Don't look for Chicago Public Radio's radical new programming, which is sounding more and more like YouTalk, this month. April was once the target date for the launch of its experimental project on WBEW, 89.5 FM, but that was last year. The new target date is sometime around Memorial Day. Even then, unless you live in northwest Indiana or the far south side of Chicago, don't bother twiddling your dial yet. CPR got permission to raise the power of 89.5 from 7,000 watts to 50,000 watts two years ago, but the additional tower needed to make that happen still hasn't gone up. Once the Chesterton-based station is boosted, they say, it will be heard as far west as Oak Park and as far north as Evanston. But right now you're lucky if you can pick up WBEW, which is currently broadcasting WBEZ's content simultaneously, in Hyde Park. And if you live in the far north or northwest suburbs, the only place you'll find it is the Web site.
But that's not up yet either. Expected to be fully operational in March, the site is now set for a "soft" launch this month, with an announcement by e-mail. The site needs to go up first because it'll be the receiving dock for the listener-generated content that, if everything goes as planned, will set this station apart. The idea is that the public will upload audio bits to the site, where they can be heard--and evaluated--by anyone who clicks on them. Those found broadcast-worthy will be groomed and aired by a cadre of 14 producer-hosts, most of them nonprofessionals recruited from the community. The station's call letters will still be WBEW, but the yet-to-be-announced name Vocalo will serve both the station and the Web site. An interim site used as a buzz machine for the last nine months, secretradioproject.com, has been offering a clue in the form of a big, red letter V; official announcement of the name will come at a party on May 3. That event, which will be open to the public, will also feature a chance to meet the hosts and hear some of the programming, described as a "creative free-for-all, with no shows and no stuffy time slots." Hours and location aren't available yet, but reservations are being taken by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Former CPR membership director Wendy Turner was made general manager of WBEW in February, and Vanessa Harris, who also worked in marketing, is production coordinator. Staffer Kedar Coleman, who's been the most visible presence on the interim Web site, says 6 host-producers of the projected 14 full-timers have been hired so far; hiring for the rest will continue into May. According to an announcement in February, the first three hosts brought on board were "a comedian, a filmmaker, and a social psychologist." That doesn't sound like a huge departure from the usual WBEZ voices, but Chicago Public Radio VP Daniel Ash says the recruiting has been "unorthodox" and "we're proud of that." It's also been labor-intensive, he says, because of the wish to find nontraditional talent. Resumes were solicited by word of mouth, via community outreach, and on the secret radio project site (a hive of wannabe hosts). "It's been a hands-on process," Ash says, that's kept Turner and two other staffers busy. A request for an interview with Turner was denied, but Ash maintains she's been involved from the earliest planning stages and got the job because she has strong project management skills and "gets it that we're not trying to create a junior 91.5."
In fact, in what seems a sad part of the effort, the new station will attempt to hide its lineage. "We're very proud of being public radio," Ash says, but "we won't be labeling the new service that way--the words 'public radio' won't be part of the lexicon. We learned that public radio already has meaning for so many people--across age groups, class groups, ethnic and racial groups. They assume, incorrectly, 'that's something solely educational, not for me.'" And when they do listen, he says, they find "the mainstream style of public media" to be "distant, impersonal, kind of like being in a seminar." No matter where this branding strategy falls on the spectrum between mere baggage shedding and full-blown self-loathing, who's going to be fooled?
CPR general manager Torey Malatia says public radio should serve a broader audience than the 600,000 people who tune in to WBEZ, and that goal is driving the creation of a style that "reaches out, not in." That reminds me of precedents like CB, ham, or talk radio, but Ash says the picture that comes to mind when he thinks about it is the cross section of people you can see at Millennium Park. "Some of the most brilliant scenes have been when there's no programming and people are just there, coming together," he says. "But those people are not necessarily engaged with one another, so take that vision and imagine a virtual space or a radio spectrum that brings that visual but the people are connecting--they're sharing ideas, they're sharing poetry, music, opinions."
Ash declined to reveal the budget for this aural utopia but says the goal is to be self-supporting through fund-raising and "the business plan will reveal itself as we go onward." He admits the concept is idealistic and a work in progress but insists that public radio, as a noncommercial entity, has a mandate to give it a chance. "Clear Channel is not going to try it; Fox is not going to; ABC's not. It may be wildly successful, it may be lukewarm, but we're in a position, if we take our job seriously, at this institution to try it." Meanwhile, he says, CPR has identified two possible sites for its additional transmitter but doesn't have a lock on either yet; he's hoping the tower will be up by the end of the year.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mattew Cordell.