A flurry of striking new mobile broadcasting projects – including two bike-based units in the Netherlands – provide a tantalising glimpse of how day-to-day news-gathering and remote production could be made more sustainable, writes David Davies.
There has long been a general recognition in broadcast that the industry’s environmental impact is significant, unrelenting and – as climate change accelerates – increasingly indefensible. But in the last few years, a steady stream of data-led research has underlined the severity of the problem.
For example, at a Royal Television Society event it was revealed that each hour of television produced leaves a carbon footprint of 9.2 tonnes – the equivalent of two households’ annual consumption. This represents an average across all genres, although the figure can be quadrupled for drama. An accompanying panel session called for action across multiple fronts, including more collaboration on sourcing to make supply chains more efficient, the elimination of waste, and the migration towards renewable energy.
In which context, the recent introduction of two highly sustainable mobile broadcasting units seems both timely and a welcome indication of how day-to-day production might be made more sustainable. While Bike Bureau is the vision of BBC journalists Anna Holligan and Kate Vandy, Broadcast Bike has been created by independent video producer Bart Buerman.
‘A gradual evolution’
The development of Bike Bureau has been a “gradual evolution” that began in 2020 when Holligan and Vandy worked together on a documentary entitled Europe’s Cycling Revolution, which examined the impact Covid-19 was having on urban mobility. “We were inspired by the dramatic changes we saw across the continent, and this got us thinking about how we could make changes in our lives – how we get around and what that means for the way we work,” said Vandy.
Meanwhile, Holligan had been juggling her daughter and commitments as a foreign correspondent, based in The Hague, for several years. “As a newborn I’d strap her to my chest during interviews and push her discreetly off camera during TV lives and pieces to camera,” she recalled.
With her daughter about to start school almost 5km away from home, it became apparent that upgrading from a “traditional Dutch granny bike” to an electric cargo bike presented a “pragmatic – and sustainable – way to simultaneously manage these sometimes mutually exclusive roles.” A few months later, Holligan began to use the bike to provide breaking news from the field with her daughter by side; a development that swiftly led to a regular mini-news bulletin, Dutch News from the Cycle Path.
Now the project has taken a further step forward with the formal introduction of Bike Bureau, which is designed to be mobile broadcast studio and office on two wheels. “This is ‘phase one’ of our design,” said Vandy. “For this we’ve transformed Anna’s electric cargo bike via mainly off-shelf broadcast kit, as well as repurposed equipment we had. Our next step is to design some bespoke elements and have them 3D-printed to fit the bike using recycled materials. Bike Bureau is now kitted to offer solo-operated (and solar & battery-powered) TV and radio lives, and carry out all manner of news-gathering tasks. It also contains workspace for the journalist – in this case Anna! – to work on the go (and, importantly, make coffee).”
Holligan confirms that a motivating idea behind the Bike Bureau is to provide a facility that can allow a single journalist to perform the same tasks that would have previously involved a whole team and possibly an OB truck. It’s already proven to be especially useful for reporting local breaking news – including climate and farmers’ protests – with its ability to “take me to within a few feet of the action, with all the necessary mobile journalism kit (tripod, phones, microphone, earphones) to set up and go live from the scene within minutes of arriving. And thanks to our new solar capabilities, I could continue providing live updates on location all day.”
Design-wise, Bike Bureau fulfils the need for an “integrated and modular” solution that can be adjusted depending on the requirements of the day. “Our kit contains wireless and lapel mics, we shoot on our smartphones, and for live connectivity we use the BBC-supported LiveU app (other live broadcast apps are available),” said Holligan. “The ring lights, laptop and coffee machine run on a solar-powered battery pack. We’re still working on the 3D printing that will create a ball-and-socket type joint that will secure the solar panel to the cargo section and allow it to revolve to face the sun.”
Whilst Bike Bureau is very much the vision of Holligan and Vandy, it is certainly complementary to the BBC’s sustainability drive. The broadcaster’s sustainability project lead, Carly Wallis, said that its strategy revolves around three pillars: “Net Zero, being nature positive (taking responsibility for our impact on nature and biodiversity), and being people positive. This final one is about not only the impact of our programming on our audience, but is also about our staff. Bike Bureau feeds across all of these areas.”
