A New Michigan Radio

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A New Michigan Radio

Jan 1, 2005 12:00 PM, By Bob Skon and Todd Mundt

In 1944, the University of Michigan applied for a license for a station of its own. In a statement to faculty, the broadcasting staff defended the university's broadcasting service as an extension of its mission: �Radio should be employed in the building of a more intelligent and informed public.�

Studio West looking into Control West. Michigan Radio has a similar Control East/Studio East setup. West and East are used for producing local shows and live call-ins.

Control West: A typical setup for all four control rooms. The back panel under the Logitek ROC 10 is removable to access cabling and the punch block.

Cable conduits under the floating floor terminate at the hallway. Cabling runs under raised, removable hallway panels on the way to the machine room.

A view into the machine room. The glass panels were chosen for easy viewing as well as for "wowing" visitors.

Soon after WUOM began broadcasting in 1948, new studios opened on the fifth floor of a brand new campus building. The university spared little expense to build a complex of four large studios and five control rooms, to handle the load of programs produced for WUOM and others offered in syndication. Michigan engineers had visited NBC Radio in New York and WGR in Schenectady, NY. The studio complex allowed for maximum flexibility and large-scale productions.

The 1950s and 60s were heady days for broadcasting at Michigan. The university became a nationally recognized center for educational broadcasting. The ancestors of PBS and NPR, the National Educational Television Association and National Educational Radio were headquartered in Ann Arbor, MI, for many years.

WUOM, now Michigan Radio, went through a revitalization in 1996, launching an NPR news/talk format that has led to a near quadrupling in audience since then.

The growth had its consequences. By the mid-to-late 1990s, the studios built to produce plays and concert recitals had outlived their usefulness. One of the large performance studios had been converted to an office space. Another studio housed the station's priceless jazz record collection. The endless reconfigurations to accommodate new technologies had taken their toll on the physical plant and it was time to find a new home for Michigan Radio.

Remembering its roots

The organization, aware of its history as one of the nation's oldest FM broadcasters � and one of the founding stations of modern public broadcasting � chose a historic site for its new station. Michigan Radio is now located in the Argus building in Ann Arbor, named for the famous cameras once manufactured there. The building is more than a century old, and it's located next door to the university's television facility, where national educational radio and television were nurtured.

This historic station begins its second half-century of broadcasting in a new, old facility, with a state of the art production center tailor-made for the digital age.

To design its new studios, Michigan Radio turned to Russ Berger Design Group (RBDG). RBDG used the brick interior walls and exposed wood beam ceiling of the historic Argus Building as a pallet for the office areas of Michigan Radio. The result would be not only a warm and friendly space for the employees, but an eye-catching showcase for visitors.

The technical spaces were designed within a newer addition to the Argus building. Originally built as a warehouse for the camera company, this extension to the older brick structure was ideal for the studios because of the high ceilings, which could accommodate the raised floors and overhead mechanicals.

Four control rooms, two talk studios and three edit rooms were built as isolated units. Wiring conduits were installed under the floor of each room and spilled into the raised hallway floor where cabling could run to the machine room. The mechanicals were installed above each room. The HVAC system chosen for this project was Mitsubishi's City Multi R2 unit. Because of its design, the City Multi provides each room with independent heating and cooling. This system was one of the first installed in the United States.

The interior of each room was designed with cork tile floors and acoustic panels of various shades on the walls. To furnish these rooms, Designcraft of Grand Rapids, MI, was chosen to customize desks that would complement RBDG's choice of interior materials.

With construction of the new studios under way, a plan for the transition between buildings needed to be devised. The simplest way would be to purchase and install all new equipment so that the staff could simply turn on a light switch at the new facility and get to work. Budget considerations made this option impossible and impractical because Michigan Radio had upgraded most of its studio equipment in recent years, including two Logitek Audio Engines with four ROC 10 control surfaces. The staff determined that the best way to transition would be to prewire the new studios and move in phases.

Logistics planning

Because Michigan Radio was equipped with four control rooms, two rooms could be disassembled and reinstalled at the new location while the staff continued to work at the old building, though not without some inconvenience. This would require moving one of the Audio Engines with two control surfaces while the other remained in service. A new configuration for the Audio Engines was programmed ahead of time so that each engine would have an identical configuration. Once the relocation was complete, each Audio Engine would control two control rooms and one talk studio. Because the configurations were identical, cards could be easily swapped between engines for easy troubleshooting.

