Bay State-Based Reliable Remote Royalty

| January 22, 2018

DEVENS, Mass — Advent of a new year affords one the time to pause and to ponder what thrilling opportunities and exciting challenges are ahead in the forthcoming 12 months.

Part of what is hopefully enthusiastic, optimistic anticipation will undoubtedly be influenced by a collection of factors and extenuating circumstances beyond our complete personal power, such as the economy, legislation, and the overall status of world events.

Another element out of most of our hands is the next gargantuan technological breakthrough that will be worthy of a metaphorical mic drop.

 Core clients

Speaking of microphones, wireless ones served as the genesis for a 1961-launched company still thriving nearly 60 years later.

Given that Broadway actors and singers in the 1950s and 1960s relied solely on their voices, that first round of a wireless microphone product line was revolutionary at the time. “They didn’t have any kind of amplification, so our company was started by making those sorts of products,” divulges Comrex managing director Kris Specht. “The company fairly quickly transitioned to delivering higher-quality audio from wherever a person happened to be. In the early days, we were using phone lines.”

For nearly 60 years, Massachusetts-based Comrex Corp has been the preeminent inventor, manufacturer and provider of miraculous remote equipment that allows radio the flexibility to broadcast from remote locations with the same clarity that one would hear from a “main studio.”  According to TALKERS publisher Michael Harrison, “The contributions that have been made to the radio industry by this marvelous company and the impact it has had on radio’s pertinence in both centuries are immeasurable.”

Primary Comrex target customers require real-time, interactive, low-delay, high-quality audio. They can consist of those who are working in radio and television to voiceover talents. “We have many customers who are adding to their live content with recorded content,” Specht comments. “There are many reasons for people to talk together right now.”

Radio though has, for decades, been the fundamental business for Comrex, whose experience with frequency extenders dates back to the 1970s. Throughout the 1960s and early-1970s, various of its offerings were appropriate for television. Some earlier products such as telephone couplers could be put on a plain, normal telephone line.

By doing so, broadcasters did not necessarily have to install a broadcast loop for a remote and, as Specht notes, that made things much easier for radio properties. “As you recall, in the 1970s, radio stations sold remote broadcasts for big money. Anything that could be done to facilitate a remote broadcast to make it sound better was heavily welcomed. In addition, we had a very high expectation of audio quality back then.”

Frequency was limited but Specht, who has been with Comrex since October 1994, assesses telephone lines were “darn clean” and we were accustomed to some “pretty good” audio. “Our expectation is a little less now,” she believes but “certainly a broadcast in a fuller fidelity at that time was one likely to keep listeners longer [and lessen them from] suffering fatigue. Through the 1970s and 1980s, our mission was to try to reduce listener fatigue and enhance quality over circuits.”

Support relevant products

Brainchild of founder John Cheney, who – after an illustrious career in the Army – found a niche for some RF products in the Broadway and “live event” market, “Comrex” derives its name from a combination of the first three letters in “communicate”/ “communication” and “rex,” Latin for “king.” As Kleenex is the widely-accepted generic term for tissues, senior director of sales & marketing Chris Crump puts forth a case that Comrex has become the equivalent in its particular genre.

Alterations over the years have been made in technology, rather than in the company’s Cheney-inspired philosophy and values which include making relevant products that people care about, and to support them well.

Over the years, the competitive landscape has transformed significantly although Crump insists that Comrex has always been “the go-to company” for remote broadcasts. “As technology has changed and improved, more and more people are finding ways to leverage that technology to do what we have been doing [since 1961]. There are many apps out there and some lower-cost hardware companies are attempting to do what we do. We are always differentiating ourselves with our technology and improving it to make it much more reliable than what can be offered on an app or a lower-quality platform.”

Innovations led to zeppelin broadcast

Prior to joining Comrex exactly 14 years ago, Crump worked for Florida-based Spectral (which later became Euphonix) where he sold digital audio workstations as recorder sales manager. That led to a 1999- 2001 stint as national broadcast sales manager for Symetrix, which makes audio processors. For the next two years, he was director of sales and marketing for Georgia-based Klotz Digital America, selling digitally-controlled audio routing systems. “Comrex had never really had a true salesperson and it was looking for someone to represent their products,” he recalls. “It was an opportunity I couldn’t let go.”

