Courtesy of the Arts Incubator
The sole physical structure of “Windy City Breakdown” stood in the center of the room—a large wooden frame with glass in the center, displaying rows of album covers like a picture frame holding an old family portrait. The personal record collection of Ayana Contreras, artist-in-residence at the Arts Incubator, is exactly that: a family portrait of Chicago’s musical influencers that stands as a lasting representation of the city’s narrative.
The exhibit closed just a few days ago, but its most obviously displayed works were the case of records and large provocative posters. The rest of the artifacts were strategically placed in white cases lining the walls, displaying photographs, 45 rpm records, and documents from Chicago’s musical past. At her talk on May 19, Contreras explained, “When people ask what I do, I say I collect old stuff to hopefully create new stuff.” Contreras has spent her entire life surrounded and fascinated by what we now call “old stuff.” From rebelliously sifting through her grandmother’s record collection to building her own collection from the inventory of Imports, the record store her mother worked in, Contreras matched the beat of her drum to the sounds of contemporary and past jazz, blues, and choruses.
As she grew older, she began forming her own record collection, often finding her grandmother’s favorites in local shops. She became invested in collecting collections when she began uncovering the collections of strangers; her first bout of secondhand archiving came through discovering numerous records in different shops marked with the initials “S.B.” In the process, she realized that most of the music she was drawn to hailed from Chicago and was from a certain time period—the sixties and seventies, when Black Power in Chicago was alive and well.
“When you find these things, what I’m thinking about is the city of Chicago and our cultural heritage,” Contreras said. “It’s easy to live in my community and think that we don’t have a lot of culture.” While music was at the heart of the exhibition, the display of the culture that the music preserves was its real aim. The large posters hanging from the walls were actually enlarged versions of advertisements displayed during the first Black Expo in 1971, a public fair of black culture aimed at benefiting black businesses and raising awareness about black issues. Each display acted as a chapter in the narrative of the South Side and the city as a whole, holding letters or issues of Jet and Hue from the seventies. It’s an immersion in the South Side as it stood in earlier times, and it draws out the way the climate of the city manifested itself as an inherent characteristic of Chicago music.
The immersive effect of the exhibition stems from Contreras’s deep involvement in current South Side and Chicago music as a DJ on Vocalo, a sister station of WBEZ. As part of her program, Contreras conducts interviews with musicians of the past, and brings them to the ears of listeners in the present. Segments of her interviews are included in her exhibition—a pair of wireless headphones rested on a post to the right of the frame of records. From the music of Syl Johnson to memories of an earlier, more prosperous South Side, the excerpts add another layer to the exhibition: an exposition of the effect that the everyday lives and situations of not only the artists, but also the neighborhoods, had on the culture back then.
Though appreciative of the past, “Windy City Breakdown” is not meant to be nostalgic. Through these archives and interviews, Contreras attempts to use the past to push forward. “There was some serious progress going on, and I feel that this progress has been circumvented,” she said. Even the color of the walls reflects this sentiment—Contreras selected vibrant, but slightly subdued hues because she wanted the walls to “make it feel like there’s an energy.” She hopes that these works can use that energy to mobilize today’s youth. “Working with kids and playing them these records…” Contreras stopped and cleared her throat. “A lot of them don’t have a lot of hope.”
Later in the talk, she stopped, as she had done many times, to play the audience a song: “Motherless Child” as performed by the Operation Breadbasket Orchestra and Choir and Ben Branch. She stopped the track, stating that she and many others in the community at times related to “feeling like a motherless child, where you don’t belong where you are, and you try to create this narrative where black is beautiful and anything is possible…I feel like Chicago is still that place for a lot of people.”
Contreras’s remark explained why the exhibition was at heart a celebration of black advancement through the arts. Though at times it can be hard to register the stories and events represented by the materials in “Windy City Breakdown” without deep familiarity with the particular subject, the overarching aim of the exhibition is palpable—presenting the cultural influence of the time, understanding it as a mobile force, and restoring that to the present to better the futures of black lives.
