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Project Spotlight: WAMU and the Future of Radio

Image © Alan Karchmer

People often forget that radio helped create the mass media saturated world in which we now live.

Before cable television streamed content 24/7 and the Internet gave us the power to maintain constant contact with friends and colleagues, it was radio frequencies that disseminated information and connected people separated by significant geographic boundaries. Today, radio is just one of many forms of mass media available, but it remains an indispensable component of everyday life (imagine driving in your car in utter silence). Yet radio is not immune to the profound disruption taking place within the media industry today. It’s a medium that’s evolving to meet the demands of 21st century consumers.

Like newspapers and television conglomerates, radio stations are adapting to the new paradigm for media agencies, one in which content is no longer moored to a single delivery platform. Forced to leverage the power of websites, social media, and online video to engage listeners and promote their brands, radio stations are hiring employees capable of disseminating work across multiple formats. They are also rethinking the physical layouts of their workspaces, so that efforts at innovation are complemented by the spaces in which radio professionals work and collaborate.

Consider WAMU, a radio station licensed to American University in Washington, D.C. WAMU recently moved into a new headquarters, a transition necessitated by a need to update the station’s aging infrastructure. The old headquarters, tucked away on a quiet side road in upper Northwest Washington, had no link to the vibrant energy of the city and no street presence. It lacked space for welcoming visitors: no reception desk and no waiting area, just an empty lobby and the type of push-button entry system typically found in residential towers. This was especially problematic for a station that interviews luminaries such as Madeleine Albright and Hillary Rodham Clinton. When these guests and others would arrive, a WAMU staffer would have to wait by the entry way and act as a de facto greeter.

Image © Alan Karchmer

The station also required studios capable of supporting not just leading-edge audio broadcasting but also professional-level video capture. Without these new capabilities, WAMU would not have the ability to create the type of additional content offerings competing stations around the world have added to their lineups.

All of these factors led American University to purchase an office building along Connecticut Avenue—one of Washington’s primary arteries. But before anyone could move into the new location, significant renovations were needed to meet the various programmatic requirements. So WAMU hired Gensler to retool the building in a way that would establish a clear-cut vision for the future of the station.

The design team used the notion of the importance of community connections as its conceptual framework. Gensler designers authored a plan to effectively broadcast the inner working of WAMU to the city. That meant converting what had been ground-level storefront retail space into the transparent heart of the WAMU news operations. The resulting form allows passersby to look through the floor-to-ceiling windows lining the ground level and view the swirl of activity in the newsroom and one of the two news studios. The team also created a formal reception area that gives the station the strong sense of arrival it needed. The new entry space also offers a relaxed seating area for WAMU’s guests and an open, daylight-filled interconnecting stair that leads to the spacious community room. The room provides enough flexibility to hold pledge drives, town hall meetings, and more. It welcomes the public inside the building and connects the station to the city it calls home.

Like all radio stations, WAMU required unparalleled acoustics. That meant replacing the noisy and outdated existing mechanical system and isolating acoustically sensitive spaces. The design teams also took care to organize the studios in stacks on successive floors to minimize the runs of fiber and category- six cables necessary for broadcasting. The five primary recording studios (two for news; one each for the station’s most high profile radio personalities, Diane Rehm and Kojo Nnamdi; and an especially large yet inviting studio for the Bluegrass Country station) give WAMU the professional-grade video environments it needs.

Yet all of these well-considered features would mean nothing if the station were to encounter the worst-case scenario: losing the broadcast signal due to a systems failure. Thus, one of the most important elements of the design is the small data center on the lower level to ensure WAMU’s 24/7 on-air operation can still run in case of a primary-systems failure.

As a public entity that is focused on education, responsible citizenry, and positive community impact, WAMU also made sustainability a key consideration for the project. And so the new headquarters features low-flow sinks and toilets which help it achieve a 40 percent reduction in water usage compared to a comparably sized building. Low-emitting materials, including paints, carpet, and other flooring, are used throughout the space. Designers also specified recycled and reclaimed materials, such as the reclaimed wood panels and floors featured in a number of areas. The wood is both a nod to the down-home charm of WAMU’s Bluegrass Country station and a counterpoint to the more modern finishes in the space.

Image © Alan Karchmer

The consideration of such details is part of a new era for WAMU, one in which it uses its space to tell its story and connect with the world. To that end, its new home now stands as a public stage that facilitates the exchange of ideas within the local community and offers thought-provoking content to the entire globe.

WAMU is one of many influential radio stations throughout the world. Its recognition that space plays an integral component in content delivery and sustained excellence shows it remains a pioneer in a continually evolving industry.

Sumita Arora is a co-leader of Gensler’s global media practice. She leverages her diverse background to deliver next-generation media projects. Her multi-disciplinary expertise in campus planning, architecture, and workplace allows her to design integrated and adaptable spaces for today’s converged media environment. Contact her at sumita_arora@gensler.com.

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