It is also hoped that the project will inspire others to review the way they work, and the impact it has on the environment. “As journalists and broadcasters, more of us should be asking ‘how can we work in more sustainable ways?’” said Vandy. “We don’t expect everyone to go out, get a bike, and use it as a means of broadcast – but we should be looking at where and how we can make changes for the better. For me, personally, it’s no longer enough to report on the climate crisis – we need to also be part of the solution. I see Bike Bureau as one way to contribute to that. This is currently a single unit, [but] we hope it will be the basis from which we can adapt and perfect the current design to make something that many, many more people could use.”
Holligan adds: “I’m also conscious of my role as a solo-operating female journalist, and mother. It’s important to me to empower other women in our industry and beyond. Any tool that makes it easier to perform all the daily tasks expected of us that helps alleviate some pressure, and allows us to focus on the joys of all the opportunities we wish to embrace, is one I’m prepared to peddle.”
‘Sustainable unit for live streams’
Providing a sustainable unit for live streams and multi-cam recordings is the chief objective for Broadcast Bike, which is also based in the cycling-friendly landscape of the Netherlands. Developed by Bart Buerman, this project was initially conceived as a response to the demand for virtual/streaming events in the early days of the pandemic.
“A lot of the jobs I was scheduled to do were cancelled as everything was in lockdown,” he recalled. “But then pretty soon it became apparent that there was a demand for video of virtual events, such as lectures and corporate meetings. I had been used to doing a lot of international work, but suddenly my work was more local. I thought it would be fun if, rather than using my small van, I could use a cargo bike, or something similar, to carry all of the equipment. So I began to think about how I could adapt a bike so that it supported multi-camera recording but without the need to install anything [at each location].”
Buerman’s application to a scheme in Rotterdam aiming to reduce traffic-related carbon emissions elicited some funding for the project, which is based on a Gleam cargo bike with a completely customised standard box featuring 19” racks that make the equipment easily accessible. Weighing a mere 145 kg including all technology (but excluding the rider), Broadcast Bike offers a specification capable of “providing recording and live streams from just about any location”.
In terms of specific equipment, Buerman has opted for a trio of Canon PTZ cameras – “they offer a good combination of features and compactness” – along with a Blackmagic ATEM Mini Extreme advanced switcher and an LTE modem, the last-named item “allowing me to do live streams where there is no internet available, or an outdoor project where connectivity is limited.” For now, he is working entirely in HD, but anticipates that he will “upgrade to 4K at some point”.
Like Bike Bureau, Broadcast Bike has undergone a gradual evolution as Buerman’s ideas have been refined. But he is delighted by the bike in its present formation: “It offers me a very compact set-up with equipment that allows me to be very mobile and cover many different project needs.”
Its also one that is extremely sustainable. “According to European Environment Agency data, an average new passenger diesel vehicle emits 107.5 gram of CO2 per km, so that equates about to 160 kg of CO2 the Broadcast Bike did not emit in 2022,” said Buerman. “Compared to an older (cheaper) diesel model that estimate may increase further. In addition, there is also the reduction of emissions achieved by using solar power instead of wall power.”
With 1500 km covered in 2022, and a higher figure expected this year, Buerman has already deployed the bike to cover a spectrum of projects “such as conferences and trade shows, including to do multi-camera shoots of interviews. There have also been quite a few hybrid events.” He has found that some clients have been so impressed by the bike that they have helped to give it exposure as part of their own activities: “Sustainability is a big theme in many industries, so I think it has [resonated] in that way. The general response has been really amazing.”
Like Holligan and Vandy, Buerman is hopeful that his venture will inspire others in broadcast and beyond to think about the environmental impact of their day-to-day working lives: “It would be great if one result of this was that more people thought about sustainability in their day-to-day practices. If Broadcast Bike can help draw attention to that, I’d be very pleased.”