Cumulus Emphasizes Style in the Windy City

The broadcaster completed its most recent station consolidation in Chicago in August 2016 January 18, 2017

Cumulus Media, Inc. is an American broadcasting company founded in 1996. It is the largest pure-play radio company in the U.S., with approximately 460 stations in 90 cities. Cumulus completed its most recent station consolidation in Chicago in August 2016. Stations WLUP(FM) and WKQX(FM) — operated under a local marketing agreement with Merlin Media — and WLS(AM) and WLS(FM) — Cumulus owned — comprise the cluster.

This WLS studio affords on-air talent an inspirational view of the Chicago downtown.
Construction of the new space on the sixth floor of the NBC Tower at 455 North Cityfront Plaza Drive began in November 2015.

“Even though the space we were moving to was a radio station in the past, and the studios were still there, the existing space on the sixth floor of NBC Tower was completely gutted back to concrete, and we started from scratch,” Cumulus Media Vice President Engineering Michael Gay said.

Based on previous Cumulus facilities like San Francisco and Dallas that Gay had also designed, Gay and architects SHP Leading Design of Cincinnati Ohio detailed the infrastructure. The contractor was Executive Construction, Inc. of Chicago, with audiovisual and live sound design by Clair Brothers of Manheim, Pa.

The relocation of WLUP and WKQX occurred in two stages. Leaving their long-time residence at the Merchandise Mart, they briefly joined WLS(AM) and WLS(FM) at 190 North State Street until construction at the tower was completed. WKQX began broadcasting live from the new facility Aug. 2, 2016, and by Aug. 11 all four stations and the Westwood One network show were on the air at the new location.

Westwood One’s sales offices, a studio and production room for their “Jonathon Brandmeier Show,” along with station/corporate executive offices and those of Radiate Media are now in the new digs.

And what digs they are! Twenty-three studios and a large performance space support the four stations and the Westwood One show.

System organization, design and the subsequent quality of construction are all evident behind the racks in the new facility.
WORKFLOW CONSIDERATIONS

Substantial research went into observing Cumulus studios already in use to determine what the existing workflow was for the staffers. In addition to many one-on-one consultations with program directors, board operators, production and imaging staff, station and corporate executive management, Patrick Berger, Scott Clifton, Steve Pacheco and Tim Wright are given distinct credit for their contributions.

A laundry list of questions was asked, and most of these had to do with the workflow of studios. “How many CD players do you use?” “Do you still use MiniDisc?” “How much storage do you need in the studio and for what?” “How many guests normally attend?”

These discussions led to not only the design considerations; the conversations also influenced details down to what equipment would go in which rack.

The glass-enclosed rack room lets visitors get an idea of all that goes into making a radio station work. It’s also a way for the engineering department to show off a little bit!
SOUNDPROOF IT BUT PRESERVE THE VIEW

Eighteen of the studios have windows to the outside world with exceptional views of the city, Lake Michigan and the Chicago River.

“I wanted awesome views and natural light to make the spaces fun and inviting for our talent,” Gay said. “Of course, the challenge there is external sound — we put an extra pane of glass in each window to mitigate it. Being on the sixth floor puts us above a lot of the street-level noise, but the occasional siren still gets through. But hey, that makes it authentically live and local! And that ability to give the weather report while looking at the weather is well worth it.”

The performance space presented sound issues as well.

Typical design elements make this space for visitors and on-air guests comfortable.
GETTING UP TO CODE

The requirement for 100 dB isolation between the fifth and sixth floors (it’s directly above the NBC TV offices) was met through suspended ceilings and isolated fixtures and multiple layers of isolation. This raised the floor up about six inches — enough to require ADA ramps for access.

There is a secret door in the rear of the performance space that leads from the green room to the stage. It is sound-isolated and camouflaged by the same wood slat work used on the walls of the performance space, and this allows performers to enter the space without having to walk through the audience. The room has its own dedicated control room to broadcast live performances.

Finally, while NBC has private elevator banks, there was no public elevator to the sixth floor, so a new stop had to be added during construction.

Chicago building codes require all above-ceiling and in-wall low voltage to be enclosed in conduit. Since there are 24 Cat6 cables to every studio plus the normal Cat6 runs to desks, cubicles, etc., an inordinate amount of conduit was used for this build.

“If the building concrete disappeared, I believe our studios would still be there — held up by all the conduit!” Gay joked.

