Tommy Edison, who has been blind since birth, had been a radio host for years when he decided to start making videos for YouTube. Working with Ben Churchill, a documentary filmmaker, he launched a series of movie reviews under the name the Blind Film Critic. His sense of humor and distinct perspective, focusing on character and story, are a welcome counterpoint to spectacle-driven Hollywood blockbusters.
The YouTube series took off, and viewers began to pepper Edison with questions -- How do blind people dream? Why is there braille on the drive-through ATM? Edison started answering, and the first video, How a Blind Person Uses an ATM attracted over 100,000 views in three days. Edison then launched a second channel, the Tommy Edison Experience, for videos about his life. Both channels have been a success; each has over a million views now. Edison and Churchill discuss storytelling, YouTube as a social network, and the future of the nonvisual Web below.
How Blind People Dream
The Atlantic: How did you decide to make the leap from radio to YouTube?
Tommy Edison: Video is something that we have always played around with, but it was to try to get on to television. We just decided one day, you know, why don't we throw some stuff up on You Tube and see how we do. We have a voice right here, let's use it. It hasn't felt like a leap for me because I'm still doing both radio and YouTube. It began when I had something to say about movies, so we started the Blind Film Critic channel so I could show you a part of my life that you've never experienced before, so that I could share my perspective.
Edison's review of Bridesmaids
You've built not one, but two successful channels on YouTube. Was there a learning curve to adding a visual component to your storytelling?
Edison: That's Ben. He does that kind of thing. I don't really add the visual concept. I simply show you what my life is and how it works, and Ben makes all the visual storytelling happen. He makes all the magic happen. I don't do much different than when I'm on the radio. Except there's a camera around so you can see what I'm doing. If I touch something or have a prop then you can see it. On the radio, you can't see it. I had never really been seen before because I'm on the radio, so I had to get used to people looking at me. With Ben telling me the camera loves me all the time and stuff, it was very easy to do. It was a lot of encouragement from Ben. It all comes down to the trust thing that I have with Ben, because I trust him 100%. That's what makes it special and there may be a learning curve but Ben coaches me through it. He tells me how to look and where to look.
Edison talks about why he's blind.
What is your process for creating videos?
Edison: We'll do a brainstorm and come up with some ideas and then choose one that we think works. Ben and I will talk about it and figure out how to lay it out, how to tell the story, and then we shoot the video. And then Ben makes the rest happen with how it's edited and the b-roll that's used and all the different things he does with the material.
Ben Churchill: We are constantly brainstorming for future videos. There is an ongoing list of ideas that we add to and pull from, plus we look at the comments from the subscribers on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter to find out what they like and what they're asking for. We write outlines for the videos we want to shoot, schedule the shoot day, book the small film crew, and shoot at least three videos in a day, sometimes up to six if we're good. We do this to keep production costs down. Plus, once you shoot one or two videos, you feel warmed up and want to record a few more. Then I sort through all the footage, start editing the stories, and post the next video that's ready on YouTube the following Tuesday.
Edison's twist on the Sh*t Girls Say format: Sh*t Sighted People Say to Blind People
An important element of building your YouTube audience seems to be the interactivity, especially answering questions via your TommyEdisonXP channel. How has YouTube worked as a social network for your content?
Churchill: Yes, interacting with our subscribers and other channels has definitely been an important part of building our audience. Based on one's privacy settings, every time a user leaves a comment, likes or favorites a video, their followers will see that and will watch what they're watching. This is how people have found our videos and this how we've met and teamed-up with fellow YouTubers. We encourage everyone to do this when they watch our videos (or anyone's videos) so they can help promote their favorite YouTubers and introduce their subscribers to new channels. Plus, we ask our followers to submit questions and comments for Tommy to respond to in a future video. The feedback has been so positive, that we've decided to expand on this feature. We've built a larger set and have included a guest host each week who will read the latest comments to Tommy as he provides his trademark commentary. We urge people to post their questions/comments whether it relates to Tommy's blindness or not.
Who is your audience?
Edison: Right now our audience is a mix of people who are interested in the blind topic and those who want a few laughs.
Churchill: In terms of stats and demographics, both channels appeal to everyone but lead in the 25-34 male demographic. According to YouTube stats, 33 percent of our audience is female.
Are you a YouTube partner? Do you see YouTube, with the new Google-funded channels in the works, becoming competitive with TV and/or providing a sustainable way for videomakers to publish content independently?
Edison: Yes, I think TV is in trouble. There is so much more media here on You Tube. What's so great about YouTube is your video is just sitting there and somebody could discover it sometime and pow! It could move again and people will see it. Television doesn't do that. You show something on TV -- it's gone, it's over. You Tube is on-demand. Mostly everything on You Tube is still available for anyone to look up and watch when you want to watch it.
Churchill: Yes, we are part of the YouTube Partnership program. YouTube is becoming competitive with TV, but it will be sometime until one overpowers the other. The two will probably merge in the future. As for now, I think YouTube is a great place for independent producers to start building an audience for their work, but sooner or later they will want to partner with a YouTube production company/network (or develop their own) like Maker Studios, Machinima, etc, so that you can successfully grow your channel(s) by tapping into the resources of a larger company. Then you’ll have help with production, post-production, marketing, and selling advertising space on your videos.
Why Is There Braille on the Drive-Thru ATM?
It's easy for sighted people to focus on the Internet as a visual experience, and on shiny screens and images in particular. In the spirit of your video explanations, what are the most valuable and interesting aspects of the "nonvisual" experience of the Internet?
Edison: One of the things is that everything is on-demand. If I want to hear a track, you can just search for it on You Tube and just hear it. If I can't find something or someone wants me to read or listen to something, then they can send me a link. How simple is that?
Churchill: As much as the Internet is “shiny screens and images,” I see it as a text-driven medium. With every piece of content that is posted, whether it's a video, image or article, there is a title, description, and set of keywords associated with it -- which helps you find similar material and discover new things.
Edison: The comments. People are constantly putting up new text about topics. You get great instant feedback. When people watch something, if they leave a comment, you get to know what they thought right away.
An installment of the series When Sighted People Forget
How do you think it will evolve in the future?
Edison: When more bandwidth becomes readily available, I think the Internet will be your place for everything. It's close now. You can watch whatever you want. Look, they have Internet televisions ready, right now! That tells you where it's going.
What's next for you?
Churchill: Our main goal is to grow our audience/subscribers, become affiliated with a You Tube production company/network, and hopefully not run out of ideas.
Edison: Try to come up with different videos that are not necessarily related to my blindness. Just stuff that happens to be hosted by a blind person. That's all.
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