People have the radio power at CHIRP

by Jessica Reaves, New York Times

Commercial radio, like many other media, is in serious trouble. The prevailing view at the Chicago Independent Radio Project is that traditional radio has created its own problems: beholden to advertisers, disconnected from the community and increasingly out of reach for all but a few, well-connected artists.

Chirp — a fledgling, non-commercial, online radio station set to begin next month — will try to be everything Big Radio is not: independent, intensely local and musically adventurous.

“I’m a true believer,” Shawn Campbell, Chirp’s president, said in a recent tour of the project’s brightly lighted but crowded and poorly insulated studios, located above a photo album factory in an industrial stretch of the North Center neighborhood in Chicago. “I really love radio,” she added.

Ms. Campbell, 38, is not alone. When Chirp goes live at noon on Jan. 17, it will be the culmination of two and half years of work —including fund-raising, construction and software development — completed entirely by volunteers. “People have responded so enthusiastically,” Ms. Campbell said. “It’s kind of amazing there isn’t already a station like this in Chicago.”

The radio project was begun in 2007 when Ms. Campbell, who has worked in Chicago radio for more than 15 years, left her job as program director at WLUW at Loyola University because she disagreed with the university administrators’ changes to the station.

Her departure underscored something she had always known. “In radio,” Ms. Campbell said, “the real power lies with the people who own the station. Not the people who program it, or who are on the air.”

The only way to win that power struggle once and for all, she reasoned, was to start her own station.

Within a few weeks of leaving, Ms. Campbell had recruited 20 similarly disenchanted friends and former colleagues, all smitten by the idea of an independent community radio station.

Their zeal, as well as their plans to start a low-power FM station, faced challenges almost immediately. Efforts to secure a Federal Communications Commission license ran into a labyrinth of legislative and bureaucratic roadblocks. One of them — a law that prompted the commission to limit how close low-power radio stations could be to existing FM stations — may soon be eliminated nationally thanks to the proposed Local Community Radio Act, which unanimously passed the House of Representatives on Dec. 16 and now awaits a Senate vote.

“For some reason, we were stuck in this traditional mindset,” Ms. Campbell said of Chirp’s early days. “We felt we needed an FM license."

When it became clear that might not happen for years — or possibly ever — Chirp’s focus shifted to online, streaming radio.

The decision made sense, and not only because it allowed organizers to bypass the F.C.C. Unlike terrestrial stations, many of which are hemorrhaging listeners to alternative technologies, the online-only radio audience is growing at a rapid clip. The 42 million listeners in 2009 were a 44 percent jump from the 29 million in 2007, according to Arbitron, the media research firm.

As news of the project spread, volunteers emerged — as did small-scale individual donors, which have made up the bulk of the station’s financial base. They have also received support from several foundations, including the MacArthur Foundation.

Dustin Drase, 32, Chirp’s operations manager and one of the first people Ms. Campbell brought on board, said about 150 volunteers now worked on Sundays and weeknights.

The station, staff members say, will sound unlike anything else on the air — or online. The programming will be mostly music, occasional interviews with a variety of performing artists, not just musicians and special events. (Do not expect to get your Friday Night 80s Party fix; themed shows are not on the agenda.)

What will set Chirp apart, Ms. Campbell said, is not only the sheer breadth of its offerings, which she described as “a diverse array of independent and under-appreciated music from a wide range of eras and genres,” but also its D.J.’s passionate love for the songs they play.

“Maybe I’ll play a great new local band sandwiched between a David Bowie song and a Yo La Tengo song,” said Mr. Drase, who will co-host a show. “You never know what you’re going to turn people on to.”

Unlike most commercial stations, where the average play list might include about 500 songs, Chirp has a catalog of nearly 50,000 albums, which were donated. And the idea, said Billy Kalb, the station’s music director, is to play as many as possible.

“We want to be like the friend with the really amazing record collection,” said Mr. Kalb, 24, as he sorted through donated CD’s. “We want to play enough new music to keep things interesting, and the local bands that other stations probably won’t touch.”

Even as the station gears up for its online debut, Ms. Campbell is not giving up on the idea of taking Chirp to the traditional airwaves. She keeps a sharp eye on the legislation in Congress, and she demands professionalism from the station’s unpaid staff.

“Shawn likes to say we’re dressing for the job we want, not the job we have,” Mr. Kalb said. “We want to minimize the work it’ll take to transition onto the FM dial.”

article originally published at New York Times.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey