Media Mecca: Operations and Volunteers

The Media Team exists, in truth, out of necessity. Its activities are a basic requirement to preserve the ongoing project that is Burning Man. The world is very interested in learning about this event and its surrounding culture, and members of the media arrive each year eager to capture the tale. The stories they tell affect not only public awareness of the event but also the perceptions of the agencies, politicians, and other cooperators who support the continuation of Burning Man from year to year. Efforts to provide reporters and members of the media with a framework to help socialize and orient them to the experience have resulted in progressively deeper and more personal media coverage. The Media Team’s goal is to invite the press to become part of Burning Man—to involve themselves in it—in order to get the clearest, most engaging look they can at Black Rock City.

Working closely with Burning Man staff, Media team volunteers help year-round: registering media, talking with them over email or by phone, and pointing them toward resources to help them prepare for the desert. Each registration is researched and vetted carefully—not every application is approved. This year, at least one proposal—for a fictional narrative styled as an “epic saga”—was denied permission to film, since the production would have directly interfered with the experiences of others at the event. Still, other media outlets applied as well, and as in previous years, many projects were approved. Independent film crews from Switzerland, photographers from Smithsonian magazine, Russian TV crews, Rolling Stone reporters, and even a 12-year-old documentarian from Portland made their way to Black Rock City in 2005—182 approved registrations in all, not including another 50 or so walk-up registrations. ABC News had planned a one-hour “Prime Time Live” special, but the news of Hurricane Katrina in the American South pulled their crew to that assignment.

Although no unusual trends appeared in 2005 in the number or size of the media groups approved to film this year, something about one particular media outlet pushed a few buttons for some Burning Man participants. Discovery Times is a boutique cable channel under the Discovery Channel umbrella in collaboration with the New York Times. Discovery Times applied to send a crew to do a first-person travel-show-style episode for its series “Only In America.” Three or four Discovery Channel applications were turned away in previous years, but this proposal had all the elements together and seemed prepared to make a solid piece about the event. Since deeply personal, firsthand coverage seems to tell Burning Man’s story the best, this proposal seemed a good fit. But some Burning Man participants took exception to this approval, citing displeasure with the commercial nature of the cable channel’s parent company and what they deemed a “reality TV” approach to television.

It isn’t clear what about this proposal exactly pushed new buttons, since projects like it have been approved for years. Burning Man’s decision to approve the show was in line with its approach to media coverage since 1995 and even earlier. With respect for context and careful guidelines for the rights of participants, coverage like Discovery Times can in fact accurately capture the very newsworthy story of Black Rock City. As with any such coverage, Burning Man retains the right to review footage before it is broadcast through the careful use of entrance policies and written agreements. While no one wants to micromanage the creativity of any filmmaker, the Media team does work to protect Black Rock City by proactively keeping an eye on specific issues in coverage of the event.

On-Playa Operatons

Once at the event, Media staff members greet these camera-toting newcomers to the city with a cold drink, a friendly welcome, and a bit of orientation if they seem to need it. Then they turn reporters around and gently shove them out into the sun to meet Black Rock City.

In 2005, the Media team saw a few changes in staff and volunteer members of the team, creating opportunities to change the style of meeting and interacting with media at the event. Goals for these changes included simplifying training. The team needed to know who had signed in and who had not to make sure that important press didn’t slip through. An especially important goal was to create an enjoyable and fun atmosphere and increase interaction and camaraderie among the team.

One of the new roles was the Media Maitre d’. This person’s charge: greet, screen, tag, introduce, repeat. This friendly bouncer greeted visitors, determined if they were where they needed to be (e.g., Media Mecca, and not Playa Info), introduced the visitor to a media Wrangler, and did it again. This was a good role for both new people and alumni. The novices learned how to screen people based on their needs, and it gave alumni a low-stress way to meet and greet old friends and colleagues.

Three to five Wranglers worked each morning and afternoon shift, to answer, suggest, connect, and assist. Wranglers answered questions about the event (remembering that none of them “speak for” Burning Man, but they can speak for themselves if they make that limitation clear). Wranglers also helped to connect people and make suggestions (i.e., story leads, people to interview, camps to visit, etc.). Wranglers also made sure that contracts were signed and noted correctly—and they served a mean cocktail, as appropriate.

Another new role was the contracts specialist, who helped keep the information and the media agreements straight. Media representatives at Burning Man agree to four types of contracts: “Still Photographer” for professional shooters, a “Basic Use” agreement for films and documentaries, a “TV Feature” agreement to use for certain kinds of non-news television broadcasts, and a “News” agreement for news-related footage that will air within 2 weeks after the event. Some also negotiate custom contracts, so the task of keeping track of so much legal knowledge challenges even the most savvy volunteer. Creating this specialist role gave responsibility to someone with experience to pull and file incoming/outgoing contracts, and to answer legal questions without uncertainty. This change left fewer volunteers struggling to retain all the information about contracts, and, planners hoped, would result in a more consistent application of procedures. A review of the 170+ contracts received on-playa will confirm whether that hypothesis was true by gauging whether people received the correct contracts for their purposes.

