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Trying to Secure a Spot on the Chicago Radio Dial

By JESSICA CURRY
   They don’t know where they’ll be on the dial yet, but CHIRP Radio starts broadcasting from the web this month. Fighting to get on air as Chicago’s first low-power FM station, radio renaissance woman and Chicago Public Radio producer (848) Shawn Campbell started the Chicago Independent Radio Project about a year ago. There are already some 170 volunteers. The goal: to create a truly local station that captures what’s been lost in corporate, commercial radio. Sick of too many commercials, few local songs and programming locked in replay? Tune in to the up-and-coming CHIRP (www.chirpradio.org).

So there isn’t a single radio station available in Chicago. Why is that? 
   That’s pretty much the case in all of the top 20 markets. The dial is really saturated. Low-power FM was actually created to make up for that, but the fact is that the way they created the low-power FM service, [the government] put in so many protections for existing stations that there’s no space allowed for a low-power FM signal in any of these top 20 markets.

So is that because the big radio stations in a city like Chicago don’t want competition? 
   That’s certainly what we believe, and that’s what we saw as the result of the way this was presented to Congress when low-power FM was created in the year 2000, but it’s not what the National Association of Broadcasters says. Their argument is that they were afraid when there was talk about creating the service that these low-power stations would cause interference with full-power stations. So the National Association of Broadcasters convinced Congress to put in what’s called third channel adjacency protection for existing stations. Because the dial is so crowded in big cities, this effectively shut out any new low-power FMs.

So do we not need three clicks between each channel?
   Congress actually commissioned an independent study, the Mitre Report, that found that in fact third channel adjacency is just too much protection. What we’re in the midst of right now is asking Congress to go back and correct this.

Do you know when the bill might be passed? 
   Our bill, it’s called the Local Community Radio Act, was introduced with strong bi-partisan support in the Senate and the House. John McCain was actually the introducing Republican co-sponsor in the Senate. We have more than 100 co-sponsors on the bill. It no longer appears to look controversial in any way. Barack Obama’s also a co-sponsor,  so we know whoever is president is going to sign it.

What’s CHIRP going to sound like? 
   What we’re looking to do is to have a station that plays a really eclectic mix of music, that has a real focus on Chicago, a real Chicago identity. Stations here that play local music really ghetto-ize it. They’ll have a half-hour or an hour  once a week when they’ll play local music.

So what’s been lost in radio? 
   A lot of people say radio is dead or dying, and that’s been predicted before. The audience hasn’t left radio—radio has left its audience.

Published: October 11, 2008
Issue: November 2008 Investing In Chicago