February 5, 2010

NPR and WAMU, Washington, DC, 2008

Welcome to the next installment in a multi-segment recap of a fun trip we took in the summer of 2008. The ostensible purpose of this particular week on the road was to take Ari, then not-quite-five, on a "daddy-daughter trip" to Washington to celebrate her brand-new status as a big sister, but she took one day off from tourism to hang out with family friends while Daddy made the rounds of some well-known broadcast facilities in Our Nation's Capital.

Among the highlights of that busy day was a visit to National Public Radio's headquarters at 635 Massachusetts Avenue NW, in downtown Washington not far from Union Station and the convention center. To some, this is still the "new" NPR building, since the network has only been in place here since 1994, when it moved from smaller quarters on M Street - but it will soon be the "old" NPR building, as operations prepare to relocate once again to an even bigger facility at 1111 North Capitol Street NE sometime in 2012, if all goes according to schedule.

This former bank building, shaped like a slice of pie, is actually two buildings - half built in 1971 and the rest added on in 1980. It's both an impressive network headquarters ("the last of the great analog facilities," it was dubbed upon its opening) and a bit of a compromise, wedged as it is into a fairly tight space for NPR's growing production needs.

Visitors enter into a two-story lobby on the Mass Ave side of the building, where they're greeted by wallpaper festooned with the callsigns of NPR stations from coast to coast. The stairway leads up to the "first floor," European-style, where the NPR board meets. Upstairs on the second floor is the heart of the operation: the newsroom that's home to the daily newsmagazines, "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition," as well as the hourly newscasts. ATC and ME share a large studio, 2A, recently renamed the "Carl Kasell Studio" in honor of the now-retired morning newscaster; there are also several smaller studios on this floor used for hourly newscasts and other recording needs.

One floor up on 3A are more news offices as well as the daily afternoon talk show, "Talk of the Nation." It originates from Studio 3A, which is nearly a mirror image of 2A just downstairs. Those floor-to-ceiling windows are a trademark of studio designer Russ Berger.

Berger's masterpiece here is up on the next floor, where Studio 4A is the facility's big room for music recording. When the plant was built, NPR was still producing a fair amount of classical programming, including "Performance Today"; by the time of my tour in 2008, most of that programming had moved elsewhere or been cancelled, and today 4A is used as much by pop performers being featured on "ATC" or "ME" as it is by classical artists.

The fifth floor is office space, and the sixth is home to the Technical Operations Center, home to the Public Radio Satellite System. The TOC is split in two halves: a big room for outgoing transmission and another for incoming feeds.

As much as it's aged in less than two decades, it's still a very impressive plant, and I can't wait to come back in a couple of years and see its replacement.

Our last bit of studio tourism on this Washington trip, this time with Ari in tow, comes on the final day of our DC visit, when a last-minute chance comes up to visit the city's public radio news outlet, American University's WAMU (88.5). WAMU started out on the AU campus, spending many years in a building next to its transmitter tower on campus, but for the last few years it's made its home at an off-campus building owned by AU in Washington's Tenleytown neighborhood.

By itself, 4000 Brandywine Street NW is a pretty unimposing building, even if it did once house the East German embassy - but it's in a very historic location, just across the street from the famed "Broadcast House" that was once home to WTOP radio and TV and from the tower farm that carries much of DC's TV and FM dial. (We'll get to that in our final DC installment, next week!)

WAMU is probably best known nationally as the home of the "Diane Rehm Show," and we've arrived here just as the first of the show's two hours is ending.

This is a functional, but not fancy, studio plant occupying half of one of WAMU's two floors. There's a control room for the talk studio, with work space for a show producer and a call screener; an adjacent tech center right behind the board op; a talk studio shared by Rehm's late-morning show and the local Kojo Nnamdi show that follows; and a main air studio down the hall where WAMU's local program hosts sit.

Across the hall from the talk studio and the main air studio are several more production studios, including one dedicated to the all-bluegrass service that's heard on WAMU's HD2 channel and an analog translator in the Virginia suburbs. On the other side of the floor is a large all-purpose room that's used during fund drives; it's connected by closed-circuit TV to the studios so the volunteers on the phones (and anyone who comes along with a Rehm or Nnamdi guest) can see what's happening down the hall.

Upstairs are station offices and a newsroom, with a news studio adjoining. Nothing fancy here - but they sure do generate a lot of great programming from these fairly simple facilities!

This series of Site of the Week installments is once again accompanied by weekly ID updates over at our sister site, TopHour.com. Stop by on Wednesday, Feb. 10 for the next big batch of Washington-area IDs...and in the meantime, don't miss your chance to grab one of the dwindling remaining stash of the all-new Tower Site Calendar 2010, just in time to fill that space on the wall where your 2009 edition once hung.

(It's more than just pretty pictures and dates - the modest sum we raise from each year's calendar helps make possible the travel needed to make this feature happen every week on the website...and we're grateful for all your support!)

Thanks to Jan Andrews and John Kean at NPR and to John Holt and the WAMU engineering staff for the tours!

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