Vocalo.org: From Web to Broadcast

When it comes to listenership, Chicago Public Radio WBEZ(FM), a news and information station at 91.5 MHz, is popular in the city’s more affluent and highly educated North Shore suburbs, but less so elsewhere in the Windy City.
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When it comes to listenership, Chicago Public Radio WBEZ(FM), a news and information station at 91.5 MHz, is popular in the city’s more affluent and highly educated North Shore suburbs, but less so elsewhere in the Windy City.

The reason? According to focus groups conducted by the station, its NPR programming doesn’t appeal to the city’s less affluent, racially diverse population.

“The truth is that the traditional public radio sound is not resonating with everyone,” says the station’s Wendy Turner. “Our research suggested that we needed to do something radically different to reach them.”

In response, Chicago Public Radio has done two things most broadcasters wouldn’t dream of.

First, it converted a 7,000 watt station, WBEW at 89.5 FM in Chesterton, Ind., into a standalone format called Vocalo.org.

Second, under Turner, Vocalo.org’s general manager, CPR has turned the new station’s program production over to its listeners.

The on-air content is being produced by people who sign up to the station’s Web site, then submit material for Vocalo.org to use. Some is in the form of audio transferred online or by e-mail. Other content is sent in as text.

Vocalo.org launched in June. A Daily Herald newspaper article called Vocalo.org “the changing face of public radio, or rather, the antithesis of public radio’s rather stodgy modern image,” where pledge drives never exist “and where bar fights make for fine on-air fodder. ... Sort of a radio YouTube meets Al Gore’s Current TV.”

The concept

Torey Malatia, president and general manager of Chicago Public Radio, presented the “public service challenge” and vision for the project; the CPR staff developed components of the format and its structure.

CPR’s IT support specialists, maintenance engineer and Web developer helped build systems to integrate the broadcast and Web site.

The annual budget is around $2 million; most of the start-up costs are being covered by foundation support and philanthropists. The economic model, officials say, includes a “sustainable funding” plan supported by sponsors, partner organizations, e-commerce and events.

Organizers say Vocalo.org is more than an attempt to win loyal listeners by getting them involved on-air. It is an application of the social networking phenomenon popularized by MySpace and Facebook.

On these well-publicized sites, members post their own profiles, see the profiles of others and communicate with each other in cyberspace, forming a virtual community in the process.

In the Vocalo.org model — created with software and support from Optaros Inc. (www.optaros.com) and the Chicago Technology Cooperative (www.chicagotech.org) — the public becomes non-paying members of the station, a position that allows them to provide content for air.

This isn’t aired as it comes in. Instead, Turner’s crew of on-air “hosts” sifts it, selecting items that make sense for their program slots.

In many cases, the host will get in touch with the submitter, for input on cleaning the content up for air and to bring them into the studio if more work is required.

The station built a studio for the format, and the Vocalo.org staff includes a production coordinator who manages the equipment used by hosts.

“The studio and surrounding production space allows for just about any piece of technology, old or new, to make it to air, direct from Web to broadcast, from MP3 player to broadcast, from vinyl, CD, memory card, even a Jump drive,” said Turner.

“The production area, ‘the factory,’ includes guitars, drums, keyboard and other instruments used to create frames, transitions, bumps and beds for content contributed by users.”

As for licensing, the submitter can give Vocalo.org unlimited permission to play the material either on-air as well as on-demand at the Web site; only on-air at 89.5; or exclusively on the Web.

Unlike many radio sites, the Web presence is more than a promotional complement to an on-air sound. There is more content online than on-air; the site offers on-demand audio clips, video, text and artwork provided by station members.

“Only 20 percent of what we receive is in the form of audio,” Turner says. “The rest is text, video or images.”

The site is also the real gathering point for Vocalo.org’s members; it is where they make contact with station staff, see the latest station news and keep an ear on what everyone else is providing.

Again, the MySpace model applies: The Web site is the common meeting place for this online village.

Challenges

At first, the biggest challenge was populating the broadcast day.

“With the amount [of content] we are receiving, we can only really generate three hours of great radio,” Turner said. “As a result, we repeat this three-hour block seven times after it originally airs. Over the coming months we hope to increase the number of on-air hours incrementally.”

That’s due in part to a small membership base: Only 600 people have signed up to the station to date, “with about 50 providing content on a regular basis,” she said; but “our worries about getting enough content were unnecessary. Without any marketing, we’re growing users and contributors every day. Now more than 100 content pieces are contributed every week.”

A second challenge: the mass of Chicagoans are not tuning in, meaning Chicago Public Radio has not yet achieved its goal of reaching its non-core audience.

“Growing listenership to broadcast may take more effort and outreach than expected. More and more people are contributing to the site, but only about 20 percent of our site users listen to the Web stream. We’re planning a major marketing effort in the spring to coincide with the power increase.”

Vocalo.org is only a few months old and its concept is significantly different from what most listeners are accustomed to. It’s also hampered by only having 7,000 watts coming out of Chesteron, meaning that much of Chicago isn’t being served.

“But this will change soon, because we are upgrading to 50,000 watts,” Turner says. “Once this power boost takes place, Vocalo.org will cover the entire city.”

Plans are to locate WBEW to a taller tower, still operating as a Class B1 but with a directional antenna for increased signal to the west and northeast, Maintenance Engineer Don White said. The currently authorized CP calls for 6.8 kW at 105 m, but transmitter location, height and power are expected to change. CPR is also pursuing a grant for new transmitter facilities and an upgrade to HD Radio.

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