Super Low Cost or even Free Dial a Prayer or Dial a Worship Service

A big issue for many of us during these days of Covid19 is the digital divide. A good portion of our congregation does not have internet access, nor reliable enough cell phone service to stream our online services. As such, we put together a dial a prayer system which also serves as a means of providing access to an audio only version of our sermons.

From a user perspective, they call in to the service provider, enter an access code, and are presently with the latest content, whether it be a prayer, or a worship service. If they desire to listen to a specific service, such as during Holy week, its possible to assign reference numbers to the files, such that the user can go directly to a given message. Sharing those reference numbers is a bit ungainly. We either have to publish them in our print newsletter, or post them on social media, and hope the digital connected will share them with those on the other side of the divide.

Below is an example of what a user would experience with our system.

From an admin perspective, things are a bit ungainly, as unlike paid providers for such services, we are using a select set of features of a company called freeconferencecall. Granted, the system isn’t free like in beer, as that would be unsustainable. They do make money by providing additional paid for features, like dedicated numbers, and/or asking for donations from their content providers.. but it is most assuredly a very low cost solution.

Since we are using a subset of features, and its not intuitive at all as to how we got there, here are a couple workflow examples.

For daily prayers:
1. Pastor records a prayer using his cellphone, and uploads it to our podcast server.
2. For now, I watch the podcast feed on my cellphone, and when a new prayer shows up.
3. I download the podcast file which is in mp4 format (an Apple thing)
4. I convert the mp4 to a standard mp3 file, using an audio editor or file conversion utility.
5. I then login to https://www.freeconferencecall.com and select broadcaster.
6. I upload the mp3 file to the broadcaster
7. I then test the playback of the file, either by using the web interface, or by calling in with my cell phone.

Before we rolled out the prayer via podcast function, I made sure that the recordings off of pastors cell phone were the correct level. Most podcast providers require levels to be at -16LUFS stereo, or -19LUFS mono, and it turned out Apple’s voice recorder app hits those levels with ease. I used a plugin called Youlean Loudness Meter running on the Audacity audio editor to check this.

If we decide to keep the dial a prayer function running over the long haul, I’ll write a python script to do all of the above, where in when it detects a new podcast is posted, it will convert the files and upload them to freeconferencecall without any human intervention.

For worship services, things are a bit more complicated, as its necessary to master the audio file, and get a reference number for future playback.

The big reason for mastering, is that pastor has incredibly dynamic range, which is awesome for live, but is not so great when it comes to listening to it on a phone in a high noise environment, like many folks do when it comes to podcast listening. Ie like in a car or truck, mowing the lawn, or exercising etc. The second reason, is that podcasts are syndicated, which can mean the file passes through any number of conversion processes in the path. In our case, our primary source is podbean, but we also are listed on itunes, spotify, player.fm, iheartradio etc… with each one doing their own proprietary thing with our audio. If our levels / equalization don’t meet spec, its possible that by the time the audio reaches the end users device, it’s quality could be severely degraded, resulting in complaints, and eventually the dropping of syndication.

As far as reference numbers go, freeconferencecall doesn’t provide them automatically for broadcasts, only for meetings. As a result, we have to do is create a meeting, and add a recording which features the uploaded file in the broadcaster, and close the meeting in real time. This is a kludgy workaround, and for Holy Week was worth doing, but I don’t do this as a common practice, due to its time intensive nature.

Thus, the worship service workflow.
1. Master the worship service as normal, such as for uploading to the podcast, making sure we are at the appropriate LUFS levels, noise is removed, and audio is equalized. Since podcasts prefer mp3’s rather than mp4’s at least we don’t have to do file conversions.
2. Login to https://www.freeconferencecall.com and select broadcaster.
3. Upload the mp3 file to the broadcaster
4. Test the playback of the file, either by using the web interface, and/or by calling in with my cell phone.
5. If circumstances dictate, a reference number can be created, by starting a meeting, adding the broadcaster recording, letting it play, and then closing the meeting, looking up the reference number, and then sharing the reference number via social media and/or newsletter. For example

Daily Prayers by Vicar Paul can be accessed by 
calling (978)-990-5090 and entering access code 1139178 . Recordings of Sunday's worship services are also available at that number by entering the following reference numbers.

Maundy Thursday 2
Good Friday 10
Easter Sunday 14

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