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At Least There's No Pledge Drive

By Justin Sondak in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 28, 2007 4:25PM

We want to like Vocalo, we really do. But we’re finding it hard to put their broadcast stream ahead of WBEZ podcasts, our iTunes playlist, and Radio David Byrne.

Vocalo's grass-rootsy approach to public radio pairs the decentralized model of Internet communities with a younger, more diverse broadcasting staff. Drawing a more diverse audience was one of their stated goals and, to their credit, they're doing so by treating diversity as a fact of life in Chicago. There's no hand wringing, no fiery rhetoric, not even the tired old signposts of Important Minority Programming brought to you by A Concerned Local Foundation.

communism_2006_06.jpgThe best features we heard were nuanced, thoughtful and fun. A reporter shifts the focus of her scheduled interview with a Cabrini Green resident when she learns the community is still reeling from last night’s shooting; they discuss how hard it is to trust people the morning after. Hitting the local scene in search of comic relief, the hosts talked to performers with Drinking and Writing and Jokes and Notes. Teens and younger adults discussed dating adventures and volunteering in Uganda. And the staff connected with the locals in Chesterton, Indiana.

Vocalo's content isn't sponsored, allowing hosts and programmers to address their audience more directly. Think of it as less mediated media. One host even compared the station to small-scale communism, to each according to their own ability. But both that philosophy and the new station are messier in practice. Some features don't go anywhere or are barely disguised rants. Station promos occasionally cut into audio features, the hosts too often lose focus, lean on “uhs” and “ums” or dead air, and the live Internet stream bounces around, awkwardly cutting from music to conversation to features. Unless you live in northern Indiana, that stream is your only option.

Still, we see plenty of potential here. Vocalo’s making the effort to reach listeners more inclined to consume radio on their own time and terms. Programs are archived on the website, where registered users can post content and audio to the community blog (and we like online communities). If the wisdom of crowds holds, Vocalo could help guide the future of public radio.

Vocalo (pronounced "vo kuh low") broadcasts on 89.5 FM and streams live on