The Prague Post on RFE/RL's upcoming move to a new, state-of-the-art broadcasting center in Prague.
By Curtis M. Wong
Staff Writer, The Prague Post
Entering the new Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) headquarters in Prague 10–Hagibor involves being subjected to security measures of airport-like proportions. Before setting foot on the premises, visitors are required to sign in, provide identification and pass through metal detectors sensitive enough to detect loose change or a belt buckle. Contents of all handbags are then thoroughly inspected. And that’s all before entering the building’s front doors, where a reception desk will administer additional measures.
Indeed, tighter security, in demand for an international organization such as RFE/RL in a post-Sept. 11 world, is just one of the many benefits of the new Prague headquarters, which resembles a modern fortress. Developers are currently putting the finishing touches on the building, which will represent a complete upgrade — from both a physical and technological perspective — for one of the world’s largest news operations.
Officials say the company’s expanding services, which are broadcast in 28 languages to 21 countries including Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Central Asian republics, have outgrown the current location in the former Czechoslovak Parliament building just off Wenceslas Square, one of the city’s busiest tourist centers.
“Our company has loved this building because it exudes history and charm,” President Jeffrey Gedmin said of the organization’s current location. “But this was never intended to be the premises for a modern media organization. The [Hagibor] building is a brand new, journalist-friendly, multimedia facility.”
As part of the move, the technological infrastructure at RFE/RL is also receiving a complete, state-of-the-art overhaul including additional bandwidth for Internet, radio and television operations, and network security of the highest degree.
RFE/RL will lease the new five-story building from Orco Property Group for the next 15 years, with the option to renew for another 15. Officials declined to provide figures for the final cost of the new building.
Following RFE/RL’s move, the former Parliament building will be handed over to the National Museum, which will use it to house permanent and temporary exhibits during and following its own upcoming renovation. Much of the existing furniture and equipment will be donated to the museum, and the series of roadblocks that currently exist around the building will be removed, easing pedestrian and automobile traffic in the area.
Featuring 13,236 square meters of usable space, the Hagibor site is more compact than its predecessor, but with smaller corridors and foyers, contains less unused space. The most visible of the new headquarters’ many features is a spacious, centrally located newsroom with open plan seating under a glass roof. It’s a far cry from the current space, where reporters sit in individual cubicles in a cramped room with low ceilings. Walls will be lined with sound-absorbing material designed to keep noise levels low. Officials say the newsroom was designed specifically to create an atmosphere that allows for free and “transparent” movement of information, as most of the remaining offices have windows facing the central room.
“There’s a transparency and an openness about the new space, which is good for everything with the name ‘liberty’ attached to it,” Gedmin said, before describing the current newsroom as “catacomb-like.” He likened the new security measures to that of a foreign embassy. “There aren’t any trapdoors or secret platforms, but there’s much more room for our security people to operate.”
Another highlight of the new location is the main conference room, equipped with ceiling microphones and retractable television monitors that allow for video conferencing with international bureau offices and the Washington, D.C. head office. Also onsite are 47 full-scale broadcast studios and 19 miniature studios.
Other features include a full-service cafeteria that can be converted into an auditorium for presentations, kitchenettes on each floor that include snack bars and a small lounge, and a large open-air patio.
Due to the size of the operation, employees will begin moving into the new headquarters in January 2009, adhering to a tight department-by-department schedule that officials describe as a “leap-frog” process. Fiber optic connections between the old and new headquarters will ensure business as usual throughout the five-month process, expected to wrap in May. And, while the schedule may seem labor-intensive for RFE/RL’s 530 staff members, authorities say it was excruciatingly planned to keep costs down as well as maintain operations.
“The devil is in the details, and there are lots of them,” said Luke Springer, RFE/RL’s head of technology. “Mostly, it was borne out of necessity more than anything. We had to figure out a way to not lose any air time and keep the amount of new equipment in use down during the move.”
Orco officials say they went to lengths to ensure the new building was eco-friendly as well. All electrical, data, heating and cooling systems in the new building will be fully integrated, making for a more energy-efficient operation.
Still, some RFE/RL officials confess to finding the move bittersweet.
“Of course it’s the right strategic decision, but I’m going to miss the ironic charm of the Parliament building,” Gedmin said. “I’m a little sad that we’re closing this chapter. … But the next one will be exciting.”