It’s public radio, but with nearly everything different, including the name

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On June 4, Chicago Public Radio, news and information WBEZ-FM 91.5, will launch a new radio station by splitting off one of its repeaters, WBEW-FM 89.5 in Chesterton, Ind., just southeast of Chicago by Lake Michigan. This new radio station will refashion WBEZ’s public radio mission to a target audience formerly unreachable by WBEZ.

This new station will be built on community radio sensibilities but without the characteristic schedule of special-interest shows. In fact, it will have no shows at all. It will air a continuous, seamless talk-based stream completely devoted to Northwest Indiana and Chicago metropolitan area culture, issues and selected music. It is not a news station. There are no newscasts.

After hearing what many potential listeners say, we decided to not to merely adapt our usual notions of public broadcasting or to dress the service in its brands — including “Chicago Public Radio.” The new station will not cross-promote WBEZ, and WBEZ will not cross-promote it. We will never refer to it as public radio or give it the typical trappings, such as pledge drives.


There will be a website, but it would be wrong to say that it’s the station’s website. Really, it’s the website’s radio station.
The name, :Vocalo, is an invention, essentially “Vocal” with an “o” at the end. It rhymes with “Zocalo,” a Spanish word that in Mexico refers to a town plaza and in Colombia refers to the infrastructure that stabilizes a large building. The colon before the “V” is intentional — a trademarked emoticon.

We created :Vocalo (and significantly changed our centerpiece service, WBEZ) because we recognized that we had based our work at Chicago Public Radio on certain core assumptions that might no longer be valid.

Admittedly, these initiatives are as likely to fail as succeed. On the road we are traveling, the pavement ended several miles back. This is far more exhilarating than disconcerting.

After four years of planning and research, we feel well grounded and ready to move forward. We have clearly articulated our mission, firmly rooted our strategies in it, estimated the risks and rewards and built plans around our strengths.

The elements of the plan, the social theory and the broadcast principles are well known. We have fused them into what we hope is a new molecular structure.

We sketch the plans here, knowing hundreds of other stations are grappling with issues similar to ours — and suspecting that some of these ideas may apply beyond Chicago.

We had no basis for planning public-service radio for new audiences until we had ruthlessly questioned the service we provide now.

This is why we didn’t restyle our present content with a “young sound” to attract new audiences, or set out to promote it better, or developed new shows for specific groups—Asian-Americans, Latinos, African-Americans and so on. The challenges require building from the ground up, learning broadcasting all over again.

Questioning the fundamentals is unsettling and can seem endless, but it allows us to stop thinking we have to reconcile our institution to the future. Instead, we generate our own forward force and join a new reality in the making.

Questioning our necessity

Tradition means that the question of the legitimacy of tradition shall not be raised. —Cornelius Castoriadis

When facilitators assist with an institution’s strategic planning, they commonly ask, “Is what we do working?”

A bigger one is unspoken: “Is what we do necessary?”

In 2003, after the release of the 2000 census, we at Chicago Public Radio made this second question — the one of our necessity — overt and central.

We analyzed in detail how the audience uses WBEZ, comparing what we could learn about our listeners with the area’s entire potential audience, not just lining up this year’s figures against those from past years or from other stations. We studied regional planning documents that indicated how the population was projected to change over the next decade.

We confronted stagnation. We had the third largest cumulative weekly audience of any single public radio station at that time — about 550,000 listeners, nearly half of them core listeners. But these numbers were stubbornly static. Listenership had reached a ceiling.

Moreover, both our core and occasional audiences represented — demographically and geographically — only a portion of the area’s population. Most of the listeners and almost all of the members resided in the same territory—the city’s north side and northern suburbs. The Chicago Public Radio audience was 91 percent white, 5 percent African-American, and 4 percent Latino.

Meanwhile, the 2000 census revealed that the metropolitan area was more multiracial and multiethnic than ever before, with much of the change and growth in the suburbs. Our station demographics were even less representative of the community than we had thought. The metro area was less than 60 percent white, 19 percent African-American, 17 percent Latino and 5 percent Asian-American.

Since 1990, the immigrant population had increased 61 percent and the Latino population 73 percent.

The demographic disparities between our audience and our service area were disturbing, even if you assumed a public service broadcaster would not expect mass popularity.