“I mean, look at Black Twitter, right?” Contreras added. “I think we’re all still trying to find this place where we feel like we all belong.”
Best execution of media activism
October 30th, 2014
“Feminist Wednesdays” are the best. No, it’s the domestic violence in immigrant communities conversation with Sangeetha Ravichandran and Neha Gill of Apna Ghar that’s the best. No, it’s Ayana Contreras’ “Reclaimed Soul” that’s better than anything else on radio in the city. No, it’s Friday morning’s too-honest “Practically Speaking.” No, it’s the fact that nowhere else on Chicago radio are you going to hear a Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar song followed by a Vic Mensa and Thundercat song. Whatever the program director over at 91.1FM is doing over at Vocalo, every PD in the city needs to take heed… and bow down.
In Rotation: Ayana Contreras of Vocalo’s Reclaimed Soul on a softly stratospheric Andrew Hill LP
Plus: Primeridian’s Simeon Viltz on Acid Rap, the Reader‘s Leor Galil on Elvis impersonators, and more
By Leor Galil
Leor Galil, Reader staff writer
Karin Pritikin and Kent Barker, The King & I: A Little Gallery of Elvis Impersonators True story: As a kid I was so obsessed with the King that for a short time I asked everyone to call me Elvis. This coffee-table book documents the first annual convention of the Elvis Presley Impersonators Association of America, which took place in Chicago in 1989. Pritikin thoughtfully weaves together her subjects’ backstories, and Barker’s tender portraits of the impersonators in costume capture the joy and passion of people who have dedicated their lives to making sure the public stays under Elvis’s spell.
Diarrhea Planet‘s set at Tomorrow Never Knows on Sun 1/19 The rowdy Nashville six-piece was as awesome, fun, and goofy as a windmill high-five.
Handwritten notes on a used copy of the Jesse’s Gang “Real Love” 12-inch A friend of mine loves finding notes in secondhand books—and her enthusiasm is apparently contagious, because I recently snatched up a used copy of Jesse’s Gang’s 1985 single “Real Love” because it had a mess of handwriting covering half the sleeve. The previous owner of this light dance single from one of the many side projects of house legend Jesse Saunders had used the LP as a notepad to jot down more than a dozen song titles—Sylvester’s “Rock the Box,” Loleatta Holloway’s “Crash Goes Love“—sometimes in nearly illegible cursive. I can only imagine how many times this playlist lit up warehouse parties in the 80s.
Leor is curious what’s in the rotation of . . .
Ayana Contreras, DJ and host of Vocalo’s Reclaimed Soul, blogger at darkjive.com
The Natural Four, Natural Four This was released here in Chicago on Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label in 1974. The Natural Four was a group that came here from San Francisco to record because Chicago was a soul-music center. Unfortunately, aside from scoring a Top 40 hit with this album’s classic lead track, “Can This Be Real,” the group was unable to break through. Natural Four brims with loping strings, aggressive horns, and slinky harmonies.
Andrew Hill, Lift Every Voice I collect old Blue Note albums, and I’m often initially attracted to their covers. This 1970 release features Hill’s face superimposed over stars and violet nebulas, and the record itself is softly stratospheric in its energy. Hill leads a crowd of vocalists and an instrumental quintet that includes Richard Davis on bass and Carlos Garnett on tenor sax. With song titles such as “Love Chant,” “Ghetto Lights,” and “Hey Hey,” the record gently envelops you with a sense of perpetual motion—sometimes it feels like you’re swinging in a hammock, and sometimes it’s like you’re running electrically in the streets.
Sunday Williams, “Where Did He Come From“ Sunday Williams recorded this single in Chicago around 1969 for Bill Meeks’s Alteen label, based on Stony Island Avenue. It did OK locally, mainly thanks to the cheery flip side, “Ain’t Got No Problems” (which features the hook “Know what to do with my man, yeah!”). Really, both songs are stellar. But “Where Did He Come From” has a hauntingly beautiful staccato horn intro, coupled with dreamy vibes and a rock-solid bass line.
