A radio revolution: Public Radio turns the airwaves over to you
Lisa Balde, Beep Staff Writer Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Someone just took a punch to the face by a middle-aged Las Vegas woman in some club off the strip, and it isn’t even noon yet. Here’s how it goes down from my end of the Web stream: A listener named Liz, a recent Vegas transplant from Chicago, isn’t down yet. She recovers from the hit and grimaces slightly before looking back at her instigator and smiles. A raucous melee of headband pulling and scarf choking is about to erupt, but Liz doesn’t seem to mind. “I don’t care,” she says. “I’ve been punched before.”
She tries to explain her situation – a lost or possibly stolen wallet that might’ve fallen near the DJ’s karaoke booth – when the Vegas woman, a karaoke diehard who now assumes that Liz is targeting the DJ as her thief, swings at her again. “That was it,” Liz tells her interviewer. “I hit her back.”
Welcome to the changing face of public radio – or rather, the antithesis of public radio’s rather stodgy modern image. It’s a progressive endeavor, one where listeners tend to hog a bit more airtime than hosts, where pledge drives – no matter how dire the financial circumstances – never exist, and where bar fights make for damn fine on-air fodder.
For anyone in the ’burbs with Internet access, this means welcome to Vocalo and Vocalo.org, Chicago Public Radio's new 24-hour interactive radio station and Web stream. It’s decidedly young, understatedly urban and wholly community-driven – assets that CPR admittedly can’t always provide. Sort of a radio YouTube meets Al Gore’s Current TV, Vocalo wants to subsist via content that listeners upload online. It’s a sort of two-way conversation that Vocalo communicates like this: Your telephone/cable modem is your microphone.
Inside Vocalo’s newly built studio at CPR’s plush Navy Pier digs, a fresh sort of chaotic energy fills the room like the first day of art school. Wendy Turner, Vocalo’s general manager, points out proof of the station’s constant change (noted are the sparkling pair of turn-table “12s” in the corner for a future DJ coffin and weekly DJ sets). A noticeably young, artsy band of hosts rounds the corner into the digital sound booth that looks more apt for Q101 than public radio. They seem genuinely excited to be here.
Vocalo hasn’t quite reached FM airwaves in Chicago, but if you’ve heard the station online or via 89.5 in Chesterton, Ind., it’s clear that these faces could be the leaders of local radio’s evolution and perhaps a facelift for the next generation of NPR.
But you’ll never hear those letters during a Vocalo broadcast – neither NPR’s acronym nor the words, “Chicago Public Radio.” Those labels don’t fit the new station’s mission, Turner says, and the big wigs upstairs don’t want people getting confused. For now, Vocalo’s job is to create a public community framed by original music, stories and spoken word uploaded by listeners. If it happens to wipe the slate clean of public-radio stereotypes, then so be it.
“It’s got this hardcore, absolutely clear purpose,” says Lloyd King, an artist and teacher (and coincidentally enough, a former teacher of Turner’s) who was hired as Vocalo’s content director this summer. “And that is to serve the public.”
But Vocalo’s public is different from NPR’s. Two years ago, when CPR obtained permission from the FCC to boost its signal to 50,000 watts (i.e. enough power to either double the coverage of its current broadcasts or create a whole new station), its president, Torey Malatia, realized a large section of Chicago and the ’burbs weren’t tuning in at all. Who were they missing? Basically, listeners who are young and non-white.
“We’re serving mostly white, lakefront liberals,” King says. “It’s in the 90 percentile. That’s who we are serving. All radio stations are supposed to serve the public, but because we’re a public radio station, we’re doubly obligated to serve, and we can’t just be serving the Chicago power elite, so to speak.”
They almost ended up with a 24-hour music station, but that plan shifted last year. More than a year later and just months into Vocalo’s official tenure, music remains a revolving feature but takes a shot-gun seat to features about … well, about you.
All together now
Bibiana Adames and Usama Alshaibi aren’t “radio people.” As in, they’ve never turned knobs on a station’s sound board or actually hosted a radio show. Respectively, they’re a clinical psychologist and award-winning filmmaker: Adames runs her own private practice, and Alshaibi traveled back to his Iraqi hometown in 2004 to film the documentary, “Nice Bombs.” They’re accomplished entrepreneurs, no doubt. But radio hosts?
“When they called me, they said, ‘Can you send us a demo?’ And I’m like, a demo? What’s a demo?” Adames says from Vocalo’s back-room meeting space, a very non-corporate board room sporting only a circle of chairs. “And I thought: ‘The only thing I know how to do is talk to people.’”
This newfound pair of friends and Vocalo hosts (talk with them long enough and they’ll feel like your two hilarious, bickering siblings) was hired this spring as part of an unlikely cast of characters that now includes a comedian, record producer, musician, writer and performance artist. According to their bios, only four of the station’s hosts have definitive radio experience.
Every day, the group converges in Vocalo’s studio in groups of three. Their format is simple: introduce as many interviews, sound clips, submitted beats and readings as fills the time and use them as a springboard to provoke conversation.