Discussing automation, he continued, “In a facility this large, you need a system that gives maximum versatility and allows us to switch studios on the fly or even control the same system simultaneously from multiple studios or operator positions. OPX from BSI [a Cumulus company] is a staple of Cumulus facilities and [was] the logical choice here. In addition, WKQX and WLUP were already using OPX and WLS(FM) so WLS(AM) were the only stations that had to convert.”

One of many studios outfitted with an Axia Fusion console, a Telos VSet12 and Yellowtec M!ka mic arms.
Custom furniture, with station-specific logos, designed and fabricated by Omnirax.
The entire facility uses Telos’ Axia Fusion consoles and PowerStation engines, with the exception of a podcasting studio that uses an Axia IQ system and a QOR.32 engine. Consequently, there is no need for a central audio router.

The core IP switch for Axia is a Cisco 4510E+ loaded with Gigabit POE line cards. All PowerStations, Axia audio xNodes in the rack room, automation IP drivers and other livewire devices are connected to this core IP switch. The POE provides a redundant supply for every xNode in the rack room while the PowerStations provide redundant POE for the xNodes in the studios.

As Cumulus Reno engineer Jordan Tomlinson, a veteran of two previous Cumulus builds said, “It’s impressive. This is a chance to install the newest technologies and then see how far you can take them.”

When asked how much audio cable he had installed, Tomlinson said “Besides microphone wire, none!” All audio transport inside the plant is 48k 24-bit uncompressed via IP. So is audio to the transmitters.

The new facility includes 22 Axia Fusion Consoles, 144 Axia Audio xNodes, 42 Wheatstone M2 mic processors, 44 Dell Micro form factor PCs (used as studio web machines), 46 Tascam rack mount CD players and 26 flash recorders, and the four Telos VX engines that support 35 Telos VSet12 control surfaces. Oh, and 11,350 Cat6 Patch cables.

Cumulus New Orleans Engineer Dominic Mitchum, who also worked on this installation said, “Instead of having it hardwired with thousands of punch down connections in wiring blocks and racks full of analog gear, now you can build a studio and just plug it in on one RJ-45 and connect to the rest of the infrastructure.”

Each transmitter site is connected to the studio facility by way of a 200 Mbps MPLS circuit, and program audio is sent via APT Worldcast IP codecs with SureStream, delivering the uncompressed 48k 24-bit audio payload. In addition, the return feeds on the APT get the satellite programming from the dishes at the tower sites to the studio as well as off-air monitoring. This system is backed up by Intraplex T1 chassis for each site, as well as Ubiquity IP radio modems as a tertiary backup.

Equipment SAMPLER

144 Axia Audio xNodes
64 Dell rack servers
44 Dell Micro form factor PCs with VESA Mount used as studio web machines
84 Yellowtec M!ka Mic Arms with Tally indicator
141 Yellowtec M!ka Monitor Arms
57 Gefen IP KVM extenders
11,350 Cat-6 patch cables
90 Furman Prestige Power Conditioners
5000 Middle Atlantic rack screws
44 Yellowtec Puc2 USB audio interfaces (For studio web machines)
42 Wheatstone M2 mic processors
86 StudioHub Undercounter headphone amplifiers
46 Tascam rack mount CD players
26 Tascam rack mount Flash recorder/Players
28 Masterclock 1RU display
26 Masterclock NTDS4626 wall display
22 Axia Fusion consoles with Powerstation Engine
4 Telos VX phone hybrid
35 Telos VSet12 control surfaces

EYE CANDY

Two interesting features of the new cluster are the rack room and the custom furniture.

The rack room is usually tucked away in a chilled closet far out of sight and hearing. But in this case, it adorns the complex’s the main walkway. Glass enclosed from ceiling to floor, the winking status lights and matte faceplates draw “ooohs” and “ahhhhs” from employees passing and curious comments from the uninitiated visitors.

Furniture is always a substantial component of any business; not only is it a major investment by the owner, it directly affects the performance and satisfaction of employees.

David Holland, lead designer for Omnirax in Sausalito, Calif., and the custom furniture in Cumulus Chicago, spoke with me at length. He understands the value of the initial “wow” factor in getting prospective talent to agree to join the company, and as well as the deeper value of ergonomic comfort — making the furniture sufficiently comfortable to retain that talent.

“Whenever we design furniture, I know that people are sitting there and in many cases it’s where they spend their entire work life, which is more time than they spend in their home life. Our main objective is to make great radio.”

The designers, installers and outfitters of this project are all talented people at the top of their game. There is integrity and quality in every facet, and with the commitment from Cumulus Media, they have created a facility advancing the state of the art.

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