Before any equipment could be moved, STL shots needed to be established and the NPR satellite downlink needed to be moved to the new studios without interrupting service at the old location.

The location of the Argus Building itself introduced our first obstacle. Situated in a historic district in one of the lowest spots in Ann Arbor, there is no line-of-site path to the transmitter for an RF STL. In addition, the Historical Society was not keen on construction of a tower on the building. We abandoned the old microwave link and installed a Harris Intraplex STL HD system. This has also provided us with uncompressed 44.1kHz-sampled audio to the transmitter sites, which would be useful for future IBOC installations.

The solution to the NPR downlink, which provides 90 percent of Michigan Radio's daily content, came as a result of the timing of the move. While Michigan Radio was in the planning stages of the move, NPR announced its Earth Terminal Refurbishment Project. NPR provided a new satellite dish and L-band interconnection as a replacement for the old dish. Having it installed at the new facility and borrowing a satellite demodulator from NPR made it possible to receive NPR programming at both locations.

With all the pieces falling into place, the task of prewiring began. Bob Skon, WUOM chief engineer, decided that the entire studio complex would be wired with Belden Media Twist, with the exception of the runs from the mics to their preamps, where Canare L-4E6S was used. Skon had previously used Media Twist with great success for the digital equipment at the old studios, and had run a few tests with it on balanced analog equipment. The tightly twisted pairs proved to work well even though the wire was unshielded. The real trick was to make sure that all the equipment was truly balanced. When the first phase of the move was complete, an all-faders-up test resulted in nothing but clean audio.

The second phase of the move was planned for a Friday evening at 10 p.m. The Enco automation would run from a local workstation in the new on-air control room, and the switch to the new STL would take place at the transmitter sites. This would give the engineers 10 hours to tear down, move and reinstall the satellite demodulator rack, audio and business servers, and AP News downlink in time for an 8 a.m. newscast. The remainder of the weekend would be used to move the newsroom so the news staff could begin work at the new studios on Monday morning.

The night of Aug. 15, 2003, was chosen to begin phase two. Unfortunately, on Aug. 14 the entire northeast United States was hit by a blackout, sending Michigan Radio engineers into emergency mode. Once the lights returned and the clean-up was complete, the exhausted staff decided to postpone phase two until the following Friday.

On the evening of Aug. 22, Michigan Radio officially began broadcasting at its new studios in the Argus Building. On the following Monday morning, news personnel reported to their new desks while the rest of the Michigan Radio staff finished boxing up their work areas for the moving van.

Within a few weeks, the last remaining items were removed from the old studios and phase three was complete, closing another chapter and beginning a new one in the rich broadcast history at the University of Michigan and Michigan Radio.

Equipment List

360 Systems AM16/B
Apple Xserve RAIDs
Avocent Longview
Belden Media Twist Cable
Benchmark HPA2
Black Box 110ohm punch blocks
Broadcast Tools 8.1 DAS
Comrex Vector and Matrix
Dell Monitors
Denon DN-M1050R minidisks
Designcraft furniture
Enco Dadpro32
ESE clocks
Focusrite Octopres
Furman PL8
Gentner TS 612
Harris Intraplex STL Plus
Henry Engineering Super Relays
HP Prolient DL360 servers
Logitek Audio Engines Logitek ROC10
Mackie 1402-VLZ
Mackie HR824
Marantz PMD 520
Marantz PMD321
Middle Atlantic racks, shelves, power strips
Mitsubishi City Multi HVAC
Neutrik audio connectors
OC White mic booms
Panasonic SV-3800
Shure SM7B Sony MDR-7506
Sound Anchors speaker stands
Spacedec Monitor Arms
Symetrix 304
Telos One hybrids
Telos Zephyrs
TFT EAS 911, 930A, 941A
Titus on air lights
Yamaha MSP5

Skon is the chief engineer of Michigan Radio (WUOM, WFUM-FM, WVGR). Mundt is the chief content officer of Michigan Public Media and local host of Morning Edition for Michigan Radio.