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Interview: Shawn Campbell, Program Director, WLUW

By Rachelle Bowden in Miscellaneous on Jun 30, 2005 11:45AM

2005_06_shawn_campbell.jpgChicagoist has long been a fan of radio, since we were being raised on the oldies on AM radio in our parents’ station wagon to listening to love songs played by a low voiced DJ on a Friday night, wishing we knew the finer points of French kissing, or what that actually even was. Radio has provided the soundtrack of our lives before we were too cool to not admit we liked some Billy Joel (Only the Good Die Young) or that some Survivor song took us instantly back to a moment of our lonely, overdramatic teenage years (The Search is Over). Without radio, Chicagoist would be lacking in a plethora of pop culture references and a wealth of memories to last a lifetime.

Shawn Campbell knows how we feel. She has been a fan of radio all her life, and she is now at the helm of one of the coolest spots on the dial, 88.7 FM, WLUW. With all the hubbub about format changes and shuffles and iPods floating around these days, Chicagoist decided an interview was in order.

You've held a variety of jobs in the radio industry. You started off at your college radio station, you've interned, you've produced, you've had on-air shifts, you've written for news, and now you're Program Director of WLUW. A couple of questions spring immediately to mind. Is there any particular job you'd go back to and do exclusively if you had no worries about money or time?

The job that I have now is my dream job. I get to program both music and progressive issue-oriented shows, twin passions for me. I'm in non-commercial radio, at a station that doesn't have a multi-million dollar budget, so I can afford to program what I believe is good, not what I know will appeal to the most people (read: the lowest common denominator). I get to program for the highest common denominator!

Plus I love to be on the air, but I get burned out when I do it to much. At WLUW, I get to do a show once a week (Mondays noon until 2), which seems about perfect.

Is there any other job in the world you would rather do instead? A lifelong dream fulfilled?

Nope. I'd just like to have more wattage. Oh, and I might enjoy being a rock star in the vein of, say, Michael Stipe, but I think I could do that simultaneous with running the station...don't you?

Back to WLUW... There always seems to be some confusion when the station is brought up these days. It used to be exclusively the station of Loyola University. Now WBEZ is in the picture. Can you clarify exactly what the deal is, and what it means to be 'Community Radio?'

Ah, such big goes. The WLUW license is held by Loyola University, as it has been for the last 26 years or so. But a few years back the university hit a bit of a tough spot financially, and started making cutbacks. One of those decisions was to cut the funding for the radio station. Previously, Loyola had provided 100% of the WLUW budget. Rather than sell the station, Loyola negotiated an agreement with Chicago Public Radio for the operation of WLUW.

The agreement changed nothing about what you hear on the air. It's primarily a financial arrangement – I used to be an employee of Loyola University, and now I'm an employee of Chicago Public Radio. We were nervous about it at first, because many people were certain that CPR had some sort of ulterior motive, but here it is three years later, and in reality, it's been a very healthy move. The obvious change that stemmed from the agreement was that we began to fundraise. Chicago Public Radio didn't sign on to the agreement to be WLUW's sugar daddy -- they agreed to help us learn to fundraise and to assist us in getting to financial self-sufficiency.

Now as to your question regarding community radio... Even before Loyola decided to stop funding WLUW, it was a community station, not a college station. There are a number of crucial differences. Most obviously, we have a wide array of volunteers at WLUW, not limited to students (WLUW has 170+ volunteers). While most college stations are student run, with only a faculty adviser, WLUW has a professional staff of three, lending consistency from year to year. Because of the professional staff, the programming quality is more solid and more consistent than you would find at your garden variety college station. What puts the "community" in community radio is the fact that we invite our constituents to become directly involved at WLUW, and that we try to serve the diverse community - Rogers Park - that we are in, giving voice to those who too often go unheard. In addition to our music programming, we have over 30 locally produced issue- and arts-oriented programs, along with shows in five different languages.

There aren't too many female voices in radio today. Do you have any female influences, radio-wise? Who were your influences growing up on the dial?

I'm sorry to say I really don't. I wanted to be in radio from the time I was ten or so, but pretty much everyone I listened to on the radio was a guy – Larry Lujack and John Landecker at WLS, and then this guy "Jumpin' George" Edwards from WDEK in DeKalb, who went on to be "George McFly" at B96. Oh yeah, I was all about Top 40 radio when I was younger. It's still so lame that stations have this idea that as long as they have one woman on the air, they've filled their quota. How often do you hear two women jocks back to back? Hell, how often do you hear two female ARTISTS back to back? It's shocking to me that it's still so backward. I'm happy we have so many female DJs at WLUW -- we're pretty evenly split.

Recently, the 'oldies' station was wiped out in favor of JACK-FM, a format that claims to play "what we want." Q101 has gone to "the shuffle." Chicagoist is hurt by the loss of the oldies. Discuss.

