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Chicago user-generated station Vocalo to re-launch with more convential format

Vocalo is a rimshot station owned by Chicago Public Media‘ based in Chesterton, Indiana that went on the air in 2007 as an experiment in bringing user-generated content to broadcast radio. When it launched CPM president Torey Malatia hailed the idea with a lot of rhetoric about making radically public radio, emphasizing public affairs and public service, but in a more grassroots manner than traditional public radio. Early on, however, some staff at CPM’s main station, WBEZ, expressed some skepticism about the project, especially the relative amateurishness of some contributed content and the how the cost of running Vocalo would affect the mothership. A similar concern was aroused amongst WBEZ’s donor base who were surprised to learn that their donations were being used to help fund this experiment.

Located nearly 50 miles from my far north Chicago home, I have mostly only heard Vocalo online. When I first heard it in 2008 it really was just a continuous stream of user-submitted content and music, with minimal announcements. It could be as exciting or frustrating as such a format could be. Since then the station has become a bit more conventional with some regularly scheduled shows. Until recently CPM tried to develop the Vocalo website as a home for complementary content, mostly provided by a team of locally prominent bloggers writing on topics like rock music, restaurants and local politics. However, at the end of last year these blogs were integrated in the main Chicago Public Media / WBEZ site.

Now the station has announced a change in strategy to a more conventional format anchored on music targeted at the 25 to 34 year-old age group. To help forge that direction Vocalo has hired Chicago DJ Jesse de la Peña to focus on hip-hop, electronic and indie rock. The station is looking to expand the number of programs that originate from Chicago-area neighborhoods. There will also be daily programs during morning and afternoon drive. The “Vocalo Morning Amp,” will be call-in while the afternoon “Overdrive” will feature mix music and talk stories.

The change isn’t unexpected, given the difficulty of cultivating a steady stream of interesting and well-produced user-generated programming. Radio isn’t like YouTube. While a decade ago someone might have been excited to wait to hear her piece played on air, the instant gratification of seeing your content up on YouTube or facebook mere moments after uploading it I think has spoiled it for the contemporary youth audience.

Of course the most well-established form of user-generated radio is community radio, which is still alive, well and growing. I do think there’s a big difference between creating a short piece and uploading it to a website versus sitting in a real studio being live on air. And the further lack of immediate broadcast and feedback one gets as a live radio DJ might also have counted against Vocalo’s user-generated format.

Interestingly, Chicago Public Media had a short dalliance with community radio in the middle of the last decade when it took over management of Loyola University’s station, WLUW, operating it as a hybrid college-community station. CPM supplied two full-time staff–a general manager and program director–and otherwise programmed the station using volunteers from both the college student community and the community at large. That partnership ended in 2008 when Loyola decided to bring the station’s management back in-house, making it part of a new communications curriculum.

I’m not sure why CPM chose to make Vocalo an automated station with a seemingly random stream of user-submitted programming rather than a more traditional community station with regularly scheduled shows staffed by volunteers. Perhaps CPM management got its fill of working with a large base of volunteer DJs with WLUW. MP3s uploaded to a website inherently require less managing than flesh-and-blood volunteer DJs.

I wonder if the re-launched Vocalo will start to sound more like some of the newer indie-rock and music oriented public stations, such as Minnesota Public Radio’s The Current or Seattle’s KEXP. It does really seem like CPM wants to provide service to the heavily Latino and African-American audience living within Vocalo’s strongest signal area in Northwest Indiana, and in Chicago’s South and Southwest sides. I happen to think that would be the right thing to do, understanding that a more affluent audience of potential donors might be found amongst indie-rock loving middle-class white folks living on the edge of the signal downtown and in the Near North.

In any event, I do think it’s refreshing to see a public radio operation willing to experiment with a station alongside its primary signal. While the audience for the dominant news/talk format of public radio has steadily grown, I also think there’s a large audience of potential listeners who could be well served by a public radio station that takes a more youthful, but still intelligent, public service approach. Public radio doesn’t have to pander in order to be accessible to new audiences. However, it may take several tries for experiments like Vocalo to figure out what the right approach is.

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