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Adios, Radio Arte?

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The National Museum of Mexican Art has decided to sell its award-winning youth-run bilingual radio station, Radio Arte, and the two-story building on the corner of 18th and Blue Island that's home to both the station and Yollocalli Arts Reach, the museum's youth art training program. That's disturbing news to residents of the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, where the building's a cultural anchor, and to the students, teachers, and alumni of both programs.

Last week, as NMMA founder and president Carlos Tortolero was explaining that tight finances in this tough economy made the "difficult decision" necessary, students and alumni of Radio Arte (WRTE, 90.5 FM) were organizing in an attempt to salvage the station. They've formed a new nonprofit, the Latino Media Cooperative, which is aiming to bid on the WRTE license, transmitter, and frequency, and name. The goal, according to their mission statement, is "a community-owned and operated radio station that can continue to serve the local community through the 90.5 FM frequency." At press time, they were attempting to get the bid money together.

Tortolero, reached by phone, wanted to make it clear that the museum itself, which is housed in a separate building (at 1852 W. 19th St.), is not affected. He also says he's hoping to maintain the youth training programs without the 11,000-square-foot building at 1401 W. 18th St.

"The building that houses our two youth programs requires a lot of maintenance and needs a lot of repairs," he says. When it became obvious that his lobbying efforts in Springfield wouldn't be successful this year, he started thinking about the advantages of being a renter, he says—especially when the rent is free. "There are a lot of not-for-profits who house their programs in park [district] spaces or library spaces or other publicly owned buildings. Instead of paying the heat and the electricity, they just pay the phone bill. We can do that."

NMMA paid $420,000 for the building in 1997; even in this postbubble real estate market, Tortolero asserts, "there's equity in it." As for WRTE, he says, "this radio dial thing's not what it used to be." NMMA bought the license in 1996 from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago for $12,000. In 2003 they boosted it from a mere eight watts to 73—still not major, but enough to expand its reach on the southwest side and into adjacent suburbs. The only Latino-owned, bilingual, youth-run urban community broadcast station in the nation, it's won numerous honors for its hands-on training, which has produced alumni like Silvia Rivera, now station manager for Chicago Public Radio's Vocalo. But these days, Tortolero points out, there's new competition. If you can podcast and stream, why hang on to a broadcast license? Even so, he says, "We're going to try to find a buyer who can continue the programs the best way possible." Chicago Public Media CEO Torey Malatia says he's submitted some proposals for cooperative management with a future option to buy.

As for Yollocalli, Tortolero wants to find a new "base or bases" from which to operate it, and he wants it to travel into the suburbs. More Latinos live outside Chicago than in the city now, he notes, and "most of the kids who attend these programs don't live in Pilsen. Instead of spending our money maintaining a building, won't it make more sense to be serving more students?"

NMMA's total budget is just under $5 million; Radio Arte and Yollocalli together account for about 16 percent of that, according to Tortolero. The fiscal year will end June 30—not necessarily in the black. "It'll be close," he says. In fact, the organization has spent more than it's taken in for most of the last half-dozen years. Cuts were made to both museum staff and the exhibit schedule (down from three main shows annually to two) over the last few years, and the plan going forward is to focus resources on the core mission of keeping the museum itself alive and vital. Of the city's ten Museums in the Park (all standing on Park District property), NMMA has the distinction of being the only one with free admission for everyone, all the time. That's not changing, Tortolero says.

Teaching artist Salvador Jimenez—whose Yollocalli students are putting finishing touches on a mural commissioned for Streeterville's new Children's Memorial Hospital—says the building functions as an open studio for the youth, a place where they can come early, stay late, and where their work is showcased. "We've been there so long, we've established a relationship with the youth and the community," he says. "If we lose the building, that relationship will be the biggest loss."

Radio Arte alumna and teacher Stephanie Manriquez is part of the group scrambling to form the Latino Media Cooperative. They won't be bidding on the building: "We won't have the resources for that, although it's a home for most of us," she says. "But the frequency—I think it belongs to the community." 

E-mail Deanna Isaacs at disaacs@chicagoreader.com.

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