Ever had the feeling that something is missing in local radio? If you have you’re in the company of Jeff Cohen, who suggests that what Chicago needs is a community-oriented station to serve as a culturally and politically diverse alternative to the prevalent media.

Cohen, a media critic who cowrites a nationally syndicated column, also acts as the executive director of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), the New York-based media-watchdog organization he founded six years ago. He says Chicago’s lack of a community radio station comes up whenever he speaks to groups here. He says, “It’s stunning that it’s the largest city without one, and when I’m there all I hear is criticism of WBEZ.”

WBEZ is the local affiliate of the National Public Radio network, which Cohen praises only for its cultural and human-interest programming. “I want to give credit where credit is due, but their coverage of Washington and national politics has got the same establishment slant as the commercial media,” he says. “I’m not saying NPR should be progressive radio. NPR should cover national politics reflecting all points of view. They should have the left, center, and right well represented, and they don’t.”

FAIR’s research has shown that the mainstream media present only a center-to-right spectrum of opinion, pointing to respected news-analysis programs like ABC’s Nightline, CNN’s Capital Gang, and PBS’s MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour and McLaughlin Group. Cohen explains, “General Electric is the sponsor of the McLaughlin Group, which started out of your public TV station there in Chicago. When it started it had five white guys, four of whom were cheerleaders for the Reagan doctrine, and that’s what passed for a spectrum of views. That’s the spectrum that General Electric is going to underwrite.”

The print media seem to offer a slightly wider range of viewpoints, with columns like Cohen’s and Alexander Cockburn’s running in certain mainstream newspapers. But the United States still doesn’t have a daily newspaper with a progressive or left viewpoint, something that Cohen notes sets us apart from most of western Europe.

In the absence of such a newspaper, he sees radio stations affiliated with the Pacifica network as vital community resources. Pacifica, a network of stations in Los Angeles, the Bay Area, New York, Houston, and Washington, D.C., produces news and public-affairs programming carried by a number of other independent stations around the country. Pacifica’s news programs are broadcast locally on WZRD, Northeastern Illinois University’s FM station.

“It’s the only source of alternative news available on a daily basis in this country,” Cohen says, and then corrects himself. “I’ve been trying to avoid the term ‘alternative,’ because it implies that you get the real news from the TV networks and the New York Times and you get something derivative from reading the Nation magazine, or Ms. magazine, or the Progressive, or listening to Pacifica radio. I’ve been referring to these media outlets as the independent media, because they’re independent of corporate control.”

Many local activists were concerned about media coverage of the gulf war. Local organizer Darlene Gramigna says, “The media obviously played a big role in determining what information came out and didn’t come out about the gulf war and the antiwar efforts. After the war started there was hardly anybody who would listen to anything we had to say.”

This frustration led Gramigna to meet with other activists in May 1991 to discuss how to respond to what they saw as a progovernment bias in the media. At first they considered trying to bring Pacifica news to other stations or boost WZRD’s signal so that it could reach the entire city. “The more we talked about it the more we realized that it wasn’t just Pacifica that we wanted,” says Gramigna. “What we really wanted was an opportunity to create some spaces for both community groups and groups interested in international issues.”

Calling themselves the Peace and Justice Radio Project, Gramigna and a core group of five others committed themselves to the long-term goal of creating a community radio station in Chicago and began looking for financial and technical help. Office space was donated by the American Friends Service Committee, where Gramigna has worked for the last 12 years, coordinating their work on Latin American and Caribbean issues.

The group began broadcasting when WZRD gave them a weekly half hour of airtime for free. They decided to call their show Real World Radio, Gramigna explains, because “we thought that the real world was one that was not being presented on the radio in any form in Chicago.”

Without a studio they can’t do live broadcasts, so the program consists of prerecorded interviews and discussions with a motley assortment of dissidents and performers as well as peace, labor, and human-rights activists from the local and international scene. In April they were able to buy additional time on WKTA, a multiethnic AM station, bringing their total weekly airtime to one hour–still far short of their goal.

Working with Gramigna and a small core group of activists is Wayne Heimbagh, who conducts many of the interviews and also works on the local cable-television show Labor Beat. Because they don’t have their own editing equipment, Heimbagh edits most of the Real World programs at home on his own equipment.

The group and its show are now in their second year, still scrounging for money and volunteers and looking for a way to get more broadcast time on a city-wide signal. They find themselves trapped in a financial catch-22: they’ll be able to cultivate a larger donating audience and apply for funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting once they get their own station, but they can’t raise the money needed to buy one.

In spite of what looks like an uphill struggle for the Peace and Justice Radio Project, Jeff Cohen is optimistic about the possibilities for a community radio station in Chicago. He predicts that an independent station with a strong signal would draw listeners from the audiences of WBEZ and other local stations. “Once you’re on the air I have no doubt that it will be self-supporting,” he says. “I think overnight Chicago would have one of the most successful stations.”

Cohen says he hopes he’ll be able to come and speak on a community-oriented, listener-sponsored radio station in the near future. Even so, he says, “There are all sorts of voices more important than mine that are not getting heard in Chicago that would be if you had such a station.”

The Peace and Justice Radio Project is bringing Jeff Cohen to town on Thursday to talk about media activism and the coverage of the current presidential race. The lecture takes place at 7 PM at Saint Pius Church, 1919 S. Ashland. There’s a requested $5 donation. Real World Radio is broadcast on WKTA (AM 1330) Sunday afternoons at 4:30 and on WZRD (FM 88.3) Thursday nights at 7. Call 427-2533 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.