Established almost 40 years ago, National Public Radio has earned a well-deserved reputation for providing high-quality news and current information programming from its Washington, DC headquarters and regional production centers around the country.
At the turn of the millennium, the organization realized that it needed a West-Coast presence to cover the growing number of stories originating from that time zone; the events of 9/11 further accelerated the decision to decentralize NPR and place additional facilities in other cities. “September 11 made it apparent in a very urgent way,” says Jay Kernis, NPR’s senior VP for programming, “that we needed another facility that could keep NPR going if something devastating happened in Washington.”
“NPR West is one of the most significant developments in NPR’s capacity to provide programming services to stations and listeners,” considers Kevin Klose, the organization’s president emeritus and president of the NPR Foundation. “Years of thoughtful analysis, months of careful site selection and detailed facility planning [went] into NPR West. This meant a huge expansion in our capacity to bring timely, comprehensive news of the West to our national newsmagazines, newscasts, and cultural programming.”
Studio B’s control room, equipped with Klotz VADIS II networked audio mixing systems and Dalet server-based audio storage/playback systems “Given the importance of the West Coast as a news source,” offers Bud Aiello, NPR’s director of engineering technology, “we realized that a full-service facility was required within the Los Angeles area,” to provide enhanced coverage of the western United States and Pacific Rim. A suitable building was soon located in Culver City, west of Los Angeles. Opened during November 2002 — in time for coverage of the fall elections and the Democratic National Convention held in Los Angeles that year — NPR West was the organization’s first large-scale production center to be established outside of Washington, DC; a smaller New York facility also is available. Reported cost for the NPR West project, including an $8 million land purchase for construction, was $13 million.
“The space was custom-built for [former occupant] Digital Planet, an Internet video production and teleconferencing firm,” Aiello says, “complete with production suites, support systems, and technical build-out.” An existing technical infrastructure that included a high-power UPS, large-capacity AC, generator transfer switch, a central facilities room, and space for satellite dishes helped streamline the conversion. “NPR saved a large amount of money,” Aiello considers, “compared to taking an existing space and converting it to our needs.”
Prior to recent layoffs, the 25,000-square-foot, two-building facility housed a staff of 90+, including NPR’s Los Angeles News bureau. As National Public Radio’s second-largest facility, NPR West also provides broadcast-production backup to the network, which produces, acquires, and distributes some 120 hours a week of programming to stations around the U.S. In addition to formerly hosting The Tavis Smiley Show, NPR West’s facility produced News & Notes, an hour-long program with Farai Chideya that covers news from an African-American perspective, and Day to Day, a weekday, one-hour newsmagazine produced in collaboration with Slate magazine. NPR West is the home base for Renée Montagne, who co-hosts the bi-coastal Morning Edition, which originates from Washington with Steve Inskeep.
Production Suites, On-Air Studios, and Technical Center
Five self-contained production suites plus two on-air studios with companion control rooms link to a central Technical Center via a series of control and audio-data local-area networks; access is also provided to satellite and high-speed DS3-level data circuits to NPR’s DC center and other locations. The design ensures operational and technical compatibility between Washington, DC and Los Angeles, so that production staff can move freely between these locations, and also allows remote control of critical functions. “For example, a news reporter can enter [NPR West’s] Production 4 or 5 and have a technician in DC handle the interconnect from 3,000 miles way,” Aiello points out. Nine 384 kbits/sec MPEG Layer-2 codecs connect the NPR West complex to the Washington, DC headquarters. Codecs 1 through 4 carry stereo outputs from the primary on-air studios and Tech Center; the remaining ports carry a variety of dedicated and assignable mono/stereo feeds. At the DC facility, feeds from NPR West’s Studios and Technical Center appear as dedicated inputs on the Routing Switcher, for direct access by the facility’s various production areas and satellite distribution network.
“Equipment choices mimic what we have in our Washington and New York studios,” advised Shawn Fox, NPR’s director of engineering services, who relocated from NPR West to DC in the winter of 2008. “From the very beginning, we decided that NPR West would be our first all-digital facility. We had experimented with the technology for our Washington headquarters, but integration had been difficult. For Culver City, we intended to take advantage of the flexibility offered by assignable digital consoles and server-based digital-audio storage. We opted for a series of networked hard-disk editors [and asset-management systems] from Dalet Digital Media Systems. A Klotz VADIS II Audio Network also was selected,” with control surfaces tailored for each of the production and on-air studios.
Studio bau:ton served as architects for the conversion project, with Peter Grueneisen as lead architect/acoustical designer, and Charles Irving as project manager; Washington, DC-based TGS served as overall systems designer and integrator. NPR’s architectural plan required a number of acoustical improvements, Grueneisen recalls, which necessitated “floating floors and new, heavy room shells in the two larger studios and with isolation cuts in the slab around the smaller rooms.” Although the basis layout topology did not involve substantial changes, the rooms themselves essentially had to be rebuilt to improve acoustic performance. Modular broadcast booths provide enhanced sound isolation within the three edit suites and pair of production areas. “To maintain sound isolation between areas,” advises Grueneisen, “self-sealing Wenger rooms were installed in each studio without fasteners, caulking or permanent attachments to a building structure.”