Ayana is curious what’s in the rotation of . . .
Simeon Viltz, rapper and member of Primeridian
Miles Davis, Love Songs Miles Davis is one of my favorite artists ever, and this 1999 collection of 50s and 60s material embodies one of his mellower moods with flawless execution. Subconsciously this music may very well be why I try to play my trumpet more like a flute than like the powerful brass instrument it was intended to be. I play this record all the time, and usually it instantly alters my mood into a relaxed state, no matter what the noise of the day may be.
Chance the Rapper, Acid Rap I’ve been very proud of Chance the Rapper ever since the days when I worked at YouMedia-DYN as one of his first musical mentors. Chance, Vic Mensa (who I also mentored), and the whole Save Money Movement are doing great things for the Chicago musical landscape. While I was working at Street-Level Youth Media, in a crazy serendipitous way I mentored Stefan Ponce too—he’s one of the album’s producers, and he’s on tour with Vic as his DJ. Acid Rap has replay value like nothing I’ve heard in a long time.
Patrice Rushen, Prelusion/Before the Dawn This album by another one of my favorite artists, Patrice Rushen, may very well be one of my favorites ever. On vinyl these were two separate LPs, originally released in the mid-70s, but they were sold together on one CD. Rushen, a lovely singer, is also a very gifted musician who really stepped out with her chord progressions on this album. The textures of the different instruments are unparalleled. Instant classic.
‘The Listening Room’ At Seattle Art Museum”
Marcie Sillman, KUOW Radio Seattle
Art museums are dignified repositories for cultural artifacts, right? A new show at the Seattle Art Museum questions that assumption, and slips in a little R&B at the same time. KUOW’s Marcie Sillman reports.
It’s a chilly Sunday morning. The Seattle Art Museum, SAM, has been open for an hour or so, but people are just starting to trickle in. Things are pretty quiet until you take the escalator up to the second floor.
Marcie Sillman: “You can hear the music at SAM before you actually get to the gallery.”
Jazz wafts down the hall as enticing as the aroma of freshly–baked cookies. Follow your ears and you’ll find the audio chef: a young woman in a yellow sweater with a set of headphones on top of her red hat.
That’s DJ Ayana Contreras. She’s spinning discs on two turntables built into a wooden cabinet set up in the middle of the gallery.
Contreras: “Sometimes I use the metaphor or these two turntables as pots, and I’m cooking. Come on in, come to the pot and sniff it, and ask me, and I’ll tell you about the bay leaf I just put on.”
Contreras chooses the ingredients for her tuneful stew from a collection of 5,000 long–playing albums (LPs). For those of you too young to remember, music was recorded and pressed into 12–inch vinyl discs in the pre–digital days. The records are filed in a specially–made nook in the art gallery’s back wall.
Theaster Gates: “It’s a kind of canon of black music, you know; that it covers gospel, jazz, blues, disco, early R&B, later hip–hop.”
That’s Theaster Gates, the artistic mind behind this installation. He calls it “The Listening Room.” Gates bought the records from a store in Chicago, when it went out of business about a year ago. For him, the albums are as much about ideas as they are about tunes.
Gates: “I’m really interested in how do we take stock of moments of cultural loss, like when a record store goes out of business.”
Gates hopes the music will jumpstart conversation about those moments. But this show is about more than a record collection.
Visitors lured into the gallery by the music may notice what look like tapestries made of coarse fabric on the walls across from the albums. The fabric is actually strips of firehoses.
Theaster Gates calls these “Civil Rights Tapestries.” They refer to an infamous 1963 event in Birmingham, Alabama. The chief of police ordered his officers to blast water from similar hoses at peaceful civil rights demonstrators.
Sandra Jackson–Dumont: “I think that’s one of the most exciting aspects of this show.”
Sandra Jackson–Dumont is Seattle Art Museum’s deputy director for education and public programs, and the adjunct curator for this exhibition.
