what better place for art?"
Wollaeger poses a question to Bowls: "Do you ever find yourself going to a mall?"
"Never," Bowls responds. "I'm a grown man."
When the makeshift gallery erupts in laughter, Streeter stops filming, compelling Wollaeger to second-guess his commentary.
"That was all pretty wack, wasn't it?" the artist wonders aloud.
"Nah," Streeter comforts. "I'll cut it all together to make you sound smart."
This might as well serve as Lo-Fi's mission statement.
"I don't think the rest of the world looks down their noses at St. Louis like a lot of people here seem to think," Streeter reflects. "I don't think the rest of the world has much of an opinion either way. It's really a great place to be and compares well with a lot of other cities, in my opinion. Lo-Fi makes St. Louis look cool because St. Louis is cool."
"There is a lot of interesting stuff going on here, but nobody knows about it," seconds fellow transplant Art Chantry. "San Francisco, in the old days, was just a bunch of small drops that became puddles, which eventually became a pond. We're still building puddles in this town."