13 minute read

Clear-Com: Bob Boster

As the communication solutions specialist reaches its 50th anniversary mark, Jerry Gilbert talked to the man at the top - Clear-Com President, Bob Boster.

24 INTERVIEW

While some of the founding fathers who first breathed life into the nascent sound industry back in the seminal sixties have survived to celebrate their companies’ 50th anniversaries, Clear-Com have a rare distinction. Not only did it set out its stall in the post-Summer of Love crucible of San Francisco’s Bay Area, but it also has another unique claim. When co-founders Bob Cohen and Charlie Butten met and dedicated themselves to creating the first production intercom - the RS-100 analogue beltpack system, which became an instant success for legends such as Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and the Grateful Dead - it not only generated the ‘Clear-Com’ name, but 50 years on the platforms are still back-compatible with those original ‘Partyline’ intercom systems. And that’s pretty astounding. Bob was also co-owner of the hugely influential Family Dog Productions, pioneers of the iconic flower power poster art (think Chet Helms, Stanley Mouse etc). He had been mixing sound at the Avalon Ballroom, which was at the vortex of counter-culture, and as legend has it he turned to Charlie, who was fixing amps for Lindsey Buckingham, and uttered the immortal words: “We need a better way to communicate.” In

the annals of our industry, the statement is probably only matched, in terms of its significance, by Jack Maxson’s fairly throwaway ‘two more motors and it moves’, remark which directly led to the invention of Vari-Lite, and birth of automated lighting. Until then, Bob and his production staff had been using telephone type ‘Ma Bell’ headsets for communications-and a primitive cans-and-string arrangement to link FOH and monitors. But they couldn’t stand up to the challenging conditions and were useless in high noise settings. Their antidote offered a unique contour frequency response and wide dynamic range to ensure ultra-low distortion, and would soon be followed by the KB100 (King Biscuit) speaker system. It was this that became known as the ‘Clear-Com’ sound and with the incorporation of the eponymous company on April 18, 1968, the operation moved into its first office in San Francisco. While Charlie Butten, who devised the method of putting audio across regular microphone cable, is still is an active member of Clear-Com’s development team, he might more aptly have been named Benjamin Button - for a life almost lived backwards in the way the

• Above Bob was appointed Clear-Com President in 2012.

company can effortlessly flip back 50 years through so many technology gateways to keep the product line valid. Thus when Bob Boster joined the company as Regional Sales Manager in June 2006, on a path that in less than six years would lead him to the top position in the company, he didn’t so much have a heritage to protect and legacy to build on but a name that had become all but generic in the world of intercom. When he arrived at the company’s Alameda HQ he was already familiar with the brand. “I had started in community theatre at the age of seven and later used Clear- Com when mixing sound for bands, as well as radio and video production. It’s something I had known about for a long time.” It cannot be overstated just how primitive communication between FOH and monitors had been prior to the RS-100. “There were some telephony based headsets and homemade telephone-based systems but the volume levels were too loud for that technology,” he confirmed. “There was no rejection or directionality, it was all omni.” With more complex workflows like those in Broadcast requiring even more flexible platforms and tighter integration

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with digital systems that were in use, by the early 1980s, Clear-Com introduced its first digital intercom system, Matrix Plus. This addressed the needs of more demanding television operations and the first three generations of digital matrix technology were a market favourite. It was this that had first attracted them to the London-based holding company, Vitec Group, who acquired Clear-Com in 1997. By the time Bob Boster arrived, Clear- Com had merged with another of Vitec’s brands, the broadcast intercom leader, Drake Electronics. Bob reflected: “Vitec thought the broadcast market was going to move into a direction more aligned with live performance and were looking to combine our live expertise in a strategic move and merge the companies under the Clear-Com brand. “Although it was not a good fit, the synergy between the Drake technology was positive and is still paying dividends. The Eclipse Digital Matrix came out of that, which is now Eclipse HX, and that has DNA from both R&D streams. That’s why we still have an office in Cambridge UK [where Drake were based].” So where had Bob Boster’s professional journey taken him prior to joining Clear-Com? He had previously held the

position of Vice President of Sales for the western US region at radio specialists, ENCO Systems. He also served as product manager, general manager and managing director. Before that he was part of the software development programme at Orban, focussing on user interface development and strengthening client relationships. And with a Master’s degree in electronic music and recording technology and Bachelor’s degree in radio television and motion pictures/dramatic arts his industry pedigree was pretty much nonpareil. Explaining his reasons for departing ENCO, and his quest for a new challenge, Bob observed: “Radio was going through a contraction at the time. I was looking for something outside the radio industry and remembered that Clear-Com were in the Bay Area; and although I was over-qualified for the position, I agreed to come in at a lower level. The manufacturing side was not in good shape, and sales were keeping things alive. I initially started handling the Western 13 states of the US.” The new sales executive showed he was a quick learner, and drawing on the sales experience gained at ENCO, soon took on managing sales team for the US and then Asia. The big step change

