June Cohen of TED worked in Silicon Valley before the dot com boom and helped revolutionize multimedia on the web. She talked to TechRepublic about her journey to bring online video to the masses.
"I am a person who was always interested in everything."
That statement is quite revealing of June Cohen. Five minutes chatting with her, and it's easy to see what a passionate, curious learner she is.
It makes perfect sense, then, that Cohen's passions converged to bring her to this position. As the executive producer of TED Media, she gets to do a little bit of it all, and in doing so, she's made a huge difference in TED's path. Cohen was the person responsible for bringing TED online. Today, she curates the main conference every year and runs TED's website, its Open Translation Project, and TED books.
Cohen attended Stanford in the early 1990s and worked for the college newspaper. Journalism was her first passion — it gave her the opportunity to meet new people and satisfy her curiosity about things around her.
Being in Silicon Valley, she was immersed in tech news long before the dot com boom. Cohen remembers the day Apple released Quicktime, and knew that it would change the way media was delivered. After the announcement, she was talking with a colleague about the news and they started sketching out ways to integrate video into their publication.
"I was fascinated at what would happen with storytelling when it moved onto computers," she said. "I am still fascinated by that. It captivated me 20 years ago and it still hasn't released me. I find it completely enthralling because tech keeps moving forward and so does media."
She started the first networked online multimedia magazine at Stanford. Readers could download it from the college network, before the web existed. After college, Cohen chased her dream of building more websites. She started at HotWired, the first commercial web magazine, owned by Wired, when it started in 1994 and helped design and build their websites with multimedia elements. HotWired was one of the earliest dot com startups.
"It had all of the trappings — in an old loft in San Francisco, with pink ethernet cables, dogs in the office — things we now associate with internet startups. At the time we had no idea what was about to happen," she said.
During her time there, Cohen and the rest of her colleagues in the industry were discovering what the web was good for and how people would fit it into their lives. After six years with Wired, Cohen wrote a book called The Unusually Useful Web Book, which aggregated all the institutional knowledge she gathered while working there. She was hired by TED in 2005. The company had started out as an annual conference with a thousand attendees, and Cohen had attended for many years. It is now a multimedia platform with more than a billion viewers.
In 2005, Cohen had breakfast with Chris Anderson, who bought TED in 2001. He wanted to make it more than a conference by bringing the speakers and ideas to the world through television. Broadcasters wanted nothing to do with a lecture series.
Cohen decided to bring it online instead.
"My role was not intended to be this. YouTube had just launched, [web] video was first becoming a reality," she said. "The best thing that ever happened to TED talks was that TV had no interest in them. It unlocked the potential of technology and a global audience to us."
The launch was complicated. It was an experiment. The team expected a small, loyal, geeky audience — not many more for the videos than their average number of conference attendees. But in the first week, the charts hit 50,000, and grew rapidly from there.
"What happened has been continually surprising and humbling to us," she said. "There's such a broad audience for this kind of content, such a broad sense of curiosity and hunger in the world for learning that we just didn't understand when we started talks online."
As emails started to roll in from people describing the profound impact TED talks were having on their lives, Cohen and Anderson decided to go full speed ahead with the website. They relaunched it, and have since grown the platform into a giant multimedia organization. Cohen was also responsible for building and launching TED's Open Translation Project, which allows volunteers to subtitle any talk.
"We're helping those ideas to spread, and not just exporting English outward," she said. "It's a grassroots style everywhere around the world, with the capacity to be amplified through technology."
Today, Cohen's life is consumed by TED media. Because she is involved in so many different aspects of the company, she said she tries to prioritize taking time outdoors and offline.
"It's incredibly clarifying and rejuvenating outdoors," she said. "It's important to balance life that's very much connected and in New York with time outside the city and offline — to let thoughts settle and create space to think."
In her own words...
What are some of your hobbies?
"I love adventures in general. Outside of the city I do a lot of outdoor activities, like light kayaking, snowshoeing, skating, hiking, whatever the season is. I love seeing new landscapes and being outdoors. In the city I love theater. It's an old love of mine, I love live music and dance, anything in the performing arts, I adore it as a different kind of escape."
Were you involved in theater?
"As a kid, I did. In an amatuer way. My mother was a performer, she was a ballerina. My whole family has a love of performance and music. Mostly now I just love taking it in, love the drama of a Broadway show. I go through periods when I see a lot of theater — half a dozen to a dozen a year, which is less than I like to do."
What do you like to read?
"I have this funny quirk in my brain where when someone asks me what's my favorite book, I am like, 'have I ever read a book?' I love Liz Gilbert's new-ish novel, The Signature of All Things, it has kind of all the elements I love: historical fiction and a science subplot."