Media Captains worked with radios, handled special circumstances, dealt with special visitors to Black Rock City, and answered team questions. They also served as contacts for staff, the External Relations team, and for other Burning Man departments, to answer questions, problem solve, and accommodate requests. They knew who was working and generally helped to maintain a pleasant, functional environment. Lucky afternoon Captains doubled as Press Happy Hour hosts.

Improvement is possible for 2006 in how the Media team supports the efforts of other Communications departments, such as the External Relations team, and activities of other departments across the organization. Members of the media increasingly want interaction with the people who make Burning Man happen—working to build bridges year-round will certainly help on-playa.

Media Mecca: Site Report

Media Mecca is a year-round volunteer team, but its physical presence at Burning Man has become more streamlined over the years. Although it still occupies the same footprint, less of that space is actually devoted to Media Mecca operations, as the spartan office, shade structure, and deck now fit into a small area. Visiting media, the tech team, and the census team use the rest of the plot.

For 2005, the team built a bigger observation deck and put a shade dome on top of it. Members served breakfast several mornings and coffee every morning to compliment evening happy hours for media. The deck also served as an out-of-the-way place to have private conversations and meetings and served as the base for the Burn Circle safety meeting.

Most of Media Mecca’s carpet and furniture is six years old or older, so it carries that many years of dust accumulation. Donations of furniture covers and paint have spruced the place up, but 2006 may be time for some upgrades. Teardown crews discarded most heavy carpets this year, and the team hopes to replace them with rubber or lightweight foam floor covering similar to that used behind the Center Camp Café counter. A fun but strenuous “housecleaning” work weekend during the summer gave another opportunity to clear older, heavier sofas and other items that no longer served current needs out of storage containers.

A new addition this year was a scrolling LED sign which listed noon population counts and interesting Burning Man facts. Understanding of the best way to use this new acquisition developed later in the week, when it became very helpful as an announcement board. The team expects to make full use and misuse of this technology in 2006.

One of the big changes for 2005 was a huge increase in participants with laptop computers looking for WiFi access. Media Mecca became an attractive place for participants to get out of the heat and check personal email. This unrelated traffic detracted from the mission of spending time with registered media and put an extra strain on resources and volunteers; food, happy hour drinks, electricity, and water ended up being consumed by participants instead of the registered media and Media Mecca volunteers. Further strain came from the popular expectation that the team would provide technical assistance around inevitable WiFi outages. Media themselves placed a burden on the core IT office, too, making multiple requests for support to upload their stories from the desert floor. In all, this use made the primary purpose—registering and acculturating the media—much more difficult.

We suggest that Black Rock City explore designating other areas as Internet lounges; Media Mecca is not designed as a public service area, and its use as such interferes with its mission. Planners are considering building a “WiFi corral” for registered members of the media in 2006—a place where participant journalists could plug in, connect, and recharge while negotiating space and power needs with each other.

During the final days of the event, when news of Hurricane Katrina reached the playa, Media Mecca was proud to step quickly forward as the communications and collection center for the Gulf Coast Hurricane Relief effort. In one day, new signage was made, signs and donation bottles were created, a news kiosk was assembled, and the space was reconfigured for walk-up assistance and information dissemination. Year-round, team members have been working hard to make Media Mecca the crisis communications center for any number of potential situations that could arise at the event, putting the real-world communications skills of a talented group to good use.

Media Panel

For the second year in 2005, an on-playa Media Panel brought several key staffers to speak on various topics and answer questions for members of the media. (The label media panel avoids the narrow, urgent, and one-way connotations of press conference.)

Once again, the Media Panel was held in the Commissary on Wednesday between lunch and dinner. A musician played to focus and entertain members of the media as they gathered in the Commissary, an effective innovation. The musician brought a PA system that proved very useful throughout the session, because participants could pass a microphone back and forth, a nice improvement over the megaphone used in 2004. Panelists sat at a table across from the press and addressed the assembled journalists.

A moderator introduced the five panelists, who then spoke on the topics of community, government relations, regional outreach, pushing culture, the Black Rock Arts Foundation, and the 20th burn. For the second half of the session, the panelists answered questions. The whole thing took just under 2 hours. As in 2004, the Media Panel served to provide members of the media with access to key staff and to relieve those staffers of having to answer the same questions repeatedly in multiple interviews.

The Media Team announced the panel in an email to select registered media members prior to Burning Man. On-playa, Media team members mentioned the event to select members of the media as they checked in at Media Mecca. This communication resulted in attendance by several dozen members of the media.

Art Tour for the Media

In 2005, the Media team again hosted an art tour, enabling approximately 40 reporters, photographers, and video crews to see key art installations on the playa and to speak with the creators. The Nautilus bus and its driver kindly helped with the tour, and a small band on board provided musical entertainment as the tour passed from artwork to artwork.

