Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
It’s amazing how much things can change in just a few years. On a 2008 visit to Washington, your editor got to tour both the city’s big NPR news-talk member station, WAMU (88.5), and the NPR mothership – and it’s a good thing I did, because when I returned in 2013, both WAMU and the network had moved to new homes.
For WAMU, the move meant a shift from parts of two floors in an American University-owned office building on Brandywine Street in the Tenleytown neighborhood over to a building at 4401 Connecticut Avenue that had previously housed a bank.
Instead of being tucked away upstairs on a side street, WAMU’s new digs (which they’d been in just over a month when we stopped by in November 2013) feature a streetfront studio that allows passersby to peer inside and watch the station’s hosts at work.
This is a seven-story building, with WAMU taking up roughly half the space and other AU functions using other parts of the building. WAMU’s lobby at ground level leads back into a newsroom that’s much more spacious than its old digs. The newsroom, in turn, faces a ground-floor studio complex that includes the streetfront studio, a talk studio beyond that, and several control rooms on the other side of the talk studio.
Talk is a very important part of what WAMU does, and upstairs we find the spacious offices of both the nationally-syndicated Diane Rehm Show and the local Kojo Nnamdi Show. There’s dedicated studio space for them on this floor, though chief engineer John Holt (since retired) tells us that at least in the early days here, both Rehm and Nnamdi were so happy using the ground-floor studio that they stayed down there even when the new studio upstairs was completed!
WAMU has one of the more distinctive HD2s out there: “Bluegrass Country” continues a long tradition of bluegrass music on WAMU, and it’s simulcast in the Virginia suburbs on a powerful translator at 105.5. The move to 4401 Connecticut gave the bluegrass folks a floor of their own, and an impressive one at that: there’s a performance studio and control room as well as a suite of air studios for the HD2’s live and voicetracked programming.
The WAMU facility goes down below ground level, too: from the lobby, a wide stairwell leads down to community space in the basement, including an open meeting area that doubles as phone-bank space at pledge drive time and a big studio space that was just being built out when we visited.
Meanwhile back in Tenleytown, a mile away, the view from the old WAMU studios looked out across Brandywine to the old WTOP “Broadcast House,” now a health club – and behind that to the TV towers that sits on the highest ground in the District of Columbia.
We’ve looked at these towers many times over many years (including that 2008 trip), but had never been inside any of the transmitter rooms at the base until this visit in 2013.
The 640-foot tower we see here went up in 1972 to augment the shorter 300-foot self-supporter that was the original tower at Tenleytown, built in 1949 for channel 9 (then WOIC, later WTOP-TV and WDVM and now WUSA-TV). When the new tower went up, it became home as well to WMAL-TV (Channel 7, now WJLA), which moved here from its original site on the American University campus (which still stands and is used by WAMU and several other FM stations); later on, several UHF stations moved in here as well.
The transmitters for most of these stations are in a big blocky building on the north side of the tower, with each station occupying its own floor – and we’re here, in particular, to see what had started off here as WMAL-FM. It’s now Cumulus’ WRQX (107.3), and its old “Q107” logo occupies pride of place above a pair of BE transmitters in a narrow room off to the side of the main occupant of this floor, the old WMAL-TV, now WJLA.
WRQX operates in HD – but you won’t find the HD transmitter in its main transmitter room. Instead, they found space for their HD gear out under the tower, in a prefab building that also houses the FM combiners and the analog and HD transmitters for Clear Channel’s WASH-FM (97.1).
(The third FM here is Howard University’s WHUR 96.3, and we didn’t see its transmitter room, nor those of channel 9 or the other TVs here, including Howard’s WHUT and the big PBS station in town, WETA.)
But if we didn’t get in to WETA’s TV transmitter room, we sure got to see plenty of the rest of WETA on this trip – and we’ll show you that, plus more from Washington, in our final installment next week!
Thanks to WAMU’s John Holt (ret.) and WRQX’s Dave Sproul (ret.) and Mike Benonis for the tours!
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Our latest one features Donna Halper discussing her life in radio, from her time at WMMS when she helped Rush get US airplay, to what she learned from Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg.
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Next week: Washington 2013 – WETA and WTOP