When Chicago Public Radio announced that it would launch its "secret radio project," aka Vocalo, only in northwest Indiana, it seemed like a letdown. Now that it's live and streaming at vocalo.org, their "soft launch"--not only confined to Indiana and the south side, but also limited to four to five hours a day during the work week--seems more like a blessing. Because this radio station isn't ready for prime time.
(Oh no . . . they're playing Sixpence None the Richer as I'm writing this . . . the last time I heard that, it was on Muzak at Village Discount Outlet.)
Right now Vocalo combines all the qualities of amateur podcasting with the convenience of terrestrial radio--if you're outside its broadcast range, the only way to listen to it is on a live and occasionally buggy mp3 stream. None of the shows are archived in any form. The "playlist" for Darlene's Wednesday show this week reads in full: "these are the people in your neighborhood--a best of my fave interviews."
Worth noting that's a best-of for one host, who has been on the air for three hours over a couple weeks. Her name is Darlene Jackson; she's a club DJ as well as a "writer, producer, record label owner and creative director." She kicked off her best-of by talking to someone about her vacation home in Beverly Shores, Indiana, asking the sorts of questions that would be of value to a club DJ. "I can see you having crazy parties . . . do you have crazy, crazy parties there?" The answer was yes, fortunately. So, Darlene concluded, "For the longest time I wondered why Indiana was part of Chicagoland. What does Indiana have to do with Chicago? Now I know it's a great getaway."
Later in the show she had someone from the Cook County juvie read a Maya Angelou poem badly. The host who followed her, Brian, aka Brian Babylon, played the exact same recording not more than 20 minutes later, the third time I'd heard it in three days of listening.
Vocalo is deeply in thrall to the cult of the amateur. Of the station's seven hosts (half of the promised 14), one is an actual journalist (Reader contributor Dan Weissmann), one is a documentary filmmaker, and one teaches media production and literacy at Columbia. One has actually worked for radio stations. Number seven is a "clinical/community psychologist and personal coach."
And the results are exactly what you would expect, if you're the skeptical type, from a small cast of nonprofessionals. The high point thus far has been Weissmann's engaging interview with the great historian Timuel D. Black Jr. It was pretty standard public radio journalism, like an 848 bit.
Later in the broadcast afternoon, Brian Babylon was laughing along with a song called "Why Do You Think You Are Nuts" ("why do you think you are nuts / eating cigarette butts . . . did your daddy beat you?") by a multicultural baby-boomer punk band, but he didn't catch the name of the band, despite having two different versions of the song and having seen the video.
This is a frequent problem on Vocalo, not knowing or caring to tell the listeners what they're listening to. During the previous set, Darlene played an interesting, brief interview with a Nigerian immigrant discussing the differences between African immigrants and African-Americans. She described it as "a conversation that one of my colleagues had." I went to the site to see if there was more information, but I only found the previously mentioned "playlist."
(Now they're playing another interview, with a woman who has a British accent. She's talking about cabs in between yelling at her dogs. She always has problems with Indian cab drivers. "That's a little bit from a young lady who's got drama," says Brian Babylon. Yes, but who is she? Now "your boy" Brian Babylon is signing off with the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army." His "main man" Usama is next.)
The amateurism isn't exclusive to the programs. The "Meet the Hosts" page is a good example of why you should resize pictures in an image-editing program instead of resizing them with the HTML code. Here's another example of the importance of resizing pictures. Many of the blog posts are incomprehensible or just weird. And they have to cut down on the ALL CAPS and the LOLs. I'd also recommend deleting the test blog posts.
I could see Vocalo working if it was just their current cast of radio amateurs with some content from WBEZ pros, or if it was a group of radio veterans corralling a cast of amateur contributors from the general public, but as it stands Vocalo consists of the severely nearsighted leading the blind, and it's mostly a train wreck.
(Now they're playing audio from someone who just ate a bunch of pot brownies. He really wants to know what the score of the Red Wings game is. "Time is going by really, really, really, really slow." I'll say. Wait . . . it's apparently a cop who seized a bunch of pot and cooked it into brownies. "He hasn't been fired," Usama says. Who's the cop? Is he CPD? Is this an issue of public concern? Now they're playing jazz, so I guess not.)
I can't help but think that the desperation for "nontraditional talent" must stem from the overwhelming success of This American Life, a program that has introduced defiantly nonradio voices like hypersqueaky Sarah Vowell to the medium. But TAL orbits around Ira Glass, a man who's been in the business since he was in college and had done practically everything that can be done on the radio before he started his masterwork.
It's not just that Glass has a gift; he's also developed the ability, over a career in the business, to make the amateur sound professional and vice versa. He makes it look easy, but radio is anything but. If Chicago Public Radio learns anything from this "soft launch," I hope it's that.
(This morning "Kiss Me" was stuck in my head. I demand a no-Sixpence pledge from Vocalo.)
PS: If you want to learn from the best, Ira Glass gave a master class to transom.org readers awhile back. It's great advice not only for people getting started in radio, but for journalists in general.