Coinciding with Crump linking up with Comrex was the beginning of 3G-technology. “We were just introducing the first wireless product,” he cites. “It certainly has been liberating for broadcasters because they are no longer tied to a wire – you can basically go anywhere you want. Broadcasters have done shows from moving trains, airplanes, and blimps.”

Such an unforgettable example includes Crump himself being on a zeppelin over Long Beach (California) doing a wireless remote with former astronaut/Apollo 11 lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin. “I’ll occasionally show the picture of us together to people,” Crump beams. “Years from now, I’ll look back and think to myself, ‘Wow, I really was sitting right next to him.’ In 2005, [CBS News travel editor] Peter Greenberg did [one of his programs] on a Munich to New York City Lufthansa flight. Boeing had just introduced a Wi-Fi service on the plane and we were able to hook into that, which got us some great coverage.”

Furthermore, the company can deliver remote audio overseas back to the United States for such things as athletic events. Philadelphia broadcasters, for example, traveled with the NBA’s 76ers earlier this month to cover a game in London against the Boston Celtics. The team’s flagship station, Beasley Media Group Philadelphia sports talk WPEN-FM “97.5 The Fanatic,” originated all of its shows a week before the game; pre-game shows; and the game itself (won by the Celtics, 114 – 103) less than two weeks ago (1/11) from London’s O2 Arena.

ISDN to IP

Hardware manufacturer Comrex makes interface boxes and then connects to whatever service broadcasters want to utilize. “We used to make ISDN codecs until we couldn’t get parts anymore,” Crump acknowledges. “That’s when we shifted over to IP, realizing the days of ISDN were numbered. We have a couple of different products that will allow somebody to get in at an entry rate of $1,700, and then some higher-end products that are really more designed for remote broadcasts. As far as customers are concerned, radio broadcasters have always been our ‘sweet spot.’ It usually is point-to-point audio from studio to transmitter; point to multi-point for basically audio distribution; and getting audio from one point to multiple locations – instead of having to pay ungodly satellite time.”

It is customary for Crump to attend both the Democratic and Republican national conventions to assist top media news people who are sponsoring radio rows. “We see many of our customers and I’m there to support them,” notes Crump, who has spent considerable time at trade shows over the past 25 years. “I am amazed how many broadcasters use our gear to get the audio from the convention back to their home station. There is no shortage of Comrex customers using our stuff on a regular basis.”

Conversely, voiceover announcers who do live sessions constitute a relatively small segment of the Comrex clientele. “They have producers and engineers in the session with them,” Crump states. “Clients might be listening to the session in a control room. [Voiceover talents] have traditionally relied on ISDN, which has been around since the 1990s. The thing we realized about a decade ago was ISDN wouldn’t be around forever, which is why we built our IP technology. The challenge we have right now is letting voiceover talents know there is a viable, reliable, and definitely [cost-effective] solution to ISDN, whose [fees] have been going through the roof; phone companies really don’t want to support it. They are making it rather inconvenient to try to get new service and maintain [existing] service.”

Multi-hat wearing company owners

Vast majority of the roughly 30 Comrex workers are in its Massachusetts headquarters in the town of Devens, located approximately 30 miles northeast of Worcester/40 miles northwest of Boston.

Average length of employment is over five years, with some staffers having as much as 30 years of service. “Something about Comrex that makes this company so incredibly cool is that we are employee-owned,” Crump emphasizes. “In this day and age, that is pretty unique, especially for a company this size. We are not necessarily motivated by ‘angel investors’ or by investors of any kind. We are committed to our customers, our products, and to ourselves. It is a cool little company with very smart people helming it. The company takes very good care of its employees.”

At the same time though, Crump candidly declares that the company “demands a lot from us and keep us on our toes. It has been a very good home for me and I hope it remains that way. We are doing everything [possible] to make the best products, so we can continue to be a going concern in the future.”

Describing Comrex as a company of “cool kids,” Specht remarks, “We manufacture electronics here in Devens, Massachusetts and sell them [around the world] – that makes me very happy. The last person who knew how to repair a wireless microphone retired at the end of 2017, but he still comes in occasionally. He is in his 70s and loves the place, so he’ll probably never leave. It is pretty much a new group of people, but we definitely knew and loved John Cheney [who died in 1998].”

