Shawn Campbell spent nearly a decade working at radio stations dealing with "large bureaucracy" before she decided to set out on her own in the summer of 2007. She recruited volunteers passionate about local music and indie media to join her, and Chicago Independent Radio Project, aka CHIRP Radio, launched its online broadcast in January 2010.
This month CHIRP takes its next big step, launching its terrestrial broadcast, 107.1 FM, from its North Center studio. It took years of work, teaming with national activist groups and making two trips to D.C. (one in which Campbell and founding board member Jenny Lizak led a meeting about low-power FM for President Obama’s technology team), to ensure the passage of the Local Community Radio Act, which removed restrictions on radio broadcasting and allowed hundreds of new stations to be licensed in big cities for the first time.
CHIRP Radio will celebrate its FM launch with a party November 4 at Dovetail Brewery (1800 W. Belle Plaine Ave.). Ahead of the celebration, Chicago caught up with Campbell to talk about the new FM broadcast and what the future holds for this indie station.
How did CHIRP Radio come about?
I'm one of those strange people who knew what they wanted to do since I was 10 years old. I knew I wanted to work in radio. I went to college for it. I worked in commercial radio for a while after college and then moved over to the non-commercial radio side, and I ran a non-commercial station for eight years. During that time, I realized Chicago—one of the largest cities in the country—didn't have a truly independent radio station that wasn't attached to a university or another big institution. After spending eight years dealing with large bureaucracy, I decided I wanted to start a station that would be controlled by people who are passionate about broadcasting, independent media, and focused on independent music.
What sets CHIRP apart from other stations?
We are always live and local; the DJs that you hear on the air are curating their shows in real-time, unlike some commercial radio DJs. A lot of community stations will plan an hour of jazz, an hour of country, an hour folk. We mix everything up, so you'll hear a wide variety of music from different eras. Our tagline is: “Hear what’s next.” And we say that because we are on top of a lot of great new music, but it also means if you are not particularly interested in a song that's playing right now, stick around because the next song will be completely different. You might fall in love with it.
We have 250 volunteers at the station, and just two paid staff members. Our volunteers are instrumental: I can't give enough credit to the people who come in at 6 in the morning on a Saturday for a show, or do IT infrastructure work, which they do at their day job, and then come in at night after work to do it for us.
You’ve been working for a decade to get this terrestrial broadcast. Why was it important to pursue an FM station?
Over the years, it didn't matter if people were 16 or 60 years old, they would say, "Oh, CHIRP Radio, I don't know about you. What number are you?" As soon as we said, "We are online," you could just watch them lose interest. They assume online stations are a hobby project, where people have their iTunes on shuffle, or that it's not a real radio station, even though we've been operating in the ways any local radio stations would operate from the time we launched in January 2010.
There is an air of legitimacy by having that FM broadcast. It's also an accessibility issue. First, it allows for easy listening in cars, which is when the great majority of radio listening happens, and it also makes sure the radio is accessible to pretty much anyone regardless of income level. That was an important component of having a broadcast license as well.
What can people expect at the launch party on Saturday?
This was something that's been 10 years in the making so we wanted to throw a great party. It’s a way to get together as friends, as listeners, and donors across the city who have believed in us all these years, and for people who want to find out about us and celebrate a culmination of a decade of work. We will be at Dovetail Brewery from 8 to 11 p.m. We have a live set from the Flat Five, but they are playing without their drummer so they are actually playing as the Flat Four for the evening. We have small bites from about a half-dozen local restaurants. We've got really great silent auction packages, raffle prizes, and sets from CHIRP Radio DJs as well.
How do you think the broadcast will impact the station moving forward?
We are just really excited to answer that question: What number are you on the dial? We we will be doing a lot of awareness raising in the coming year. It's funny because obviously the internet is practically infinite in terms of listenership, and broadcast is finite. But already just having been on the air [for a week], we've been getting phone calls from people who have just stumbled across the station, and they're excited. They say: "Who are you? What's going on here? You're playing all this interesting music. Are you local? We don't know you."
People are still looking for that connection that radio provides. I often say radio can make you feel slightly less alone in the world, in a way that your Spotify account never will, because there's a human on the other side. What we do at CHIRP is build on that human connection; DJs are actually making choices about what they are playing in real-time, and they are talking about what's going on in their own lives, and what's going on in their community.