Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
A topic popped up a few days ago on a group I help moderate: “What’s the most impressive AM studio you’ve ever toured?”
These days, of course, there’s no such thing as an “AM studio” or an “FM studio” or even, really, a “radio studio” – everyone is (or should be ready to be) feeding multiple platforms and transmission paths.
And if you want to see what the state of the art looks like on so many of those fronts, get yourself to Friendship Heights, Maryland, within sight of the DC line, and take the elevator at 5425 Wisconsin Avenue upstairs to the new digs that Hubbard’s Washington cluster occupied in early 2019 after over a year of work to build out a top-notch replacement for the space it had called home for 30 years.
We’d been in that old space several times over the years (here’s a tour we took just after it went through its last major renovation in 2007-08), and for as much great radio as emerged from 3400 Idaho Avenue, it had some issues: the newsroom wasn’t big enough for the growth of WTOP, the market-dominating all-news station that has led every other station in America in ad revenue for several years now – and being spread over several floors of a mixed-use commercial/apartment building, it wasn’t as easy as Hubbard would have liked to have integrated WTOP’s broadcast newsroom with its growing digital presence, not to mention sister station Federal News Radio/WFED, which was awkwardly crammed into studio space downstairs that had been designed for music stations.
Over here in Friendship Heights, Hubbard had the opportunity to build the news operation of its dreams from scratch, and did they ever!
From about 23,000 square feet over three floors on Idaho Avenue, Hubbard found space here with 30,000 square feet on a single floor, all purpose-built for its operations as they entered the 2020s.
Get off the elevator and walk into the lobby, and you know from the start you’re in a Washington news operation: a relief map of the District, Virginia and Maryland is on the wall next to the receptionist, the lounge area right behind the desk is called the “News Bites Cafe,” and the First Amendment is proudly emblazoned on the wall of the adjacent conference room.
A spacious, windowed sales area is off to one side, and it’s nice, if you’re into sales offices.
That’s not what we came here to see, though – and so instead, we head the other way, into perhaps the most impressive radio newsroom in America.
This newsroom is arranged in roughly an L shape: at one end is the digital team behind WTOP.com, with news managers’ offices on the outside wall to the left, leading down to the circular editor’s desk that’s surrounded by the sports “bullpen,” traffic studio and two mirror-image on-air studios.
The other leg of the “L” is longer, with two rows of WTOP reporter/writer desks leading down to the Federal News Radio end of the newsroom, which looks into the studios for that service.
We’ll come back to the desks in a little bit, because they’re pretty remarkable themselves – but first let’s work our way through all those studios.
Just outside the editors’ area is the sports department’s “bullpen,” open to the newsroom and decoratively lined with an entire wall of bobbleheads from Washington’s teams.
(You can learn all about the careful organization of these bobbleheads in the video sports director George Wallace did over the summer…complete with his system for retiring players who’ve left town.)
The sports bullpen sits adjacent to the door into the traffic office, which replaces a much smaller space at Idaho Avenue. The new version is more centrally located with far better sightlines out to the editor desk, into the main air studio and outside to daylight, too.
That’s the traffic studio dead ahead in that picture above at right, next to the new “Glass Enclosed Nerve Center,” WTOP’s trademark name for its main air studio.
This is an all-Wheatstone plant, with Yellowtec mic and monitor arms, EV mics (and Better Bands on those shockmounts), and lots and lots of video screens everywhere. It’s also carefully thought out for video – with lots of newsmakers making news in these studios, there are camera positions for visiting TV crews in a corner here, complete with audio feed panels they can tap into.
There’s a carefully thought out area away from the board for refreshments, with an in-studio coffee maker and space to keep other drinks safe from spills during long on-air shifts. There’s also a nice space between the two air studios, just off the editor desk, where a producer can work, with a view right into the Glass Enclosed Nerve Center.
There’s a mirror-image alternate main studio just behind the producer, also with a view into the editor desk; from here, we start making our way down the long arm of the “L” toward Federal News Radio.
The outside wall here is lined by production rooms, which are themselves full of display shelves and hooks, showing off an amazing collection of souvenir caps, plus a ledge full of mic flags tracking the long and complex history of signal and format swaps that ended up with WTOP on three FM signals (WTOP 103.5 here in Washington, WWWT 107.7 Manassas in the Virginia suburbs and WTLP 103.9 up in Braddock/Frederick) and Federal News Radio on WFED (1500) here in Washington, the heritage WTOP signal.
