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Radio 720 WGN Moves Upstairs

Engineering staff plans relocation project in Tribune Tower

When I read that WGN Radio will move upstairs to new studios and offices in the Tribune Tower on Michigan Ave. in downtown Chicago, I wanted to know more.

The existing ground-level broadcast facility of “Radio 720 WGN” represents a high-profile presence in one of the nation’s biggest markets. Now, parent Tribune Co. has leased 14,000 of its square feet to a restaurant operator.

I reached out to Director of Engineering James Carollo. He told me the company plans to build a state-of-the-art plant for “the next page in WGN’s storied history.”

The station will move offices, news and most technical systems, including this commercial production studio, to the seventh floor of Tribune Tower. A restaurant will occupy the space.

Public face

Carollo knows whereof he speaks. He began working for WGN in 1970 at the age of 24 as a board op, remote engineer and maintenance engineer. He has many memories of engineering Bears and Cubs broadcasts and doing other notable remotes. Since being named chief engineer in 1979, he has managed a big station move, installation of five new transmitters and construction of two mobile studios and a satellite uplink.

From 1935–1961, he told me via email, WGN was located in the tower. It then moved to a new standalone AM/TV building on the northwest side of Chicago called Bradley Place, near Wrigley Field, where the TV station remains. (WGN is a station that values its history; check out its site.)

“Then in 1986, WGN Radio moved back downtown to the Tower. Very little equipment was moved to the current radio location in 1986; almost all of the equipment was purchased new.” The project included building a large “WGN Showcase Studio,” from which the public on Michigan Ave. can watch and interact with the talent. That studio was rebuilt in 2000.

Now after 25 years, WGN will move its offices, news and technical facilities up to the seventh floor of Tribune Tower, though it will keep the showcase studio on the ground level.

Master Control also will move as part of the project.

“Since WGN continues to broadcast its 24/7 local talk, news and sports programming while we build a separate new facility, most of the equipment will be new,” he continued. “Much of WGN’s equipment has been analog and dates back 25 years, so this move gives the station the opportunity to upgrade to a fully integrated digital, state-of-the-art broadcast facility.”

While some gear including mics, codecs and automation will move, WGN will install a new digital distribution system.

“In addition to the street-level WGN Showcase Studio, up on the seventh floor the station will have main and alternate air studios, two production rooms, two edit suites, other editing stations and an all-digital news, sports, traffic and agri-business center with 10 separate workstations. The control surfaces will be Wheatstone E6 units in the studios and production rooms and Wheatstone sideboard control surfaces at the news and sports workstations.”

Seamless goal

I asked what the biggest challenges in the job will be; Carollo said the primary one is to continue flawless broadcast operations while building new facilities in a transition that is seamless for listeners.

Not affected by the move: The WGN Showcase Studio on Michigan Ave., installed in 1986 and renovated in 2000.

“That’s what we did in 1986. While it will be a bit easier with today’s digital technology, the project still requires much planning and coordination. The work will be done by a combination of external contractors and WGN staff. Very few radio stations are staffed to handle a project of this magnitude without outside support, and since WGN is a standalone operation with no sister stations with which to share facilities and staff, our challenges are more unique.”

But, he said, the radio station technical staff “has a significant role in the design and installation of any new facility so that when the project is completed, the station personnel can run it.”

WGN, Carollo wrote, has an “immense locally-created content brand. WGN’s staff is ultimately responsible for operating the station on a daily basis and must have the documentation and deep knowledge to meet that responsibility.”

The station plans to complete the relocation by summer.