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The political guru wore tennis shoes

A recently graduated college student who made YouTube videos in his dorm room has captured the attention of some presidential hopefuls.

By Jim Puzzanghera, Times Staff Writer
June 16, 2007
http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/front/la-fi-vidkid16jun16,1,7177073.story?coll=la-headlines-frontpage

WASHINGTON During the 2004 presidential campaign, the radical way for candidates to reach young voters in college dormitories was to appear on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart." This time around, some candidates have gone straight to the dorm rooms.

Not just any room, but Room 325, a single on the third floor of a red-brick residence hall at Georgetown University here. Two long-shot presidential hopefuls have trekked there to meet James Kotecki, a 21-year-old international politics major who has become the candidates' unlikely guide to the YouTube demographic.

In January, right about the time that presidential hopefuls began experimenting with posting campaign videos on the Internet, Kotecki started critiquing their efforts through YouTube videos of his own. Talking to pencil-puppet versions of the candidates, the self-described "huge political geek" dispensed campaign advice from his dimly lighted room, where shelves stocked with Pringles and Special K served as the backdrop.

The campaigns paid attention. Kotecki became a kind of unpaid online video consultant, with candidates taking his tips and sending back video responses.

Rep. Ron Paul, a Texas Republican, and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, a Democrat, even visited Kotecki's dorm room for serious, sit-down interviews that he posted on YouTube.

Kotecki's graduation last month meant that he left the dorm room behind, but not his influence. On Thursday Democratic candidate Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio joined Kotecki for a YouTube video they shot in a Capitol Hill park. A Republican hopeful, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, recently did the same at a Washington fundraiser.

"I'm not going to say never in my wildest dreams would I have ever expected this, because I have a tendency to dream pretty big, but it's not really something I could have predicted," Kotecki said of his newfound notoriety. "YouTube is a total crapshoot."

And Kotecki got lucky.

Before he became the unofficial VJ for the 2008 presidential campaign, Kotecki was just another kid with a video camera.

He often broke up his studies at Georgetown by surfing the offerings on YouTube, the video-sharing site. When he bought a Web camera in January, he decided to join the craze.

"Everyone else is doing it," he thought. "It seems like they're having a good time."

Kotecki started recording his opinions, two or three minutes at a time, about how each presidential candidate was using the video site. He posts them on his blog, jameskotecki.com, and on YouTube.

Occasionally wearing a blazer and sometimes even a tie, the clean-cut Kotecki delivered his opinions rapid-fire to squeeze as much content as possible into each short video.

They were no-frills productions, spiced with the standard YouTube accouterments: cheap props (pencil puppets made with black-and-white head shots of candidates and handwritten signs), improvised sound effects, pop culture references ("Star Wars" and "Fat Albert") and a peculiar screen name (EmergencyCheese after a goofy business idea he had in the 11th grade to produce special containers of cheese to be used in an emergency).

"Your YouTube presence is weak," he told Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.). He praised former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, a Democrat, for focusing on specific issues and keeping his videos short, while encouraging Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) to show more of his sense of humor.

For Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), Kotecki had some practical suggestions talk directly to the camera, use different backgrounds. "I'd also recommend sitting up straight," he said.

These were not earth-shattering insights, but Kotecki was one of the only people making them. His critiques were focused, well-researched and creative.

Steve Grove, head of news and politics at YouTube, discovered Kotecki's videos and decided to feature them on the site's home page, providing major exposure.

"It was this really earnest, intelligent, smart, young kid saying, 'Hey I want to talk with the candidates. Let's have a two-way conversation,' " Grove said. "It seemed genuine."

Kotecki's attention turned to politics in high school. He spent part of his junior year as a congressional page and fell in love with Washington. Georgetown was a natural college choice, and living in the nation's capital only further fueled his interest in politics.

When he started making YouTube videos, Kotecki researched and recorded them between classes or at night, cobbling them together with the software that came on his laptop computer. His girlfriend, Emily Freifeld, lent expertise from her broadcast journalism studies. He posted them on YouTube and sent them to the presidential campaigns.