In previous planning, we had dismissed this issue as a national problem, which it legitimately is. But in our structured questioning — are we an essential Chicago institution? — no such evasion was possible.

For a broadcast service, operating in the name of the public and available free to anyone in the city who has a radio, it was humbling to see that service was judged useless by so many in Chicago’s big nonwhite population.

Radio that’s not for us

In eight focus groups, we gave special attention to the people who had, for various reasons, rejected us but were potential listeners—people who were committed to the area, who volunteered in the community, who follow the news and use radio. We asked them to listen to WBEZ for a week, keep diaries of what they thought, and meet for two-hour group conversations. Then we took questions that arose in the focus groups and surveyed listeners by mail.

These potential listeners were intensely interested in information and discussion about our shared place, the Chicago area. African-American, Latino and Asian-American non-listeners in our surveys and focus groups placed their highest value on local service. They sought it in our broadcast day and held it to high standards—not of production quality but of accuracy and relevance. They were highly critical of what they heard.

They were unlike our traditional core audience, which has much less interest in local issues and much more in national and international topics. Acquired programming, so critical to our success with the core, dissatisfied them as it sprawled across our prime listening hours.

Our original productions, which won acclaim among core listeners, were not enough. Their general displeasure was best expressed by a participant who remarked with disgust, “Chicago Public Radio is not about Chicago.”

Furthermore, many of these nonlisteners held a deep bias against the idea of public broadcasting, including NPR and PBS. Others without an up-front dislike voiced the same critique. They didn’t base their complaint on perceptions of left-leaning political slant.

Nearly all felt the station was not for them—and was not trying to be inviting. It was for “other people,” identified by some as the well-to-do, the intelligentsia. Issues they cared about were covered rarely and not as thoroughly as issues for the other audience. The style and pacing, the interviews and the commentaries were largely not attractive and compelling.

Remarkably, even the programs we see as most appealing to new listeners, like This American Life, A Prairie Home Companion and Car Talk, were perceived to be just as clubby as NPR’s weekly debrief with Cokie Roberts.

Most interesting were the concluding remarks from the focus groups. The participants almost universally believed in the mission of Chicago Public Radio — what we were trying to do but, in their eyes, failing to do.

Respondents in the followup survey confirmed it: African-Americans in particular believed the city could never move forward without the media outlets bridging the gaps among different groups of residents so that they might work together and solve the city’s problems.

What we did

Shortly after we completed our planning process, FCC member Jonathan S. Adelstein, in an open letter about the commission’s 2004 localism initiative, challenged all stations to undertake that same kind of process. Adelstein reassured us about the course we had chosen. He urged stations to make their services more inclusive, “dedicating the resources to discover and address the unique needs of every segment of the community.”

The process was driven by the Chicago Public Radio staff and joined by our board of directors, which has been deeply committed to the primacy we give to original production. The board was amazingly receptive to our planning, which, despite its thorough grounding in mission, is severely self-critical and open to risks and seminal change.

The completed plan, approved in June 2003, called for us to generate concepts and fresh architecture over a four-year period to strengthen WBEZ and to create an additional broadcast service. Near the end of the timeline, last winter, we began work on adding the new broadcast service. The initiative’s name began as “The Street” and became “The Secret Radio Project” before becoming :Vocalo.

The staff generated blueprints for both :Vocalo and the changes at WBEZ. Plans were tested, disputed and enhanced by the business and community leaders on our board’s programming and planning committee and our community advisory council. We had help from teams of brilliant and passionate outside specialists—some of the best friends and analysts one could work with—including Peter Laundy of Chicago-based Doblin Group, the Slover-Linnett Research Co., Karen King at the National Public Broadcasting Archives, Optaros, Chicago-based Faust Associates, the Chicago Technology Cooperative, Benjamen Walker, Kurt Cherry, Edie Rubinowitz, Jake Shapiro of PRX, and the 1,500 volunteers who participated in our website and 13 planning meetings throughout the metro area.

This is what Chicago Public Radio did: First, we accelerated our process of diversifying the board, our community advisory council and our staff. So that we would be honest about our progress and choices, the institution had to include people who could see it from multiple perspectives.

Second, we conducted the listener and nonlistener research I’ve mentioned.

Third, in January, we converted our main station, WBEZ-FM 91.5, to an all-news-and-information format, bringing reporters, talk show producers, hosts and editors into a single editorial department, based on standard newsroom structure.

