CHICAGO — For most of its nine decades of
broadcasting, Chicago’s WGN Radio has been closely associated with one address:
the famed Tribune Tower that anchors the southern end of Michigan Avenue’s
Jim Carollo and former GM Tom Langmyer in the newly
completed rack room.
While the station moved away in 1961 to a new
joint radio-TV facility a few miles away near Wrigley Field, the radio side of
WGN returned to Tribune Tower in 1986, occupying a spacious suite of offices
and studios on the south side of the building’s ground floor that included a
prominent “showcase studio” fronting on Michigan Avenue.
As those studios hit the quarter-century mark,
WGN radio management began thinking about a move, even drawing up plans for a
return to WGN’s TV building.
But the push for a move went into high gear in
late 2011, when parent company Tribune Co. decided to lease WGN’s prime
ground-floor space facing Pioneer Court to a restaurant — and it needed the
That meant a busy year for WGN’s chief engineer,
Jim Carollo, a veteran of 42 years. He’d been settling into a peaceful
semi-retirement when the general manager at the time, Tom Langmyer, called him
back to full-time duty to relocate WGN from the very studios Carollo had
designed and built back in 1986, a facility Langmyer recalls as “the envy of
all American radio” when it opened.
“I said, ‘Hey, you know what, wouldn’t it be great to
have your legacy be this new thing instead of just the end of the old one,’”
Langmyer recalls of the phone call when he summoned the 67-year-old Carollo.
“I think my sales skills worked.”
Carollo continued to work a part-time schedule
in November and December of 2011 as he sketched out initial plans for the move.
At the end of 2011, Tribune management signed off on the relocation, giving
Carollo and his team just six months to clear out of their ground-floor digs.
“The nice thing about working for WGN is that you get
to do the project the way you think it should be done, which you don’t get to
do everywhere,” Carollo says. He prepared a budget for the move, which Tribune
accepted without change, and the whirlwind project was underway.
“I had a lot
to do in a short time,” Carollo recalls. “By the time we got to April, it
became pretty much a full-time thing. I was working from six in the morning
until six at night, but we got it done.”
Much of WGN’s new space on the seventh floor had been
occupied by offices for the McCormick Foundation, the charitable legacy of the
long-time Tribune publisher, Col. Robert McCormick. The foundation moved out
after McCormick’s heirs sold the company, freeing the space for the radio
station, which shares the seventh floor with CNN’s Chicago bureau offices and
the Campbell Hall meeting room, which was, fittingly, one of the original TV
Divided into three “pods,” WGN’s new home spans
both the original Tribune Tower and an addition that was built in the 1950s for
TV. An area on the north side of the TV addition now provides office space for
WGN Radio’s top management and its programming staff, as well as three
production studios. Down a corridor on the east side of the building, WGN’s new
sales and conference area enjoys a scenic view out to Lake Michigan a few
Most of WGN’s broadcast operations are housed in
the third part of the facility, in the original Tribune Tower building facing
westward out to the bustle of Michigan Ave.
Langmyer says the windows on the seventh floor make a
big difference to a staff that had been deep inside the ground floor studios.
Studio B at the new WGN.
“The studios and guts of the station were all
inside the building, so you could be doing all these shows and people would
have no visibility inside,” he recalls.
The new studio area includes a pair of air studios
arrayed along a corridor across from a new rack room and a traffic studio. On
the other side of the studio core, WGN’s new newsroom also enjoys the Michigan
Ave. view as well as sightlines into a sports office/studio and an
office/studio area for WGN’s iconic agricultural director, Orion Samuelson.
system is mainly Wheatstone,” Carollo said, in part because that’s what is in
place on the TV side. “Rather than reinvent the wheel, we wanted to be
compatible with what they know there.”
For a station that’s heavily dependent on telephone
talk, the choice of a phone system was a critical decision. “We had to replace
the custom phone system we built in 1995. It came from Gentner, which of course
is no longer in business. It was a purely analog system, which in today’s world
no longer flies.”
In its place,
WGN picked the Telos VX system. “It’s expandable, it’s digital and for the
future it’s going to be what we need.”
