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So long and farewell: WTOP says goodbye to longtime DC home

Accumulate enough good memories in one place, and the bond is hard to sever. After 30 years at 3400 Idaho Ave. NW, WTOP is moving on to a state-of-the-art newsroom and studios in Friendship Heights over the weekend. Throughout the day, familiar voices and other journalists in the WTOP newsroom will reflect on an era's end — and look ahead to the next chapter.

3400 IDAHO AVE. NW — A newsroom is unlike anything in the modern working world. There aren’t many two-hour meetings, for example, or mandatory webinars.

There aren’t many “team-building” functions either. Nor should there be: Camaraderie is inherent in a good newsroom. The result is a tenacious, efficient machine, even when the computers are down or when hell has literally broken loose during one of the biggest stories of a generation.

No, a news operation doesn’t have time for the stuff that most working adults have to endure. And that goes double for a 24/7 operation like WTOP’s, where the focus remains on the work at hand: cover the news, get it right, be honest with your audience and colleagues — and hey, someone brought Oreos!

We’ve all moved on at some point in our lives: From home. From school. From relationships. From other jobs. Moving on from a newsroom is a different beast. Something much better awaits up the road, yeah, but at the moment it doesn’t feel right to just power down and walk out for good.

Accumulate enough good memories in one place, and the bond can be hard to sever.

After nearly 30 years at 3400 Idaho Ave. NW, WTOP moved on to a state-of-the-art newsroom and studios in Chevy Chase, Maryland, Saturday night.

Throughout the weekend, familiar voices and other journalists in the WTOP newsroom reflected on the era that has now officially closed and looked ahead to the new one just a few miles away.

It didn’t feel right not to share WTOP’s final 48 hours at Idaho Avenue with our listeners and readers – you all are an integral part of what we do and why we do it.

Below, we take you behind the curtain.

Friday

The early years

Art Rose was among the very select few who were here for the very beginning in April 1990, when WTOP moved from its previous studios not far away in D.C.’s Tenleytown neighborhood.

3400 Idaho had only been around for a year or so, with a striking marble lobby and a large staircase to the second floor. (Renovations later whittled down the size of that area; such is the reality of growth.)

Back then, “state-of-the-art” meant a newsroom computer system with a 160-megabyte hard drive, he said. The rest of the tools were, of course, analog.

WTOP has shared this space through the years with other radio stations and even a travel agency. Attempt to nail down Rose on the specifics of these changes, and WTOP’s assistant chief engineer is candid.

“So many changes, it’s hard to keep track of them all, quite honestly,” Rose said.

Bruce and Joan

It’s a minute or two past 10 a.m. and WTOP morning co-anchor Bruce Alan has stepped out of the original Glass-Enclosed Nerve Center™ for the final time. Bruce has been here for nearly all of WTOP’s time here: 28 years, and he’s worked just about every shift there is to work behind the mic.

Bruce was here when the newsroom was renovated about 10 years ago. Back then, it was state-of-the-art. Now? Not so much. He beamed when asked about what’s to come.

“At this point I’m just ready for the new one,” he said. “… Brand-spanking-new control board, so many monitors in the studio with so much information at our fingertips. And the comfort level of everything is up also. And so much space!”

His partner behind the mic, Joan Jones, is more excited about the in-studio coffee machine. Please allow her to explain.

'That's what you're excited about?'

WTOP's Bruce Alan and Joan Jones

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Jason Fraley and the pre-Super Bowl Friday Live Shot

It’s the Friday before the Super Bowl, which means A Very Special Potluck on the Football Table. Say what you will about journalists’ salaries, but any attempt to replicate a newsroom’s food spread is a fool’s errand.

Chili, wings, chips, cookies, dips, etc. are all laid out and free for the taking — except for the few minutes when WTOP Entertainment Editor Jason Fraley is doing his Friday “liveshot” with NBC Washington’s midday news show. The area between the table and the Channel 4 camera is roped off.

It’s a study in focus. Under the lights, he stands at ground zero of a newsroom’s daily bustle (right next to all that food), yet he effortlessly banters with the anchors and praises the new film “Cold War.” He won’t be so lucky next week. The new place has a special area where he will do this stuff without all the delicious distraction.

Fraley has been here for 10 years now, and this is the only workplace he’s known.

