If Chicago’s artistic and activist communities are at a historical moment, AirGo Radio is the group documenting that history. In the past few years, millennials have led a creative renaissance born out of outrage from police shootings, inequality, violence, and poverty, using their artistry and indefatigable energy to push for change.
Damon Williams, 24, and Daniel Kisslinger, 25, are part of the pack. Their independent media outlet, AirGo Radio, which celebrated its 100th episode last week, turns the spotlight on the people “whose work and spirit is reshaping the city and the nation’s contemporary culture,” in their own parlance—guests range from sociologist Eve Ewing to cross-stitch artist Emma McKee to activist and poet Malcolm London.
They’re also embedded in the movement itself. Both are members of the Let Us Breathe, an “artistic activist collective”; Williams is a performer and leader in the activist group BYP100, while Kisslinger is a producer for several radio projects and the Chicago Poetry Block Party. Before their centennial episode aired, as always, Thursday at noon on 88.5FM, we spoke with the two about their beginnings, their friendship, and the movement they’ve come to represent.
What made you all want to start AirGo Radio?
Daniel Kisslinger: We were friends in [Grinnell College] but not super close. We made a project together our senior year when we brought some artists from Chicago to perform on campus. That was the first thing we did together. Then, we graduated and we kept crossing paths in Chicago.
Damon Williams: I began working in the social movements that were happening. Ferguson happened and then Black Lives Matter came. [Kisslinger] had the desire to be back on radio and I had the desire to be doing something besides responding to death and procrastinating as an artist. We had complimentary skills and some overlap in our ways of viewing the world.
I started the Triibe, also an independent media project, with my best friend. We felt my journalism skills and her documentary filmmaking skills balanced each other out. Tell me what it was like for you to go into this venture as friends.
D.W.: I think the real humanity of our friendship developed after college. We were associates and had an appreciation for each other, but a true, authentic, and sincere friendship has been built from the work
D.K.: I knew we were friends when I could call him and he would pick up [laughing], which wasn’t always the case. How has that cobuilding and collaboration been for you?
You hear so many horror stories of people who go into business with each other and then they hate each other after a year. We decided to do the Triibe but to also make sure our friendship remains a priority.
D.K.: I try not to hold AirGo too precious. I’m letting it be what it is and surrendering to that. I didn’t get wrapped up in how big it would get. This isn’t the thing that everyone in the world will hear. This is a thing that some people will hear that I have so much pride in
D.W.: We’re only accountable to ourselves and our artistic intentions. We don’t have deliverables or requirements we have to meet or someone checking up on us.
One thing about AirGo that stands out to me is the platform for activists.
D.K.: The framework is that we are living in this renaissance here in Chicago, which is the conjoining of world-changing and innovative art with sustainable, thoughtful, forceful, and meaningful building. So the goal of the show is to provide a living, comprehensive database and archive of folks talking about this moment, this time, and their work and themselves in their own words.
D.W.: It’s also the only approach I could have done authentically and effectively because of the life I was living at the time—participating in social movements and being an artist. We wanted to operate within that intersection.
Some people think that the activist community is separate from the artist community, but you’re bringing these two communities together in a way that the mainstream media doesn’t.
D.K.: Both communities rely on each other and they’re often each other’s best friends. I think that’s true everywhere but I think it’s, to a degree, uniquely true to what’s been happening in the city for the last 5 years. It’s been the hard work of space builders who created rooms for young people to come together and explore their creativity, which is sorely needed [with] such a drastic divestment from public spaces, like schools.
D.W.: Think of AirGo as one living entity that has a base and is a community that is not physical but represents a tangible, on-the-ground community.
We felt the urgency to start the Triibe after Trump’s election. We wanted to take control of our narrative as black people in Chicago. Did you all feel a similar passion and urgency to create AirGo at the time you did? What was going on at that time?
D.W.: In 2015, Trump wasn’t really on our radar as a serious possibility.
D.K.: He declared his run for presidency about a month after we started the show.
D.W.: The Laquan McDonald case—the video hadn’t been released yet—intensified the grassroots and radicalism in the city. Ferguson was the first time the tools we have, such as Soundcloud, podcasting, and Twitter, were being used in a congruent, consciousness-raising way.
D.K.: These were tools that were accessible as a consumer but also a maker. We saw people using these tools to magnify and amplify the work.
D.W.: The death of Freddie Gray happened and we had a big response here in Chicago. That was the first time I remember [me and Kisslinger] seeing each other in that [movement] space. Trust was really built because he came and pushed the sound system that I was using. Symbolically, that’s when we realized who shows up.
D.K.: There was and still is so much remarkable imaginative energy that I was seeing everywhere, and [I wondered], how can we create this space and make it accessible to people on the outside?
We’re young. We’re in our 20s. What are some of the challenges you’ve had in starting your own independent media platform? How have you overcome those challenges?
D.K.: Some of them we’re still working on. We know our context in terms of the artist and activist community that we’re a part of, but as media makers, for a long time, I didn’t know what our context was. We’re not part of the public radio world. We’re not part of commercial radio. We’re not exclusively a podcast. We’re not journalists. I didn’t really know where we lived. I think one of our biggest challenges is figuring out what that context is.