Jackson–Dumont: “People will see something in there, will recognize so much of it, and be introduced to political, social and historical moments through music, through these objects.”
Jackson–Dumont loves Gates’ ideas about the role art plays in fostering community conversation. They dovetail perfectly with her goal of making Seattle Art Museum a crossroads for people from all types of backgrounds. She wants to create singular memorable experiences for museumgoers.
Jackson–Dumont: “Museums have to be places where people feel so inspired to come back over and over again because they’re trying to create that moment they had the last time over and over. So I’m personally, and as an institution, we are completely invested in creating these, like, critical moments that I have to say they are not always comfortable.”
Both Sandra Jackson–Dumont and Theaster Gates want to extend “The Listening Room” beyond the museum walls. To that end, SAM has set up a temporary satellite installation in Pioneer Square, and Gates wants people to encounter musical moments all over the city.
Gates: “Our hope is to identify sites that would be interesting for some of the music to show up at, to engage folk in political listening, the idea that people could come together and reflect on important moments together using the album as a minister, if you will.”
Back at the Seattle Art Museum, Sandra Jackson–Dumont and DJ Ayana Contreras are grooving to The Four Tops. Jackson–Dumont spots a young boy eyeing the records along the wall. She pulls out a copy of “Stevie Wonder’s Greatest Hits” and hands it to him.
Jackson–Dumont: “So you’ve never held a record before, huh?”
The boy eyes the vinyl dubiously. His dark eyes are wide.
Jackson–Dumont: “So, hold it like that; pull it out. Hold it like a pizza. Hold it, though.”
The boy’s mother snaps a photo on her phone.
Mother: “That was monumental event for him to hold his first LP.”
It’s a pop culture artifact that has almost faded into memory. Sandra Jackson–Dumont watches with a wide grin.
And, as if it was planned, DJ Ayana Contreras cranks up a song to match the moment.
I’m Marcie Sillman, KUOW News.
© Copyright 2011, KUOW
a link to marcie sillman’s audio can be found here.
Can artists save Grand Crossing?
Theaster Gates is fighting blight with artists-in-residence
by Deanna Issacs Chicago Reader June 2, 2011
In 2006 then-emerging artist Theaster Gates, looking to buy himself a home, came across a squat masonry building on the 6900 block of South Dorchester. The neighborhood had a dicey reputation, and the place wasn’t in great shape, but it was close to the University of Chicago, where Gates was hoping to land a job—and, in an overheated market, the price was within his budget. The building, which once had a candy store in the front and living quarters in the rear, looked like a good candidate for conversion to an artist’s live/work space. He snagged it for $130,000 and moved in.
“It was the first house I’d ever bought, and it had this beautiful tree in the backyard,” Gates, now 37, recalls. “Maybe I could have a studio in the front room, and life would be good. I’d work hard and pay it off one day, and have some babies, stuff like that.”
The reality was that for at least the first year, while he slept on a table, “it was a construction zone.” Working on the house at night and on weekends, using recycled materials, especially well-worn wood, he began transforming the compact interior—now a studio, kitchen, den, and two bedrooms with deck and garden in the back—into a blend of art, rehab architecture, and hand-built craft.
By the time he was fully settled in three years later, both Gates’s career and the neighborhood had changed in ways he couldn’t have anticipated: while one soared, the other tanked.
For a Renaissance man on a mission, Gates is a disarmingly low-key presence. Equipped with an eclectic academic background (one of his two master’s degrees combines urban planning, ceramics, and religion) and some solid arts administration experience, he arrived at the University of Chicago at the perfect moment—just as the venerable, theory-bound institution began a push to establish itself as a vigorous practicing arts school. The most visible evidence of this effort is the towering $114 million Reva Riva and David Logan Center for Creative and Performing Arts, under construction on the Midway and slated to open in 2012.