“It’s going to be weird not coming in this building anymore,” he said. “… To not come in through these walls anymore is going to be kind of sad.”

WTOP reporter Kristi King, sitting nearby, reminded him about that one time when he worked the Thanksgiving Day spread into a liveshot.

'Big honking bite'

WTOP's Jason Fraley and Kristi King

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‘Now you’re going to make me cry’

King walked in here in November 1990. She was 24. “I walked to that office right there,” she said, pointing toward news and programming director Mike McMearty’s nearly empty office, “and sat down with [former news director] Holland Cooke, and I was his last administrative decision when he hired me.”

Ask her about moving on, and the feelings well up.

“When I walked in today, I realized that this is the end. It was just kind of weird. And now you’re going to make me cry, ‘cause all these memories are flooding back.”

A moment passes, she composes herself and gets back to work in the assistant-editor chair. It’s a chair she began sitting in after four months of driving 330 miles daily as a traffic reporter. Operation Desert Storm had broken out, and they needed more help in the newsroom.

On days like today, when the staff is stretched a bit with moving and preparations up the road, she’s happy to fill in in a familiar role. She’s feeling pretty nostalgic, after all.

“How things have changed!” she remarked.

‘On-air and online’

During the time WTOP has been at 3400 Idaho, it has evolved from a radio newsroom into what the smart folks call a “cross-platform” newsroom. Loosely translated, it means presenting the day’s events on both the radio and the web.

Colleen Kelleher is a good example of this evolution. She started “on the radio side,” so to speak, back in March 1996. Her first six years were spent on the editor’s desk, doing the essential work of putting together audio, monitoring police scanners and everything else involved with getting the news on-air.

“I sat here during the Clinton impeachment cutting tape for [Capitol Hill correspondent] Dave McConnell, who was on Capitol Hill, and feeding it back to him. That’s history in the making,” Kelleher said. “There’s so much history that has happened that we’ve lived through in this newsroom.”

In 2001, she began transitioning into a role in WTOP’s digital operation, where she remains today, orchestrating the morning’s coverage hours before the rest of us are even awake.

Word of advice: When Colleen tells you to jump, you ask “How high?”

There are things she’d like to forget, like the college fridge that the entire newsroom had to use before the blessed renovations that brought WTOP a kitchen. “It was the stinkiest thing,” she said.

And then there are the things she can’t forget, like the people who have moved on to other things. Newsroom camaraderie, remember, is a heck of a thing. Even though Colleen is just saying goodbye to a building, she can’t help but reflect on all the people who made this address so special.

“When you’ve worked in the same spot for decades and you’ve moved up in the organization, it is very emotional,” she said.

‘It’s always been about the people’

Midday editor Mike Jakaitis has just handed off the reins to afternoon-drive editor Lisa Weiner. It’s just past 2 p.m. He’s usually starting the weekend about this time. Instead, he’s visiting with newsroom administrator Molly Welton and lingering to take one final picture of the old digs.

Known around here as “Jake,” Jakaitis came to WTOP in 1997. Names fill his initial reflection of the time here, colleagues who had once worked together way back when, then worked apart on different shifts, then were all back together for the final Friday.

“For the last few years, Kristi was working afternoons, I was working early mornings, Shawn [Anderson] was doing the afternoons. So we were all apart. But now for the last day, we were kind of working together in the same spot.”

It’s a theme that kept popping up throughout this final Friday at 3400 Idaho. In the words of news and programming director and 26-year newsroom veteran Mike McMearty, “It’s always been the people.”

The real connections made during WTOP’s time here at 3400 Idaho were with our colleagues, our teammates. They weren’t made with concrete, steel, carpet or rickety office chairs.

“People come and go. Managers come and go. Owners have come and gone. But a lot of us have just been around so long. It just feels like family,” said McMearty.

And that family keeps growing, so we’ll need all the added room in the new space. As Joel Oxley put it, the two things that have changed since he joined WTOP in 1992 are “technology and people — exponentially more of both.”

“We have transformed ourselves into a leading digital news operation, serving the region with WTOP and serving federal government decision-makers with Federal News Network. Our new offices will allow us to continue to grow to be the news leader for the Washington, D.C., region.”

And trust us, we’re going to have plenty of time for all that.

We’ve just got to finish packing first.

Saturday

4 p.m. (approximately 6 hours away from The Switchover)

For this reporter, the final day at 3400 Idaho is under way.