Always endeavoring to sustain at least a 65% to 70% domestic, versus a 30% to 35% international balance, Comrex has Frank Massa handling Asia Pacific sales and Raul Hun in charge of Latin America sales, with Hun working with some clients in the United States and Canada, as well. “In addition, we have a great inside sales team,” Crump comments. “All of us wear a lot of hats and we make up our own titles as we go. We have been selling international for a long time.”

Obviously, Crump wants to generate as much business as is realistic but readily admits, “I can’t really say we have a ‘goal.’ In some years when the United States economy tanked – 2008 for example – the international market saved us. They were able to take advantage of the currency fluctuation and get a pretty good deal. There are times though when we get some wild swings so you just never really know. You keep pushing, pushing, pushing and hope that something will pop. We do not look for exponential growth – we want to keep our company going for a long time and try to have a nice, easy [progressive] curve.”

Neutralizing the cost concern

Objections to sales pitches depend on each particular buyer and his or her specific expectations. “Over the years, I have had a few customers tell me we could sell a lot more of our product if we [priced it at] $200,” Crump mentions. “We can’t make the plastic shell or the rubber on this thing for $200 – let alone the product. Cost is a continuous objection for people who don’t necessarily understand the value of our product. It isn’t exactly cheap for us to do the manufacturing in the United States. On the other hand, we have much better quality-control as a result and are able to manage inventory. The objection [to buying from Comrex] would be by someone who wants to do a very cheap broadcast and is not willing to pay for the cost of the equipment. That is not just for us, but for any other company that makes broadcast-quality equipment.”

Content creators who possess good business models of what they are trying to accomplish will generally discover, Crump opines, that Comrex equipment will pay for itself at a pretty rapid clip. “As someone who has done broadcasts before that have revenue riding on them, I would not want to depend on a cellphone with a battery that [could go dead quickly],” he asserts. “I ask people how important the revenue is to the broadcast and if reliability is an important part of what they are trying to do. We have gone from using extenders that basically just shift around frequencies on a phone line to using computer technology to digitize audio, sending it as a data stream over phone and IP networks.”

Sales have been “improving substantially,” Crump proudly proclaims, and it makes him hopeful that broadcasters are looking at ways to improve or create different kinds of content. “They are using our products to do it,” he accentuates. “Even in an economic downturn, people still buy our gear because they need it. It is not like some other companies that are reducing their workforce and product offerings. When ‘flat’ was the new ‘up,’ we basically weathered a lot of difficult economic times and have never been ‘down.’”

Motor City background

Fascination with radio for Crump dates back to when, as a seven-year-old, he listened to a variety of Detroit stations, including heritage WJR (now a Cumulus Media news/talker); the then legendary top 40 CKLW “The Big 8”; similarly-programmed at the time WXYZ with iconic Motor City morning star Dick Purtan, who after working at WXYZ from 1968 – 1978, segued to CKLW from 1978 – 1983. “I have always been a radio fan,” Crump exclaims. “I would never miss the ‘Sunday Funnies’ [on rocker WWWW “W-4,” now iHeartMedia-owned alternative WDTW]. That introduced me to Firesign Theater, Cheech & Chong, and all these other great bits that were on the radio. A while back, I had a chance to talk with Steve Dahl and we discussed his time in Detroit at WWWW.” For the past three years, Dahl has been doing afternoon drive on Cumulus Media Chicago news/talk WLS-AM; Bell Media’s CKLW is news/talk, while WXYZ has become Entercom-owned sports talk WXYT-AM.

A product of suburban Detroit’s Pontiac Central, which he labels a “big-city high school,” Crump went on to get his undergraduate degree in English and music from Albion College in Albion, Michigan, part of the Battle Creek MSA. “Going to Albion was like going to a country club,” he discloses. “Even though I was not the best student on the planet, I certainly learned a lot about life and people by going to Albion College. I have many fond memories of my days there – it is an outstanding place to go to school.”

Boasting Detroit’s WHYT “Power 96” (now Cumulus Media hot AC WDVD) as his first professional radio job as a producer, Crump followed that with a two-year stretch as a researcher at “Monday Morning Replay.”

Shortly after the start of the Gulf War, he worked for then Capitol Broadcasting Orlando adult contemporary WSTF “Star 101,” which became AC WVRI “Variety 101” and is now iHeartMedia rocker WJRR. “Similar to Comrex, Capitol was a great, great company to work for,” enthuses Crump. Home Shopping Club co-founder Lowell “Bud” Paxson bought out Capitol Broadcasting president/CEO Jim Goodmon from the state of Florida. “I have worked for some pretty cool facilities in interesting radio jobs such as promotion assistant, remote engineer, weekend on-air talent, and creative services director [for Paxson Communications and The Ron & Ron Radio Network],” Crump details, but he underscores that, “Everything I have done in my life has led me to this job at Comrex.”