Hired in 2007 as coordinator of arts programming for the Humanities Division, by 2009 Gates was artist in residence in the Department of Visual Art and had been bumped up to the provost’s office as director of arts program development for the entire campus. (Gates’s responsibilities at the U. of C. are growing still; come September he’ll be director of arts and public life.) At the same time, his artwork—which is grounded in the aesthetic reuse of humble materials—had expanded from ceramics to more explicitly social and political installations and performances that were turning him into an art-world rising star. He had solo shows in the works at venues including the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Milwaukee Art Museum, and a prized invitation to participate in the 2010 Whitney Biennial, put together that year by former MCA curator Francesco Bonami.
Chicago art dealer Kavi Gupta, with a gallery in Berlin and an international clientele, began representing Gates’s rapidly appreciating work. A selection of Gates’s pieces—including massive, expressionistic sculptures of shoe-shine thrones and a series of works incorporating fire hoses, sometimes rolled and framed (In the Event of Race Riots 2011)—is on display at Gupta’s Chicago gallery, where a solo show is running through July 2.
These days, a Kohler sink modified by Gates goes for $18,000; a painted urn embellished with a brief poem is priced at $15,000. Gupta sold just about all of Gates’s work displayed at the recent Next show (held in conjunction with Art Chicago) and much of the work at the gallery show, mostly at prices ranging from $20,000 to more than $50,000.
It’s been a meteoric rise. The youngest and only son in a religious family of nine children, Gates grew up in East Garfield Park, helping in his father’s roofing business and singing in the choir (which he began leading at age 14) at the Baptist church the family attended. After graduating from Lane Tech, he went to Iowa State University as an urban planning major and took a course in ceramics from Ingrid Lilligren that got him hooked on clay—and made him think he could be an artist. He studied religion in South Africa, sojourned in Japan, and earned the first of his two masters degrees. In 2000 he was hired as an arts planner for the CTA, then led by Valerie Jarrett. From there, he went to Little Black Pearl Art and Design Center as director of education and outreach, returning to Iowa State for the second master’s before joining the U. of C.
Meanwhile, Gates went from throwing pots to mounting emotionally charged installations and performances, including multiple events based on a faux biographical story that gained some traction. The gist of it was that a master Japanese potter, Yamaguchi, had fled Hiroshima and landed in Mississippi, where he married a black woman, combined Japanese and black southern cultures, mentored Gates, and then died, leaving Gates to continue his mission of “fostering social transformation” by “convening dinners in cities with extreme racial and social tension just beneath well articulated geographical boundaries.” With former Wilco member LeRoy Bach, Gates formed an experimental music ensemble, the Black Monks of Mississippi, making performance art out of a blend of Eastern chants, gospel, and the blues. And at the Milwaukee Art Museum and elsewhere, he channeled Dave Drake, an enslaved 19th-century South Carolina potter whose work—often embellished with his own poems—is now treasured by museums and collectors.
By 2010 Gates was a hot ticket on the museum circuit, with a schedule that included on-site projects or residencies at Artadia Arcadia (New York), the Museum of Contemporary Craft (Portland), Wisconsin’s Kohler facility, the Milwaukee Art Museum, Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum, and New York’s Armory Show as well as the Whitney. (A project with the Smart Museum, Feast: An Exhibition of Radical Hospitality, is scheduled for February 2012.)
But in the summer of 2009, while his career was thriving, his neighborhood had emptied out. Renters using Section 8 housing vouchers were leaving the city for the suburbs in droves; landlords with empty buildings that were under water after the housing market collapsed stopped paying their mortgages; lenders foreclosed and prices continued to tank. The house next door to Gates—bigger than his and bustling with three tenant families when he moved in—was abandoned and bank-owned, and had been on the market for a year. When Gates bumped into the listing agent there, he inquired about the price. It was less than the cost of an ordinary new car, and way less than a year’s tuition at the University of Chicago. If you were a home owner on that block, it was gut-sinkingly low.
