Oh, public radio devotees: you wonderful animal-loving, ukulele-playing, cat-eye-glasses-wearing, bike-riding, garage-podcast-creating NPR listeners. Whether you’re in your early twenties or your mid-sixties, whether you hail from Portland or Seattle or Syracuse, I have great news: the NPR Studios in Washington, DC, give free public tours every Thursday at 11 am.
Don’t be fooled. This tour is not a meet-and-greet with the stars of NPR (although we did run into Jean Cochran in the hallway.) The journey begins on the sixth floor of the NPR building in DC’s Penn Quarter, and works its way down, stopping in recording studios, sound libraries and oceans of artsy cubicles along the way. Be prepared for a lot of techno-wonk talk in the beginning, giving way to more engaging topics later on: a detailed breakdown of Morning Edition’s harried two-hour schedule, deliberations on the future of radio funding, and descriptions of the three components of a radio broadcast (tracks; acs, or actuals; and ambiance.)
Particularly amusing, especially for all you old-timers, will be the conservation of analog reel-to-reel tapes, which NPR is in the process of converting to digital format. If the tapes are played, their silver coating tends to shred, rendering the reel unusable. The whiz kids at NPR have discovered, though, that if they bake the tapes in an oven at 130° for eight hours, the reel will be temporarily preserved for the next forty-five days, during which time the staff can make a digital copy. We even got to see the oven.
The centerpiece of the tour is a visit to Studio 4A, oft-used by Scott Simon on Weekend Edition. Studio 4A is the one room in the building where photography is allowed. The space is very silent and very soundproof. The surface on which you stand is lifted off the room’s actual floor; the ceiling is taken out; the walls are alternately hard and soft; and no two walls are parallel, to avoid reverb. The sound quality of sample songs you hear is supreme.
The ceiling of Studio 4A.
Our tour was lucky enough to stumble upon a recording session for the next day’s broadcasts. Steve Inskeep was interviewing a reporter from the New York Times on Bernanke and Geithner, gesturing wildly with his hands while his voice remained completely calm. (Steve is young! And tall!) A sound mixer, a producer and an editor looked on in an adjoining glass-walled room. At the close of the interview, the two men waited a beat, and then chatted briefly. The short, informal dialogue, still broadcast for us to hear, brought home the purpose of the whole tour: a personal, behind-the-scenes look at a beloved medium.