Live Event: Audio Visual, Staging, Video & Web Production Services
The History of Van Valkenburg Communications
In the 1970s, Burke Van Valkenburg Sr. leveraged his interest and skill in electronics and sound systems into working on election campaigns and providing voice clips to radio stations of party leaders as they toured the country. These voice clips were paid for by the parties to get “free media coverage” from local radio stations as part of their newscasts and were the forerunner of what we know today as the electronic press kit or electronic news release.
He would have a freelance reporter go on the campaign bus or plane and file stories each day by telephone, over custom equipment that he designed and built, to his studio in Toronto where he would edit the stories into 30 second and 1 minute clips. He and his staff would then telephone radio station newsrooms around the country and ask if they would like a feed of the story. Most would take it and many would use it as part of their election coverage. Burke Sr. felt that the success of the service was largely due to his insistence that the stories be “balanced” and not just propaganda.
He called this service “The Radio News Bureau” and it was a fixture of election campaigns throughout the 1970s. This initiative would lead Burke Sr. to create another service – this time distributing content through cassette recordings. He would record speeches at The Canadian Club of Toronto and Empire Club of Canada luncheons and offer the recordings for sale to the patrons afterwards. The clubs were and continue to be where newsmakers of the day come to make important speeches about their industries or policies and Burke Sr. found that if the speech was interesting then people would like to have a copy of it on cassette to listen to again.
To get good quality audio for the cassette recordings Burke Sr. quickly found that he needed to run his own microphones and audio mixers in the function rooms because hotel P.A systems were notoriously bad and full of hum, buzz and feedback.
Around the same time the Electronic Media (TV Cameras and Radio station tape recorders) were becoming something that event organizers needed to accommodate at these events. The problem was that they typically only carried a maximum of 20 ft. of mic cable with them (which was all that was needed to do a standard stand up report or interview) and no wireless mics in those days. Seeing the problem they were having working in large function rooms, Burke Sr., along with his friend Henry Durda (who ran the Show Services Department at the newly constructed Sheraton Centre in Toronto), built the first “Media pool feed boxes” for the purpose of distributing broadcast quality audio to the electronic news Media.
The pool feed allowed Burke Sr. to take the sound that he was gathering for his cassette recordings and feed it to the news media allowing them to be placed anywhere in the function space giving the media what they needed and the event organizers what they wanted – more room for paying guests.
Having the media pool feeds then allowed Burke Sr. to launch his next service which was an ad hock news conference / press conference facility service where only the working news Media was in attendance. This service included lighting to TV standards along with broadcast quality audio giving newsmakers a welcome break from the crush of a scrum style Media exchange. Thus was launched the first “White House style” managed news conference service in Canada.
With the success of the news conference / press conference facility service, Burke Sr. had the opportunity to work on many interesting communications projects in Toronto in the late 1970s & into the 1980s including the openings of the CN Tower & Roy Thomson Hall, countless Government announcements, and even visiting Heads of State.
There were Royal visits for Queen Elisabeth, Prince Philip, and the Queen Mother, a U.S. Presidential address to the Empire Club by Ronald Regan, and even for Menachem Begin the Prime Minister of Israel, which Burke Jr. (who had regularly been helping his father by then) said that he thought “was the tightest security of them all”.
VVC was successful because it had a technological advantage with its Media pool feed boxes (now in their second generation) coupled with Burke Sr.’s insistence at providing “broadcast quality audio” which separated VVC from what was generally available from a facility’s “in-house” A/V supplier. Having the Electronic Media praise the quality of the audio at these early events lead VVC to being hired to provide the sound for other shows which were not specifically press events such as annual general meetings, conferences, quarterly meetings, and symposiums.
As the 1980s came to a close, Burke Sr. still essentially operated the business as a “one man show” – relying on freelancers for help and not wanting to own more equipment than would fit in his station wagon. He had built an excellent reputation as the person you wanted by your side when facing the Media.
Approaching his 60’s, Burke Sr. offered Burke Jr. (who had recently graduated from university) a partnership in the business in 1991, which seemed to be a natural fit since he had been around it in some form or another since its early beginnings.
