Merlin Media Updates on a Very Short Schedule

November 1, 2011

On July 31, 2011, a format switch was thrown in Chicago when WKQX became WWWN News 101.1. The all-news FM station took to the air after a fast 35-day countdown to convert the operation from a rock format to the news format, which included a fully staffed newsroom.

The studio for WWWN has a window looking into the shopping area of the Chicago Merchandise Mart.

The studio for WWWN has a window looking into the shopping area of the Chicago Merchandise Mart.

The format swap was the result of the station changing hands from Emmis Communications to Merlin Media. Merlin itself made headlines with the return of Randy Michaels to radio. Merlin bought three stations from Emmis, with WLUP-FM Chicago and WRXP-FM New York being the other two. Two weeks after WKQX became WNNN, WRXP became WEMP-FM News 101.9. This article focuses on the work at the Chicago station, but much of the efforts were repeated in New York as well.

Converting an existing music format station to all news isn''t a simple matter of putting a new air staff in place. The two stations needed to build complete news operations. The process began when Randy Michaels tapped Mark Olkowski to be the technical consultant for Merlin Media. Olkowski then contacted Dan Braverman at Radio Systems. Olkowski has several years of experience with news radio, having been the engineering manager at CBS New York overseeing WCBS-AM (among other stations). Radio Systems worked with Olkowski at WCBS, which also led to work at KYW-AM Philadelphia, so Radio Systems, too, had experience with news radio operations. Chicago Director of Engineering Patrick Berger also had some experience with news radio from his days of working at a Milwaukee news station.

The marching orders were simple: Get the two stations ready for an all-news format. The caveat was that the project had to be done in weeks, not months. Braverman described the integration of a format change in an existing space with continuing live operations and using legacy equipment as the perfect storm of complexity.

The Chicago stations are housed in the Chicago Merchandise Mart, which is the second largest building by area in the United States (behind the Pentagon). Its 25 floors span two city blocks and have 4.2 million square feet of space, which includes business offices, retail shopping, scores of luxury boutiques and several restaurants. The studios on the second floor were built in 2000, and WLUP moved in to the space in 2005. At that time, digital routing systems were not widely deployed, so the analog systems were kept in place. That infrastructure still works fine today, and coupled with the short time frame, a complete system replacement was not part of the plan.

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Where to begin?

The first step was deciding where to put the newsroom. Fortunately for Merlin, the office space acquired with the stations had some flexibility. A larger room was located near the studios and TOC, but it was being used by the business office and the interactive group. These departments were moved to another area of the facility that at one time housed the staff of the early version of Emmis Interactive.

One newsroom workstation in use

One newsroom workstation in use

Once cleared, the space was prepped for a newsroom. Workstation furniture was moved in so 10 news workstations could be assembled.

Meanwhile, equipment had to be ordered. But a major decision had to be made: how to handle the new audio routing and switching needs. The stations already had fully functioning air studios. The WWWN air studio was ready for live talk with nine mic positions already in place. (The studio was originally built for the Mancow Morning Show.) The on-air console, a Wheatstone A6000, was ready for the new format. But the news operation was going to need not only routing capability, but smarter logic for dynamic mix minuses and split headphone feeds. Radio Systems suggested layering an Axia Livewire system on top of the existing audio infrastructure.

A broader view of the newsroom

A broader view of the newsroom

The digital routing system allowed new flexibility for the station. Inherent to most modern routing systems, the station can create dynamic mix minuses and split headphone feeds automatically. The Livewire system also positions the stations for future upgrades as needed, including adding mixing surfaces.

Detail of a newsroom workstation

Detail of a newsroom workstation

From there, measurements were made to determine cabling needs and equipment was ordered.

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TOC already had 15 racks in place. To house the new equipment, two new Middle Atlantic racks were added to TOC, as well as one rack in the air studio. A third rack was added in TOC for the new IT equipment. This was done initially during the LMA, because Emmis is a publicly traded company and Merlin is private, so certain Sarbanes-Oxley rules had to be observed. That third IT rack now houses the station''s IT equipment.

The extra racks added for the transition

The extra racks added for the transition

As equipment arrived at the Radio Systems facility near Philadelphia, the news workstations were built and prewired with StudioHub+. Likewise, StudioHub+ panels were dropped in place at the stations. This preliminary work allowed installation to proceed quickly, which helped the accelerated time schedule. In most cases, the prewiring made the installation plug and play.

Outside efforts

To pull cables and upgrade the electrical service as needed, as well as some drywall work, Patrick Berger took advantage of his already existing relationships with the building owners and trades. Chicago is known for its strong unions, but there were never any difficulties in getting the work done. The building has several trade contractors it uses, and those groups had already worked in the radio station, so it was easy to outline the scope of the project and set them to work.

Because most of the equipment is connected with StudioHub+, it wasn''t necessary to spend time attaching multitudes of connectors. Low-voltage contractors could handle the wiring.

The Newsroom workstations are all built the same. Each rack has two Axia Router Selector nodes, a Telos Hx1 hybrid, a StudioHub+ 10-slot panel populated with modules to essentially create a small mix position with a mic input, headphone output, source selector, profanity delay control and additional I/O. An air monitor, router monitor and convenience outlets are also available. Each news workstation can be put directly on the air for newsroom actualities.

One workstation also houses two Comrex Access codecs so they are visibly accessible at all times. Another workstation has expansion space for another codec if it''s needed in the future.

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One challenge for many stations, regardless of format, is the struggle between business phones and on-air phones. For WWWN, one system does both. Radio Systems adapted a Panasonic phone system for broadcast use. This system can access PRI and POTS lines, includes an intercom function and has all the features of a traditional office phone system. With some minor modifications it has been adapted for broadcast. Four extensions are assigned to Telos hybrids on air, so any calls to the station – on air, newsroom or business office – can be routed to on-air use. Once aired, calls are put on hold so they can be picked up as needed. This eliminated needing a separate business phone and on-air phone system.

WWWN air studio

WWWN air studio

Making the switch

Only 35 days elapsed from the day the new format plans were announced until the format was switched. The last 10 days of this period were used to actually install and configure the new equipment. Once it was on the air, small tweaks were made as they became apparent. For example, additional clocks were needed in new sight lines. Strobe warning lights were moved. A second automation system monitor screen was added for the on-air cohost. Berger notes that a few items weren''t completely ready for the cutover, but the staff has been professional about the process to implement the small changes.

While layering a system on another system is not usually the ideal solution, it worked for Merlin because it provided the fast turnaround the company needed while preserving the existing infrastructure. The stations'' lease will be renewed in 2015, and the current plan is to implement a facility-wide upgrade at that time. But for now, the all-news format is up and running and on the air.

Patrick Berger (left), director of engineering for Merlin Media Chicago, and Dan Braverman, president of Radio Systems.

Patrick Berger (left), director of engineering for Merlin Media Chicago, and Dan Braverman, president of Radio Systems.

Equipment List

RCS NexGen
SAS 64000, 32000
Shure SM-7BWheatstone A6000, A7000 consoles for on-air

Axia Livewire
Comrex Access
Middle Atlantic racks
Radio Systems CT-2002, StudioHub+, integration services
RCS NewsGen
Telos Hx1

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