March 7, 2008

Clear Channel, New York City

So there we were a month or so ago, gorging ourselves on a hard salami sandwich at Katz's Deli on the Lower East Side, when one of our New York radio acquaintances posed a challenge - "What's with all the midwestern stuff? When do we get to see some New York?"

Far be it from us to disappoint our friends in Market Number One - and so we'll devote the next few weeks here on Tower Site to showing you some of the pictures from our recent visits to the Big Apple.

There are some big changes going on in New York radio right now, especially where studios are concerned. As we write this, Clear Channel is midway through a massive project that will move its five FM stations from separate studios on both sides of the Hudson to a new combined studio facility in lower Manhattan. A few blocks to the south, public station WNYC is in the midst of its own big move, abandoning the Municipal Building after more than 80 years for a new home on Varick Street. CBS Radio is getting ready to move four of its stations into a new lower Manhattan studio, too.

This week, we bring you Clear Channel, before and after:

We'll start our tour at the first of the five "before" studios to be vacated. WAXQ (Q104.3) occupied the oldest of the Clear Channel studios in New York, on the fifth floor of 1180 Avenue of the Americas. This space was built in 1978 for Q104's predecessor, classical WNCN, and while it was expanded a bit in recent years, it was still a bit cramped by the time the station finally moved out a month or so ago, with rack rooms that overflowed the engineering area into a former closet down the hall, among other things.

The WAXQ studio core was fairly spacious, with a big main studio that had originally been used as a performance space, and an adjoining production room that was apparently WNCN's control room back in the day. You'd never have recognized it as a former classical station in the waning days of Q104 - there was an aquarium and a seat from someone's van at one end of the air studio and shelves of CDs at the other.

Just down Sixth Avenue from WAXQ is the "Hippodrome Building," home since the eighties to the station on 105.1 that was variously known there as WRFM, WNSR ("Soft Rock"), WDBZ ("Buzz"), WMXV ("Mix"), WBIX ("Big"), WTJM ("Jammin' Oldies") and WWPR ("Power"). Its 18th floor studio space was a little bigger than WAXQ's, with a row of studios laid out along an exterior corridor, including a sizable main air studio (there's lots of space for morning co-hosts and guests to the left of the board, not to mention a terrarium housing the station turtle), several production rooms (one of which was used as the WAXQ air studio for a few months before the new digs downtown were ready), and a former office that became the studio space for the Whoopi Goldberg morning show, which aired on Clear Channel's WKTU but was produced here so that Whoopi wouldn't have to commute to New Jersey.

(A bit of trivia about 105.1: when it was going through its format-of-the-year phase before settling down as Power, many of the labels for the station in shared facilities such as the combiner room at the Empire State Building were done not with the ever-changing call letters but with "STAG 105.1," for longtime station engineer Jim Stagnitto, who recently moved downtown to WNYC. And one more bit of trivia: in its WRFM days, 105.1 was located at 485 Madison Avenue, the building that was originally CBS' New York headquarters.)

Across the street from the Hippodrome is 1133 Avenue of the Americas, whose 34th floor became the home to WLTW (Lite 106.7) when the station changed hands from Viacom to Chancellor in 1997. (WLTW's old space on the 40th floor of the Viacom building in Times Square remained in radio use, becoming the WCBS-FM studio space not long afterward.)

Of the three Manhattan studio spaces, the Lite studios enjoyed the best view, with the air studio and production studio facing out into a hallway with big windows that gazed out toward Times Square. Inside, it was all subdued lighting and earth tones, befitting the station's AC format. (And check out those studio monitors, built into a soffit in the air studio's ceiling. Classy!)

From here, our tour moves across the Hudson to the Jersey City waterfront, where perhaps the crown jewel of the Clear Channel studio facilities sits 36 floors up in the 101 Hudson Street office tower. It's impossible to overstate what a big move it was when WHTZ (Z100) moved up here in 1999, trading its original makeshift 1983 studios in a nondescript building in Secaucus for a million-dollar view in some of the finest real estate on the Jersey side of the river.

Chief engineer Josh Hadden, now the market director of engineering for Clear Channel, put the air studios right at the end of a hallway, looking out into a big space with a call-screener desk, sofas and space for live performances - and looking out on the skyline of lower Manhattan.

One of the glassed-in studios is used exclusively by the morning show (at left in the photo above), while the other is in use the rest of the day. Down the hall are the rack room, engineering space, production studios and space for voicetracking. This was the first of Clear Channel's New York stations to adopt SAS Rubicon consoles, which will be the standard in the new studio space.

It's just a short ride on the light-rail (or a brisk walk a few blocks north, if you prefer) to the big Newport Tower office building at 525 Washington Blvd., adjacent to the Newport Centre shopping mall. Up on the 16th floor, amidst all the financial firms that take up most of the space here, is the fifth Clear Channel FM station, WKTU (103.5). It was country WYNY when it arrived here, having bounced around from the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens (in space still used by former sister station WFAN) to 1700 Broadway in Manhattan (under previous owner Westwood One) to this studio, which it's called home since the late nineties.

WKTU's layout is similar to that of WLTW, with air and production studios side by side, looking out on a windowed corridor - this one, like Z100's, with a dramatic view of the Manhattan skyline. And like Z100, these studios were rebuilt not long ago with SAS Rubicon consoles (and, in this case, new furniture, too, finally retiring the old reel-to-reel machines that used to sit to the left of the jock here!)

Not a bad collection of facilities, is it? But it's also hard to run five radio stations at five separate locations - in fact, most of the Z sales staff actually had offices in Manhattan, and leases were coming due on some of that expensive Midtown studio space.

So Clear Channel began looking for new digs a couple of years ago, and eventually settled on several floors of the old AT&T Long Lines building at 33 Avenue of the Americas, just below Canal Street. This high-ceilinged space once housed racks upon racks of central-office switching gear, and much of the space upstairs is now home to a "carrier hotel," which means there's tons of connectivity here for Clear Channel to tap into. (Indeed, Josh is more or less "rolling his own" phone service here - he calls it "Josh Tel"!)

When we visited the new space for the first time in mid-January, it was just beginning to be wired up for its future occupants. While much of the new rack room was in place, most of the studio space was still awaiting furniture and equipment. Each of the five stations here has its own separate "pod," with two mirror-image main studios facing a large call-screener/guest space, reminiscent of the Z100 layout in Jersey City, albeit without the view. There are also production studios in each station's pod, with walls color-coded by station. (Q104, the first station to move in, has teal walls; Z100's is neon green; WKTU's, brown; Power 105's, orange; and Lite's, blue.)

We'll come back and show these studios in more detail when they're all done. There are some neat touches here, including Omnirax studio furniture that can be reconfigured on the fly depending on what the studio is being used for, not to mention some heavy-duty soundproofing (the studios are on the second floor, while the subway is just downstairs) and HVAC.

Next week, we'll take a peek inside another new studio facility that's under construction just a few blocks to the south...

Thanks to all of Clear Channel's New York engineers, current and former, for tours - Josh Hadden, George Marshall, Henry Behring, Doug Irwin, Jim Stagnitto and Alex Roman.

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