As streaming audio and video gets easier–and better looking–thanks to new software and the proliferation of high-speed internet connections, making digital content available from school district web sites is no longer a matter of when or why, but how.

Once considered at best a luxury and at worst an annoyance, online audio and video streaming is becoming a mainstream communications tool, primarily because parents, students, teachers, and other key stakeholders are demanding it.

In today’s multitasking world, it’s hard to beat the ease, convenience, and near-universal access of internet-based content that allows web users to listen to an audio broadcast by the superintendent while answering eMail, paying bills, or performing myriad other routine tasks at work or at home.

And, while television still reigns supreme in terms of combining viewer comfort with high-quality sound and visuals, the portability of laptop computers and other digital devices makes these newer tools ideal for providing 24-7 access to breaking news and information.

“The biggest advantage you have with the internet as compared to cable casting is the convenience factor,” says Donald Tate, station manager and news director for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ cable television channel, CMS-TV3. “With the internet, people can watch when they want to, in different locations, and they can go back to the content again and again.”

CMS-TV3 recently started streaming its video and audio content online, instantly extending its audience from Mecklenburg County’s 200,000 cable TV subscribers to a virtually unlimited, worldwide audience.

As a result, the district is experiencing a form of “viral video,” in which web surfers eMail links and CMS-TV3 MP3 files to each other, thus multiplying the impact of each posting.

“One of the advantages of online or digital content is that people have the option of sharing the information you provide easily and passing it along to other people they think need to see it, hear it, or listen to it,” says Tate. “You really can’t do that with television, at least not yet.”

This kind of reach is important–especially for districts like CMS, where many web site visitors (verified by ongoing Web Trend analyses) live out of state.

Prior to the addition of online video and audio streaming, three of CMS’ prime audiences–prospective parents, Realtors, and corporate relocation experts–didn’t have access to one of the district’s most powerful sources for current news, information, and success stories. More importantly, current CMS parents and others are snapping up the new content and have asked the district to add more RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds to make sure they don’t lose out on new programs and information.

Online video “is a very powerful medium,” says Tate. “If we can use that to tell the CMS story, people benefit by having better information–and we benefit by increasing viewership.”

If schools or districts already have solid video production capabilities, digitizing the content and transferring it to the web is relatively simple, Tate says.

CMS-TV3 uses nonlinear editing software from Avid Technology–make sure to ask for the education discount or government rates–to edit and convert its video and audio content into MP3 files, which are easily read by the multimedia software that now comes standard in most PCs and laptops.

The district also uses a software package called Sorenson Media Squeeze Compression Suite Power Pack to compress files. Tate recommends keeping digitized files to 4 megabytes or less to protect the video quality and to minimize download times.

When it comes to streaming video and audio, shorter is better, according to Tate. “Short video clips and audio files that are quick and informative work better online, while TV is better for entertainment,” he says. “There aren’t too many computer monitors out there that are 27 inches or higher, which is the standard TV screen size.”

Its launch of video and audio streaming comes as CMS-TV3 shifts from supporting classroom-based instruction with educational videos to serving as a 24-7 news and information channel for CMS parents, students, employees, and community members.

Effective and creative communicators know how to tell and package stories so the audience understands the message, no matter which format or distribution channel is used.

“Every time we put something on the air or on the web, we have to approach it as if that’s the only time people are going to see or hear it,” says Tate. “We need tell the story in a clear and concise way, so they get it the first time.”

By focusing on its county-wide viewing audience, rather than the classroom, CMS-TV3 has carved out a new niche by providing content not available on other local newscasts, such as exclusive interviews with the superintendent and other dignitaries–including a recent school visit by the first female president of an African nation, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia.

“It’s been a smart decision to respect our viewers and give them something they want to see, instead of just focusing on the classroom,” says Tate. “The main thing that drives our shift from instructional television is news and doing a better job of telling the CMS story.”

Nora Carr is chief communications officer for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications.