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Vocalo Re-Launches With A Focus On Local Music and Stories

By Kim Bellware in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 3, 2011 10:00PM

2011_03_Vocalo.jpg In the nearly four years since the launch of Vocalo, the station has struggled to gain a foothold among Chicago listeners. The combination radio and blog experimental broadcast project relied heavily on user-generated content, though its blog has arguably been the more successful of the two entities, snagging writers like Jim DeRogatis, Steve Dolinsky and formerly Robert Feder. Today, its parent organization Chicago Public Media (formerly Chicago Public Radio) announced that it will be relaunching the young station this spring.

Post-relaunch, the station will be fixed squarely on the local music scene and locally themed stories geared toward what CPM is describing as "young, culturally diverse audiences." Silvia Rivera remains the station's managing director, but the biggest staff news to come out of the re-launch is the addition of influential Chicago DJ Jesse De La Peña as the station's official Music Curator (a role which, according to CPM, was created exclusively for him). Under De La Peña's direction, the musical brand of Vocalo will be formed around a few core genres like progressive hip-hop, electronic and indie, continuing the format featured on current shows like MusicVox and its feature presentation program Live From Studio 10.

News and features appear to be heading in the "hyper-local" direction, with a marked downshift in user-generated content (it's yet to be announced whether any of that content will survive at all). Most current shows will remain in place, with the remaining news and entertainment holes to be filled with weekday programs generated in and hosted from different neighborhoods throughout the city. Programs like The Barbershop Shop, which airs live from Carter's Barbershop in North Lawndale, will be featured regularly alongside current programming, and more conventionally structured talk radio programs in the form of morning and afternoon drive shows.

Despite re-launching, Vocalo's overall mission seems largely unchanged, especially considering that audience engagement is a primary goal of virtually every new media project. In re-formatting, investing in more consistent programming over user-generated content and cribbing a few notes from the WBEZ series' Off Air playbook (among others), the station seems to have finally figured out a more clear direction toward realizing that mission.

Still, we have a little skepticism over how much the new direction will change the young station's fortunes. We were disappointed that the user-generated aspect of the station never quite got off the ground, especially given that if anyone could have made it work, it would have been CPM. Other new initiatives the station is touting--such as introducing a suite of mobile apps and enhancing its website--are pretty much givens in the new media environment. The insistence that the topics covered will be "real" stories (as opposed to what, exactly?) smacks of young audience pandering.

Right now its seems Vocalo's greatest potential will rest in its dedication to content made by and for audiences atypical of public radio (predominately educated, upper-middle class and white). If the re-launch positions the Vocalo as a resource for these audiences, we can only wish them the best of luck and hope that this time around, they find success.