Remember when 1500 was “Washington Post Radio?” Or talk “3WT”? Or when Federal News Radio first launched on 1050? They’re all represented here…
These rooms are also air studios, used, among other things, for originating the Washington Wizards games for which WFED is the flagship station.
WFED has its own suite of studios down here at the far end of the L, looking out on the end of the newsroom desks that’s specific to Federal News Radio – and here’s where we can start taking a close look at those desks and how they’re set up.
The idea here was that reporters, editors and writers ought to be able to do nearly all of their work at their desks. As those of us who’ve worked in all-news formats know, it’s a pain to have to get up from a desk and move to a studio to do an interview or cut up sound, especially on deadline. All those little studios take up a lot of space and require a lot of hardware – so what if you didn’t need them at all for most tasks?
So with the help of integrator Radio DNA, which was here building this facility out for many months, Hubbard came up with a solution that required very few studios and almost no hardware. Instead, each of these desks (which are motorized, by the way, so they can be used sitting, standing or anywhere in between) has just a small Wheatstone turret for headphones and mic mute, a screen for the station’s newsroom system – and a customized screen, built with Wheatstone’s ScreenBuilder, from which WTOP and Federal News Radio staff can do just about anything.
Grab a VoIP phone line or a Comrex Access to record a phoner or a remote interview? Those buttons are on the screen, and automatically configure a mix-minus appropriately. Need to take in a weather feed from partner WRC-TV? That source is on the screen. So are the network feeds (which were from ABC when we visited in 2019, but have now switched back to WTOP’s legacy partner and erstwhile owner, CBS.)
Need to record a wrap or a voicer? There’s an EV RE320 at each desk, with enough audio processing to get rid of most of the newsroom’s background noise if you work it close enough. Need to do a quick live hit on the air with the anchor? You can do that, too, and again, all the relevant mix-minuses follow along. (You can even switch the workstations back and forth between WTOP and Federal News Radio, with the appropriate sources and studios all appearing like magic as the station logo and colors change.)
This is a huge WheatNet-IP system, obviously, and most of the blades that power the newsroom are all in one rack closet next to the newsroom snack area (“Hubbard’s Cupboard”), with some of the most elegant wiring you’ll ever see anywhere.
There are still a few traditional small studios here, on the opposite wall from the sports and production rooms toward the inside of the building. (You can see them if you scroll back up a ways to the picture of operations guru Brian Oliger showing off one of the workstations, with the inside studios and just some of WTOP’s gobs of major awards in the background.)
All of the back end of the stations is in a glassed-in rack room down the hall from the Federal News Radio end of the newsroom, across from the offices for Brian and other operations and engineering staffers. They weren’t quite done with everything back here on my tour in early 2019, just a month after opening day, so I’m looking forward to returning to see this all tidied up.
There’s another separate small suite of studios and offices down this hall, home to WBQH (1050 Silver Spring MD), the Spanish-language “La Mera Mera” that’s owned by Hubbard but leased out to United Media Group, which also leases a translator at 93.5 from Hubbard. (Back in the day at Idaho Avenue, WBQH had its own separate downstairs space across the hall from Federal News Radio, if memory serves.)
And before we wind our way back around through the sales offices and conference rooms to return to the main lobby, there’s one more broadcast space to look at.
You wouldn’t build any broadcast facility these days without some sort of live studio, right? Even though there’s no music station here to bring in bands to perform (well, except for La Mera Mera), Hubbard included a performance space here along the hallway leading back out to the lobby. Where the band might perform at a music station, here there’s a dais with space for panel discussions or interviews, with a video screen, lighting and camera positions, and signage that can flip between Federal News Radio and WTOP depending on which talking heads are on the stage.
It’s very Washington (right down to the red, white and blue wall panels) – but also very WTOP.
I’m already looking forward to a return visit here, now that WTOP and Federal News Radio are coming up on a full year in their new home – and I’m even more eager to see how this phenomenal facility evolves as the needs of its occupants change in the years to come!
Thanks to Hubbard’s Brian Oliger and RadioDNA’s Rob Goldberg for the tours!
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Next week: WBAL’s New Radio Studios, Baltimore