FEATURE | MV’s digital department is growing fast

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THE version of Around the Islands first commissioned by Marianas Variety in February of 2019 would be hardly recognizable to any AI Facebook follower today; the initial podcast project was meant to be the newspaper’s first cautious toe-dip into the world of audio-visual content, the emphasis being on the “audio” aspect, though short video clips were to be produced to accompany and advertise the recorded interviews that made up each episode.

From this first endeavor (and the subsequent discovery that the CNMI is not interested in podcasts) grew the Marianas Variety’s Video Department, which now produces local commercials, the foodie series Out to Eat, and Around the Islands in its current form, a bi-monthly documentary series covering local culture, history, and news.

As a feature writer-turned-director-and-producer, I can certainly say that the fast growth of our local video platform was neither orchestrated nor expected. When I started this project with co-creator and editor Jack Doyle, I thought it would simply be a way to save time on stories. After all, with recorded podcasts, all I would need to do is conduct the interview; no writing required. And Jack, who signed on as an audio engineer, had no idea he would soon be cutting up a lot more than tracks.

When we produced our first documentary-style episode, “Sailing to the Pika Festival,” I watched my supposed shortcut evolve into two weeks of long days working after-hours. Looking back on that project, I realize we were never asked to put that much time into the project. But there was — and always has been — a shared, if ill-understood sense of urgency between Jack and I as co-creators. The video needed to work, to flow, to capture attention, and as amateur filmmakers we were learning all too well that while there are many ways for a video to look good, there are infinitely more ways for a video to look bad. Like, embarrassingly bad. It took a lot of trial and error to get that episode up and running.

We’ve been grappling with that process ever since, always learning by doing. We launched the Around the Islands Facebook page in the early summer of 2019, with little response from the local community. At the time we received only a few thousand views per video if we were lucky, so our initial lack of social media following was no surprise. But in August, we published our break-out video: Northern Mariana Islanders Stand Up for Mauna Kea. Our phones buzzed and laptops bleeped for about a week straight. Eventually the video climbed past 85,000 views, and no one was more surprised than us.

Our excitement collapsed into anxiety as the next episode deadline approached. Would Around the Islands be a one-hit wonder? To our delight, “A Sign of Resilience” proved otherwise; the brief video introducing Tinian’s new sunset sign attracted well over 30,000 views. We had officially entered a new playing field, with a broader audience and the sponsors that come with tens of thousands of views.

That said, developing AI’s following continues to be an every-day battle. Some videos do better than others, and sometimes during our dips in viewership it helps to take a step back and appreciate the big-picture progress.

For example, our festival features offer a consistent example of audience growth: February’s “Sailing to the Pika Festival” received only about 1,000 views on YouTube. Six months later, our “Festival of Cultures” episode attracted 3,000 views on Facebook. And two months after that, “Saipan’s Indigenous Cultural Expo 2019” reached 30,000 views. Each video’s individual content is of course a major factor in its viewership, but so is the fact that our following has grown in number and widened in distance; thanks to Facebook insights, we know we have viewers in Guam, the States, the Federated States of Micronesia, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Japan, Palau, Fiji, the United Kingdom, French Polynesia, Canada, Germany, New Caledonia, Mexico, the Marshall Islands, Iran, and many more countries around the globe.

Perhaps most exciting is the way expanding our reach in audience also expands our reach as far as the ability to cover more difficult topics; with more views, we’re able to attract more collaborators who help us do things we could never do on our own, like sail to Goat Island, fly to Rota, and dive into caves and around underwater WWII wrecks. We were especially honored to be invited to cover the Carolinian Pwo’ Ceremony that was conducted on Saipan last fall, an experience for which the AI crew is truly grateful. And it’s safe to say the resulting episode struck a chord with the community as well, receiving 62,000 views.

We’ve also had the invaluable privilege of expanding our team. We’re delighted to work with videographers David Butterfield and Austin Barcinas (and, most recently, Tahj Salas). It’s also our pleasure to team up with our adventure hike hosts Analee Villagomez and Vlad Melnik to show off the beautiful and rarely-seen sides of the CNMI.

So it is with gratitude that Jack and I look back on AI’s strange and exciting journey through 2019, and with high hopes that our new, larger team looks forward to our 2020 season. For any of you who might be interested in getting involved, please don’t hesitate to send us story ideas or volunteer to help host an episode — we’re always open to suggestions!

Interested in tuning in? You can find our videos on our new tab on the Marianas Variety website (mvariety.com) and don’t forget to subscribe to Marianas Variety on YouTube and like/follow Around the Islands on Facebook and Instagram to keep up with our many adventures!

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