came in 2010 with his promotion to VP of Worldwide Sales, which coincided with the change of ownership, and acquisition of the company by HME. Speaking of this, he stated that Vitec were “going through some changes at the time”. Explaining further, he went o:, “Clear-Com’s business was messier than Vitec were used to so it was clear that we needed to find a new home. Although HME had been a competitor there were some complementary strengths that were apparent as well as some common background in the live performance market - and the sale turned into a case of 2 + 2 = 5,” said Bob. The fit soon became obvious. “We had a strong brand and strong technology platform but not a strong portfolio in wireless. Besides that, HME was a world class manufacturing organisation, whereas we weren’t. So we merged HME Pro Audio with Clear-Com and immediately started cooking with gas.” And at the start of 2012 Bob was formally appointed company President, as the then president Matt Danilowicz stood down. The acquisition set up a compelling relationship with Clear-Com CEO Mitzi Dominguez, who had responsibility for the HME Pro Audio division. The two figureheads are frequently seen

•Left Bob with NAMM President and CEO, Joe Lamond. Clear-Com was honoured with the Milestone Award for 50 Years of Service.

• Top right Bob at ISE Amsterdam.

• Bottom right Bob and Mitzi Dominguez, CEO of Clear- Com.

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• Above Bob during the 50th anniversary celebrations.

together at tradeshows. “It’s a classic CEO/president split,” appraised Bob. “I report to her and we have different areas of expertise. I tend to be more market focussed, having come from sales, whereas she is from the finance and operational side. It’s a reporting relationship but also a strong partnership.” The two were together at Frankfurt Prolight+Sound in 2014, when Optocore, DiGiCo and Clear-Com demonstrated the power of their networking collaboration with two press conferences that combined the ‘actual’ with the ‘virtual’ by implementation of audio/ video streaming. DiGiCo MD James Gordon kicked off proceedings on his own booth, with Marketing Director David Webster speaking remotely from the Optocore booth. Later in the morning, Clear-Com’s Simon Browne anchored the press call on the Clear-Com stand, with MD Bob Boster beaming in from Optocore’s booth - while Optocore’s Marc Brunke, another Clear-Com partner, rounded it off. It became the talk of the show, and an event that all members of the press will remember fondly. As he reflects on 50 years, Bob recalled other milestones since that first Partyline

single-channel beltpack system. He also talked about how partners around the world would be joining the party this year. “We have tried to build something into our microsite to allow people to participate (https://clearcom50.com) who can’t get to tradeshows and see us. It’s a chance for them to watch videos and see what we are doing-a decentralised way of creating Clear-Com community participation. “We are also hosting some receptions and displaying some of our visual history at tradeshows. We did this at NAB, ISE and Prolight+Sound - and raised a toast.” The company also used NAB to bridge that 50-year gap, technologically, via its award-winning LQ connectivity family. “We showed our pioneering Partyline product, the RS 100-A beltpacks plugged into our LQ (IP interface). That LQ box was placed on a standard IP network which allowed people to connect to it over a mobile app. At one end it powered a 50-year product and you could talk over a mobile app from LQ - with everything running on an iPad. It was a good visual metaphor for the way the future and past can now interconnect.” It is typical of the company’s current surge in output. “We build everything

in our own factory so having control of our own development fate, without any contract manufacturing… and that has been a great pay off,” he said. “HME’s focus has been exceptionally positive. Thanks to our manufacturing output, we have been able to release an average of 11.5 products a year in intercom alone. It’s a different world now.” Much of this is due to the fact that although Clear-Com is HQ’d in Northern California, it is presently manufacturing not only in Southern California, but also incorporate development in Montreal (via its acquisition of TalkDynamics), as well as Cambridge and Andover in the UK, since taking over Trilogy Communications in 2016. Marketing wise, today, Clear-Com has a presence in over 100 countries with business units in Beijing, Singapore and Dubai, Equally it is benefitting enormously from fertile collaboration with their OEM partners, as Bob explained: “Our current wireless IFB solutions are made by Lectrosonics and that has been excellent, and not wildly different in culture from our relationship with Optocore and BroaMan. We are a distributor for BroaMan and partner with Optocore in development of our ProGrid audio distribution products, which are

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• Above Bob with HME CEO Chuck Miyahira, Clear-Com CEO Mitzi Dominguez, and Clear-Com ‘Founder’ Bob Cohen.

