This Saturday, Ed Marszewski—the mind behind Bridgeport bar Maria's, culture zine Lumpen, Marz Brewing Company, and about a dozen other indie bootstraps—will host the first-ever Bridgeport's Got Beef competition. The live contest aims to name Bridgeport's best beef sandwich (chef Kevin Hickey and Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson are among the judges), but it also doubles as a fundraiser for Lumpen Radio (WLPN-FM 105.5), the low-power FM station Marszewski launched online with collaborators Leah Menzer and Logan Bay this Spring. If all goes well, the profits will go toward erecting an FM antenna at Washtenaw and Roosevelt later this month. It's a multi-thousand dollar undertaking that'll send WLPN's current web stream to two million dials as far as Grand Crossing and Evanston.
WLPN might be Chicago's newest independent FM station, but it's not the first. The non-profit Chicago Independent Radio Project (CHIRP) has run online since 2010, and when the FCC allowed more organizations to apply for low-power FM licenses in October 2013, CHIRP snatched up 107.1. WJPC followed suit last year, nabbing 99.1 FM and approval to set up an antenna at 43rd Street and Princeton Avenue after 14 years seeking federal approval.
Then came WLPN, which Marszewski and company launched in April with the idea of giving Chicago its airwaves back. "I think it's important that the community gets to use the airwaves to communicate ideas and music that are different than the monocultural, corporatized radio we have in Chicagoland," says Marszewski.
When he says "different," he means different: At any given moment, WLPN's volunteer DJs are broadcasting German techno, gospel, a talk show about magic, and any number of live events at Marszewskis's bar or gallery (live-lit event Story Club South Side and comedy showcase The Comedy Butcher among them). Says programming director Logan Bay, "Chicago has such a history of musicians, crate-diggers, and nerds that it [needs] a place for them to roost—to call up all the other weirdos and say, 'Hey, you already do this. Let's amplify it.'"
If uniting Chicago's weirdos is WLPN's raison d'etre, it's also its greatest challenge. The FM dial has operated as a top-down moneymaker for long enough to lose its young audience, let alone those looking for new sounds. And Marszewski knows it. "It's absolutely a challenge," he says, "but I kind of see this RF signal as vinyl. We're trying to take an archaic form of mass communication and make it listenable and enjoyable again—a place where something unexpected will happen."
So how does WLPN plan to corral new listeners back to an old medium? Simply enough, by dropping it in their pathways. "Our signal is smack dab in the middle of the city," says Marszewski, who anticipates WLPN's audience to rise exponentially once it expands from the Web to the airwaves. "If you're online, you're by your device, and you have your own music you're playing."
WLPN's home in Bridgeport could be its saving grace in that regard. While CHIRP broadcasts to a 3.5-mile radius around North Center and college stations target mainly their own campuses, WLPN can target people in their cars at the center of the city. "We hit every highway during rush hour with our signal placement," says Bay. "That means all those people trapped in gridlock surfing [channels] are gonna hit 105.5—right in the range of all this commercial radio." Adds Marszewski, "It's gonna be a nice phenomenon. Like, 'What is this?'"
Go Bridgeport's Got Beef runs Nov. 14 at 3. Co-Prosperity Sphere, 3219 S. Morgan., eventbrite.com; $35 to $50