It is one of those weekends when news is breaking.

The weekend crew has had their hands full with the news that broke late Friday afternoon — a racist photo found on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook page. Northam has just wrapped up his first news conference.

4:15 p.m. (Less than 6 hours away from The Switchover)

Dave Dildine has his arms full of boxes and he’s walking out of the soon-to-be-former traffic center for the last time. The traffic torch has been passed off to Rob Stallworth and Steve Dresner. He takes one last look inside.

What is the traffic center like? Imagine a single-occupancy dorm room, filled with screaming police scanners, large monitors and, last but not least, a few co-workers.

It’s certified cacophony.

Even if the traffic team has bailed you out more than once, you can’t truly appreciate their work until you experience this barrage of information they comb through and summarize every 10 minutes.

Dildine had been working in that space since it was first built about four years ago (after working a couple of years in a corner of the newsroom). How does it feel to say goodbye to that crammed room filled with squawks and voices?

“It’s … you know, it’s strange,” he said. “It’s a strange feeling to be walking out of the old traffic center for the last time.”

He wants a little time to reflect and collect his thoughts. Fair enough. We agree to circle back in a few.

Minutes pass, and he’s ready. We step into McMearty’s empty office.

It’s a quintessential moment for the newsroom legend. In mere minutes, he has crafted something that would take some people a day-plus to write. Listen and judge for yourself.

Well said, Dave. See you at the new digs.

6 p.m. (less than 4 hours away from The Switchover)

Dick Uliano is keeping tabs on the Northam story, which keeps developing amid the distractions of the move.

“I think that this job, under the best of circumstances, requires a great deal of focus, because you’re always committed to trying to get all your facts straight,” he said.

Even for a veteran like Uliano, balancing a major story with major distractions is challenging. Some of his stuff is already at the new place, and he’s already thinking ahead to what he’ll need when he shows up tomorrow at 5425 Wisconsin Ave.

But he takes it all in stride.

“You know, in this business sometimes, it’s like you know whatever can go wrong goes wrong, so you sort of almost expect it,” he said.

And he’s ready for what’s inevitable on the other side.

“Everybody’s expecting bugs at the new place that we’re going to have to work out,” Uliano said, “and it’s going to be the next hurdle to jump — because there will be other stories.

“Maybe they won’t be as big as this Virginia governor story. But you know, we take each one as they come, and you got to get a hit on each one. They’re not all home runs, but you got to hit the ball.”

7 p.m. (less than 3 hours away from The Switchover)

Digital News Director Julia Ziegler is now on hand for The Switchover. She’ll be responsible for making sure everything goes smoothly from what we’re now referring to as “the old building.” For now, that’s supposed to happen at 10 p.m., but that is subject to change.

Here’s how it should work:

All of WTOP’s various transmitters around the region are currently programmed to pull in the signal from 3400 Idaho.

In the new studio, they will begin pulling in a feed from 3400 Idaho around 8 or 9 p.m. Shortly thereafter, the transmitters will then be rerouted to 5425 Wisconsin for the first time.

“Before we’re actually broadcasting live from the new building, we will in essence be broadcasting live from the new building — just [no anchors] will be up there. It will all be coming from this building.”

Then when everyone’s ready, the mics there will go live, and the mics here will go silent.

“The listener should have no idea that we’re moving,” Ziegler said. “It’s pretty cool, and it’s pretty massive, everything that’s going on behind the scenes but … the listener should have no idea.”

It will culminate months of preparation.

“We’ve been planning this physical move for months in terms of staffing and who’s where and who needs to come in early, who needs to stay late. We need two broadcast teams in essence: one at the new building, one at the current building.

“And oh by the way, news hasn’t stopped all day.”

8:15 p.m. (less than 2 hours away from The Switchover)

Sarah Jacobs will be the last anchor to broadcast from The Original Glass-Enclosed Nerve Center™.

“My husband tells me I’m going to be radio trivia,” she said, laughing over the Thai food that just got delivered.

She does recognize, though, that being The Anchor Who Signed Off From 3A — after WTOP’s nearly three decades of broadcasting news — is a really big deal. And she’s been mindful of each final moment at this address, whether it’s taking in the smell of the elevator or taking in the sights of a partially abandoned newsroom.

