The Perils of Inaugural Production

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When the lead photo on the Washington Post Website is a picture of a man in a van outside the White House-threatening to blow himself up, it means downtown D.C. is at a standstill. When the photo was shot by your staging company's account executive visiting the installation of the Inaugural Parade route sound system, it means your schedule is at a standstill!

Planning for the unexpected is par for the course when working in Washington, D.C. One never knows if a motorcade will delay your deliveries or official business will pre-empt your client's venue. But when the job is for the government, especially if it's Presidential, the question is what, not if, something will change. We had anticipated that the weather might not cooperate--it didn't. It seems that every four years the usually mild D.C. winters turn really cold for that one week around January 20th. We had anticipated that in the first post 9/11 Inauguration security might be a nightmare--it was. Staffers whose information and pictures had been submitted weeks before the build began went to the Secret Service building to get their badges and were told there were none. We had expected last-minute changes--there were. Power generators were dropped from the spec because other procurements included them, but could we add a line array and a stage off the parade route? What we hadn't factored in was that a block from the White House a disturbed man could shut down the preparations for the Inauguration as well as the heart of D.C. itself.

End Run Around the PIC
CPR MultiMedia Solutions has worked on Inaugurations and Inaugural related events every four years since 1992. We have learned that much of the contracting that the Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC) does, while open to the public for bidding, is controlled by what companies PIC members know since every PIC is a new group of players with no organizational memory. Given the short time available to the PIC from its formation in November, with no staff in place to plan and execute this massive event, companies interested in participating must go to great lengths to get on the PIC's radar and secure the RFPs being hastily developed. We called the PIC for weeks to find out when the RFPs were being issued, then heard that companies were already submitting bids--and CPR still hadn't been sent a spec!

Having experienced this in previous years CPR also had approached some regular clients, including Event Strategies, Inc., which does lots of government and Republican business, to see what work we could jointly pursue through their contacts. The opportunity that surfaced with ESI was to supply sound and stages for four entertainment positions and distributed PA to support six announce positions along the parade route. ESI would supply the stages and logistics, CPR would handle the audio needs.

As soon as the contract was awarded the PIC started trading reduced needs in one area for new requirements elsewhere. The specified stages were too small for the military brass bands that would play from them and the sound systems were not needed because of the type of bands. Lots of specialty equipment that the announcers needed wasn't on the RFP, and the schedules were in flux. At the end of the negotiations the budget stayed the same--ESI and CPR had to rethink the division of labor and gear.

On the parade route was basic outdoor PA horns and 70-volt Crest amps. Each zone was controlled by one of our "MDA" racks that incorporate a Behringer Eurodesk 16-channel mixer, Behringer feedback suppressor, Denon CD player, Furman power conditioner and Ashley stereo 31-band EQ.
The main board at Presidential review stand system was based on a Midas Verona 32+8 FOH board with our Klark-Teknik parametric/BSS 31-band graphic EQ rack feeding EV two-way all-weather speakers in the box and EAW JF-100s in the press stands. The line array system at the performance stage was JBL VerTec 4887 small box system with Crown MacroTech amp racks and Lake processor.

Our schedule was devised working back from January 20 to have us ready at least a day (two if nothing changed the schedule) before the big event. Having a detailed set of CAD drawings from our production manager, Bill Warner, was key to successfully fielding multiple teams of technicians simultaneously, instead of relying on top down management we used self-managing teams. Several site surveys meant we knew all the quirks and intricacies of the physical venue as well as the expectations of the PIC staffers that had walked the route with our team.

Even with this level of planning it turned out we didn't have much space between final ring-out of the sound systems and pre-event lockdown by the Secret Service. Snow fell as we started the first day of install, followed by a drop of 20 degrees in temperature, making the installation of several hundred horns on lamp-posts less than a choice assignment. Then there was the delay of half a day while the distraught van driver was dealt with. An added complexity was the need to bring in some small portable generators to test our gear because, even though the PIC had contracted for major show power, the first time those genny's would be fired up was the day before the parade.

The most exasperating issues, though, were the ones that should never have occurred. For instance, because of the Byzantine complexities of the many overlapping governmental authorities in Washington we found ourselves waiting for the district o approve the permit request of the PIC for the use of the lampposts under their jurisdiction. The National Park Service, which ontrols the lampposts in front of the White House and in Lafayette Park, granted their permits quickly, so we began the hanging of speakers on those. Eventually we started hanging the speakers on the D.C. jurisdiction lampposts without the permit because we knew the time it would take to complete the process wouldn't allow us to wait any longer. Fortunately, no one from the district came by to hold up the work.

Police! Freeze!
This type of problem reared its head again when, during the actual festivities, Metropolitan D.C. Police wouldn't honor the credentials that the PIC and Secret Service had provided to our crew. Here we were with audio engineers manning systems that spanned both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue but the D.C. Police wouldn't let us cross the barriers flanking the street to get from one side to the other. We had technicians taking the subway to make what should have been a 60-foot walk! Other technicians we had credentialed for our other Inaugural contract, supplying LED trucks for a concert on the Ellipse, couldn't move between the two sites because their laminates were valid only for one venue.

The difficulties we encountered were daunting, but not insurmountable. The lack of detail in the PIC RFPs allowed us vital leeway in how we approached the job and filled certain specs. In looking back, we hit all the stipulated mileposts in both schedule and equipment provision. The functionality of the gear was excellent and the strike went so much smoother than the install--but doesn't it always?

Are there lessons to be learned from yet another Inaugural effort? Perhaps the only thing one can take away is what we started with--the unexpected is to be expected; it's how you deal with it that makes all the difference!

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