Monday, February 16, 2009

Chicago Public Radio's little secret

Posted By on 02.16.09 at 02:10 PM

There are a lot of people in Chicago who don't want the Olympic games to come here in 2016. They don't want the disruption, they don't want the congestion, they don't think the games would be good for Chicago, and they don't want their tax dollars paying for something they would never attend.

One way for City Hall to deal with this opposition would have been to keep the city's application a secret until after the games were awarded. Realistically, there was no way to do that, and as a result the opposition, while it hasn't exactly been heeded, has been heard. 

But faced with a similar situation on a smaller scale, Chicago Public Radio decided secrecy was the way to go. A new Crain's Chicago Business article on Vocalo's overdue "coming-out party" describes CPR as having concluded that the less its faithful WBEZ subscribers knew about the upstart new vocalo.org Web site and radio station CPR was planning to create, the better. Reporter Lisa Bertagnoli writes:

"'I'm not afraid to say it,' says Daniel Ash, vice-president of strategic communications at WBEZ. Faced with a 'radically different' product deemed unlikely to appeal to WBEZ listeners, there were fears that donors 'would say, "Not on my dime, not on my watch,"' Mr. Ash says. 'There would be pushback.'"

So donors weren't told. And there was a second reason to keep them in ignorance -- a reason to which my Olympics example offers no parallel. CPR didn't want those WBEZ listeners coming around Vocalo; it didn't want them listening, it didn't want them calling in, it didn't want Vocalo tainted by their existence. Vocalo was going to be really cool and young and alternative, and the WBEZ crowd is -- well, you know. Bertagnoli writes, "Also, managers worried that typical public-radio voices — white, highly educated, affluent — might sully what Vocalo was trying to be. It 'had to be a safe space' for its intended audience, Mr. Ash says."

As I've written, this secrecy could be rationalized away a couple of years ago, when Vocalo was a gleam in the eye of CPR president Torey Malatia, because Vocalo was going to have its own funding sources. (And the Olympics will be privately funded, right?) But those sources didn't pony up quite as amply as they were supposed to, and some of the money originally allocated to WBEZ crossed over. The redirecting of funds and sharing of resources infuriated many WBEZ staffers, and reading about Vocalo last summer in Hot Type infuriated some WBEZ subscribers.

None of this goes to the point of whether Vocalo, which Malatia describes as a "social networking Web site with a station attached," is or is not the future of public radio that Malatia wants it to be, or is or is not yet listenable. The point to the Vocalo saga thus far is that secrecy was tried, didn't work, and came back to bite Vocalo's founders in the butt. Yet when Chicago Public Radio held its next subscription drive last October, Vocalo remained hush-hush.

At that point, did CPR have a secret or did the secret have CPR?

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