A Sound Experiment? 

Chicago Public Radio's Vocalo project may be public radio, but it's at WBEZ's expense.

The only thing sacred in journalism any longer is the future, and the way to get there looks more like a treasure map than a road map. Anyone able to shout with authority, "Here's where we dig!" is taken seriously, and anyone who asks, "Why there?" becomes part of the problem.

Nevertheless, you will always find someone asking why—if only because of the ancient truism that if you don't become part of the problem you're left out of the solution. The leaders of Chicago Public Radio believe they are inventing the future of public radio and that it is called Vocalo. There are WBEZ staffers who don't think so. They are reluctant to be quoted saying so, but they are not reluctant to say so.

Vocalo is the anti-WBEZ, conceived a couple years ago by Torey Malatia, CEO of Chicago Public Radio and general manager of its principle asset, WBEZ, to reach the vast audience that wouldn't listen to WBEZ on a bet.

Malatia could have started small. He could have slipped Vocalo on the air in one of the time slots that opened in 2007 when most of WBEZ's music programming was discontinued. Last October National Public Radio started small with a similar show, Bryant Park Project, carried on the NPR Web site a couple hours each day.

But Malatia's a visionary and a gambler. Vocalo began as a separate Web site, vocalo.org, and a separate frequency, 89.5 FM, which went on the air last May and now broadcasts 24/7, if only to a potential audience in northwestern Indiana of between 40,000 and 100,000 people. Sixteen months ago Malatia wrote a piece hailing his creation for Current, a newspaper that covers public radio and TV. In with the new, he said in language that could only discomfort the old. "We created Vocalo... because we recognized that we had based our work at Chicago Public Radio on certain core assumptions that might no longer be valid.... The challenges require building from the ground up, learning broadcasting all over again."

Malatia championed Vocalo as a roll of the dice. "Admittedly, these initiatives are as likely to fail as succeed," he wrote. "On the road we are traveling, the pavement ended several miles back. This is far more exhilarating than disconcerting."

From the first, WBEZ employees—even the ones who supported the premise that radical change was to be welcomed—were skeptical. Malatia promised a firewall between Vocalo's finances and WBEZ's. But WBEZ found itself sharing an IT staff, a marketing staff, fund-raisers. A staffer on the WBEZ side says they began to feel "like the red-headed stepchild, the one who has to do all the chores. There were definitely rancorous feelings."

Malatia also had plans for WBEZ—more public affairs programming, more staff, new neighborhood bureaus. But WBEZ staffers wanted to go far beyond these changes; they wanted to seize the day, responding to the crumbling of Chicago's newspapers by spending the money it would take to turn itself into the city's preeminent news source. "That should be our mission," says one staffer. But "measured against the plan and the dream, we stopped short." Malatia was betting on another dream, Vocalo.

To hear Vocalo anywhere outside that sliver of Indiana you've got to stream it through your computer. But a tower's being erected in Porter, Indiana, and when it's up in August the 89.5 signal will reach 2.6 million people, says Malatia. By comparison, the WBEZ signal reaches 6 million, of whom about 500,000 tune in each week.

Here's how Malatia described Vocalo in Current and has been describing it ever since: "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."

Malatia compares Vocalo.org to Facebook: become a member and you can post and exchange notes and tapes; one of the hosts might even play your tape on the air. For a taste of where the hosts' minds are at, consult the Vocalo.org "shout box." As I write, the shout box features a query from Shantell, who's cohosting at the moment with LadyTwist. "Are you bisexual if u date a person with both sets of genitals?" Shantell wonders. The public's instructed to "type an answer, then listen for it on-air." Hooded Ninja6069 has just responded. "It really depends on the circumstance. If you dating this person and your really into them but then BAM you find out they have genitals of both sexes and choose to stay with him/her its just straight up love."

The Web site tells us Shantell's 23, her hood is the "southside of Chicago," and "anything having to do with the creation and delivery of sounds and information is me!" LadyTwist is 22 and "recorded her first demo tape at the age of 10." She's a journalism student with "the uncanny ability to tell a riveting story about literally anything while maintaining a consistent rhyming pattern. Thereby her latest release 'The Demotape 2' is LadyTwist's most creative, thought-provoking and musically ingenious creation to date."

