A “How Not To” Guide for Radio Facility Design

Whether you’re upgrading existing studios or building a new radio facility from the ground up, facility design and construction can be a daunting task. The best way to turn a project into a lengthy and costly nightmare is to ignore some of the common pitfalls. In case you haven’t experienced them firsthand, here are a few of the most reliable ways to make your next construction project a miserable experience.

Don’t plan ahead

If you can avoid setting goals for the project, you can keep everyone from the design professionals to your own staff completely in the dark. That way, they’ll have no way of knowing if the project is on track, lending an aura of mystery to your expectations for technical performance, budget, schedule and facility operations. Not only will the lack of direction be a source of constant irritation throughout the project, it will leave plenty of room for second-guessing later on.

Start with an unrealistic schedule

If you allow enough time for each step along the way, you won’t fully experience the chaos that ensues when entire systems are overlooked until construction has begun, or when the lead time for one component holds up a half-dozen other trades. Don’t forget, if you order all your equipment first, then you can get a jump on obsolescence by having it sit in a warehouse somewhere while it takes twice as long as you expected for the station to get built.

Pick a site first

Don’t bother to figure out what you’re going to build before you shop for a building or make an offer on some property for new construction. It would spoil all your fun if you knew ahead of time that the place at the end of the runway with the eight-foot ceilings doesn’t have enough restrooms to meet code. When you buy first and ask questions later, you get to spend all your time, effort and money overcoming the building’s inherent shortcomings rather than getting what you really need.

Establish your budget before you have all the facts

Here you have several options. One way is to come up with a number yourself out of thin air. You can base it on, “How can it possibly cost more than that?!?” or “I thought that’s what I heard the station across town spent on their studios.” A more entertaining approach is to pass it off to the most technically minded people on your staff, but give them 24 or 36 hours to come up with a comprehensive budget. Have them commit their half-baked guesses to writing in a report for the next board meeting, so it can continue to be a source of embarrassment throughout the project. A third alternative is to entrust budgeting to someone outside your organization who has absolutely no experience in how a radio station works. Maybe your real estate agent has a number in mind.

However you come up with a budget, the important thing is to make sure you haven’t thought of everything. Constant surprises keep a project interesting.

Assemble the wrong team

Picking design professionals and contractors who are not team players is a good way to ensure that intramural squabbling and personality conflicts will compromise the quality of your project. One type of firm that’s perfect for this is the one who takes a “cookie cutter” approach to the project – someone who knows exactly what you need before you even say a word, and won’t let your unique requirements get in the way. Another choice might be someone particularly unqualified for the task at hand, such as an architect who thinks “living room furniture” every time you say “console.”

Once you do select a team to put your project together, you can add to the confusion by poorly defining the roles that each member will play. If there’s enough ambiguity in their responsibilities, you can almost guarantee that some important aspect of the job will be overlooked.

Leave communication to chance

Verbal direction allows everyone to selectively remember what they wanted to hear in the first place. Sure, you could have consistent and clear documentation, but just think of all the paperwork that would entail. Besides, once everyone knows that a decision has been made, you lose the opportunity to cover the same ground a second or third time.

Get caught up in the details

Focus on items that have little impact on the success of the facility. For example, if you worry enough about the cost of the light fixtures, you won’t have any time left to make sure that the other 98% of the project cost makes sense. This is a great way to feel like you’re intimately involved in managing the project without really helping at all.

Don’t get caught up in the details

If you account for everything you’ll need, it will make your budget look worse. Allowing your vision to become cluttered with the realities of what it actually takes to construct a station is much harder than just letting each new issue hit you square in the face. Anyway, when you run out of money at the end of the job, the chair you’re sitting in right now and your 20-year-old copier will both look great in your new facility.

Ignore local rules and regulations

Building a radio station in this town is just like building one anywhere else, right? Letting the building inspector point out code violations a week before everything’s finished might mean making a few last-minute changes, but that won’t hold up anything except your certificate of occupancy. Accessibility requirements, permits, insurance coverage – these are just annoying little details, aren’t they?

Leave the wiring until last

There’s a lot of construction that has to be completed before you can bring in the equipment and hook it up, so don’t concern yourself with that part of the design early on. Surely you’ll be able to find some way to get cables between the studio and the equipment room once the place is nearly finished. When you do get around to it, deal with each system independently, so the installers can knock one set of holes in the walls for audio wiring, a different set for telephone/data, a different set for security, and so on.

Forget about contingency plans

Once you’ve set your budget, make sure you have no way of dealing with any cost overruns. Arrange to have your existing lease expire the same day your new place is supposed to be ready. That way, even minor setbacks can become ulcer-inducing crises.

Don’t think about equipment and architecture at the same time

These are two different areas of the design, and trying to mix them might just confuse things. If that means your equipment racks have to be 18 inches wide to fit into the opening that’s been left in the wall, well, certainly someone will have a creative solution. You’ve probably always admired your technical staff’s ability to modify something that’s already built to allow maintenance access that wasn’t considered in the design, or to provide “emergency” ventilation for some piece of gear that was starting to burn up.

Think of your station as an office (with some equipment)

After all, what’s so special about this radio stuff? If a building’s mechanical and electrical systems had enough capacity for the previous tenant (what was it again, an insurance company?) they should be good enough for you. Surely the landlord won’t object to a few satellite dishes in the front yard or an emergency generator in the parking lot, so there’s no point in bringing up those issues until construction is well underway.

Put all your eggs in one basket

Paying disproportionate attention to one aspect of the job can help you miss the forest for the trees. If you spend all your time thinking about equipment issues, for example, you are less likely to be distracted by the major shortcomings of the office layout or the complete lack of storage in the floor plan. What’s more, a myopic fascination with one problem can monopolize project meetings so that other important issues are never even discussed.

Save your best ideas until the last minute

A few “oh, by the way” changes late in the project will help keep everyone on their toes. That eleventh-hour inspiration may be just the thing to render the entire design completely unworkable.

Count on “hidden” cost savings

If you’ve got a brother-in-law who can provide some of the labor, or if you’ve got a “connection” with a supplier, assume that will trump whatever budget your contractor has given you. If you try hard, you might be able to overlook the very real possibility that your brother-in-law will take five times as long to complete the job, or that your supplier friend didn’t include installation like the other bidder did.

Expect miracles

You’ll need them. Of course, if you choose instead to carefully plan your construction project with an appropriate budget and schedule, involving a capable team of designers and contractors, you might find that miracles aren’t required. But where would be the fun in that?