It was the weekend of the Pitchfork record fair in 2007 when Shawn Campbell and a number of her colleagues at WLUW (Loyola Chicago’s independent radio station) found out that community DJ’s were being given the boot. Loyola’s administration was changing WLUW from a dynamic independent radio station that served the community into a radio lab for broadcasting students at Loyola, and a lot of talented DJ’s were suddenly out of a job.
“Why don’t we build our own station?” was Campbell’s defiant response to the news. Her simple determination–that only by owning the station can you set its agenda–has spurred her and a legion of friends and collaborators to build one of the most innovative and progressive organizations currently operating in Chicago (the country? the world?).
Campbell, who is now the President and recognized founder of the Chicago Independent Radio Project (CHIRP), describes the station as “a non-profit, non-corporation that works for good.” What does that mean? For one thing, CHIRP is a 100% volunteer radio project, which means that everything, from marketing to grant writing, even physical construction of their studio space, is done by CHIRP’s fanatically devoted volunteers. “My blood is literally in those walls,” says Dustin Drase, CHIRP’s Operations Manager, indicating the office’s dry-wall sheeting, which he helped to cut into shape at the expense of some bloody knuckles.
CHIRP was originally founded as an alternative community radio project with the intent to broadcast as a Low-Power FM (LPFM) station. And while that goal remains alive today, the bureaucratic rigmarole of gaining that approval has formed a major impediment to CHIRP’s long-term plans. While the FCC made provisions for LPFM stations more than a decade ago (in 1998), congressional action led by strong broadcasting lobbies quickly reversed that progress largely on a subsequently disproved notion of what dial-density is proper in order to avoid signal interference.
The ironically named Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act of 2000, supported by the National Association of Broadcasters and NPR, made it a requirement to obtain an LPFM broadcasting license, and for those stations to be situated no less than three adjacent frequencies from any full power station (three clicks on the dial), effectively locking LPFM’s out of major markets. In the face of this opposition, CHIRP has built one of the largest grass-roots LPFM lobbying organizations in the country, generating over 3,000 hand-written letters to congress, and has been slotted as the likely test-case for major market LPFM’s in America.
The recently passed Local Community Radio Act of 2010 promises to free the hands of potentially thousands of non-commercial stations by reducing co-channel limitations to second adjacent channels (two clicks on the dial). However, in the crowded Chicago radio market this would still exclude CHIRP. Luckily the bill allows for a waiver of even this restriction if CHIRP (or similar LPFM applicants) can prove that no interference would occur.
With their next battle before them, CHIRP remains unfazed, focusing for the time being on building a talented staff via their web-streaming operation (active since 2009). According to Drase, CHIRP gets approximately 25,000 unique streams a month, with listeners not only from the Chicago area, but around the world – one regular listener to the station e-mailed from the UK to express her disappointment that CHIRP was inactive in the middle of her work day (CHIRP currently has no programming between 3 and 6 AM CST). CHIRP even makes it easy to listen on the run with a volunteer-designed iPhone app already released and another for the Droid on the way.
But the CHIRP name isn’t just getting spread over the virtual airwaves. In Chicago, CHIRP is rapidly approaching the status of a household name thanks in large part to its promotions, events and marketing departments. From street teams that bomb CHIRP flyers across the city, to ticket giveaways, to tabling at concerts and summer festivals, if you are a young person who has any measure of interest in independent music in Chicago, you can’t go far without running into CHIRP. The annual CHIRP record fair especially has become a sort of four-alarm nerd alert for wax junkies across the metro area, with last year’s fair hosting over twenty vendors representing practically every genre imaginable.
Drase says that the face-to-face contact is crucial to bringing in new volunteers. “We’d just be in front of people, and people were really supportive about the idea that we wanted to build this station. And as people heard that we wanted to do it, all of a sudden we has all these new volunteers. From the start, it was kind of like a big Katamari, we started rolling over things and picking up people as we went along,” says Drase of CHIRP’s street level operations.
Volunteer director Micha Ward encountered CHIRP at the 2007 Pitchfork festival. His first impression of the fledgling radio station was not exactly optimistic. “I thought, this will never work,” he tells a crowd of nearly sixty prospective volunteers whose presence (along with his own) at a monthly orientation meeting proves his error. Drase says that this is nothing out of the ordinary; that every month roughly 50 to 75 people will attend a similar orientation, that of those, some 15 will go on to become active volunteers with the station.
And when Ward flips it over to the CHIRP hopefuls to introduce themselves, you get the impression that these people aren’t just warm bodies. Culture advocates and creative professionals looking for a way to get engaged in their community, former college DJ’s and broadcasting students looking for the killer app-builder – CHIRP puts together a nucleus of people with unlimited potential and every opportunity to achieve it.
At the end of the day though, it’s all about a really simple idea. The station’s volunteers just want to hear good music, Chicago music, on the radio. “We want to play Chicago bands, and not just the bands that you’ve heard of. We want to play bands that, maybe they only have demos out, or maybe they’re on a label that only has five releases. Great, we want to hear it,” explains Drase. “We’re all just music nerds at heart.”