For the larger control rooms and on-air studios, studio bau:ton raised and floated the concrete slabs. Three different products were selected for interior acoustical treatment. Walls received a combination of Bonded Acoustical Fabric Pad/BAFP, a fiberglass-free material produced from recycled cotton rag, and Porous Expanded Polypropylene Panels/PEPP; ceilings were handled with a combination of PEPP and Sonex acoustical foam.
Integrated Server-based Recording/Playback and Assignable Control Surfaces
Dalet Digital Media System workstations were specified for server-based recording, playback and asset management, with Klotz digital console surfaces for level control and routing. Dalet playback is normalled to Klotz inputs, with outputs routed to recorder inputs to the main Dalet servers. The networked Dalet servers provide a total of 50,000 hours of online CD-quality storage, plus 7,600 hours of backup capacity. “A number of system topologies let radio journalists run the five Production Suites by themselves,” Fox explains, while conventional broadcast operators are used in the large-format studios. But for added flexibility, microphone and playback sources in Production Suite 4 adjoining one of the main air studios can be routed to the latter’s control room’s console surface; a glass window between the two rooms provides visual communication for engineering staff and producers.
A series of Klotz DCII Control Surfaces are linked via local area networks to a Variable Audio Distribution Interface System (VADIS) that comprises a number of processing cores and routers located throughout the technical areas. Each of the DCII supports up to 56 moving faders with assignable channel strips featuring a fader, pan, mute, and an optional EQ/dynamics section accessible via LCD screens. A two-layered scheme separates audio from control, while the TDM-based router handles up to 256 channels per VADIS frame and allows an unlimited number of virtual control surfaces to be accommodated.
A Neumann U87 at its NPR West location The pair of On-Air Studios and Technical Center each features 20-fader VADIS DCII control surfaces, while the five Production Suites are provided with four-fader panels. “Any source connected to any console surface can appear on any fader,” Fox offers, “while console setups can be recalled at the push of a button.” Each DCII surface routes to a quartet of stereo output buses: PGM, AUD, UTL, and Mix-Minus. In theory, any console surface can control any processing element anywhere in the NPR facility or, with access to the closed West-Coast/East-Coast wide area network, anywhere with the NPR network.
“For the larger control rooms and on-air studios,” offers studio bau:ton’s project manager, Charles Irving, “we decided to raise and float the concrete slabs. For acoustical room treatments we used three products that were selected for their economy not only as material, but also for ease of installation. On the walls we used a combination of Bonded Acoustical Fabric Pad (BAFP), which is a fiberglass-free material produced from recycled cotton rag, and Porous Expanded Polypropylene panels (PEPP). These panels were either bonded directly to the gypsum board surfaces or, where we needed to cover acoustic wall and ceiling cavities, we employed a system of wire-mesh backing or exposed wood battens. On the ceilings we specified a combination of PEPP and Sonex, using similar attachment methods.” Acoustical Surfaces supplied the BAFP and PEPP products plus Sonex, while systems integrator TGS supplied the various studio on-air desks and control-room furniture.
In addition to audio facilities, NPR West was recently equipped with a Sony AWSG500 Anycast Live Content Producer that is currently housed in a dedicated area adjacent to Studio B, which hosts Renée Montagne during Morning Edition, and which was also used for the daily News & Notes program. Supplemental lighting also has been added to Studio B for the video shoots. “We use the four-camera Anycast systems two or three times a week to shoot and prepare edited video shows for our webcasts,” Fox advises. “In the future we may begin live internet streaming using this system.”
“What did we learn from the NPR West project?” Aiello reflects. “Three things: One, that the job always takes longer than you think, especially if the technologies are softwarebased. Two, the difficulties of convincing our product suppliers that the radio industry is very different from the recording business. Three, that you can never judge a facility by its external appearance; there are always hidden traps. While the [former] Digital Planet building looked to be an easy conversion for us, it took longer than we planned, mainly because we had to remove 5.5 tons of wire that was in the way. The acoustic separation and sound isolation between studios was problematic, which is why we brought in studio bau:ton to take care of that [assignment], particularly the noisy outside street traffic.”
“The new NPR West facility has worked well for us during the past six years,” concludes Cinny Kennard, NPR West’s MD and managing editor. “The networked production areas let us emphasize the editorial team spirit that is at the heart of NPR West, while the open-plan layout helps develop a cooperative culture and the free exchange of ideas.”
UPDATE: In December 2008, National Public Radio cancelled Day to Day and News and Notes, both of which are produced at NPR West, and laid off a large number of staff at its Culver City regional production center. Both shows went off the air March 20, with some 25 journalists plus associated support and tech staff losing their jobs. Journalists for Morning Edition, including co-host Renee Montagne, will continue to work at NPR West. The decision follows companywide layoffs.
Mel Lambert is principal of Media&Marketing, an L.A.-based consulting service for the pro audio industry.mel.lambert@MEDIAandMARKETING.com