On August 8, 2007, the Chicago Independent Radio Project—affectionately known as CHIRP—held its first public meeting, hoping to recruit people to its project of establishing an independent low-power radio station in the city. At that point CHIRP was led by a handful of former community volunteers from Loyola University’s WLUW, at least one of whom had been ousted when the school decided the station should focus more on students. It was a broadcast outlet in theory alone—no licenses for low-power FM stations were available in Chicago, or in any other urban center. CHIRP’s online programming, which launched in January 2010, wasn’t even part of the initial plan. But the project’s growing team longed for a home on the airwaves to love as their own, one that wasn’t beholden to anyone except the people who volunteered to run it.
Did they figure it’d take a decade to come to fruition? Probably not. But on July 28, the Federal Communications Commission approved an Uptown location for CHIRP’s transmitter tower, and the station plans to start broadcasting at 107.1 FM in mid-October.
“It’s funny looking back, because at the time we thought our only way forward was the broadcast license,” says CHIRP founder and general manager Shawn Campbell. “There was only a little bit of online listening then, but within a year we realized it could work.”
CHIRP’s online radio platform has been its bridge to broadcast, amplifying its voice and bolstering its credibility as it joined other fledgling independent stations around the country in a grassroots movement to get the Local Community Radio Act through Congress. (The act became law in 2011.) Previously the FCC had mostly issued licenses for low-power FM stations in rural areas, where there’s less competition from big broadcasters, but the LCRA proposed to allow a wave of new low-power stations in cities, nestled into the open spots on the frequency map.
“We spent those first two and a half years raising money and awareness and working on the bill,” Campbell says. “Then the FCC took another two and half years to write the rules. Then there wasn’t an application window till November of 2013. Then another year to consider the application. We finally got our decision and were awarded a construction permit in November of 2014.”
Throughout this protracted process—the FCC application has been just a sliver of the red tape involved—CHIRP has never hurt for volunteers, even as people have come and gone. Campbell claims there were 100 right off the bat, and today the number hovers around 250. CHIRP held its first fund-raiser, headlined by the band Canasta, at the Double Door in August 2007, just two days after that initial public meeting. It raised $1,200. At the time, says Campbell, Chicago was the biggest market in the country without an independent community radio station. She believes there was and continues to be a hunger for that sort of broadcasting. “It seemed ridiculous not to have dozens of these small stations inside of urban cities,” she says.
Former Metro publicist Jenny Lizak, who’s now coordinator of special projects in the cultural and civic engagement department of the Chicago Public Library, has been a CHIRP volunteer since the beginning and currently serves as a DJ (every Sunday from 4-6 PM) and as a member of the board of directors. In 2008 and again in 2009 she traveled with Campbell to Washington, D.C., where they worked to advance low-power licensing and spoke with senators and representatives on behalf of community radio groups.
“Media justice is really a social-justice issue—and it’s not just about our little group getting a station,” Lizak says. “It’s about having voices on the air that are diverse. The airwaves don’t belong to Clear Channel. Being able to use that frequency to share the voices of a community is something uniquely American.”
Founding volunteer Tony Breed, who’s called himself CHIRP’s “director of swag” for his marketing efforts (he also DJs on Fridays from 6-9 AM), agrees that the group had an activist bent from the start. “At the beginning we were kind of a political organization, trying to get laws changed. It was at least 50 percent WLUW staff running the station then. We were scrappy.”
Even after the fight was won in Congress, CHIRP continued to attract new support as its eclectic online station grew its audience, helped along by regular DJs making themselves at home in their weekly spots, their specialties as diverse as indie pop, vocal jazz, and psychedelia. The metaphorical on air sign has stayed lit thanks to robust fund-raising at the popular CHIRP Record Fairs and a program that allows people to sign up for automatic monthly donations—as well as some money from the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. Six years after the LCRA went into effect, CHIRP doesn’t lack a terrestrial broadcast because it’s short of cash or personnel. The delay comes down to the rigmarole of finding the right building to house the antenna tower.
CHIRP fund-raising events:
At this show, proceeds from the bar go to CHIRP. Wed 8/23, 8:30 PM, the Whistler, 2421 N. Milwaukee, free, 21+
Classic album Sundays
A group listening session for Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall. Sun 8/27, 5:30 PM, Saturday Audio Exchange, 1021 W. Belmont, $5, all ages
The easiest, most obvious solution would’ve been to install the tower atop CHIRP’s studios in North Center, near Irving Park and Rockwell. But the CHIRP crew soon learned that this would require erecting a 40- to 50-foot structure atop a modest three-story building, which they felt sure the neighborhood would refuse to back. In early 2015 they shifted their focus to a building in Ravenswood, and the expediter they’d hired to help push permitting through the city bureaucracy got as far as clearing the site for construction of the tower. But after CHIRP began working with a structural engineer to draw up plans for the new location, it came to light that the building was covered by a “planned development” zoning designation, which meant the tower would require the approval of all the other property owners in the zone. After almost two years of hassle, all the while desperately hoping not to lose all the time and toil they’d already sunk into the Ravenswood location, CHIRP abandoned it and recalibrated.
“You get a construction permit for 18 months, and then you can extend it for another 18 months. Our permit expires in November. There was no extending it,” Campbell explains. “Because of the congested market, we had a slim slice of land where we could put the signal. I drove around Uptown and Edgewater, block by block, and wrote down addresses of tall buildings—counted the stories. I sent them to our engineer: ‘Look at this one, will it work? Look at this one.'”
Finally, success. Campbell found a building in Uptown, on Sheridan just north of Foster, that was locally managed and affordable. The tower will be built atop that structure, while the CHIRP studios remain at their current location. Licensed at 100 watts, the station’s signal at 107.1 FM should cover an area roughly bounded by the lake and Kimball Avenue to the east and west and the Evanston border and Belmont Avenue to the north and south. But low-power broadcasts can be squirrelly. “It may be somewhat better in cars,” says Cambpell, “and could be somewhat worse in thick-walled buildings.”
Even as low-power FM stations such as Lumpen Radio have used the law that CHIRP helped pass to beat it to the airwaves, longtime indie-radio champions such as Campbell, Lizak, and Breed have never wavered in their commitment—and they’re no less thrilled by the legitimacy granted them by a broadcast signal. “I think broadcast radio is still really important to people,” Campbell says. “It’s the number one question we’re asked while out at events: ‘You’re an independent radio station, that sounds really cool. What number are you on the dial?'”
Those who’ve been with CHIRP from the beginning seem to want to heave a collective sigh of relief—though they surely won’t be able to let go of all their apprehension till the last few hurdles are actually cleared. But ten years of hard work and frustrating delays have given CHIRP lots of time—maybe more than it wanted—to establish its name and publicize its mission. And nobody wants to give up before the payoff.
“When I think that maybe it’s time for me to step down, maybe time to move away, I think, ‘We don’t have that signal yet,'” Breed says. “I want to be one of the first DJs when we hit the air. I want to be like Martha Quinn.” v
Correction: This story has been updated to clarify the circumstances surrounding the departure of future CHIRP volunteers from WLUW.