While some professional athletes live in velvet-roped bubbles of celebrity that few can penetrate, Pirates pitcher Jason Grilli wants fans to know he's not one of them. In fact, he'd much rather shake a hand and answer a question than be the subject of whispers and stares while standing in line to buy milk.
"People put you up so high on a pedestal," he said with a touch of disbelief. "I was in line standing behind these two guys and they were whispering, 'Don't look now, but that's Grilli behind you.' I said, 'I'm right here, it's OK, you can talk to me.' "
In an effort to demonstrate how truly accessible he is, on Thursday Mr. Grilli hosted his second town hall meeting through Monroeville-based Concert-oh, a videoconferencing website that allows for moderated discussions with hundreds of visitors.
Powered by Monroeville-based teleconferencing company Chorus Call, the site runs Web camera streams, audio files, text chats and allows for photo and document sharing. The company was founded by Chorus Call CEO Giorgio Coraluppi in 2010 and features nine satellite offices.
When the town hall feature is activated, the host can read questions submitted through a Q&A window or select a raised hand icon to let a viewer speak up.
Once the viewer is selected, his or her microphone opens up so the entire community can hear the conversation. Company officials say this feature separates Concert-oh from Web conferencing options provided by Skype or GoToMeeting by giving the host full control of the flow of the conversation.
The site is increasingly becoming a resource for local athletes, politicians and other public figures, including Pittsburgh Steelers players Antonio Brown and Brett Kiesel, Pittsburgh Penguins player Ben Lovejoy, WPGB-FM radio personalities Quinn and Rose, and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.
Concert-oh spokesman Benjamin Schmitt said the town hall feature was designed primarily to attract politicians hoping to reach remote constituents, but the transition to athletes made sense in a region where fans are never at a loss for words when it comes to the home teams.
One advantage that comes with the inclusion of athletes are the fans they introduce to the service, said Mr. Schmitt. Registration for the company's town hall meeting events ranges from 20 to 225 participants, he said, but those numbers lean toward the high end when an athlete sends a tweet or Facebook message announcing a virtual town hall meeting.
"We try to seek out individuals active in social media for that reason. The first time Antonio Brown had his town hall meeting, we saw an uptick in registrations after he tweeted the first time. He tweeted again three hours before the meeting and we saw the numbers go up even more," he said.
Politicians might not necessarily be the most adept social media users, but many can attract viewers by virtue of discussing a hot button issue.
Mr. Fitzgerald used the service to outline his vision for the county and to discuss reassessments. Amie Downs, spokeswoman for Mr. Fitzgerald, said the service is ideal for reaching users who might have interest in a topic being discussed, but don't have time to make it to a specific venue.
"We wanted to make sure there was an easy way for others to participate that couldn't get to the site. Another benefit is that you can reach people during the time the meeting is on but people can also login later to look at the video and watch what happened," she said.
Despite the hyper-local marketing pitch that's currently in effect, Mr. Schmitt said the company is working to expand beyond Pittsburgh. It has an agreement to broadcast a town hall meeting with journalists from the online newspaper Deadline Detroit.
Whether Concert-oh is being used by athletes, politicians or even journalists, Mr. Schmitt said others see how effective the service has been for local celebrities and there's a chance they'll decide to see how it works for them.
"If there's somebody well-known, one of the Steelers or another popular person using the product, somebody in another market might see it and say 'look who used this,' " he said. "We're hoping for copycats."
Deborah M. Todd: email@example.com or 412-263-1652. First Published September 7, 2012 4:45 AM