February 4, 2011

Minnesota Public Radio, August 2009

Last week's installment of Tower Site of the Week found us heading north and west on I-94 through Wisconsin during a weeklong August 2009 trip deep into the heart of the midwest - and this week's trip finds us at the end point of that trip, a return visit to Minneapolis and St. Paul, the first time we'd been back since a deep dive into the market as part of Big Trip 2005. (Read those segments here, here and here.)

But with everything we saw in 2005, there were still a few things we missed. Take, for example, the massive Minnesota Public Radio operation, one of the largest public broadcasters in the country. In 2005, MPR was in the midst of a massive renovation and expansion of its headquarters building in downtown St. Paul, and we promised ourselves we'd get back as soon as we could to see the finished product.

And fortunately for us, by the time we made it back to Minnesota we knew one of the engineers at MPR: Nathan Chervek, formerly of New Hampshire Public Radio, who'd made the move to Minnesota in 2007 (and who'd subsequently return to NHPR in 2010, where we'll have to hit him up for another tour one of these trips!)

The 2005-2006 expansion of the MPR headquarters more than doubled the size of the original 1979 MPR building at the corner of Cedar Street and East Seventh Street in downtown St. Paul, adding a new structure to the north of the original building and closing off half a block of what had been East Ninth Street where it once met Cedar Street. (The stub of East Ninth now forms a cul-de-sac behind the new building with some parking for MPR employees and visitors.)

Between the old ("south") building and the new ("north") structure is a huge, light-filled atrium that's dominated by an open-air stairwell linking the levels of this five-story building. Our tour starts on the new north side, where the bulk of MPR's programming comes from the third and fourth floors.

The third floor is home to MPR's extensive news operation, with a large newsroom taking up much of the floor. Between the newsroom and the atrium is a studio core with multiple news and talk studios and control rooms, home to the "Midmorning" and "Midday" talk shows and MPR's local and regional newscasts.

The facility is designed to be very open to visitors - note how the news studios look right out into the atrium, where anyone passing by can see what's going on inside. (MPR offers regular public tours of the studios, too, should you find yourself in Saint Paul sometime.)

The fourth floor on the north side is a near-duplicate of the third, but with music at its core. MPR operates two music services: a classical network that's heard statewide and the newer "Current," a triple-A format that's heard on KCMP (89.3) in the Twin Cities and a handful of other transmitters, with plans for further statewide expansion someday.

Here, too, there's a studio core that faces both the atrium (where there's a neat little nook with sofas and a wall of LPs, which sometimes get airplay on specialty shows) and a large office area for music hosts and producers. At the far north end of the office area we find one of the nicest music libraries we've ever seen.

And before we move on, note the flatscreen monitor to the right of the classical studio's window. There's one of those next to every studio in the building; they're part of a neat internal network that schedules studio usage and displays exactly what's supposed to be going on in each studio at all times.

Up on the fifth floor is one of the most public spaces in the new building. The "IDS Forum" is a 100-seat lecture hall that's fully wired for broadcast; it's often rented out to community groups for meetings and presentations, during which we suspect many in the audience are just as interested in that nice view to the north through the glass wall behind the speaker's podium, across I-94 to the Minnesota state capitol a few blocks away. There's also a nice patio outside the wall, a pleasant place for lunch or a small meeting on a warm summer's day like this one.

The older part of the building, the south side, continues to house much of MPR's technical core. At the heart of the operation is the "International Control Center," where engineers monitor all of the feeds coming in and out of the building, as well as remotely monitoring MPR's dozens of transmitter sites around the state. A control room across the hall can be used to originate outgoing feeds when MPR is uplinking programming to NPR or other networks.

Down the hall from the International Control Center, there's a bland-looking door behind which sits a very important room indeed. This is the backup network operation center (BuNOC) for NPR's Public Radio Satellite System, designed to keep PRSS clients (including all of NPR's own Content Depot users) up and running in the event of problems - or just routine maintenance - at PRSS headquarters in Washington, D.C. PRSS tests this facility on a regular basis, so you may well have heard public radio broadcasts being uplinked from this very room.

The south building also houses a control room and production facilities for "Performance Today," the classical music show that was formerly an NPR offering before being transferred to MPR a few years back. And it's home to a spacious and very well-equipped recording studio that's used both for MPR's own broadcasts and as a rental space that's been home to some very prestigious clients.

MPR has been an important player in the renaissance of downtown Saint Paul, not only with its headquarters here but also with its renovation of the historic Fitzgerald Theater a block away across Cedar Street, home to "A Prairie Home Companion." That's been something of a mixed blessing in recent years, since that downtown renaissance has included plans for a light-rail line that's slated to run right down Cedar Street, potentially creating noise that could bleed into these studios.

Not long before our visit, MPR reached an agreement on the construction that will include the use of a floating slab for the train tracks to isolate their vibrations from the MPR building, and construction is now underway on the line that will run from here all the way to downtown Minneapolis.

That's where we were headed after this tour - but not for radio! 2009 was the last year the Minnesota Twins played in the Metrodome, so our afternoon activities this day included a Twins/Royals matchup under the dome...as well as more radio and TV, which we'll show you in next week's installment.

(In the meantime, hear IDs from MPR's stations in the Twin Cities, and many more, beginning Wednesday on TopHour.com...)

Thanks to Nathan Chervek for the tour!

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