March 14, 2008

WQXR, New York

In this week's installment of Tower Site of the Week, we have the honor of presenting one of the finest studio facilities in the nation - which is only fitting, considering that our featured station, WQXR (96.3), is in many ways one of the finest stations anywhere in the radio industry these days.

WQXR was a trailbreaker from its earliest days as experimental W2XR, when it pioneered the idea of "hi-fi" audio on radio through the use of wideband AM (we'll have more on its AM history next week), through its early years on FM as WQXQ, and then through its many years as "The Classical Station of the New York Times."

After many years in studio space at the Times headquarters building at 229 West 43rd Street, WQXR moved out in 1989, building a new state-of-the-art facility in rented space at 122 Fifth Avenue, near Union Square. It's those studios that we feature this week, in a series of photos taken during a 2006 visit. (There have been some subsequent updates to the plant, replacing some of the analog gear seen here with a new Netia digital automation system and Axia routing; we'll have to get back up there soon for another look!)

The WQXR studio and office space exudes calm and quiet, with subdued tones and lots of wood trim throughout. Approaching the studio core, curving glass windows in the shape of a grand piano demarcate the WQXR music library, today mostly filled with CDs, but with some vinyl and open-reel recordings tucked away as well.

At the heart of the studios is a large performance space. Northeastern Communications Concepts, which designed the studios here under former chief engineer Herb Squire, says "it could well be the sweetest and quietest room in the city," and they're not kidding. One side of the room is lined with windows looking into several of WQXR's studios; the other features a system of folding baffles that can be moved to make the room as live or dead as needed, depending on what the studio is being used for. (In addition to live performances, it also has a desk for talk shows that can be removed if need be.)

In addition to the production rooms that look into (and can control) the big studio, the main FM air studio is just down the hall. It's a sizable space, too, with lovely wooden racks on one wall that were once full of carts and are now mostly empty.

There's a newsroom adjoining the air studio, though as we'll see in a moment, most of WQXR's news now originates uptown at the Times newsroom. Across the hall is an engineering shop and a well-configured rack room that, when we visited, was still full of old-school patch bays for routing audio (since replaced by an Axia digital router system), as well as the STL that connects the studios here to the transmitter room up on the 81st floor of the Empire State Building.

Chief engineer Rodney Belizaire, along with DSI RF Systems Inc., renovated that room a few years ago, and it too is a classy-looking space. There are actually three rooms here - a small room that could be used as an emergency studio in a pinch, the space shown above that's home to the Harris transmitter and a few racks of processing and STL gear (check out the track lighting on the transmitter!), and a back room for storage and workbench space. From here, transmission lines go out into the hallway and up an airshaft to the combiner room on the 85th floor, then to the ERI master antenna up top.

We can't leave you this week without a quick look at a few other spaces that have been part of WQXR's history over the years, though.

We mentioned before that WQXR's studio was located, for many decades, at the Times "Annex" at 229 W. 43rd Street. Almost two decades after WQXR vacated its space on the ninth floor, vestiges of its long tenure there could still be seen in the newspaper's last days in that old building.

Those are WQXR's old windows lining a hallway on the ninth floor; the rooms inside, we're told, were used largely for offices after the station moved out - at one point, Times employees had their ID cards issued from one of them.

Down the hall at one end of the ninth floor, the old WQXR auditorium remained in use almost to the paper's last days here. "The Listening Room," featuring interviews with performers and live performances, as well as a number of live concerts, all were broadcast from the stage here even after the station moved out in 1989. (Look carefully on the right side of the stage and you can see a window into the small control room for the auditorium.)

In the paper's last few years at the old building, WQXR maintained a presence in the newsroom itself, where partitions divided off a small (and remarkably soundproofed) space where newscasts originated.

When the Times moved to its new tower at 620 Eighth Ave. in 2007, there was some talk of moving WQXR to an upper floor of the building. That never materialized, but the station did end up with a glassed-in office adjacent to the newsroom that's now used for newscasts "from New York Times Radio News." (That branding is deliberate; there are plans to begin offering the service to other outlets as well.)

In next week's installment, we'll head out to the Queens-Brooklyn border to see what became of WQXR's AM sister station, WQEW (1560).

Thanks to WQXR Chief Engineer Rodney Belizaire for the tours!

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