The campaigns didn't ignore them.

Edwards posted a written "Thanks" to Kotecki's YouTube page in February. About a month later, Kucinich went one better, addressing Kotecki directly in a 50-second video response, taking his advice for tighter close-ups.

"My advisor," Kucinich said, holding up his own pencil puppet of Kotecki.

Kucinich said later that his staff directed him to Kotecki's critiques. The close-ups are more effective, Kucinich agreed, so he has continued to use them, although the pencil puppet was a one-time thing.

"James Kotecki should be given a lot of credit for opening a new pathway to discussion," Kucinich said.

GOP candidates were also paying attention. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney provided a video response to one of Kotecki's policy questions, as did Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.).

Then in April, Paul, the Texas congressman, helped Kotecki become a legend among YouTube's amateur pundits.

When Kotecki invited Paul to his dorm for an interview, Jesse Benton, the Paul campaign's communication director, thought it would be a good platform for the 71-year-old candidate to reach young voters.

He was nervous, however, about what his boss would think of an idea that may have seemed more like "Animal House" than "Meet the Press."

But Paul went for it. On April 26, Benton drove him to Georgetown's LXR Hall, a short trip from Capitol Hill.

"It was exactly what you would have expected: a little desk and two chairs, a bunk," Paul said later. "It wasn't quite the production as when I went on the Bill Maher show."

Kotecki was serious and respectful. They talked on camera about Paul's background, his foreign policy positions, the Constitution and the role of the Internet in politics. Paul plugged his website, and Kotecki gave him the Ron Paul pencil puppet he had used in earlier videos.

"I asked him if he was looking for work," Paul said. "But he said he was busy and had plans."

By most accounts, it was the first presidential campaign sit-down ever conducted in a college dorm room. The edited version has been watched more than 44,000 times.

Shortly afterward, Gravel also made the trek to Kotecki's dormitory for a similarly serious sit-down and to collect his complimentary pencil puppet.

In only a few months, Kotecki has managed to transform himself into a respected campaign commentator using only a 3-year-old Dell laptop and $60 Logitech Web camera. CNN, National Public Radio and the Washington Post, among others, have sought his views on presidential campaign videos.

"He's not only using the medium effectively, he's showing the political establishment how to be better at understanding the dynamics of online communications," said Andrew Rasiej, founder of TechPresident.com, a site that tracks how candidates are using the Web. "They are responding to him because they feel like if they don't, they'll be viewed as having missed the boat."

The real world intruded on Kotecki's YouTube ambitions when he graduated from Georgetown. His videos were taking off, with nearly 1,000 subscribers to the channel he set up on YouTube, and he didn't want to quit.

So Kotecki changed his mind about a job at a New York financial services consulting firm, figuring that the anticipated 80-hour workweeks would leave him little time for YouTube.

He decided to stay in Washington and do research and analysis about how political risks affect hedge funds for consulting firm Cypress Group, where he had interned. The main selling points: a more manageable workweek and a promise by his boss to be YouTube-friendly. The firm allows Kotecki to make videos from the office and work part-time as he tries to launch his own consulting practice to show corporations and organizations how to communicate effectively through online video.

YouTube has gone from an unofficial college minor to a potential career.

"I found out as I kept doing it and people gave me a good response, this is what I loved to do," Kotecki said.

But he had another concern that wasn't so easily resolved. Was being a college kid the key to his success?

"The first thing I thought was, 'When I leave my dorm room, is that it?' " Kotecki said.

He prepared his audience for his graduation. And to show that his new set wouldn't constrain him, one of his first videos ended with Kotecki spinning around in his chair to MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This." He recently celebrated cracking the 1,000-subscriber barrier by doing a video entirely in rap, grooving with his pencil puppets in the empty office late one night.

With the candidates still experimenting with online video, Kotecki figures his advice will continue to be valuable in the first presidential election of the YouTube era.

"Everyone's still trying to figure it out," he said, "and there's no one that can say they know more about it than me."


jim.puzzanghera@latimes.com

 

 

 
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