Over the course of 2 hours on Thursday afternoon, the tour visited five artworks. Media team members had selected the art for criteria such as interactivity, aesthetics, and/or simply an artist with a compelling story, and organizers arranged ahead of time for these artists to be on hand to speak during the tour. As the tour arrived at each artwork, the media climbed down and approached the art while a member of the Artery staff introduced the artists and spoke about why the work was selected. The artist then spoke about the inspirations behind the work and experiences with creating art for the playa. During the drive from one artwork to the next, the Artery representative or a member of the Media team occasionally spoke briefly about other artworks passed in transit. Once again, the tour was a very successful occasion.

EBS Project

For the first time in 2005, Burning Man developed, tested, and employed an Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) on the playa. The project was designed to provide for reliable and comprehensive dissemination of information from First Camp in the event of an emergency (e.g., rain storm). It became an effective way to spread the word about portable toilet maintenance. More dramatically, it helped to summon satellite phones and laptops to Center Camp in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall. In the last days of the event, the system also helped people participate in relief efforts.

The project team arrived early and built a network among low-power FM radio broadcasters already in place on the playa through personal contact and assisting them in their construction projects. The team came prepared with pre-recorded public service announcements (PSAs), while also arranging a production process involving Burning Man Information Radio and others for producing, recording, and distributing announcements, as appropriate. This activity involved coordination with First Camp (for computers, printers, editorial guidance, and review), BMIR (recording and copying), Media Mecca (connections with journalists) and XRT (direct supervision and logistics).

On Tuesday, an “invisible test” of the EBS involved recording and distributing a PSA on drinking water. Six broadcasters and six sound stages agreed to play these announcements for attention by event participants across the playa. Also, a five-station simulcast of the BMIR signal disseminated an interview with Burning Man’s Communications Manager. The content was generic and included no mentions of BMIR, so the test remained invisible to listeners.

Coordination with friends in other departments ensured efficiency in the case of a real emergency, and it supported useful sharing of appropriate messages for them. The project also established good links with the ham radio community to help with confirming facts for First Camp and Media Mecca. This function could be part of a larger news-gathering service in the future. Project participants also met and recruited event participants who could provide satellite and Internet connectivity to assist this work.

On Wednesday, the system was suggested as a way to promote responsible use of portable toilets. This message went out within 2 hours and achieved distribution similar to the tests already mentioned. On Thursday and Saturday, the system was activated again to assist in the community response to Hurricane Katrina. The smooth process for this activity made a difference. Partners on the playa could not have been more cooperative or enthusiastic.

In the course of the work, a number of community building opportunities appeared, such as technical exchanges, cross-promotions, and introductions. Lessons for the 2006 event include allowing for file format variations, improving delivery systems, and generally simplifying production to broaden the system’s reach on all levels. Full and enthusiastic support from LLC and Senior Staff (with direct supervision from an XRT lead) made a huge difference in the success of the EBS project through prior recognition of possible enhancements to the event and effective responses to opportunities that arose.

The project moved forward in the context of Burning Man, with respect for the culture, upbeat messages compatible with peoples’ sensibilities, and easy availability and accountability to XRT and First Camp. The project provided new communications channels without becoming a “loose cannon” or a source of concern.

The project team made friends, proved concepts, and otherwise set the stage for full deployment in 2006, should such systems become necessary.

Legal Relations

The Media team’s trademark and copyright enforcement volunteers kept busy in 2005, dealing with 90 documented interactions relating to maintaining Burning Man’s rights to its registered trademarks. Infringements often involve items offered for sale, such as “I (heart) Burning Man” T-shirts on Café Press. These ‘violations’ might sound like small issues not worth the trouble of chasing them down, but Burning Man must show consistent enforcement of its ownership of registered trademarks in order to maintain its rights in the event of a bigger battle.

Violations were up 22 percent, from 69 cases in 2004 to 89 cases in 2005. Of those, 64 were eBay auctions (up from 54 in 2004), and 25 were miscellaneous other violations, mostly related to unauthorized use of trademarks or images on commercial websites (up from 15 in 2004). This activity suggests an obvious need for even more education about the use of Burning Man’s registered marks (“Burning Man,” “Black Rock City,” and “Decompression”) and of images of the event for commercial purposes. In roughly 80 percent of cases, the respondents quickly cooperate and state that they simply didn’t know the mark was protected from the use they were trying to make. Another 10 percent or so engage in a longer dialogue about related trademark law before deciding to cooperate, while around 10 percent actually do refuse to cease the inappropriate use of registered marks. When such resistance occurs on eBay, Burning Man must file a VeRO (Verified Rights Owner) Report, which eBay reviews before removing the auction. Eight VeRO reports were filed in 2005. For non-eBay related violations, the option of further legal action is determined on a case-by-case basis.

Submitted by,
Andie Grace