"People sometimes say, 'oh, you're just like a real radio station,' " Shawn Campbell begins with a smile. "I have to say, 'we are a real radio station -- we're just one that doesn't have a broadcast signal yet.' " Campbell is seated besides a mic in studio B of what does, indeed, look like a real radio station. I might have half-jokingly made a comment along those lines when we arrived -- one-hundred-plus years of terrestrial broadcasting is enough to instill one with certain preconceived notions about what, precisely, makes a radio station.
Campbell launched Chicago-based CHIRP in 2007 with terrestrial radio dreams and a team of 75 volunteers. "I'd had a couple of bad experiences in radio where I'd really poured my heart and soul into a station, only to have it thwarted by the owners," she explains. "Initially we thought that we were going to have to wait to apply for a low-power FM federal broadcast license. We thought we were going to have to lobby and change the laws to be able to do that. But we were so engaged that after about six months, we thought there [was] no reason not to start as an online station and continue our work to increase access for low-power FM and eventually apply for a license."
Perceived dial congestion has made it all but impossible for potential low-power stations to secure themselves a spot on the airwaves in a city like Chicago. Through the great democratizing of the internet, however, the CHIRP team has been able to realize many of its community-organized radio ambitions. "It's pretty cheap and it's really easy," Campbell says. "You don't have to be super tech savvy to start. You can grow it as you go, you can get a mixer, a turntable. But basically, if you have a computer and a microphone, that's all it takes to get started."
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