Interview: CHIRP Founder Shawn Campbell On Community-Focused Independent Radio

CHIRP Radio - Shawn Campbell

Video may have temporarily killed the radio star, but in a world where MTV rarely plays music videos and streaming services place algorithms above all else, music fans are returning to community radio to discover independent and unexpected releases old and new. Here in Chicago, CHIRP Radio (Chicago Independent Radio Project) is curating a unique experience that finds volunteers and staff members sharing their favorite under-the-radar tunes – often local and/or independent – with listeners in the Windy City and beyond.

CHIRP’s origins came at a time when Founder and General Manager Shawn Campbell – after many years working in traditional radio settings – decided to fully embrace the things she loved most about the business… community and music. CHIRP first formed in 2007, and by 2010 the station could be found online at CHIRPradio.org. With the help of volunteers and supporters, the organization successfully convinced Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to open low-power FM applications – allowing urban applicants – and on Oct. 21, 2017, CHIRP launched its terrestrial broadcast on the north side of Chicago, where you can find them on the dial at 107.1 FM.

“It’s still super exciting every time I get in my car,” said Campbell in a phone call. “We worked on it for such a long time – 10 years – and the reception from people has been so awesome.”

Music has the power to unite and the personal connection that listeners feel to CHIRP DJs is one of the station’s greatest strengths. “When you’re listening to music online on Spotify or YouTube, you have everything at your fingertips but there’s not an opportunity for human connection,” Campbell said. “Our DJs are live in the studio in real time. They can interact with you, and if you have a question about a song they’re playing, you can call or email, and the DJs will answer you. You can also make requests.”

“It’s really an old-school value of radio – that a lot of commercial radio, in particular, has abandoned – but I think localism is so important. The fact that our DJs are talking about things that are going on in the community. They’re talking about shows that they might be going to that listeners may be attending as well, and it creates a common bond. When you listen to the station, you start to feel like you know the people that you listen to on the air. There’s a real connection.”

As a non-profit 501(c)3, CHIRP relies on the support of the community – through individual donations and attendance at CHIRP benefits and fundraising events – as well as the time and efforts of the 250 volunteers on the roster to keep the tunes flowing online and on air.

“The volunteers are so crucial to everything that we do, especially when you think about the fact that it is just myself and a part-time development director that is our paid staff,” said Campbell. “Volunteers run 13 different departments for the station. They handle our marketing and design needs. They create partnerships. We have a music department that processes the hundreds and hundreds of records that come in every month. We have a tech department and people who write for the website and blog. We have our features team that does interviews. There are a million moving pieces and without this awesome group of volunteers it would just be impossible to do it.”

CHIRP recently held its 16th annual Record Fair – the biggest yet with approximately 130 tables of goods –and it also hosts a Record Fair during Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival each year, both of which serve as fundraisers for the station. Fans can further support CHIRP throughout the year at a number of events, including an upcoming benefit and film screening of “Thax: The Movie” at Constellation on May 3.

“One of the great things that happens sometimes with CHIRP is organizations or individuals will come to us and say, ‘We would love to put on a benefit event for you,’” said Campbell. “And in this case, Scrappers Film Group – who made this film about Thax Douglas, a local poet – approached us saying that they were doing a 10th anniversary screening and they would love to have CHIRP as the beneficiary.”

The screening event promises to be a big hit with music fans as Thax will be on hand to read a poem and introduce the film while a surprise live performance will add to the fun.

Moving forward Campbell and her team will continue to engage listeners with diverse playlists every day and night – weekdays from 6 a.m.-midnight and weekends from 6 a.m.-3 a.m. – defying genre, era, region and radio rules. She said, “The capacity to surprise and delight people with music is something that is important to me.”

More information about volunteering, attending events and listening to CHIRP can be found at www.chirpradio.org and on the radio at 107.1 FM.

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Laurie Fanelli is a Chicago-based writer and photographer who specializes in live entertainment coverage. She is at home at major music festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo and, of course, Lollapalooza and Riot Fest. She loves chatting with hilarious comedians and has interviewed the likes of Maria Bamford, Paula Poundstone and Tracy Morgan, to name a few. She has photographed tons of great bands/musicians – from every genre – including Rob Zombie, Florence and the Machine, Alabama Shakes, Neil Young, Shania Twain, Pitbull, Pierce the Veil, Kendrick Lamar, Patti Smith and many, many more. When not writing or shooting shows, Laurie loves to spend her free time training for marathons and exploring the city of Chicago. She is a longtime vegetarian and animal advocate who likes to cook healthy, delicious meals that everyone can enjoy. For more information or to contact Laurie, head over to www.lauriefanelli.com.