I first heard about the Chicago Independent Radio Project (CHIRP) when I moved to Chicago in the spring of 2008. For all intents and purposes the project grew out of the former incarnation of Loyola University’s WLUW-FM which operated as a community radio station from 1997 to June 2008. In 2001 Loyola announced that it would no longer fund the station and called in Chicago Public Radio (CPR) to operate it. During this time it featured eclectic indie-rock focused programming, supplemented by local specialty shows of type familiar to community radio listeners. But at the end of that run the university took back full control of the station with plans to make it more student-run and student-focus as part of Loyola’s revitalized School of Communication.
Chicago radio veteran Shawn Campbell was WLUW’s program director during the CPR days, and after the hand-over became a prime mover behind the effort to create CHIRP as a true community radio station serving the city. I interviewed Shawn on my former radio program back in Oct., 2008 just as the organization was getting off the ground.
After more than eighteen months of organizing and fund raising CHIRP finally went online this past Sunday, Jan. 17. Although it’s online-only right now, CHIRP plans to operate like a regular broadcast stations with live DJs spinning indie-rock oriented programming focused on the particular taste and music scene in Chicago. The approach is not unlike a Chicago version of Seattle indie-rock powerhouse KEXP, especially since public affairs programming is not currently in the plan.
But in many ways an online station is a stopgap measure for CHIRP while its volunteer staff waits for the Senate to get to work on the Local Community Radio Act, which passed the House in December. You see, there are no open spots for new FM stations of any kind in the greater Chicago dial. But there’s hope that if LPFM is restored to its original specifications there will be an opportunity for some new low-power community stations in and around the city. When and if that happens, CHIRP will be poised to apply for its own space on the FM dial.
While the station’s volunteers worked hard to build its studios in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood, they also helped lobby on behalf of LPFM expansion alongside groups like Free Press and the Prometheus Radio Project. As a result the project received attention from the New York Times back in December.
With a real studio, a staff of volunteer DJs and an online presence it looks like CHIRP will be in a good position to hit the air running if it’s able to get a LPFM license. In the meantime it will be interesting to see if an online station can be regarded as a community station even without a broadcast signal. CHIRP has made a very good start of it, maintaining a strong public presence at cultural events across the city over the past year. The station is starting off with an unusual amount of momentum for an online station, so it will be interesting to see how it grows and develops during its first year.
I’m not aware of any other online-only stations operating as a fully human-staffed community stations elsewhere in the US. If any of our readers know of any, please tell us about them in a comment to this post.
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