Gates revisited the decision he’d made to buy into the Grand Crossing neighborhood. He could have moved to a loft downtown, like everyone else. But, he says, “I was always making art that was asking questions about the city, and why the city functioned the way it did. How does cultural and economic disparity happen? How can we fight it? I was trying to present these questions in the form of little abandoned ceramic houses and drawings or performances that spoke to the issue. And I just got tired of pointing a finger at it and wanted to actually do something about it, challenge it in a real way.”
His block, less than a mile south of Hyde Park and “on the cusp” of South Shore, has seen both better and worse days, Gates says. “If the worst came because everybody who had been successful in the neighborhood left, what would happen if, as I did better, I decided to stay?”
Apartment galleries were popping up in places like Wicker Park and Pilsen, and Gates had already been casting his house as a place to “convene people.” In a flush of opportunity and vision—bolstered by what he says is a better exercised “belief muscle” than most people possess—he began to think he could transform the whole block “as a kind of artistic practice and cultural statement.” He bought the forlorn frame house next door for $16,000, planning to turn it into something the neighborhood could use, like a good soul food kitchen and dinner club.
The residential zoning squelched that idea and instead—after a major rehab—Gates’s extra house became a library and archive. That was convenient, since around the same time he purchased it, Gates also acquired 60,000 glass lantern slides from the U. of C.’s art history department, 14,000 books from Prairie Avenue Bookshop, which was closing, and the 8,000 LPs that the Dr. Wax record store still owned when it also shut down.
Last fall he bought another vacated foreclosure, an abused but handsome old multiunit brick building on the corner across the street, and an empty lot next door to his house, and the grand plan for what is now Dorchester Projects LLC began to take shape. The three buildings, with the addition of a food pavilion on the lot, would make up an arts compound including a potters’ studio and living quarters for a few artists in residence, and could, perhaps, transform the neighborhood.
This spring, with the support of a Propeller Fund grant and help from two staffers—Dara Epison, who works with Gates at the University of Chicago, and recent U. of C. grad Elly Fishman—Dorchester Projects launched a series of artists’ residencies, featuring public performances in Gates’s house promoted by word of mouth. (Jazz musician and composer David Boykin was the inaugural artist; DJ and record archivist Ayana Contreras is in residence now.)
Epison and Fishman have also been in residence, manning the ship while Gates sandwiched in a yearlong Loeb fellowship at Harvard, focusing on things like real estate law, finance, and nonprofit management. He also recently formed his own nonprofit, the Rebuild Foundation, and has begun to acquire property in blighted neighborhoods in other cities: several buildings in Saint Louis and one each in Detroit and Omaha, all to be converted into grassroots cultural use.
In late April, during his brief return to Chicago to appear on a panel with National Endowment for the Arts head Rocco Landesman, word came out that Gates and the Rebuild Foundation would also be part of a group acquiring a much bigger project: the Dante Harper Townhomes, a shuttered 36-unit CHA property a couple of blocks from Gates’s home. The plan: redevelopment into mixed-income housing for people with an interest in the arts.
That announcement turned out to be premature. Late last month, on the phone from San Francisco, where he was designing sets and rehearsing for an upcoming tour of Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s multimedia eco show red, black and GREEN, Gates said his group is “having a conversation with the CHA”—and that the agency has indicated interest in their proposal.
If they get the project, it will likely work like this: the city will hand over the units, along with financial support (perhaps in the form of tax credits) to help pay for a gut rehab. Gates’s partners, Northbrook-based Brinshore Development, will also be paid by CHA to manage the completed project, which the partnership will eventually own.
It’s all of a piece, Gates says. “A big part of my art practice has been creatively investigating what happens in neighborhoods. That also includes playing in the real market, not just gesturing at it. We’re at a moment where the interventions that artists make are not just in museums and galleries.”
But it’s a work in progress, he says: “I’m at the beginning of asking questions about what else the black south side can be.”
I was involved with Vocalo.org from its inception until Summer of 2009. After a hiatus, I returned to the project in Spring of 2012. Please read about this exciting radio and web fusion…
Chicago Public Radio turning its image on its head
by Liz Balde, September 2007 (published in Beep Magazine and the Daily Herald)
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?