Clear-Com branded. That relationship has been very beneficial and we are very well aligned with them. “We also partner with headset manufacturers and what they can bring is way more than if we manufactured them ourselves. “ Optocore and BroaMan MD, Tine Helmle, is just one who has been wooed by Bob’s charisma. “We have been working with Clear-Com since 2011 and they are extremely professional, with real expertise in what they are doing and great staff all over the world,” she said. “Bob has a great motivation and passion for our industry, which you can feel when you work with him, along with great qualities in management and sales. He is a very nice person to work with and really makes things happen. At the same time he seems like the kind of guy who will happily roll with the punches. Indeed, Bob has certainly shown to have a firm hand on the tiller, and that manifests itself in many different ways. High staff retention following the different takeovers

is directly attributable to his man management and motivational ability. “Consequently, we have a strong executive team,” he acknowledged. “Many have been here for 10-20 years, and that continuity is critical. My priority was to ensure we seized the best of all the people and their capacity, and make sure we didn’t lose many. I’m very honoured that so many have stayed.” One of the first tasks on assuming his new role had been to initiate a brand refresh to ensure the values endemic to HME and Clear-Com were still being correctly represented. At the same time he wanted to ensure they were taking full advantage of HME’s expertise in manufacturing. And at the hub of those manufacturing activities has been HelixNet. One of the threads, instituted just before the takeover by HME in 2010, the HelixNet Digital Network Partyline, a world first, has since gone on to define the company. “HelixNet was brought to fruition after the HME acquisition, enabling Hit to power the events of the London Olympics.

It’s a user interface that people are familiar with… a beltpack with a simple mic cable,” Bob continued. “And since it’s digital it has a lot of flexibility and can be run over a network, with the possibility of adding more channels. It has become a flagship for what we offer to the higher end of the performance market with the elegance of being able to add a node here and there on a network but without the complexity of a broadcast solution.” As alluded to earlier, the new V4.0 enables 24 ports of audio I/O to be added for each HelixNet Station by connecting to LQ Series, and for Agent-IC mobile clients to be connected with existing HelixNet users via connected LQ Series devices. It also enables SIP/VoIP calling from HelixNet via LQ Series. “We can address anything anyone would need to run, for example, a Microsoft corporate meeting or anything with a decentralised system for operational coordination, such as a theme park ride.” From a business standpoint this greatly improves workflows. But being a leader

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in RF wireless technology brings its own headaches - such as addressing the multiplicity of standards and regulations that exist from territory to territory. “We have expertise in understanding that. We use agencies that do testing in different territories. There is also a subset of our engineering team focused both on that, and to leverage synergies with other HME companies.” Clear-Com’s front man is probably the least likely candidate to talk about his achievements - but he has certainly acted on wise advice. “One important aspect is that when I arrived we were not really successful. But I learnt from Ed Fitzgerald, [currently Director of Customer Satisfaction] and Peter and Judy Giddings, [currently responsible for sales in some key countries like Brazil, Australia, and Japan), who told me that the critical thing was to open a communication conduit with the customer through support, and that once you had earned their trust you could move forward. That focus on the customer came early on.” Following on from that, his other credo is that everyone in the company has responsibility for customer satisfaction. “That’s one critical contribution I have made,” he believed. “I would give myself credit for looking at the business as a whole more effectively than before.

Previously the business was looked at in compartments or different silos within the company, with field support separate from manufacture and sales and so on. I have used the vision of the customer to enable us to operate more cohesively.” Although he still reckons to be travelling around 120,000 miles a year, with the company ticking like a well-oiled machine, Bob now hopes to be able to spend more time with his family in the Bay area. Married with a 13-year-old daughter and two grown up stepchildren, he said: “I am intensely involved with my family. My travel has cut down a bit since last year but I attend all the major tradeshows and make it a point to get to all our offices at least once or twice a year.” “We’ve just moved our manufacturing from Poway to Carlsbad in the San Diego North County, doubling the square footage. Our new neighbourhood is not wildly dissimilar to Cambridge [in terms of its IT technology profile].” The new facility combines R&D, corporate offices and manufacturing, along with HME’s Hospitality & Specialty Communications division. “It’s been very positive for us, but what makes me proud is that we moved premises and were shipping from our new location with just one day of down time.” And so as Clear-Com’s business

• Above left Bob with Director of Customer Satisfaction Ed Fitzgerald and Clear- Com ‘Inventor’ Charlie Butten.

• Above right Clear-Com is celebrating its anniversary at numerous tradeshows throughout 2018.

continues to grow exponentially, what does the future hold? “We will continue to rationalise the idea of understanding customer workflows. And marine and offshore oil exploitation is another area we are interested in.” Meanwhile its continued growth into other vertical markets, such as shipping, military, government and aerospace, continues apace, from basic communication tools to enabling collaborative workgroups to intercommunicate. “We also have to do a lot to keep up with the aggressive pace of innovation that the broadcast market requires. We have to address that in a way that’s honest to ourselves and our corporate business; that’s the real challenge. “We are committed to a standards-based development future, something we have seen explode in recent years in both the live performance and broadcast markets. That said there are some differences in how that move to IP has played out - currently in broadcast it has a note of zealotry which we don’t necessarily see in other markets.” All of which suggests that being the founders of IP in intercom has given Clear-Com a lot to live up to. “Although IP has become a watchword for everyone in the business it’s old hat for us now,” is the statement he signs off with. And it’s the statement of true pioneers.

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