Business

Campaign events add business for Iowa sound, lighting techs

Venue change, crowd size require flexibility

Joe Murphy with Murphy Sound coils sound equipment cable after then-presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker caucus campa
Joe Murphy with Murphy Sound coils sound equipment cable after then-presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker caucus campaign event at the North Liberty Community Center, 520 W. Cherry St., in North Liberty, Iowa, on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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Providing lighting, sound and other technical services for political campaign events — especially leading up to the Iowa caucuses Feb. 3 — requires flexibility and innovative solutions.

“Campaign advance teams are usually excellent in terms of guesstimating attendance,” said Steve Cook, owner of Steve Cook Sound Production of Iowa City. “We are always prepared for overflow areas and that’s where we have to be pretty creative.

“We set up our own personal data point and Wi-Fi hot spots so we could live-feed it to a cafeteria as much as 500 yards away.”

But Joe Murphy of Murphy Sound in Iowa City noted attendance at a campaign event can quickly multiply beyond an initial estimate.

“We were providing sound for an event in St. Paul (Minn.) in 2019 that was supposed to be for a thousand people,” Murphy recalled. “It became 2.000 and then 3,000.

“We were too big for the room, so they moved the event outside and the reasonable (final) numbers were between 11,000 and 13,000 people — depending on who you believe.”

Murphy needed to scale up his equipment, something he was prepared to handle due to past experience.

“We had an event for Mayor Pete (Buttigieg) early in his campaign that was originally for 250 to 300 people indoors in Des Moines,” Murphy recalled. “We ended up going outside for about 2,000 people.

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“I was in my hotel room the night before the event watching the news and they were talking about Mayor Pete is going to be outside. When I had packed my truck earlier that day, we were supposed to be inside.

“In a few short hours, everything changed. I was OK because I had enough spare speakers and things, but I still wasn’t able to do it as well as I wanted to.”

Cook spoke with The Gazette as he was preparing for the arrival of Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer at a Monday afternoon campaign stop in West Des Moines. He said the weeks leading up to the Iowa Democratic Caucuses in February have been busy for his company, including trips outside of Iowa for campaign events.

“I have two events with Steyer today and one with (Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth) Warren tomorrow,” Cook said. “I have three with (Democratic presidential candidate Pete) Buttigieg on Wednesday.”

Sound Concepts of Cedar Rapids was busy with campaign events nine months ago, but company owner Marvin Smejkal said that has changed as the presidential candidates have moved up and down in the polls.

“We apparently don’t have one of the leaders,” Smejkal said. “Two of them that we were working for dropped out.”

Murphy contracts for political events through Production Management One, a Taylor, Mich., company that has locations in Iowa and other states.

“If you love the business like I do, you take it personally,” Murphy said. “You want everything to be perfect for the customer.

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“You want it to sound right and look right. When it comes to political events, they want a perfect picture.

“We have done events where Production Management One provided almost a mile of fencing, porta-potties and generators. If you want it, it can be done. It just needs the budget and time to get it done.”

Murphy sets up lighting supplied by a motion picture lighting company. He has been trained on the gear supplied by the company.

“For the Polk County Steak Fry in Des Moines in September, there were 10,000 to 12,000 people,” Murphy said. “You never know in Iowa whether it’s going to be raining or the sun shining.

“We had motion picture lighting up on lifts with a crew of three to make sure it was right.”

Murphy said the only event service he does not provide is staging.

While the presidential campaigns every four years require the services of companies such as Steve Cook Sound, Murphy Sound and Sound Concepts, local and regional customers also need sound and lighting for their events.

On Jan. 5, Murphy Sound provided sound and lighting for a radio-sponsored wedding show at the Double Tree by Hilton Cedar Rapids Convention Center in Cedar Rapids.

“We do a lot of concerts and summer events,” Murphy said. “We’ve done the Independence (Iowa) Fourth of July celebration since it started as a small event.”

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While not busy with presidential campaign events, Smejkal of Sound Concepts said his company has not been lacking for work.

“There was an event at Carver-Hawkeye Arena this past Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday (earlier this month), plus all across the UI campus for other sports.” he said. “We also will be very busy this coming weekend with the same scenario down there.”

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