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Chicago Public Radio turning its image on its head
By Lisa Balde | Beep Staff Writer

Ayana Contreras is among the staff of Chicago Public Radio which has launched a new interactive station and Web stream called Vocalo.

 

Daniel White | Staff Photographer

Usama Alshabi, one of Vocalo’s radio hosts, traveled back to his Iraqi hometown in 2004 to film the documentary 'Nice Bombs.'

 

Daniel White | Staff Photographer

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Published: 9/17/2007 6:01 AM | Updated: 9/20/2007 11:07 AM

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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 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 fine on-air fodder.

For anyone 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 public radio 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. Your telephone/cable modem is your microphone.

Inside Vocalo's newly built studio at Chicago Public Radio's plush Navy Pier digs, a fresh sort of chaotic energy fills the room like the first day of art school. A noticeably young, artsy group 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 these faces could be the leaders of local radio's evolution and perhaps a facelift for the next generation of public radio listeners.

But you'll never hear those letters during a Vocalo broadcast -- neither the WBEZ acronym nor the words, "Chicago Public Radio." Those labels don't fit the new station's mission, Vocalo general manager Wendy 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.

Two years ago, when Chicago Public Radio obtained permission from the FCC to boost its signal to 50,000 watts (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 the Chicago area wasn'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."

Bibiana Adames and Usama Alshaibi aren't "radio people." They've never turned knobs on a station's sound board or hosted a radio show. Respectively, they're a clinical psychologist and an 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. "And I thought: 'The only thing I know how to do is talk to people.'"

This newfound pair of friends and Vocalo hosts 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.

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 any given time, the 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. It's unscripted and very freeform. There are no scheduled programs, ala "Morning Edition."

As of now, Vocalo is still in community-building mode. Last month, more than 200 pieces of listener-uploaded content was used on air.

"Sometimes it's audio that users have submitted," Turner says, "sometimes it's music, sometimes its text that inspires."

Listeners without Net access can use a telephone to submit material. And material submitted can be designated Web-only or content fit for broadcast. Everything a listener submits can remain theirs or uploaders may hand over full broadcasting rights to Vocalo, which means the station's producers can spruce it up or chunk it up to better fit the programming.

It's still unclear when Vocalo's signal will have enough power to reach Chicago. Chicago Public Radio hopes to build a new radio tower in Chesterton either by the end of this year or early 2008.

"It's a really exciting but also a daunting project "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," Turner says.

"We have to create something that's going to be here for 100 years and isn't going to rely on startup funding forever."

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?

Vocalo and Vocalo.org

What: Public radio that doesn't sound like public radio, generated by content submitted by listeners.

Where: On 89.5 FM in Chesterton, Ind., and online at vocalo.org. The signal will hit Chicago later this year or next.

Who: You. Vocalo is counting on listeners to drive the station, with its hosts acting only as moderators. Last month, Vocalo used 200 pieces of listener-uploaded content.

How: To upload, sign up online at vocalo.org and upload sound, songs, spoken work, rants, stories or whatever suits your fancy. Vocalo also encourages Web-only content like photos and video. Or call (888) 635-1112.