Every once-in-a-while, he misses day-to-day life in the medium, but that feeling is generally short-lived. “I start thinking of all the hours I put in and how little I got paid,” Crump muses. “I don’t think I could do it now. I enjoyed it very much at the time and had my finger on the pulse of what was happening in the rock format, which became alternative. I got in at the very tail end of really cool, unrestricted radio and really enjoyed giving personality [to the current WJRR].”

High-profile friends

Approximately a quarter of a century ago, an ISDN codec was a 19-inch, rackmount, three-space unit. That happens to be a part of history Crump dearly remembers because he did a 1994 Reading Music Festival remote from Reading, England. “Even though we couldn’t get other essentials, we could get an ISDN line in the middle of this field,” he points out. “I had to haul out a codec and some other stuff in a two-mile walk down a muddy road to get out there; I felt the pain of that. I can’t really say that it was compact – it was a pretty big box. Back when we were doing ISDN remotes, we were [carrying] these boxes all over the place. We actually made a pretty compact portable ISDN codec device called the Nexus, which was a lot more portable – it wasn’t a rackmount [unit]. It became fairly ubiquitous and was seen at many conventions.”

For the past 11 years or so, Comrex has been selling ACCESS 2USB codec and Crump thought there would be a point where the company would reach market saturation with it. Astonished, however, at how many of these units the company still ships at the end of the month, he confirms, “People are finding new ways to use our equipment – not just for radio broadcasts but for other applications, as well. We are all really surprised that it has been as successful as it has been – even after so many years.”

Feverishly investigating technologies that are either emerging or have matured is technical director/co-principal Tom Hartnett, who along with Specht, was a protégé of original Comrex principals, John Cheney and (John’s wife) Lynn Cheney. “Tom tries to figure out how to create products that are going to help broadcasters do their jobs in more innovative ways,” Crump explains. “We create products for a pretty long life – seven to ten years. As we aim to improve upon it, we build a platform that can be updated, modified, and tweaked so it can take advantage of new technologies.”

Often asked what he does for a living, Crump will usually respond that whenever someone listens to the radio, there is a good chance they are hearing one of his products.

Visiting Milwaukee several years ago, he heard Alex Stone of ABC News talking to an afternoon talent on a local station there. “[Stone] was doing a live hit from Hawaii and I could tell he was using ACCESS NX because he sounded like he was right in the studio,” Crump depicts. “I consider many of these people – such as Peter King and Steve Futterman [both of CBS News] – as my friends. I was at a convention and [longtime co-host of NPR’s ‘All Things Considered’] Robert Siegel walked up to me and began talking. He said that he loved [Comrex HotLine, a digital audio coding device designed for use on analog, dial-up telephone lines] and I mentioned that he was using ACCESS almost every day. He said, ‘great stuff.’ It was so weird to have him right there talking in my ear.”

Customer-service motivation

Podcasts hold particular interest to Comrex because Crump maintains, “It is really an outgrowth of radio’s response to the way radio listeners consume content. There are many podcasts available all over the internet [but] many of them are really bad. Broadcasters though understand how to entertain and present interesting, creative content. Part of that is engaging the audience with interesting guest interviews. Our new product called Opal IP Audio Gateway will lead to a whole new series of products that will help broadcasters, as well as anyone [else] who wants to be a content creator for radio or television. Opal provides podcasters with an easy way to bring a live guest into an interview without sounding like they are on a cellphone with horrible audio.”

One day when Crump was at Klotz Digital, a younger co-worker claimed he (Crump) didn’t know what people at a radio station need because he didn’t work in radio. “I thought about that for a second and said, “I am in radio and am building radio stations for people. Of course, I’m in radio – I have a long history in it.”

Motivation for Crump is trying to get better at doing his job every day and he stresses, “I feel like I always need to learn more to be able to help customers. That is what gets me out of bed and gets me on the road every day of the week. Keeping up with the ways that technology changes has always been a driving force for me.”

 

Email managing editor Mike Kinosian at Kinosian@TALKERS.com 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Category: Features