I've long believed that people don't like just one kind of music, and these formats are acknowledging that after years of nichification (nice word). However, those stations are still far from adventurous. Jack-FM in particular is never going to surprise you. The whole "we play what we want" thing -ha! They're making out like they are the freeform FM of the late 60s and early 70s, when in reality it's just a grown-up version of Top 40 radio - it takes a group of familiar songs and plays them over and over again. It might mix up the genres (just like Whitney Houston into Bon Jovi into R.E.M. in 1988), but it will never play you a song that you've never heard before -- not even by a familiar artist. And they've removed the jocks from the equation, which makes it totally impersonal -- who is that "we" playing what "we" want? Q101 is another story. Alt-rock as a format is dying, and they are just trying to figure out where to go next. I don't think the "shuffle" thing will last.

How do you keep people interested in radio with the advent of the iPod? Is radio dead?

Of course radio is not dead. People have been declaring radio dead for the last 50 or 60 years. Radio isn't going anywhere; it's just evolving. Radio is magic. It's free. It's there wherever you go. It
sets the soundtrack of your life. More tangibly, the great aspects to radio are that it is local, and that it is immediate. Something can happen (now) and it can be on the radio (now). That fast! No need to get a camera out. No need to plan. Just open the mic, and there it is. I try to remind myself of that every time I'm on the air. What a great thing this is. How truly amazing. Radio can provide its listeners with resources that no other medium can.

Now that's not to say that many of the people who are making their living off of radio are not doing their best to kill it. Commercial radio is stomping all over the local nature of radio with centralized
programming and syndication, and they're thumbing their noses at immediacy in the same way, with voice tracking and automation. But that's commercial radio. Non-commercial radio, especially the kind of radio we're doing, actually has seen a good deal of growth over the past decade.

And I believe radio vs. iPod is a false dichotomy. Radio provides things iPod can't. Your iPod will never turn you on to new music. It won't play a hidden gem you've never heard before. It won't give
you the latest news or tell you about the shows going on in town this weekend (yes, I'm aware there are some headline functions and such, but I'm talking more about information + personality) or give you the chance to win concert tickets or warn you about a tornado. Your iPod can surprise you, but only to a certain degree. Your iPod will never make you feel slightly less alone in the world.

Your station faces a two-fold difficulty in reaching a broad audience.... Your broadcasting range is not wide reaching at the left of the dial, and people can't take your webcast with them. It isn't as portable as say an iPod.

How do you let people know who and where you are?

Guerrilla marketing, for the most part. We try to welcome shows, get our names on the marquee and our banners hung at clubs. Handing out flyers and buttons after shows. Trade ads in a variety of publications we find compatible with what we do. Putting on shows and special events, like our record fair. Tabling at street fairs and cool events like the Renegade Craft Fair. Encouraging our listeners to help us spread the word.

We've been pretty good at it, if I do say so, we've got a good, solid listenership for a station our size, but we still could do a lot better. We're lucky with our location, because despite the fact that we broadcast at only 100 watts, being up on the north side in the midst of everything, we have a potential audience of 1.5 million or so inside our coverage area. We just need to let those people know we exist.

We'll be kicking up the visibility a good bit this fall, with a website redesign and a webcast upgrade in the works.

Talk about some of your favorite artists. Who are some of your go-tos? Some new artists that really get you charged?

From Chicago, I still think Frisbie is the best thing going, and I really hope they record another album. An amazing rock/pop hybrid with two fine singer-songwriters and transcendent harmonies. I think the Ponys are an outstanding, driving rock band. They have that post-punk thing going on, but not in a tiresome way -- their songs are good and varied. They've heard Joy Division, but they've heard other records too! And there's this band Zapruder Point -- they're home recorders, they used to be four-trackers, but they moved to a bit of pro-tools on this most recent record -- anyway, I love Dan Zapruder's songs. Really smart and heartfelt and thoughtful and clever and devastating. What more can you ask for?

Where is (are) your favorite place(s) to eat in Chicago?

Ixcapuzalco (now La Bonita Ixcapuzalco) on Western at Palmer. Amazing moles. Also the sopes sortidos! Without compare.

What former Chicago athlete or actor do you think would be a good mayor?

I don't buy that stuff. I don't believe being famous makes you qualified to run the third largest city in the country. I'll take someone with business, political, activist, economic, or other organizational experience, please. Maybe someone who's run a
volunteer-driven radio station.

Favorite stretch of road to drive in the city?

I'm such a cliché. Heading north on Lake Shore Drive into the city at night. Oh, the glorious skyline of Chicago, greatest city in the world. I'm privileged to be a part of it.

Thanks Jocelyn!