We’re Listening…

and Looking at the Hot New Design of Seattle’s KUOW…

From Howard Stern’s celebrity strippers to Dr. Laura’s stringent moral codes, talk radio easily runs to the outrageous. Somewhere in the middle of the ratings-grabbing gimmicks, news, information, and less inflammatory fare fill our airways everyday. But where do these disembodied voices come from? While those of us who have watched “Frasier” for the last decade have a made-for-television image, for a real glimpse into another Seattle talk radio station, look at KUOW’s new studios, designed by Russ Berger Design Group (RBDG).

The voice of the University of Washington, KUOW had been operating out of an on-campus facility that could be described as “institutional” at best. “It came complete with the green-painted concrete block walls and all,” remembers Robert Traub, AIA, design principal at RBDG. After 47 years in this space, the University decided it was time for a change.

Finding a space for the station proved a delicate balancing act between the University and the city of Seattle. With strict rules about where the school could site new facilities, a narrow search resulted in a less-than-ideal location. “The building is actually three separate structures with a shared core space,” says Richard Schrag, project manager for RBDG. “There is also a noisy video arcade and a restaurant with a loud exhaust system on the site.” To complicate matters further, the station would occupy the structure’s upper floors, which are inherently more difficult to sound-proof.

The good news is that since the University decided to sign a 30-year lease, it felt justified investing a fair amount of money into the design – once it got a push. “I said I wouldn’t take the job unless we could do it right,” recalls Dane Johnson, director of operations for KUOW, who also worked as project manager. With the budget in place, Johnson contacted RBDG, a firm with more than 1,200 recording, production, and broadcast studios to its credit.

The original program called for the University’s two stations, KUOW and eclectic music station KCMU, to relocate to the space. To accommodate both, RBDG created four on-air and production control rooms, a talk studio, three edit booths, two voice-over rooms, and a performance studio. All of the acoustic spaces were connected to a technical operation hub that contains the station’s shared audio and broadcast equipment. To support KCMU, the station invested in a compact disk storage system that holds 42,000 CDs in 35 linear feet. The library also contains 18,000 LPs and 10,000 DATs.

After solving the station’s acoustical and storage problems, the design firm made the facility a comfortable place to work. With few windows, natural light became a premium. RBDG employed skylights where they could, but for the most part the space looks inward for design inspiration. “We sandblasted the natural brick to showcase the antiquity of the building,” says Schrag. “We also exposed the overhead structure wherever we could.” A combination of incandescent and special fluorescent lights illuminates the space.

RBDG opened up the behind-the-scenes aspect of radio as well. Corridor windows reveal the broadcast studios so workers and visitors can see the product being made. “We wanted to make it evident that broadcast ‘lives’ in this facility,” says Traub.

The station traded in its off-the-shelf furnishings for a custom furniture system that incorporates custom corners, keyboard trays, and metal, glass and maple panels – and didn’t cost any more than the University standard. “I always end station tours in front of another university site that has standard fabric systems,” says Johnson. “I love pointing out that our systems cost the same.”

Three weeks before the facility was ready to open, the University dropped a bomb on the design team. KCMU, the music station, was not going to the new space. Instead, they were moving to the new Experience Music Project, Seattle’s Frank Gehry-designed interactive music museum. This left KUOW with lost of unused space and some regrets. “Had I known earlier, the design would have been better organized with better adjacencies,” laments Johnson.

However, the station got busy and courted the Seattle office of National Public Radio to join it. Together NPR and KUOW produce news, lectures, and literary series that play in other markets. They also broadcast art and cultural shows, poetry readings, live concerts, and local news.

Nevertheless, Johnson is proud of the concept he has developed. “Talk studios can be intimidating with all of their technology,” he says. “We developed a more intimate setting that hides the computer monitors, phone lines, and intercoms. This way guests can feel like they’re sitting and talking around a breakfast table.” And forget that Seattle is listening in.