Austin PBS goes beyond the airwaves.
Project Austin Media Center
Clients Austin PBS, KLRU-TV, and Austin Community College
Architects Studio Steinbomer Architecture & Interiors (interior fitout) and Gensler (shell)
Design Team Amy Bramwell AIA, Jed Duhon, AIA, Abby Hirons, AIA, Ben Johnson, Mai Gutierrez
Contractor Rogers-O’Brien Construction
Structural Engineer Tsen Engineering
MEP Engineer Bay & Associates
Acoustical Design Steven Durr Designs
Data & Security Consultant DataCom Design Group
Theater & Stage Consultant Schuler Shook
Environmental Graphics Asterisk Design
Interior Design Consulting Britt Design Group
Photographers Andrea Calo, Matthew Batista
When I was growing up as an only child in suburban Oklahoma, our PBS affiliate was a fixture in our home. My parents and I would kick on the TV and tune into Rick Steves, Lawrence Welk, and Oklahoma Gardening with staid devotion. Before smartphones and household internet, PBS helped me access the world beyond my cul de sac. And PBS gave me the first taste of my future home late on Saturday nights, a little bit after bedtime, when “Austin City Limits” aired — a cultural transmission from south of the Red River.
The first time I saw the “Austin City Limits” backdrop in person, it was the middle of the pandemic, and I was visiting my friend who worked at an art storage facility in South Austin. All 20 panels had been packed up and were hiding out in storage while the rest of town was lying low. Stacked up amongst the crates and shelves of priceless art objects were massive plywood panels painted grey, dotted with old-school incandescent bulbs. I was shocked at how ordinary they seemed. Until then, I had only seen them on my screen, where they were endowed with the magic of TV production and the high-powered wattage of the country and rock stars in front of them.
I had imagined them as larger than life. But the panels were originally created on what was likely a shoestring budget by designer Augie Kymmel. The Austin-American Statesman’s music critic Peter Blackstock notes that they were fashioned out of “wood, wire, and Christmas lights.” The panels were in storage until they could be auctioned off to support Austin PBS’s construction of a new dedicated space for the station. It turned out that Austin PBS studio executives and staff had been conjuring some of their own magic. Although “Austin City Limits” had moved into its downtown location in the Moody Center in 2010, the rest of the Austin PBS studio was chafing at the constraints of its home of 60 years on the UT Austin campus.
Sharing an academic building with UT’s communications school, the TV station had evolved beyond the limitations of its physical space. It lacked parking, collaborative spaces for staffers, and a cohesive spatial program for the needs of 21st-century television production. For example, they had studio spaces but no restrooms for guests or greenrooms for talent on the same floors. Perhaps most symbolic of their warehousing on UT’s campus, there was no signage for Austin PBS on their building, and they had nowhere to host public programming.
Wanting to grow their footprint, they searched for a site that would let them build out a new home for their program, both improving their technical capabilities and allowing them to become a physical hub for the community in Austin. They found it in 2017 in a long-term lease for a yet-to-be-completed building in Austin Community College’s new Highland Campus. In collaboration with Studio Steinbomer Architecture & Interiors, who led the design of the interior fitout, they set about transforming the ground floor of what had been a Dillard’s into the Austin Media Center. (Gensler was responsible for the redesign of the building’s shell.)
The design team worked to retrofit approximately 51,000 sf of empty, steel-framed space in that building, which would also house ACC administrative offices. They also added 19,000 sf, coming up with a comprehensive design that includes three state-of-the-art studios, production and audio control rooms, and a scene shop.
With a background in spaces that support audiovisual production, including Austin Studios and Troublemaker Studios, Studio Steinbomer managed the highly technical process of designing all three studios. The largest, the Pfluger Keller Community Soundstage (formerly known as Studio 6A), is 6,600 sf and equipped to meet the intense requirements of high-quality live broadcasts while also giving production staffers flexibility and ease.
