The Road Back

by Richard Lightstone CAS AMPS

As productions all around the world began shutting down in mid-March, we were faced with a sudden and unprecedented work stoppage. It was a chaotic time with the expressed belief that this was only a two-week thing, or maybe a month, but no longer. Some four months later, the industry is making efforts to wake from its dormancy, but definitive start dates are still theoretical.

All of us struggled to fathom the sudden hardships and navigate applying for unemployment or other means of financial aid, as well as keeping ourselves and our families whole. Forgotten for the moment in this pandemic was our friendly, reliable sound equipment sales & rental houses, and equipment manufacturers. These businesses are part of our family too.

I decided to survey them and find out how they dealt with the sudden closure orders and what the future of their businesses might look like. I spoke at length with: Glen Trew of Trew Audio; Gene Martin, Audio Department; Mike Paul of Location Sound and Peter Schneider of Gotham Sound. Amongst our manufacturers: Charles Parra, Denecke, Inc.; Gordon Moore of Lectrosonics; Brenda Klemme of K-Tek; Ron Meyer of Professional Sound Corporation, and Jon Tatooles of Sound Devices. I did reach out to both Zaxcom and Wisycom, but I received no responses.

All of these companies were considered “essential businesses,” as they supply the broadcast industry, but the reaction to the shutdown orders and the threat of COVID-19 forced all of them to completely reassess their business needs.

Glen Trew explains, “We never shut down Trew Audio, but we furloughed a lot of the staff probably eighty-five percent, and kept on all of our service technicians. They haven’t missed a beat since the beginning, primarily doing repairs and custom parts for broadcast video. We decided to apply for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to help us, and it allowed us to hire everyone back in the United States on April 20.”

“Our initial response was the hard one,” said Gordon Moore of Lectrosonics, “we furloughed the entire plant, and told them to apply for unemployment. We continued to pay all of their health insurance. There were about eight people coming in on a daily basis; payroll still had to be processed, there were shipments still in transit, critical parts, a normal load of repairs, and a lot of it from the news divisions of NBC, ABC, CBS, all sending gear in to be serviced. We called in our Service Department and said you guys can keep working.”

The Audio Department were by appointment only. K-Tek immediately considered the safety of their employees and had only essential staff come in to the shop to make sure vital orders went out. “I had to set up a home office so I could manage the kids being out of school while trying to keep the company going,” said Brenda Klemme. “It’s been a huge challenge and I am grateful that my employees have been so understanding. We also had to put our new product launches on hold, which has been frustrating. Sales will be back and new products released, but we have to wait for our customers to go back to work.

“We furloughed some staff, and kept our remaining staff on with reduced hours. New York State has an amazing program called ‘Shared Work,’ which allowed us to reduce the hours and rotate people accordingly. Georgia has a similar program too, so we were able to remain open the whole time providing support for the broadcast media.”

Over at Location Sound Corporation, Mike Paul said, “Around the 15th or 16th of March, we looked at could we stay open with a skeleton crew, but it became obvious that we were just going to have to completely shut down. We did go for the PPP loan, and we officially opened to the public Monday, June 1, with a very reduced staff.”

Charles Parra of Denecke, Inc. said, “We just sent the guys home on March 20, and kept them on the payroll. Kim and I would come in and basically, we had a few repairs in the two months span or so. During the downtime, I started working on new projects. So, the good part of that is we’ll probably have some cool new Denecke stuff later on in the year.”

Professional Sound Corporation furloughed the staff, but continued to pay for their health insurance while they were on unemployment. Ron Meyer continued to come in to work and deal with any customer needs. “We’ve been in business over thirty-five years. I’ve been through writers’ strikes and 9-11, earthquakes, and other things that have disrupted business. But I’ve never seen it taken down to this level so fast in my life. It’s a new learning experience for sure.”

Jon Tatooles of Sound Devices spoke to me from their Reedsburg (Wisconsin) office. “We closed the Madison office, and since we were defined as a company that supplies broadcast tools to organizations worldwide, whether it’s the BBC, Al Jazeera, White House communications, NBC, and all the relevant players, we had to maintain operations to continue to support those customers and any repairs.” Jon continues, “We also recognized that there was a need for face shields and PPE, so we put a little skunkworks group together, all working at their homes to come up with how to manufacture an open source design that the University of Wisconsin had put together.”

