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Inside KCRW’s $38M Media Center

By Steve Harvey. Earlier this year, after a decade of planning and fundraising, flagship NPR station KCRW relocated its studios and staff to a new purpose-built, $38 million KCRW Media Center.

Santa Monica, CA (October 24, 2019)—Call it left of the dial, non-commercial or simply what it is, an NPR-member station broadcasting news, talk and freeform music from the campus of Santa Monica College, KCRW 89.9 FM has long enjoyed a national, even international influence that belies its Southern California location. The station had been operating for decades out of subterranean quarters beneath the college’s cafeteria, but earlier this year, after a decade of planning and fundraising, its studios and staff relocated to the Center for Media and Design satellite campus and a new purpose-built, $38 million KCRW Media Center.

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“Five months ago, when we started broadcasting from here, was the first time our whole staff had been together in 30 years,” says KCRW COO Jill Smayo during a tour of the 34,000-square-foot facility. The striking building, emblazoned with bands of bright yellow, was designed, along with the rest of the new campus, by Clive Wilkinson Architects, whose client list includes Google, UCLA and TBWA\Chiat\Day.

Any artists worth their salt have long made a live performance on KCRW’s flagship three-hour Morning Becomes Eclectic show one of their first priorities when breaking into the U.S. market. Those that have are legion, and include the likes of Adele, Coldplay and Radiohead. Happily, the elusive stairs to the old basement studios are now a distant memory, replaced by crew-friendly tour bus parking and an easy load-in plus a green room, lounge and showers at the new building.

“The first floor is dedicated to music programming and technical operations; the second and third floors host our staff and are mostly open office space, but there are studios on all three floors,” says Smayo, who reports that staff members were previously scattered across five locations. The new energy-efficient building is being submitted for LEED Silver certification, she adds.

Exterior wood finishes provide a visual cue to the production areas, many of which feature windows between studios and hallways, and Clive Wilkinson’s signature color accents. The building houses video livestreaming and edit suites as well as audio edit bays, voice recording booths, interview rooms and broadcast studios—about two dozen production and post-production rooms in total, supported by a technical equipment room on each of the three floors.

One of the few split-format stations in the country offering both music and news/talk, KCRW now has two master control studios on separate floors. “We allow them to toggle between each other all day instead of playing musical chairs, which they’ve been doing for so long,” she says.

“We have 11 radio studios, all audio-over-IP,” reports broadcast IT engineer Jon Connolly, formerly of Keycode in Burbank, the AV integrator for the entire facility. Axia specialist Gregory Dahl of Second Opinion Communications and Axia supplier Broadcasters General Store were also involved.

In all, 12 Axia Fusion AoIP consoles sit on a Telos Livewire network with four Cisco 3850 Ethernet switches and scores of Axia xNodes for audio I/O and GPIO. Three Axia IP Tablets add fader control without needing to physically expand the consoles. Axia’s Pathfinder Core Pro Router Controller manages 1,500 audio and GPIO cross-points.

“Everything is nice and clean with the Livewire system,” says chief engineer Steve Herbert, who has been with KCRW for about 40 years. “Then the Cisco routers handle the traffic. It’s a lot different from a traditional broadcast cross-point from 20 years ago.”

“Each room has Pro Tools and we do recording, editing and automation through a Dalet playout system,” says Connolly. All the talk-based studios are standardized on Shure SM7 dynamic microphones through Grace Design preamplifiers.

In all, 16 rooms at the campus feature various models of Genelec’s new 8000 Series monitors, from the 3-inch 8010 through the 8-inch 8050. “When we redid the facility in 2001, there was a push for Genelecs,” says Herbert. “When we came here, everyone liked the brand and the speakers, so we went with this newer line. And as people work from room to room, we want them to all sound the same.”

About two dozen DJs pass through the music master control room, On Air 1, during a typical week’s 80 hours of music programming. The studio is outfitted with CDJ machines, turntables and other devices, and supports any playback platform the DJs prefer. “We made accommodations so they can do whatever they want, however they want,” says Smayo.

“Any of the rooms can go on air,” adds Herbert, “but we usually just bounce back and forth between the two main on-air studios.”

The live music studio, located down a short hallway from the artist and load-in entrance, is built around an SSL C200 digital broadcast mixing console, one of the last off the production line. “We figured, since we are known for audio, we could spend a chunk of change on that piece of it,” says Herbert. The previous live studio console, a Yamaha DM2000, now sits in an upstairs studio.

Every flavor of I/O is available in the performance studio, the engineers report, with recording over MADI to a 64-channel Avid Pro Tools system. The control room’s credenza, with seating behind, is loaded with mic preamps, processing and effects, much of it from the previous location.

“Having the seating in the back was a design we brought over from the old place. Artists will often bring management and people to direct the mix,” says Herbert.

Monitors in the room include a pair of flown ADAM Audio S4X-V mains, plus S3H near/midfields on the SSL’s meter bridge, together with a pair of legacy Genelec 1031As from the old location.

The live performance area, which doubles as a meeting or event space and accommodates 90 chairs, is a significant upgrade from the previous location. It offers a double-height ceiling, plus a rear mezzanine above the control room that holds 40 audience members.

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Live shows for students and the public are also held in the campus’ central courtyard, which can host as many as 1,500 people. “We’re much more than a radio station,” says Smayo. “We’re a cultural institution and a convener of our community.”

Genelec •

The Telos Alliance •