“This place is legendary,” she said. “… Even I’m sentimental about this place, and I’ve only been here a year.”

8:30 p.m.

It’s go time. The radio move is starting to pick up steam.

The news crew at 3400 Idaho Ave. has been told to make backups of all news stories and reports currently on the air. They’ll need to close down “Burli,” a program essential to everything heard on the air, and use a backup feed while all of WTOP’s data is being transferred to the new building.

How long will we be out of commission at 3400 Idaho, Ziegler asks. She’s on a conference call with the IT team who is working out of the new building.

About 20 minutes.

Once the team is set, the transfer begins.

9:00 p.m.

Anchor Kyle Cooper leaves the GENC (our acronym and term of endearment for the Glass-Enclosed Nerve Center) for the final time. He’s headed up the street to the new building where he’ll be the first anchor to crack the microphone at 10 p.m. if everything goes according to plan.

He passes anchor Sarah Jacobs on his way out. She’ll be anchoring from 3400 Idaho Ave until the transition is complete.

Radio Editor Sae Robinson makes sure “Coop” has everything he needs. They’ve talked over their backup plan in case the data transfer gets delayed, and he’s on his way.

Robinson is also in touch with Radio Editor Ana Srikanth who has now checked in from the new building. She’ll be assisting Cooper once he arrives.

9:34 p.m. (26 minutes away from The Switchover)

Ziegler gets word while she’s on her conference call…

The 3400 Idaho Ave radio feed is now officially being broadcast from 5425 Wisconsin! This is a huge first step in the radio transition process. The buzz and energy in the newsroom grows.

Are we still on track for a 10 p.m. launch, she asks.

At this point, yes.

9:47 p.m.

Strike that. Ziegler now has two phones up to her ears. She’s getting word there is a last-minute issue the engineers need to fix at the new building before they can go live.

Jacobs is told to be on standby. She may need to anchor from 3400 Idaho for another hour.

9:55 p.m. (5 minutes out from launch)

Fixed.

Srikanth tells the team at 3400 Idaho Ave the launch is a go for 10 p.m.

9:58 p.m.

Jacobs throws to the final traffic and weather report ever to air from 3400 Idaho Ave. Everyone gathers in the newsroom for the historic moment. As the weather report ends, Jacobs gives a temperature check. That’s Cooper’s signal. It’s his turn to usher WTOP into its next era.

The team at 3400 Idaho waits…did it work? Are we on the air from the new building?

Silence…

“They’re clapping over there,” Robinson says (she’s still on the phone with Srikanth).

Ziegler rushes to the air monitor and turns it up.

“Woooo hoooo! We did it!” she yells as the monitor confirms the news.

All hail The New Glass-Enclosed Nerve Center™. WTOP is broadcasting live from 5425 Wisconsin Ave. On-air, online … and on time.

11 p.m.

The TVs are still on at 3400 Idaho Ave., lending the appearance of a still-functioning newsroom.

The clearing out of leftover food, papers and what not is underway. The lights go out soon. In the days ahead, the auction folks will come through to deal with their items, then the demo begins for whoever moves in next.

Digital editor Jennifer Ortiz asks if anyone wants the remnants of the pizza that’s still on the football table.

It’s been here since morning, so … hard pass there.

With a bittersweet smile, she exits. Traffic has left for the night, too, as has sports. Radio editor Sae Robinson, Digital News Director Julia Ziegler, Anchor Sarah Jacobs, engineering specialist Albert Shimabukuro and yours truly remain.

Ziegler is thrilled that the switchover occurred with minimal issues. Moving all the data for the newsroom’s software system happened without a hitch. There were some issues with the audio going through the board up there, she said, yet “they got it fixed within the course of the hour.”

“Everything worked. Everything came together. All of the hundreds of people who worked on this project for the past year made it happen,” Ziegler said. “It’s emotional, and I can’t believe that we’re never going to broadcast from 3400 Idaho Avenue again. But what awaits us at 5425 is incredible. It’s the future.”

11:08 p.m.

A bittersweet fact of life: You can’t bear-hug a place. You can only soak in the ambiance, the memories, the smells for those last few moments that are left.

What you can hug are the who’s — the people who helped you make the place so special.

Pardon the wordplay, but the who’s are what have made WTOP what it is through the years. And all of us are eager to turn the page to the next chapter. Together.

Let’s go make some new memories.

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