When I told Malatia that the WBEZ employees I'd sampled thought Vocalo was so amateurish it was unlistenable, he replied, "That's probably a good thing. We did research with nonlisteners [of WBEZ], and among the things we found were off-putting about public radio were the things we value—which is really kind of hard to hear. Number one, experts are a real turnoff. The fact the sound is so pure and wonderful and you hear the dripping of the brook and the twittering of the birds—forget it. These are people [at Vocalo] whose expectations are to be talked to extremely naturally and people get to the point very fast and people are treated with the kind of respect that comes from a kind of leveling that I think sometimes in public media is exactly what the 'BEZ core [audience] is not looking for. The core is not looking for 'tell it like it is.' They're looking for eloquence, the well-hewn argument."

I asked one WBEZ staffer this: At every newspaper I know of, the old product's being hammered so shrinking revenues can be targeted at Web-focused initiatives that might not work but need to be tried. Even if WBEZ has to pay the price, isn't Chicago Public Radio doing what it needs to do?

"If I was hearing something that was different and forward-looking and seemed new and compelling," this staffer answered, "I think that would be an easier pill to swallow. But it's just so roundly looked down on. Everyone who hears it says it sucks."

Vocalo's hosts are no doubt creative people. Another of them is Amber Hawk Swanson, a performance and video artist profiled in the Reader last August and known for—to quote from Swanson's Web site—"inserting a sexually available silicone replica of myself into... charged environments." But to the chagrin of the crack journalists at WBEZ, Malatia deliberately hired a staff with no radio experience. Few hosts knew anything at all about journalism.

Malatia tells me he's "delighted" by that. "The problem radio has had all these years—especially public radio—is that you're recycling the same people. As soon as we dropped that requirement"—the requirement of experience—"we found people with great gifts who were devoted to the community and well connected. When you're starting something like this you have lots of time to train people."

They trained seven months before Vocalo even went on the air last June, and as a practical matter they're training yet. Malatia says this is still beta Vocalo—the official launch, with all the hoopla, comes in September.

Three weeks ago Malatia held a staff meeting and announced some bad news: there wasn't enough money. This meant that WBEZ's top project, Right Now, a daily afternoon news show with a producer Malatia had hired away from NPR's Talk of the Nation, was being shelved. The Sunday arts program Hello Beautiful was leaving the air. And the firewall was rubble. Some Vocalo funding hadn't come through and WBEZ would be making up the shortfall.

"We expected Vocalo.org to lose some money—there's a three-year business plan—but it was more than we expected," says Malatia. "And what really hurt last year was that we were having issues with revenues for 91.5 itself. Those we expected to come in perfectly consistent with our past history."

He says they'd expected Vocalo to finish the year $300,000 in the red; it was more like $600,000. And instead of breaking even, WBEZ was $887,000 in the hole. A couple other Chicago Public Radio ventures with separate budgets, its Third Coast International Audio Festival and Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis's rock talk show Sound Opinions, also ran deficits. Even This American Life just broke even after making half a million dollars for Chicago Public Radio the year before. "The good news is that we have net assets that take care of this," says Malatia. "But this year we'll have to be very careful."

Moving ahead with Vocalo despite tough times isn't reckless in the view of management—it's prudent. Tony Weisman, who's chairman of the board of Chicago Public Radio, calls it "the boldest experiment in public radio to date. We're talking about reinventing the whole idea of public media in Chicago, and that's where investment is required."

Despite what he once told his staff, Malatia now says it's foolish to think of WBEZ and Vocalo as separate entities. "I don't see Vocalo and 'BEZ as different things," he tells me. "I know it's a different frequency and programming, but we're not talking about Gannett," which publishes newspapers in cities far distant from each other. "It's just a radio station."

Weisman goes further. He thinks that if Vocalo reinvents public radio, WBEZ can only benefit. "We'll see in time a more symbiotic relationship between the stations."

If Vocalo doesn't reinvent public radio, who will? On Monday NPR pulled the plug on Bryant Park Project. Did Malatia make Vocalo huge from the start to leave himself no way to back down? Plenty of people at WBEZ hope not—they'd like to see him shrink Vocalo to the size they think it should have been in the first place—a couple hours a day on WBEZ dedicated to experimental counterprogramming. This isn't because they're petty and envious. They want their station to be better than it is. Like Malatia, they're ambitious.v

Care to comment? Find this column online at chicagoreader.com. And for more on the media, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites.

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