Alpha Media Recreates Gulfport Cluster

Consisting of six stations, the cluster occupied an elderly building that had been heavily damaged in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina May 9, 2016

Portland, Ore.-based Alpha Broadcasting was formed in 2009 with an initial acquisition of six stations. Merging with L&L Broadcasting in 2014, rebranding as Alpha Media and acquiring Digity LLC in February 2016, it has become the third-largest broadcast company in terms of number of markets and fourth-largest regarding station count.

The cluster’s “Grip and Grin” front foyer is stylish and modern.
Digity’s Gulfport, Miss., cluster was a staple of the Biloxi broadcast region when Alpha Media assumed ownership in 2014. Consisting of six stations — WXYK(FM), WCPR(FM), WGBL(FM), WQBB(FM), WXBD(AM) and WTNI(AM) — it occupied an elderly building that had been heavily damaged in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. Although insurance had restored the facility, it did so only enough to make it operational; no improvements or upgrades were performed.

Alpha Media’s Directors of Engineering Mike Everhart and Trent Muldrow recruited St. Louis, Mo., architectural firm V Three Studios to evaluate the original building. Together with V Three’s engineers Kurt Kerns and Gabe McKee, they likened the structure to that of a used car that knew it was being driven to the dealership to be traded in. An air conditioning unit caved in through a bathroom ceiling revealing the sky; remaining AC units were failing to keep the studios cool, other tenants in the building had departed — the old facility began to self-destruct as if it knew it was to be abandoned. 

CREATING A NEW HOME

All eight studios feature Axia Radius consoles, with six-fader expansion frames and user keys.
A new location for the stations was chosen in a strip mall at 9471 Three Rivers Road in Gulfport, Miss., V Three approached the project by meeting with the local market, assessing Alpha Media’s needs, scope, budget and expected growth agenda. Equally important was creating a facility that reflected Alpha’s “L&L — Live and Local” personality; the location was also intended to be available to the public for promotions, live performances, charity drives and contests.

While Everhart, Muldrow, Kerns and McKee collectively contributed to the architectural plan, Trent expressed his appreciation for V Three Studios, describing how early on they created hand drawings of the proposed new facility and these sketches proved to be the basic blueprint for the new facility and not much changed from that. “They really got it right the first time out,” he said. The team decided to perform a “gut rehab.” Design began in January 2014, demolition began in December 2014 by stripping out everything but the external walls, an electrical room and a vehicle bay; then came reconstruction and the new cluster was broadcasting by early June 2015.

Based on V Three’s observation of how well the layout of the original cluster worked, the new floor plan mirrors the arrangement of the studios and corridors in the original building. After the first “test fit” draft was approved by Kerns, it was taken to Alpha Media’s local Gulfport Operations Manager Kenny Best and General Manager Ricky Mitchell for evaluation and input. All parties agreed it was an excellent plan and work began, ending up with the wiring, assembly, and integration which was led by Alpha’s Contract Chief Engineer Danny Miller. 

RECONSTRUCTION, RECREATION

Centerpiece of the cluster — the central nervous system on display.
As with many reconstruction projects, there were unanticipated complications. The mall owner did not have “as built” drawings in his possession, causing many trips by many teams to “recreate the structure.” Additionally, the gut portion of the project revealed not only structural damage from Hurricane Katrina but also termite and water damage so extensive it led to the near-complete demolition of the leased building. Later, during excavation to erect an STL tower, an unmarked drainpipe and rogue fiber lines were unearthed, creating the need for several trips to City Hall to identify them. Existing HVAC systems, initially considered acceptable, are now under consideration for replacement.

A serious complication arose after the blueprints were completed and construction had begun. The new broadcast facility is located directly in the flight pattern of Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport (GPT), which services both commercial and military aircraft. V Three Studios determined that the airplanes took off away from the building, measured that audio volume and incorporated appropriate acoustical isolation materials into the construction plans to regulate it.

However, soon after the project began the airport created a new flight plan so that aircraft were directed to take off directly over the new site. V Three reevaluated the noise levels and developed new acoustic assemblies and envelopes to perform the criteria of keeping the roar out.