Fourth, we created the first three of WBEZ’s six planned storefront bureaus throughout the region, stationing reporters there to establish daily news relationships and to mentor local interns.

Fifth, we funded paid, 9-month fellowships for promising minority talent identified by partner community institutions, community centers and our staff at community planning meetings.

Sixth, we created Its goal is to build an entirely different radio station using the Internet as a primary portal. We believe that an integral fusion of IP and broadcast media is a valid way to start attracting and serving a polycultural audience.

The new service uses one of our repeaters, WBEW in Chesterton, Ind., a Class A FM station that now reaches a population of about 400,000 in northwest Indiana. After we go ahead with an approved power increase, coverage will expand to serve all of Northwest Indiana, a densely populated, highly diverse area that is economically, socially and environmentally tied to the Chicago metro region.

Northwest Indiana has always been a part of our service area, but it has growing need for an information arena like :Vocalo as the area continues changing from rural to urban. The stronger signal will also cover much of the City of Chicago proper, offering the opportunity to treat regional issues more comprehensively.

Vocal about local

The notion that public service broadcasting can be an essential component of democracy is nearly as long-lived as radio itself. In a strirring speech at Ohio State University in June 1930, Federal Radio Commissioner Ira Robinson memorably proclaimed that radio broadcasting “is the greatest implement of democracy yet given to mankind.”

Now the concept is not only touted by media reformers and held dear by community radio stations but is also being rediscovered by mainstream public broadcasters, who see practical advantage in the ideals of local service. It’s something that competing national media can’t deliver.

In 1946, a media scholar named Charles A. Siepmann reminded broadcasters of their social mandate in a book somewhat nervously entitled Radio’s Second Chance. “Democratic principles,” he wrote, “are liable to become remote and meaningless abstractions unless exemplified and practiced in the circumscribed familiar field of local life. It is there that democracy’s lessons are best taught.”

Perhaps now it is public radio’s second chance to be a more relevant resource that entertains, educates and broadens cross-cultural understanding in our communities of license.

If public broadcasting loses its vitality, the reason won’t be that new technologies have swept away the radio tower and the need for wide-reaching wireless media. The cause will be our own rigidity in neglecting to join broadcasting with new media that can enliven and enhance the content we produce. We have effectively disconnected from those we are mandated to serve. Until we wrestle our content out of the vise of tradition, we will be incapable of helping our communities ignite the ideas that support their evolution.

Radio and the Internet each offer a unique kind of access to information, and both are necessary for listeners to join the civic conversation and be heard.

Though the Internet is known for creating communities that transcend geography, it is local radio broadcasting that connects us to the places we live, work, participate in society and become citizens. That’s important because geographic place is citizenship’s universe. Only place allows for citizenship.

To some people, the FCC’s mandate to broadcasters — to serve the public interest, convenience and necessity — may be frustratingly nonspecific, but I’ve come to realize that it holds us more accountable than if it strictly defined what we should do. Every station serves a different place, each with a population that grows and changes. Embracing this mandate for service is constantly challenging because we must incessantly question the value of our work as our service areas evolve.

This evolution should be our compass, perpetually guiding us to anticipate and answer community needs. It should electrify our daily, determined re-invention of media in the public interest.

Torey Malatia, is president and g.m. of Chicago Public Radio. He joined the station in 1993 as v.p. of programming and was promoted to station manager in 1995 and to president in 1996. That same year he and Ira Glass shared a Peabody Award for This American Life, Glass’s weekly show based at the station. During his time there, Chicago Public Radio has also launched the annual Third Coast International Audio Festival, the national programs Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me and Sound Opinions, and numerous local shows. He was the first nonprofit leader to be inducted into the University of Illinois’ Chicago Area Enterpreneurship Hall of Fame.

Malatia was born and raised in Chicago. He announced for Phoenix commercial classical station KHEP-FM during his studies at Arizona State University and became its music director after completing bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English. Later he became p.d. of commercial KONC-FM, also in Phoenix, and then returned to Chicago, where he developed the Beethoven Satellite Network at commercial WFMT. Before coming to Chicago Public Radio, he served as director of programming at Seattle’s KUOW-FM and as morning show producer at Chicago’s commercial WLS-AM/FM.

This article was first published in Current March 14, 2007.

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