Five decades of intercom innovation started in San Francisco’s Summer of Love
Intercom-technology developer Clear-Com hits the big 5-0 this year, at a time when the category is a state of flux, particularly with wireless and IP signal transport. In the year after San Francisco’s Summer of Love, when bands like the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead were laying the foundations for large-scale events requiring increasingly sophisticated communications systems, founders Bob Cohen and Charlie Button launched Clear-Com and built it into an iconic brand. They created the very first production intercom: the RS-100 distributed amplifier analog beltpack system was an instant success, used for production communication by Janis Joplin, the Dead, and others. Sitting down with SVG, Clear-Com President Bob Boster draws a line between those days and the far more complex landscape presented by broadcast and live sports productions today.
It’s interesting that, like so much of today’s sports-broadcast cohort, Clear-Com got its start in music. How is that legacy manifest in Clear-Com now and in the larger intercom space?
The way it still shows up is in the love of audio and focus on audio, and, to us, intercoms are part of the broader range of audio activity. For us, it shows up as an appreciation of good sound and communication. And there’s also a little bit of MacGyver in there, too: a “commando audio” mindset that says we have to get things done. We’re a group of engineers who are problem-solvers, who think about how to get things done in unique environments. We love that stuff, frankly.
The intercom sector is going through a rapid evolution, characterized by a mixed communications and connectivity portfolio comprising IP, digital, wireless, and mobile applications for group and point-to-point communications. Are intercoms the canary in the coal mine for audio communications in general? And how is that influencing other aspects of broadcast audio?
That’s a good observation: as [intercoms] go, so are other things likely to go. That’s even more true when you think about broader broadcast applications in the last four or five years vs. the last 20. It used to be one or two dominant players in an area; now everyone is their own [broadcast-sports entity], from small colleges down to the high school level, with different levels of technology and skill, gluing things together as they need to.
That’s part of our portfolio approach: not to force people into one solution or another but rather helping them get where they want to go with the pieces that fit their needs. For instance, the growing complexity of applications means we can also offer IP as another route. That’s an area Clear-Com was early into and now has a lot of experience in, in part with our acquisition of Trilogy. We see IP as an area of strength for us. We have a range of tools, and it often makes sense to have IP as part of the solution. And, in the last two years, we’ve done a tremendous job of taking the IP platform and democratizing it, taking it to all parts of the marketplace, not just the high end.
What are the biggest challenges in sports broadcasting today that intercom technology is helping address, and what are the biggest challenges faced by intercoms now in that space?
The biggest challenge is letting people move around: freedom of movement to let them do their jobs. We’ve made major headway in both wireless and mobile applications inside the product family. Intercom is addressing what I think is probably the most critical point in sports, and that’s the ability to decentralize that activity, so a TV truck is not the end-all, be-all of how an event gets covered.
The biggest challenges for intercoms in the sports-broadcast space is that people don’t necessarily design their intercom systems like they would design other critical systems of a broadcasting activity. When they think about covering an event, obviously, they have the video and the audio nailed down and what their uplink path is, and so on. But some pieces of that level of intention are missing when you think about intercom. That needs to change.
50 years is a long time for mortals but an eon for technology. What’s the next big step in intercom tech space?
The next step is a way for people to talk to each other that is less structured and more decentralized. So you might be the third-hand [broadcast] recipient [internationally] of an NBA game, but you’re struggling with some aspect of it, and you need to communicate with people upstream to address your issue — that’s the big challenge for intercoms. Intercoms need to be thought of as a real here-and-now thing, with metadata available and cross-platform compatibility among manufacturers to allow real-time communications. Intercom needs to become more like the internet. That’s where it needs to go.
Any predictions for the Super Bowl?
It’s going to be an exceptional event, and we’re pleased that they’ll be running our FreeSpeak II system inside the venue in Minneapolis.