The studio has a cavernous feel since it’s built on top of the largest floating acoustical slab in Texas, and it has an additional set of walls to help with soundproofing. The rigs that hold production lighting can be controlled by a remote, so staffers don’t have to climb up to conduct maintenance or make adjustments. With highly customized features, including a retractable movie-size film screen and retractable platformed audience seating, the large room can easily be converted to host public events — from film screenings to a gala with table seating.
In addition, the Austin Media Center has two more studio spaces. One is the home of ACC Television (ACCTV), the community college’s public media outlet. The other is Studio C, reserved for Austin PBS shows that aren’t filmed in front of a studio audience. The designers took advantage of the site’s partially subgrade space: Broadcast control and editing rooms, which need to be dark, are concentrated in the submerged portion of the site, whereas Austin PBS administrative offices and collaborative spaces are organized around exterior windows. Studio Steinbomer also equipped the Austin Media Center with circadian rhythm lighting throughout the complex, so even areas that receive no natural light mimic the natural phases of light from dawn to dusk.
More than 100 miles of data cabling snake through the center, converging in the server and machine room. With the tuberous HVAC units to prevent overheating and candy-colored coils of cabling, the room reminded me of Willy Wonka’s Everlasting Gobstopper machine. Studio Steinbomer intentionally left the cables, which connect the studios, media server room, and the control room, visible to highlight the infrastructure that makes public broadcasts possible. With this improved broadcasting functionality, the Austin Media Center is now the largest 12G facility in the United States.
Although the dramatically improved production spaces are a fundamental part of the project, perhaps what is most exciting to the Austin PBS leadership is the studio’s increased public presence. “The first thing that comes to mind is community,” says Austin PBS CEO Luis Patiño, connecting the new building with the station’s renewed mission of inclusion and access. “Last night, we had new community members that probably were not our traditional audience come and experience what Austin PBS is all about,” he adds.
With smart design by Studio Steinbomer and expert direction by the client, it feels as if the Austin Media Center tuned the dial in on Austin PBS’s mission. If their presence in their previous space was fuzzy, disconnected, and low-resolution, the signal is coming in clear now.
The building’s exterior facade boasts Austin Community College and Austin PBS signs in equal measure. The designers took ample advantage of the natural light that streams in from the first-floor level of the building, creating a three-story atrium space with the Austin PBS logo as the focal point. As visitors head down the stairs, they’re greeted by community meeting spaces, a box office, and a casual seating area. Austin PBS staffers have already put the Austin Media Center to good use, hosting their own public events and renting out spaces on a sliding scale to community members ranging from CapMetro to Texas teachers.
From the inside out, the public areas of the space telegraph a welcoming, somewhat whimsical aura that befits a public television station associated with acclaimed children’s programming and everyday creativity for adults alike. The entryway to the gender-neutral, single-stall restrooms is painted with the rainbow bars of a holding pattern. Each stall features an “On Air” light when a restroom is locked and in use. One stall features a test pattern that Austin PBS CEO Patiño encouraged me to take a selfie with when I visited. Nearby, a vibrant new mural by Austin artist Fabian Rey riffs on the tripartite PBS logo with three figures that beckon viewers to “Please Stand By Us.”
Deeper in the Austin Media Center’s offices were two of the ACL panels I had seen in art storage. The rest of the set had been auctioned off and raised $270,000 toward the cost of the new construction project. In total, Austin PBS raised $10 million in an initial capital campaign for the project, which was ended early by the onset of COVID-19. The project’s construction was delayed by the pandemic and, again, when just two weeks prior to moving in, a flood caused by Winter Storm Uri wreaked extensive damage to the building and its brand-new equipment. It’s a testament to both the Austin PBS team and Studio Steinbomer that they were able to weather these storms and deliver such a relevant, inspiring, and technically proficient outcome.
I’ve had the good fortune of living in Austin at a time when there are unprecedented resources available to the city’s civic and creative organizations. That is a real boon for residents, as we get better parks, arts facilities, and civic amenities. At the same time, we haven’t let go of our scrappy spirit. Whether you’re building what may become one of live music’s most famous backdrops with everyday materials or designing a state-of-the-art TV station in an old Dillard’s, use what you can, and be creative!
Penny Snyder is a writer and recent graduate of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.