Amidst the new consoles and phone system, Carollo
decided to move one piece of the old facility essentially unchanged, sticking
with the existing version of BE AudioVault that was running in the downstairs
“We felt it would be too much of a shock to the
engineering department and to the station to put in a new automation system,
even just to move up to the current version of AudioVault,” Carollo says. “We
had enough redundancy in the system, with multiple servers in multiple rooms,
that we could move the backup server to the seventh floor while we stayed in
operation from the main server downstairs.”
When you’re moving a big-market station, the
quirks of the air talent come into play, too, which is why a pile of older MiniDisc
recorders made the trip upstairs.
“Some of the talent still like to use MiniDiscs,”
Carollo says, “but everywhere there’s MiniDisc, there’s also a new flash drive
recorder, so we’re getting them moved over.”
The different needs of different talent are
reflected in the new studios’ layouts as well. The large “Studio A” at the end
of the corridor is designed for combo operation and the large cast of WGN’s
Garry Meier morning show.
“About 85–90 percent of our programs run combo,”
Carollo says, “but for other shows, especially ‘Extension 720’ [WGN’s evening
talk show], we need a separate operator, so we had to have a studio that was
designed to do that.” WGN also holds the play-by-play rights for Cubs baseball,
Blackhawks hockey and Northwestern University sports, which all require board
operators but not necessarily studio hosts.
“So that second studio, Studio B, we divided into a
dual-function studio so it can be a combo studio or an operator studio.”
When there are multiple sports teams playing at
once, the production studios on the administration side of the building can
also be brought into play, providing still more options to meet WGN’s
Adding the rebuilt Showcase Studio to the mix —
it’s in use most days from 9 a.m. until 11 p.m. unless WGN is running sports —
gives Carollo and his engineering team plenty of flexibility for maintenance
and emergency repairs.
Because the new studio layout did not allow for
sightlines between the newsroom and the air studios, or between the traffic
studio and the air studios, Carollo turned to high-definition video to link the
rooms and provide continuity on the air.
“On the first floor, we had simple security-type
cameras in every room so you could see the host, and just a 20-by-20 video
router,” Carollo says. But the team wanted something more elaborate for
webcasts and simulcast with the TV operation, so it put in HD cameras on the
LAN. His colleagues on the TV side helped design that.
The new video system puts a split screen on the
24-inch monitors in each studio, allowing hosts and producers to easily see
who’s ready to go on the air, including the TV weather forecasters who deliver
their reports from the TV studios several miles away.
As the clock ticked down to the July 1 deadline to be
out of the ground-floor space on the south side of Tribune Tower, Carollo was
working right up to the deadline to get everything ready upstairs.
“I turned it on June 30 at 10 p.m., two hours
before that day ended,” Carollo says. “I made July 1 by two hours.”
Once the new studios went on the air on the seventh
floor, Carollo had to move very quickly to salvage anything that was still
needed from the old studios. Some peripheral equipment, including CD players
and those MiniDisc recorders, was moved upstairs to the new studios. The
contents of WGN’s large main talk studio, where icons such as Bob Collins had
worked, was preserved intact as a donation to the nearby Museum of Broadcast
Communications, where it will eventually be reassembled for display.
“We had about five days to move what we really
needed into a part of the ground floor that wasn’t being demolished,” Carollo
recalls. “The strangest thing was to walk into the space that had been a radio
station just a week ago, and there was almost no trace that it had ever been a
Once the initial rush of the move was over, Carollo
still had to oversee the reconstruction of the Showcase Studio, the last piece
of the facility to be updated.
“It took about two months to fine-tune
everything,” Carollo says. On August 24, he celebrated his last day as a
full-time WGN employee, but he still spends a day a week at Tribune Tower to
make sure everything’s functioning smoothly.
Langmyer says the result reflects the importance
Tribune places on its lone remaining radio property. Without disclosing
specific numbers, Langmyer says WGN spent “north of a million dollars for the
studios alone,” in addition to the cost of the office relocation.
“I think this investment really speaks to the
viability of WGN Radio,” he says. “We’re very bullish about the future of