AV People: Steven Emspak of Shen Milsom & Wilke, LLC

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By Molly Stillman

Steven Emspak, partner at AV consulting firm Shen Milsom & Wilke, LLC, wasted no time when I asked, “So, how did you get into the AV industry?”

He said, “The industry is so obtuse, there is no direct path. You don’t go to school and come out with a degree in AV psychoanalysis. You evolve into this industry. It’s really, really cool. The industry has all these interesting people with very different backgrounds. I say this with all love and respect, having been in this industry a long time — the early industry guys, myself included, were a bunch of ‘jacks of all trades, masters of none.’ The early AV guys had a roll of duct tape and a flashlight and probably told you, ‘Oh, I’ll take a look at that for you.’ That’s how a lot of people get into this industry and as a result gives us huge diversity.”

So, the long and the short of it is, Steve gradually made his way into the industry by way of the music and audio. Steve likes to refer to audio as the “forgotten stepchild of the AV community.”

As a little kid, Steve was curious about electronics. He remembers being a young child with a loudspeaker and transformer in hand — he plugged them into the wall and they broke. There may have also been a little smoke as a result. But the thought lingered and curiosity began to build.

At the same time, Steve had been playing around with music, as kids are often want to do, but he realized there was this convergence going on between instruments and audio equipment that he continued to explore.

On Halloween in 1966, Steve was drafted into the Army. After a few tests, the Army thought Steve had an aptitude towards electronics, and so, he was shipped off to the US Army Engineering School.

Fast forward to today. Steve, a highly successful AV consultant and member of the famous (infamous maybe?) AV band the Drunk Unkles, has one more thing he’s dealing with these days that many people may not know about: the loss of his hearing. Steve, an AV guy and a musician, wears hearing aids — and is almost deaf without them.

In January of 2006, Steven was attending a NAMM show and at the back of the room they had the H.E.A.R. institute doing free hearing screenings, so he decided to get checked out.

As he came out from the test, the audiologist was holding the test results and asked Steven, “Do you look closely both ways before you cross the street?” He said, “It’s that bad, huh?” The audiologist replied, “Yes. It’s that bad.” His hearing, at this point, is degenerative. It’ll only continue to worsen.

Steve spoke of what his hearing loss is attributed, saying, “It was years and years of sticking my head in speakers and spending time at concerts and in nightclubs where sound systems were so huge my chest was caving in and we’d come and our ears would be ringing and we’d think it was awesome. And today, I think that it isn’t cool — it wasn’t cool. Why? Because today I can’t hear.” And that is a significant price to pay, with no refunds available.

He says, “We’re stupid. We don’t pay attention to the stuff going on around us — and at some point in the future, it may impact us — positively or negatively. First it was in the context of architecture and now in the context of hearing loss.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“What I mean,” Steve replied, “is, that things happen around us naturally. All kinds of things. A building goes up next to you. You remember seeing the notice, you remember learning about the construction, and you had the opportunity to say, ‘No, I don’t want that building there,’ but it’s too late. The building is there and you’ve lost the view, you’ve lost your sight or whatever. My brain transitions that same thought to hearing loss. I remember spending time trying to figure out what that buzz in the cabinet was and I’d tell the sound guy to ‘turn it up’ and there I am with my head in a speaker with the sound blaring. We weren’t paying attention, we all knew that sooner or later it would become a problem, we are not invincible!”

Steve is clearly passionate about this issue. He believes it’s his job, the job of his generation, to raise awareness — especially with the younger generation — to help them avoid ignorance.

outhouse-1212“We [the AV industry] have an obligation to raise awareness. Even though the audio component has become a stepchild to video (and that will rear its head and come and bite us very soon!), as humans we cannot communicate as well if we can’t hear. And we can prevent it.”

Steve also spoke of other preventative measures, saying, “Don’t ignore it. Get your hearing checked, even if you think nothing’s wrong. If you’ve been walking around with those earbuds too loud, you’re bound to do damage at some point. Pay attention. Get tested. Understand what’s going on. Don’t be an idiot and believe that you are invincible because you are not.”

So, what does Steve do when he’s not being an AV consultant and raising awareness of hearing loss? Well, he’s probably spending time with his wife Meryl or his two daughters, Stacey, 29, and Danielle, 25.

Steve lives out on Long Island with his wife, but a number a years ago, they bought an old farm house in the epicenter of the musical community of New York state: Woodstock.

It’s been a solid six-year project, but Steve and Meryl have been remodeling the old home and rebuilding it piece by piece, soon to tackle re-building the outhouse!

“Work is work, and it’s fun,” he said. “You can involve your family and friends in that, but you need to spend time with them. But I guess when anybody who spends a good portion of their life in a particular industry, gradually, your friends and family are that industry. And I like to think they’re all my friends and a part of my family.”

Well said, Steve. Well said.

Molly Stillman is the director of marketing and new business development for rAVe [Publications]. Reach her at molly@ravepubs.com

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