Having accepted the partnership, Burke Jr.’s approach was to try and quickly grow the business beyond just sound and lighting to become a full service audio/visual production company including: Visuals, Video and Staging capabilities.
Another goal of Burke Jr.’s was to win back much of the sports business that Burke Sr. had been involved with when the Electronic Media and first come on the scene in the 1970s. Over time this business had mostly drifted away and “It was an immediate goal of mine to re-establish ourselves as the supplier of choice providing the technical equipment and operators for the Media interview rooms at events like the Toronto Indy, PGA golf and Tennis championships” says Burke Jr. This would allow VVC to operate through the summer months when traditional communications projects are on hiatus and would then lead to VVC having the momentum to begin hiring full-time employees.
Sporting events quickly became an important part of VVC’s business including not only all the events that had been lost but new ones like the Skins game which was a made for TV golf match play event that toured around the country. VVC was also hired for several years to stage the press conferences after each home game for both the Toronto Maple Leafs and the newly launched Toronto Raptors.
A new technical innovation in the 1990s that built on Burke Sr.’s original telephone interviews for political events was the introduction of live event teleconferencing for news conferences, financial analyst meetings, and other events for large groups where it was more cost-effective than flying everyone in to one location.
Two things helped with this: first was the advent of telephone interface hybrids usually used for radio talk shows. These hybrids allowed for two way (duplexed) phone conversations where the phone call could be brought into a mixer and fed to the PA system and the microphones in the room could be fed to the phone. The second was the introduction of teleconference bridges that would remotely connect people to the call and, when managed by an operator, could seamlessly open one line directly to the call so the caller could ask a question and then be put back on listen only afterwards. Throughout the 1990s teleconferencing became a regular component of events staged by VVC with external audiences – sometimes in the thousands.
As the middle of the decade approached and Burke Sr. neared his 65th birthday it was decided that Burke Jr. would purchase the entire ownership of the company and Burke Sr. would retire.
Around this time a new opportunity presented itself when VVC began staging the press conferences for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Working with celebrities was not unlike working with political or business leaders, but brought with it a new excitement that re-energized VVC and brought a level of enthusiasm to working on these high profile events.
The decade started with VVC (now a 10-person operation lead by Burke Jr.) being hired to stage the Media interview areas in the Media Centres for Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to Toronto. This event involved two Media Centres: one at the CNE grounds and a second in an aircraft hangar at Downsview Park where the Pope presided over an outdoor Mass. The event was a huge success and was produced by VVC’s Vice President Brian Carty who still reminisces that the crowds were so thick and security so tight that our crew had to sleep on the equipment cases in the Media Centre overnight or they wouldn’t be able to get back in.
Innovation is always top of mind at VVC, so pioneering live event webcasting was the next logical step in “connecting events to the world”. In the early 2000s dial-up internet was slow and unreliable but VVC managed to do the first concurrent French and English live webcast with simultaneous interpretation. It wasn’t until high speed internet became readily available that webcasting would become commonplace.
A new trend in the world of public relations was called “Marketing PR” which offered an opportunity for VVC to further branch out into staging a new type of Media event. These events were completely contrived to attract the news Media’s attention with zany stunts and clever staging.
The goal was to garner free media (now called earned media) by combining products with celebrities doing interesting things like media challenges or trying to break a world record. VVC would often have to source flashy props like fake snow and search lights to attract attention at this style of event.
During this time VVC also enhanced its video production capabilities under the direction of Video & Web Production Manager Vincent Van Cooten to include two in-house edit suites and multi-camera video shoots.
Today much of what VVC does ends up on the web. Live event webcasting has become a staple for almost every public event we stage which has led VVC to launch our own live event web portal MediaEvents.ca. The goal is to provide links that our clients can use for promoting their events though various social media channels with content produced by VVC.
We also received a Commendation from the Queen’s York Rangers for work on behalf of the Regiment which included helping stage a regimental visit by Prince Andrew and work on the Toronto ceremony on the day of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo’s funeral, who was fatally shot while on ceremonial duty at Ottawa’s National War Monument.
New services like EPKs (Electronic Press Kits) and Press Junkets using 4K video production technology keep us investing in our people and equipment. Our Mission, though, always remains the same – delivering innovative services with a genuine desire to help our clients tell their stories.