The general contracting company Dan Hensarling, Inc. of Gulfport, Miss., received praise from all four principals for their keen interest in these new designs and their cooperation in rebuilding the plant. Kerns reports “the studios sound great!” 

Demolition and reconstruction completed, the new location is now home to the six on-air studios and two production facilities.

INSIDE VIEW

The architects decided on unusual shapes to make the building a delightful working environment. For colors and finishes, Kerns said, “We pulled from the established logos of the stations as well as corporate branding and integrated those graphics into the whole facility, creating collaborative areas for local visitors as well as spaces that could be used for video or performance that simultaneously pushed Alpha’s message out to the public.” 

McKee added, “We located the rack room centrally with an all-glass wall to show off the technology within the facility.” Looking to the future, V Three designed the electrical infrastructure, cable trays and conduits from the technical operations center to the studios to support the expectation of three heavy technical upgrades over the coming years before a new facility might be required.

Telos Axia Radius consoles were installed in all eight rooms, and six-fader expansion frames with user keys were added in the studios. Muldrow commented that Alpha was already using Axia in their Portland, Ore. facilities, so Everhart was already familiar with them. All audio is 48k uncompressed .wav over IP and lives within the Axia network. Utilizing Axia xNodes (AES/EBU, analog and GPIO), V Three designed the racks to group associated equipment in close proximity to minimize the length of signal paths.

V Three architects chose bold colors to brighten the common area between the technical operations center and the two main on-air studios.
StudioHub’s array of adaptors were chosen to provide connectivity from all hardware devices to Cat-5 and Cat-6 cables. Cisco routers handle the data transfer and KVM switches were employed to bring keyboard, video and mouse controls into the studios. Muldrow noted, “The only punchblocks in the whole facility are for telephone lines.”

Studio furniture is one of the most important decisions in outfitting a facility. In many studios it is one of the main capital expenses. Much more than providing a surface to hold up a console and some microphones, it supports the financial, strategic and personal goals of station ownership and management. It can affect sound quality, installation and maintenance costs and, ultimately, company morale. Omnirax of Sausalito, Calif., provided the furniture for this install, with lead designer David Holland shepherding the fabrication, delivery and installation for the plant while ensuring the production schedule stayed on-time and on-budget.

Holland told me that V Three designed the Gulfport studios with Omnirax’s Phoenix line of furniture in mind as the template for right-sizing the studios while still accommodating Alpha Media’s particular needs. The two production rooms had unique shapes and custom designs were required.

The “break” room was designed to double as a performance space, and the infrastructure was initially considered to permit an engineer to occupy the space as well. Ultimately, however, Kerns realized “using the Axia system made this unnecessary because all we really needed to get audio back and forth was a network connection and hooking up an Axia xNode there. Plugging in all the audio sources allowed us to feed any of the six studios.”

In addition to this room, the two larger “showcase” on-air studios were constructed to accommodate bigger groups, so these are considered performance spaces as well.

Alpha Media’s Everhart and Muldrow kept existing equipment for analog STL links. A short (to accommodate the flight paths of GPT) 40-foot self-supporting tower is still under construction; in the meantime they are able to make some of the shots directly from the rooftop of the new cluster. Everhart said they are also implementing a multi-hop redistribution system to a centralized tower site near the building, which makes it easier to get significantly more height and relay those signals out to Alpha’s other existing sites.

We ended our conversation with a “tip” from V Three Studios — carefully check out local codes when you build! In the course of this project, some unanticipated regulations were discovered — for example, in Harrison County where the stations were relocated there must be a water fountain somewhere in the facility — one had to be added to the cluster after it was completed. Additionally, as part of building requirements, first responder emergency personnel’s communication devices must be able to transmit and receive indoors. County technicians perform signal measurement tests and if their radios don’t communicate, it’s incumbent on the building owner to create a repeater system that will permit the equipment to work within the facility.

Luckily for Alpha Media, it passed the inspection without further ado.

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