Third Coast's Gwen Macsai, Johanna Zorn, Julie Shapiro, and Katie Mingle
Third Coast's Gwen Macsai, Johanna Zorn, Julie Shapiro, and Katie Mingle Credit: Annie Geimer

Audio is an amazing medium for telling stories,” says Third Coast International Audio Festival founder Johanna Zorn. “It creates pictures in the mind’s eye that can be so much more illustrative than actual pictures. It tears down barriers, opening your mind and ears.”

Zorn was already smitten with the power of sound when she turned The Great Gatsby into a radio soap opera as a high school student in Pittsburgh. She cut her teeth at WCBN, the student-run University of Michigan station, and wound up at Chicago public radio station WBEZ in 1980, after graduation, volunteering for two years (and waiting tables at the Heartland Cafe) until they found a job for her as a producer. But it wasn’t until 1993, when Zorn was producing the Chicago Matters documentary series at WBEZ, that her mission presented itself loud and clear.

The catalyst was Ghetto Life 101, a documentary commissioned by Chicago Matters, in which 13-year-old LeAlan Jones and his 14-year-old buddy Lloyd Newman shared their daily lives in and around the Ida B. Wells housing project. Using tape recorders provided by producer David Isay, the boys kept a ten-day diary at home, in school, and on the street, describing a world that ranged from dysfunctional to deadly. (Jones, by the way, grew up to be a journalist and documentarian; he’s running as a Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate against Alexi Giannoulias and Mark Kirk.)

“It’s extraordinary, still, when you hear it,” Zorn says. “And it was life-changing for me. I thought, ‘Why isn’t radio considered on a par with film in terms of documentary work? Why aren’t more people getting a chance to hear the great work that’s being done? Why isn’t there a Sundance for radio?'”

In 1999 Zorn fleshed out her Sundance-for-radio concept for station president Torey Malatia. They took it to the board of WBEZ’s parent organization, Chicago Public Radio, whose members liked it enough to dig into their own pockets and come up with $25,000 in seed money. The Third Coast International Audio Festival was launched in 2000, with a documentary competition, a broadcast of the winning shows, a producers’ conference, and—as an afterthought, Zorn says—a website. The Richard H. Driehaus foundation ponied up a $100,000 grant that’s been renewed annually ever since, but CPR paid the staff, provided equipment, and covered the gap between income and expenses.

By 2008 Third Coast had grown to include WBEZ’s weekly “remix of music, documentaries, found sound, sound bites, and little audio surprises,” Re:Sound, as well as a variety of live listening events, an online library, and the biannual Third Coast Filmless Festival, featuring “screenings” of nonfiction radio stories. (The second Filmless Fest was held in March at the Museum of Contemporary Art.)

Staff was still minimal: executive director Zorn, artistic director Julie Shapiro, and the two-person Re:Sound staff (part-time host Gwen Macsai and a producer). The doc competition was drawing hundreds of entries annually from around the globe and the conference had become a staple of the national audio community. Zorn says it’s a one-of-a-kind opportunity for audio producers to gather, learn from one another, and make connections leading to collaborative work. The annual Third Coast budget was $500,000. “About half our budget came from Chicago Public Radio,” Zorn says, “and we were all CPR employees.”

But things were changing at the mother ship, which had launched its Vocalo project and was opening new bureaus just as the economy broke down. In 2007 and ’08, Third Coast was forced to trim its budget, and “I was having to fight for things,” Zorn recalls. Then Malatia asked her what she thought of “going independent.”

Zorn says she couldn’t imagine it. She told him they’d “really like to stay part of Chicago Public Radio,” but the elephant had entered the room. On November 26, 2008, the day before Thanksgiving, “Torey sat me down and told me that the station was no longer going to fund the Third Coast, and none of us had jobs there anymore.” Malatia says economic conditions determined the timing, but it seemed to him that Third Coast “was the kind of thing that could stand on its own.”

They were off the payroll by April 2009, and four months later all administrative support was gone. They were, however, allowed to continue working at the station, using computers and studios for a nominal $500 a month, on a year-to-year contract.

“It’s evolved into a good relationship,” Zorn says, but that’s after months of angst and scrounging. Driehaus had planned to wind down its support in 2009 but came through with another three-year, $300,000 grant. The MacArthur Foundation pitched in an equal amount. Zorn and her staff scrambled to assemble a small board, establish nonprofit status, and learn the myriad administrative and fund-raising tasks they’d previously left to CPR.

Under the circumstances something had to give, and the 2009 conference was sacrificed. They spun the cancellation as a hiatus, announcing that the event would return in 2010. But, Zorn says, “we didn’t really know, and the producing community was concerned. They saw that as maybe the end.”

As they pulled into the final days of 2009 it looked as if they’d have enough money to get through the first few months of 2010, and, feeling like they might be over the hump, Zorn relaxed a little. “Big mistake,” she says now. “The truth is that you can never relax. You can never let a week go by—or even really a day—that you haven’t done something toward making your budget, whether it’s communicating with potential funders or thinking of something to sell to make earned income.

“By late February it became pretty obvious that we weren’t going to meet a payroll. By April, we had no money in the bank.”

In fact, they missed three payrolls in the spring. Zorn says everybody hung tight and they were all eventually paid—from a board member’s personal funds at one point. But it was “a hard-learned lesson.”

And it was followed by a situation that caught Zorn completely by surprise. In July, two days before the Third Coast was to announce this year’s conference, set for October 28-30 at the Wyndham Chicago hotel, she got a call from Unitehere, a union that represents hotel workers, informing them that the Wyndham was being boycotted and urging them not to hold the event there.

“We wouldn’t want to be perceived as doing anything that would harm workers, and we didn’t want to ask conference goers to cross a picket line,” Zorn says. “But we had a contract, an arrangement with the hotel that was very generous on their part, and we had to go through with it. And in the end we decided that it was important to present this conference. Our whole theme is that we’re back.” Changing what they could, she adds, they’re putting their judges up elsewhere and they’ve posted a note about the situation on their website.

The festival’s long-term future is as dicey as the long-term future of anything else these days, but Zorn says they have a chance to finish this year in the black. The conference, with an expected attendance of about 350, could have some impact on that. It culminates in a benefit at the School of the Art Institute ballroom, hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich of Radiolab, WNYC’s nationally broadcast pop science show. Open to the public, the benefit will honor winners of the doc competition.