They manufactured their FS-1 and FS-1NL face shields and by March 24, they began to sell them at cost to healthcare workers and hospitals to help protect them from the COVID-19 pandemic. “We started producing about four hundred per day. As we’ve increased production to thirty thousand per day, one of the most difficult aspects has been procuring enough parts to build consistently,” said Matt Anderson, CEO and President of Sound Devices.

Between May and June, with the assistance of the PPP loans, most of the companies brought their employees back with shorter hours, rotating shifts, or part-time employment. They all enforced social distancing, wearing masks, face shields, sanitizing surfaces, plexiglass dividers, and curbside pickups. There were little to no customers due to the production shutdown. The PPP loans covered about an eight-week period, once they were depleted, several companies had to reluctantly furlough some of their employees once again.

Brenda Klemme explains, “We have most of our machine shop and assembly crew back, but we are going slow. Everyone has their own space and are wearing masks. No one is allowed in the shop except for employees. We are getting a small boost in boom pole sales from media crews which is helping keep us busy.”

At Lectrosonics, “Right now we’re back in a full-time basis,” said Gordon Moore. “Everybody is working, getting a forty-hour paycheck and, no overtime. We’re maintaining a very safe work environment. We have a mask requirement, we temperature test when they arrive in the morning. If they’re over 100.4, they go home. We’ve had zero COVID cases with one hundred and forty-eight people. Goal number two is that we keep everybody’s job, and goal number three is of course, we keep the company alive. Whether I make a profit or not, I couldn’t care less this year, as long as the company can continue to move forward.”

The nine companies I have spoken with have all survived a protracted and demoralizing economic downturn. They have taken care of their employees with a remarkable sensitivity toward their welfare, while weighed down with continuing expenses of just keeping their businesses operating.

Once production begins again, how do they see the future?

Glen Trew said, “They’re starting to buy more equipment in preparation for the comeback and get stuff repaired, or maybe get things fabricated. Every week, we’ve seen an increase, so the confidence level is coming up. It’s coming back.”

“I think we’re going to see a lot more implementation of wireless PL systems,” Peter Schneider posits, “interfacing two-way radios with the wireless PL and wide-area communications on top of that. The role of the Sound Department is going to be greatly expanded, because now you really need wireless frequency coordination and communications coordination.”

At K-Tek, Brenda explains, “We are looking at selling more interview-style boom poles, extendable hand grips, and more mic accessories that allow for social distancing. We are also looking at our organizing bag products to see how they can be used on sets to carry a new array of supplies to keep sets safe.” As for the future in product announcements and customer relations, “It feels like we have quickly adapted to online Zoom meetups and product announcements but we really miss meeting our customers. I can’t wait until we can plan our Boom Right with Ken Strain seminars in person or K-Tek road trips. People want to see and demo products in person.”

With the new set of protocols and limited interaction with crew and cast, I asked what technology might become more useful.
Charles Parra immediately spoke of their new sync box, the JB-1, which is as small as a nine-volt battery and can be handed off to the Camera Department, maintaining sync for the entire day as a way of jamming the timecode slates and cameras.

Because of the recommendation of more off-site viewing, Peter Schneider said that they work on what they call that “first mile of connectivity” from the set to a broadband connection. Gotham Sound works with their customers to facilitate the connection of the video and audio signals. “We have to allow for as natural an experience as possible and how to get that communication going with ultra-low latency.”

The increase of Zoom-type meetings will continue and companies like Sound Devices with their MixPre series, provides an excellent means of better sounding computer-based interactions. Gordon Moore feels that their PDR and SPDR mini-sized recorders might find increased use with cast as we will be required to limit our contact.

But everyone is confident that once production begins, it will roar back and we will be needing everything from PPE, expendables, to new recorders, microphones, and wireless.

Glen Trew sums it up: “I think probably now more than ever, supporting your local bricks-and-mortar is very important because it does make an absolute difference. If they can stay open and keep their local people employed, it will make the biggest difference now than ever before.”