By NICK CURTIS, Eagle Staff Writer (former)

If it’s been a few years since you last saw the inside of a radio station, you’re likely to feel a bit baffled when you first step into the new home of Tri States Public Radio. You look around, searching for those giant recording reels and shelves stacked high with cassette tapes – and find none at all.

There’s a reason, of course. The place has gone totally digital.

Tri States Public Radio – or WIUM 91.3 and WIUW 89.5, as it’s also known – moved into the old Hy-Vee building on University Drive last September. It shares the building, owned by WIU, with both the Gwendolyn Brooks Cultural Center and Parent and Child Together child-care center.

“We were the last to get over here,” said Dorie Vallillo, Tri States’ general manager. “We had more wiring to do.”

The station, formerly located in the cramped quarters of Memorial Hall, paid almost $1 million to move into the Hy-Vee building. The station itself paid 80 percent of the bill and received the rest of the necessary money through state and federal grants. A fund-raising campaign also helped lighten the financial burden.

The station appears to have received its money’s worth. The new offices boast some of the best audio technology available.

When Tri States’ reporters go out in the field to work on stories, for example, they now carry sleek minidisc recorders with them. They then return to the office and plug into the station’s computer system to download their sound files and eventually put them on the air.

It wasn’t always that easy. The old station operated on a mostly analog system of clunky cassette tapes that proved difficult to store – and a nightmare to organize. Tri States’ employees used to call their futile searches for elusive tapes “Easter egg hunts,” said Rich Egger, the station’s news director.

“The amount of space that was taken up in just storing various tape media was crazy,” said Vallillo. She called the new digital system “a real time-saver.”

The new station has other amenities, such as two different production studios. One is for news and has a master control room named after E.C. “Tug” Haddock, Tri States’ first general manager, who died in the mid-1980s.

The other studio is reserved for music and features a special performance room with enough space to seat 100 people. Tri States has been helping host local concerts for years, but always had to lug its audio equipment around town, borrowing space in nearby churches or the University Union. The new room provides the station with its own performance hall and the capability to air live concerts whenever it desires.

Not all additions to the station are high-tech. Vallillo beams when she mentions the new snow cover for the station’s satellite dish. Back when Tri States was located in Memorial Hall, the dish never had one. In the winter, station employees used to take turns going outside to sweep off the snow-covered dish with a broom.

The new station also houses an impressive music library of over 20,000 CDs. (To answer your next question as to how much floor space 20,000 CDs can occupy, picture a medium-size living room covered with shelves taller than your head.)

Some aspects of Tri States Public Radio haven’t changed. The station still houses Audio Information Services, home to a splendid organization called the Radio Information Service that reads quality newspapers – like this one – on-air for the visually impaired.

And, not surprisingly, WIU student-employees continue to play a significant role in the station’s livelihood. “They learn more now than they did at the old place,” said Vallillo, “because they’re seeing the types of technology they’re going to encounter in the real world.”