At the outset, the whole thing sounds a bit like college radio – times three. At any given time, a trio of hosts could be discussing graffiti, personal failures, love and money, Mos Def or Lily Allen. Interview snippets bridge the gap as a bulk of the programming, and amusing chats with the likes of “America’s Next Top Model” and the “protesters” outside of Al Gore’s Borders book signing pop up often. Alshaibi once listed himself on Craig’s List for a story, to explore the odd world of online sex-and-drugs advertising. He even got a few responses. (Yes, he turned them down – even the one from a guy offering to eat cake off him.)
It’s all unscripted and very freeform. There are no scheduled programs ala “Morning Edition” and no report sign-offs – none of that stuffy public-radio banter. But that’s exactly the way Turner wants it. In fact, that’s the reason why she didn’t hire typical “radio people.”
“The idea is to create this microcosm of the whole community that we’re trying to reach and then have them sort of infect each other with their own communities. It’s not just Brian in charge of bringing comedians to us; he’s in charge of making sure that all of us, Bibiana and Usama, are familiar with the comedy world. The same with Darleen being a DJ and a record label owner.”
As of now, Vocalo is still in community-building mode. They’ve come a long way, especially for a journey that’s expected to take at least a year for the station to become mostly self-sustaining. Last month, more than 200 pieces of listener-uploaded content was used on air in some form, and every day, you’ll hear several new submissions.
“Sometimes it’s audio that users have submitted,” Turner says, “sometimes it’s music, sometimes its text that inspires; we have one poster that asks us questions about love and relationships, and it inspired a whole series on our station called ‘Ask Dr. Bibs,’ which is Bibiana.”
It begs the question, though: What about people who don’t have Internet access or don’t own recording equipment to submit sound? The answer: “Your telephone is your microphone.” CPR set it up so a phone call transmits into the type of sound that hosts use on air, which gives as many people as possible a level playing field.
And for those of us who feel a little shy about talking on the radio, we’ve got options. Every time a listener uploads something to Vocalo.org, he or she can choose whether or not theirs is a Web-only submission or content fit for broadcast. Turner and King hope Vocalo can become as much of an Internet community as a radio one, so they encourage video and photos as much sound. Oh, and by the way, everything you submit remains yours.
“Not only do you have the rights and you own it,” King says, “we won’t sell you out.”
Uploaders may hand over full broadcasting rights to Vocalo, though, which means the station’s producers can spruce it up or chunk it up to better fit the programming. But you also can submit your work “as is,” which denotes it to producers as sound that cannot be altered.
“Facebook will sell you out,” King says. “You put your stuff on YouTube, and they’ll screw you. They own it. There was just an article last week about this guy who’s supposed to be getting sued by Viacom because his YouTube video appeared on some show. And the irony is he (created) it.”
All things considered
It’s still unclear when Vocalo’s signal will have enough power to reach Chicago. CPR hopes to build a new radio tower in Chesterton either by the end of this year or early in 2008. At that time, most of the city and Chicago’s south suburbs will hear Vocalo loud and clear. Until then, they’re spreading the word the grassroots way – online and out on the streets. Expect to see Vocalo training sessions throughout the city during the winter.
“It’s a really exciting but also a daunting project,” Turner says, “because not only do we have to create a 24-7 operation that’s entirely local, that’s serving this mission, that’s interesting to listen to, that has a sound that doesn’t sound anything like NPR or what public radio’s used to. We also have to create an economic structure for it. Sure, if we could hire 150 people, no problem. But we have to create something that’s going to be here for 100 years and isn’t going to rely on startup funding forever.”
So far, Vocalo fits those criteria. And as long as the content keeps flowing, the signal keeps burning.
Back on the bar fight scene, some guy with a yellow inflatable guitar singing “Peaceful Easy Feeling” pushes Liz out of range for another punch. The tape dies down, and Bibiana and Usama sound pleased. After all, who doesn’t like a good bar fight in the morning?
“I like drama,” she tells Usama. “It makes for better radio.”
01 dicembre 2007
Vocalo.org, siete voi a fare le trasmissioni
Il post sulla User Generated Radio ha spinto Andrea Borgnino a fare qualche ricerca. «Ho scoperto che c'è uno show in America fatto proprio con un'idea» di questo genere, mi scrive Andrea, partendo da un articolo di Time Out Chicago che nel dicembre dell'anno scorso annunciava un progetto di WBEZ, stazione del micro network locale Chicago Public Radio. Quel progetto è partito per davvero e si chiama Vocalo.org, un sito Web comunitario che funge da collettore di materiali sonori autoprodotti. Che servono poi a comporre il palinsesto di WBEW uno dei tre canali di WBEZ ascoltabile su 89.5 in FM nell'hinterland della città. Il Web diventa insomma una redazione virtuale di produttori radiofonici che fanno tutti da soli, creando un nuovo flusso diffuso anche nell'etere di Chicago. Obiettivo dichiarato degli ideatori di Vocalo è proprio quello di catalizzare l'attenzione di una fascia di utenza non-bianca e poco affluente che snobbava le trasmissioni tradizionali. Oltre all'articolo di Time Out scritto 12 mesi fa, è interessante leggere quello che scrive dell'esperienza di Vocalo la rivista Beep Central nel settembre 2007. Antonio, dicci qualcosa.