CHIRP no longer tuned out

By Evan Minsker

It’s been seven years since Chicago gained its first inner-city record fair. Every April for seven years, record collectors, music enthusiasts and artists gather at the Chicago Independent Radio Project (CHIRP) Record Fair and Other Delights for vinyl, handmade items and, well, other delights.

The record fair takes place on April 18 and 19 at the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Union, 1340 W. Washington Blvd. This is the first of two record fairs the Chicago Independent Radio Project will hold this year. The group sets up one record fair in April and the other in the summer to coincide with the Pitchfork Music Festival.

Clearly, the fair is a thing of huge excitement for Chicago’s audiophiles.

“Chicago didn’t have any record fairs inside the city limits. There were some in the suburbs at hotels, but there were no Chicago record fairs at all,” said Shawn Campbell, president of CHIRP. “With the explosion of the popularity in vinyl in the past decade, we just saw it as a real opportunity.”

Even though it’s been around for seven years, it has only been two years since CHIRP usurped the record fair as its own infinitely hip fundraiser. The fair was initially a fundraiser for WLUW, Loyola University’s radio station.

For years, Campbell ran WLUW. The station was formerly run by community members and students alike. Two years ago, however, the station’s manager fired the non-student members of the station, including Campbell.

Those volunteers weren’t professionals with radio degrees. Campbell and the rest of the DJs weren’t looking to please listeners who just wanted “Top 40” radio. They played an eclectic mix of independent and underground music for northern Chicago. After years of broadcasting, they had no place to take their craft on the radio.

So when Campbell left WLUW, she took the record fair and some of the volunteers with her. That’s how CHIRP began.

Ideally, Campbell and CHIRP would have their own station on the FM radio dial. Unfortunately, though, a show on FM radio isn’t an option. In fact, it isn’t an option for any start-up, low-power FM (LPFM) community radio stations in the city of Chicago, or any other big city.

CHIRP is out to fix that. The group has been fighting to open up the FM radio dial and start their own station since August 2007. Now, after nearly two years of raising money and awareness, CHIRP finally has its own station to call home.

After signing the lease for their new space on March 31, CHIRP members are getting ready to launch the station this July. The launch, however, still doesn’t fully reach their initial goal of taking a slot on the radio dial. Instead of utilizing the FM airwaves, they’ll begin their project on the Internet at

“I wanted to make sure there was a place where all those great volunteers could continue to do the really quality radio that we’d been doing for the past eight years at WLUW,” Campbell said.

In 2000, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) created the LPFM radio service-a radio service running off of 100 watts or less. Essentially, a station’s signal only reaches 5-to-10 miles, making it ideal for neighborhoods, suburbs and rural areas. The FCC’s LPFM service was designated for community, non-commercial and educational radio stations across the country.

Cody Fischer-Hoffman of the Prometheus Radio Project in Philadelphia said there are currently about 800 LPFM stations across the country. Big cities were blocked due to the “Third Adjacent Minimum Distance Separation” rule.

“The National Association of Broadcasters convinced Congress that low-power FM stations in cities would interfere with full-power stations, and that the dial was too crowded in cities,” Campbell said.

Meaning, if a LPFM station wanted to start and there was a full-power FM (FPFM) station at 97.1, the next possible station is at 97.9. Since there are so many large, full-power stations in the city, smaller, LPFM stations are crowded out.

Although Congress enacted the third adjacency rule into law, they commissioned The MITRE Corporation, an independent group, to look for the possible effects of interference from LPFM stations on FPFM stations. The study was eventually called The MITRE Report.

In 2003, the group concluded “existing third-adjacent channel distance restrictions should be waived to allow LPFM operation at locations that meet all other FCC requirements.” Then, in December 2007, the FCC released a statement saying that Congress should work toward opening up as many LPFM stations as possible.

Currently, CHIRP, Prometheus Radio Project and other groups are lobbying for Congress to amend that law.

“[CHIRP has] been working with us closely on the campaign to expand LPFM radio so that the restrictions that were put on LPFM radio can be removed and there can be new frequencies made available for hundreds, potentially thousands of new radio stations across the country,” Fischer-Hoffman said.

But not everybody is buying into the argument in favor of LPFM stations. In a statement released by the National Association of Broadcasters on April 7, 2008, the group said there is “no basis to conclude that the service provided to communities by LPFM is more valuable than service from full-power stations through FM translators.”

Fischer-Hoffman vehemently disagrees. She said LPFM stations are essential in transmitting local culture, as was the case of the home of zydeco music, the Creole roots music of Louisiana.

“In Opelousas, La., which is the birthplace of zydeco music, there was no local radio station,” Fischer-Hoffman said. “And we worked with them to do a barn raising. Now they have a local, low-power FM community radio station.”

As a result, zydeco music finally found its way on the Opelousas radio dial. Before Prometheus came in to help, the radio was dominated by commercial radio stations that didn’t reflect the culture of the area.

In addition to the lack of local music on commercial radio, Campbell said radio stations have no sense of eclecticism. Mixing underground, independent, local and lesser-known classics is one of CHIRP’s major pushing points.

“I think that’s a big downfall of radio programming today-formats are so strictly delineated,” she said. “The assumption is, ‘If you like hip-hop, you only like hip-hop,’ or, ‘If you like country music, you only like country music.’ We don’t believe that’s the way people like music.”

Another huge fight is for news radio that is neighborhood-specific. Although commercial radio broadcasts the news, Fischer-Hoffman said LPFM radio could offer a more personal touch. After all, the events, people and news of a neighborhood put the “community” in community radio.

“There’s a difference between local reporting on what’s going on and actually, genuinely creating a forum for conversation,” Fischer-Hoffman said. “Low-power community radio stations play an essential role in communities for providing local content and information.”

CHIRP is primarily funded in three different ways. One portion of donations comes from individual donors. Also, the group gets some support from writing grants. The third source, of course, is the record fair.

The first day of the fair, April 18, coincidentally falls on the unofficial holiday, Record Store Day. Now in its second year, Record Store Day is a national celebration of independent record stores on the third Saturday of April.

“We love Record Store Day and are trying to do everything we can to support it, but they’re not related in any formal way,” Campbell said.

One way CHIRP is supporting Record Store Day is by giving any customer with a receipt from an independent record store on April 18 a $2 discount on admission.

Derek Erdman, an artist who sells his wares at the CHIRP Record Fair every year, is happy to support CHIRP by participating in the fair.

“I think independent radio has a place in the world and I think that’s something I would get behind,” Erdman said. “It gives more of a voice to the people as opposed to a corporation.”

Perhaps the biggest goal of CHIRP is to bring radio back to where it was in the days before radio broadcasts were largely syndicated from across the country.

“You used to feel like when you listened to the radio that the people who were talking were there in your community,” Campbell said. “They were talking about things you knew, places you might’ve been and events that were coming up where you were. It sounds really cheesy, but in a lot of ways, you felt like the DJ was a trusted friend.”