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Not Just a Record Fair

This Sunday the Chicago Independent Radio Project goes live on the Web.

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During the two and a half years it's existed the Chicago Independent Radio Project has taken a lot of forms—a Facebook page, a record fair, logo buttons attached to jackets and messenger bags, booths at street fairs and music festivals—but so far none of them has been an actual independent radio station. That's about to change. Two weeks ago CHIRP began webcasting to a select group of testers from its headquarters in the North Center neighborhood. At noon this Sunday, January 17, that webcast goes public at chirpradio.org, and CHIRP is celebrating with a show the night before at the Empty Bottle featuring the Yolks, Hollows, and Rabble Rabble. If the Senate passes the federal Local Community Radio Act—which the House approved last month—the station may soon take to the airwaves too.

CHIRP was founded by Shawn Campbell, a 16-year radio veteran who's worked everywhere from suburban AM stations ("We'd do the hot-lunch menu for schools") to Loyola's beloved WLUW. She was dismissed from her job as WLUW's program director in 2007, when the station ended its relationship with WBEZ, which had been running it since 2002. (She continued to work for Chicago Public Radio for another year or so, becoming a producer at Eight Forty-Eight.) Loyola wanted WLUW to become a teaching lab for students and apparently found the station's community-driven programming and large contingent of nonstudent volunteers—almost half of around 200 total—to be incompatible with that goal.

WLUW's eclectic, high-quality music programming had earned it a devoted audience of about 25,000—impressive for a station its size—and Campbell was convinced that this was largely due to its responsiveness to its audience. A station run by and for students, she feared, wouldn't speak the same way to the community in which it was embedded (and in fact WLUW airs university-specific content much more often now). Hence, CHIRP. "I wanted to make sure that there was a true community radio station in Chicago, where people could be involved—that it wasn't based on, you know, paying tuition," she says. "It's amazing—Chicago is the biggest city in the country that doesn't have a true community radio station. There are people who are hungry for that type of programming, with lots of independent music, local stuff, and a real sense of place in the city where the station is located."

CHIRP showed promise from the start: though the group convened rather informally in libraries and coffee shops, the first meeting pulled in about 60 volunteers. But Campbell and her comrades knew they were facing some serious obstacles. The type of low-power FM station that CHIRP intends to start—like WLUW it will broadcast at a mere 100 watts, compared to 4,000-10,000 watts for major commercial stations in Chicago—will require an FCC license, just like any other FM station with a range of more than a hundred feet or so. But the FCC licensing process is heavily biased in favor of major broadcasters. In the late 90s they used their influence in Washington to deregulate radio ownership, leading to the hegemony of behemoths like Clear Channel, and in 2000 they won a major victory against upstart competitors when something colloquially referred to as the "three-click rule" became law. It prevents a new station from being licensed, regardless of its broadcast strength, unless it can find a spot on the dial that's separated by at least three empty frequencies (each one a "click" of 0.2 megahertz) from the nearest full-power signal. In a major market like Chicago, where the spectrum is very crowded, this turns radio into an exclusive club—pretty much the only way to get in is to replace an existing member.

This may be changing soon, though. The FCC and President Obama both support the Local Community Radio Act, meant to open up airwaves to low-power broadcasters, and Campbell hopes the Senate will follow the House's lead to pass it. If the bill becomes law, she says, "what the FCC can do is have a little more flexibility on things." In Chicago even a two-click rule might not do much good, but the FCC could use a method called contour mapping—in which engineers measure stations' actual, as opposed to idealized, coverage areas—to find spots where a small broadcaster might fit without interfering with other stations. "What we're hoping," says Campbell, "is that the FCC will consider using contour mapping for big cities, to find these little holes where they will be able to plug some low-power FM even in the biggest cities in the country." She's an old hand at lobbying politicians like Senator Dick Durbin, and if the bill passes, she says CHIRP's next step will be to convince the FCC to do more than just consider this approach.

For the time being Campbell and the rest of the CHIRP volunteers—no one involved gets paid yet, though managers may eventually—are content to be webcasters. They'll be streaming the station's output via Live365, a Web service most often used by hobbyists—people, in Campbell's words, with "an iPod in their bedroom that they put on shuffle and a small microphone where they occasionally come on and do a break." CHIRP has landed some grants, including $5,000 each from the Crossroads Fund and the MacArthur Fund for Arts & Culture at the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, but the group depends mostly on individual donations and fund-raisers. Its headquarters were renovated with volunteer labor, and volunteer programmers have been writing code to deal with any problems that the service might encounter trying to maintain a broadcast schedule of 21 hours a day, seven days a week. They've also built CHIRP-specific streaming applications for the iPhone and Android app stores, developed programs to manage the station's digital music library (currently at about 100,000 songs), and configured Traktor DJ software (normally used in club settings) to suit their needs.

Once CHIRP goes online it will offer a mixed bag of music. Because it's community oriented and noncommercial, it's easy to compare it to stations like Jersey City's famed WFMU, but both Campbell and CHIRP's music director, Billy Kalb, say they want to avoid the stylistically segmented formats that such outlets are known for. The CHIRP station won't have a single specialty show—instead of sorting music by genre, Kalb says, it will provide a steady mix of "anything and everything outside of smooth jazz and pop country, whether that's indie or electronic music, jazz, hip-hop, whatever. If it's good we want to play it."

"We definitely want to highlight music that's underheard, underrepresented, more on the fringe," Kalb continues, "but we also want to play songs people like too. We don't want to out-elitist anyone. I think that's kind of a tragic road to go down, where you get holier-than-thou and it ceases to be fun."

Campbell and Kalb say CHIRP is also committed to showcasing Chicago bands and labels. When I peeked into the DJ booth during alpha testing I saw a Vacations seven-inch on a turntable, and a performance studio that's still under construction will allow the station to broadcast live performances. CHIRP is also partnering with recording studios to track exclusive sessions by local acts (as well as the occasional touring band).

This local focus is what Campbell sees as CHIRP's key virtue at a time when radio listening in general is widely seen as on the way out. "People didn't leave radio," she says. "Radio left people, by having all of this consolidation and all of this commercialism, and losing its strengths, which were always localism and immediacy, that it was live and right in your community. You felt like you knew the person who was on the air and you trusted them. They talked about going to this show on Saturday night and you might have been at that show too. So you felt that real sense of connection, and I feel like so much commercial radio has lost that."

Campbell says her work with CHIRP has made it obvious to her that listeners miss it. "We saw that support from people who wanted to give money or people who wanted to volunteer, who just came up to us at street festivals or at Pitchfork, at the record fair, and said, 'I'm so glad you guys are doing this,'" she says. "It just really shows that people still want to feel connected to their radio station."   

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