NPR Ops Center Move Called ‘Smooth’
WASHINGTON — One of the first groups of staffers to
move into NPR’s new $201 million headquarters
nine blocks north of the Capitol were those of its
Distribution Division, which manages the Public Radio Satellite
NPR Distribution Director of Operations &
Engineering Dick Kohles delivers last-minute instructions to NOC
operators moments before the ContentDepot live streams carrier was
uplinked for the first time from the new PRSS NOC at 1111 North
Capitol Street NE in Washington.
Photos by Bruce Wahl, NPR
The new headquarters was designed to accommodate NPR’s
evolution from a radio broadcaster to a multimedia operation,
according to the organization. Key features include a two-story
newsroom where news, music and digital staff work together, and a
250-seat performance studio. Studios were designed with public
More than three and a half years of planning went into
the Distribution Division move. The PRSS disseminates programming to
approximately 1,600 public radio stations; its ContentDepot
distribution system streamlines how public radio producers deliver
their programming and how stations receive it.
ContentDepot uses satellite technology for its primary
delivery platform; it replaces real-time audio feeds of programs to
stations with Internet protocol streams and file transfer of
pre-recorded programs. The ContentDepot also uses the Internet to
deliver pre-recorded program files to stations that are unable to
receive programming via satellite. Its Web-based program subscription
service and enhanced automation give stations more flexibility in the
ways they receive programs from the PRSS, according to NPR.
Distribution Director of Operations & Engineering
Dick Kohles said the transition of the PRSS Network Operations Center
from 635 Massachusetts Avenue to the new location at 1111 North
Capitol Street went
smoothly. “In general, it was a very good transition.
We planned carefully and had a great many people involved.”
He said roughly 50 technical people at NPR worked 12
hours a day, including weekends for many of them, for six weeks to
ensure that stations served by the PRSS continued to receive their
satellite- and Internet-distributed programming.
The NOC is the heart of the PRSS. The new NOC includes
Axia head-ends and other computer equipment for monitoring the
system. It also features a video wall — a dashboard showing the
status of key system functions.
Another unique feature of the new NOC is the “egg
chair.” A NOC tech seated in the chair is able to monitor incoming
programming from an acoustically-isolated environment while at the
same time keep track of what’s happening on the video wall.
The rest of the PRSS equipment is on the second floor of
the former C&P warehouse portion as part of a “tech core”
located behind the NOC. The PRSS shares this room with NPR IT and
Audio Engineering. It contains the PRSS’ satellite uplinking and
downlinking gear, encoders and ContentDepot servers.
Placing much of the equipment in what NPR thinks of as a
huge data center allows the AC environment to be controlled more
economically, Kohles said.
NPR Distribution engineers built the first iteration of
the new NOC in the annex of the old Massachusetts Avenue building.
They made sure it was functional. They then tested the equipment,
disassembled it and shipped the equipment to the new location a few
blocks away in October. There, the Distribution team rebuilt and
reassembled the system, including integrating other services, finally
locating the system in its new location.
They activated the North Capitol Street satellite uplink
on Monday, April 1, beginning with the ContentDepot program file
carrier, at 12:40 p.m. Eastern, followed by the ContentDepot live
program streams carrier, at 12:59 p.m. Eastern. NPR President/CEO
Gary Knell threw the symbolic switch to transmit live broadcast
programming from the new location, beginning with the top-of-the-hour
The PRSS has one satellite uplink in Washington and a
backup in St. Paul.
The team had installed circuits between the old and new
buildings. If there were problems, the fallback plan was to continue
to originate programming from Massachusetts Avenue, and a third
option was to go to the PRSS back-up NOC at Minnesota Public Radio in
St. Paul, Minn. Neither was necessary, according to Kohles.
A NOC tech seated in the ‘egg’ chair is able to
monitor incoming programming from an acoustically-isolated
environment while at the same time keep track of what’s
happening on the video wall. Ralph Woods, NPR Distribution, is shown
in the chair.
Photo by Dick Kohles, NPR
A HUGE DATA CENTER
The new NPR headquarters totals 440, 000 square feet of
In its new location, NPR “married” a former C&P
Telephone warehouse that has a historic designation to a new,
attached seven-floor building. The PRSS satellite dishes are on the
roof of the old four-floor warehouse, Kohles said, to shield them
from interference, among other reasons.
To coincide with the move, PRSS customers, including NPR
member stations, migrated last fall from legacy IDC SR2000pro
satellite receivers (for streams) and SFX2100 receivers (for files)
to new IDC SFX 4104 Pro Audio receivers. The new receivers combine a
four-port stream decoder with a file receiver in one unit.
One good thing about the new location, Kohles said is
now all Distribution employees can be in the same location;
previously they were in NPR’s former headquarters and another
nearby building. “This way we get to work together physically”
without needing to arrange formal meetings, he said.