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Thursday, November 23

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Detour

Next time you're at Metro, bobbing in a sea of leather jackets, listening to a band that's rumored to be the next Strokes, you might see the WLUW Program Director leaning over the railing in the VIP section of the balcony, taking a survey of the number of female fans on the floor. You'll notice Shawn Campbell because she'll be one of the few women in the crowd rocking just as hard as the men.

Even though the music industry, rock music and radio management are dominated by men, she doesn't feel discriminated against. "I don't feel like I've run into barriers too much. I always knew what I wanted to do. I knew what I had to do and I focused on that, she says. But she admits that she is one of the few female music geeks who also happens to manage an independent radio station.

WLUW may not have the frequency of an XRT, a GCI or even a WBEZ, Chicago's public radio station, but it has a hold on Shawn's heart. "This is my dream job,' she says with her blue eyes glistening and her hands gesturing at her uncoordinated office furniture and her walls covered in band posters. "Even when I was working in Lafayette [Indiana] in my first job, I knew that if someone gave me a radio station and let me decide the programming it would be a great radio station, and here I am.'

WLUW is a non-profit community radio station, and not just because its low wattage antenna limits how far its signal can reach. Until a year ago it was owned and run by Loyola University, part of the Jesuit college's long-standing mission of social justice outreach.

Budget constraint in a tight economy forced the university to find ways to cut the budget. Eliminating the student radio station seemed an easy way to soften their budget blow. In November 2001 the WLUW staff learned that the station was on the chopping block.

"We weren't told anything -- we were basically out of the loop,' Shawn says. "We were told that wasn't our business. We were only employees, we weren't management.'

They began to hear rumors that WBEZ was the "outside entity' interested in buying the station. "We were really scared. We though that BEZ wanted the frequency, that they wanted to put their programming on, that they wanted to do a frequency that was all jazz and keep 91.5 all talk.'

These rumors, combined with university officials' waffling on whether WBEZ was their "negotiating partner,' made the staff and volunteers afraid that the community, the fans, the hard work they'd invested in WLUW would be flushed away. But Torey Malatia, the general manager of WBEZ, set their minds at ease by meeting in person with the staff and with Friends of WLUW, a community group that formed to voice their concerns and fight to keep the station from disappearing or changing.

Malatia assured them that WBEZ wasn't going to change the programming. "He said, 'Your signal is good for what you guys do, you're good as community radio.' Torey put in WBEZ's newsletter that they wouldn't fire us and they wouldn't mess with programming. It was really reassuring.'

Shawn's office has a ground-floor view of Lake Michigan and is just down the hallway from the women's studies department in Loyola's Damen Hall. The university still owns the station license and provides rent-free space for the studios, but they no longer have control over content or management decisions.

Aside from offering fundraising support, education and volunteers, WBEZ's current interaction with the station is invisible. "The relationship has been nothing but positive. We couldn't be happier with how things have worked out. Virtually nothing has changed -- we aired basketball programs before, but we don't now. Chicago Public Radio is on my paycheck rather than Loyola University, but that's it. And it's nice to work with people who understand radio.'

Under their operating agreement, WBEZ and Loyola split any budget deficits that arise during WLUW's first three years as an independent station, with WBEZ picking up all deficits thereafter. WLUW was $2,000 shy of their first year's goal of $150,000 -- a number that frightened the staff, which had never done a fundraiser before. "We thought $20,000 was really daunting when we were putting together the first pledge drive.' Shawn hopes their next pledge drive in February will provide at least one third of their annual operating budget, which means they'll have to rely on grant writing and at least 11other fundraising events planned for the next year to help raise the other two-thirds. They have several benefit concerts and holiday sing-alongs planned in addition to the annual WLUW Record Fair, an event that brings together used vinyl dealers, local record labels and small local businesses.

Fig1. Look at all the great swag you could get by supporting WLUW!

Their next fundraiser will take place November 28 at the Metro. Dubbed the Punk Rock Reunion, the show features one-night-only reunions of the Boll Weevils, Apocalypse Hoboken and The Traitors; The Dutchmen and Mexican Cheerleader represent the current punk scene.

Which is just one of Chicago's many music scenes. "The Chicago music scene is funny because there's not one identifiable Chicago sound. There's the Bloodshot Records scene, the alt-country scene, the post-rock scene, and for awhile there were a ton of power-pop bands coming out of Chicago, the mest coming out of the South Suburbs -- oh, and the Chicago punk rock scene.' Shawn says this helps differentiate the local music scene from those of other cities.

Aside from having a variety of styles, she also applauds club owners for providing venues for a wide range of types of music, and artists for collaborating with each other. "There's a real sense of community here that LA, New York or Austin don't have. There's not the back-stabbing you see in other scenes. For the most part, our club owners are all really supportive of each other, too. There are a lot of opportunities for collaboration here."

It's a cooperation that Shawn also insists upon in the studio. "Every DJ who has been on the air for more than one term is expected to do training.'

WLUW may be independent now, but it still has a relationship with Loyola. General Manager Craig Kois is still paid by the university and teaches radio classes to Loyola students.

"This past fall I had about 50 people come to our first meeting. We have a volunteer staff of about 170 volunteers and about half of them are trained as DJs.'

Before people can scoot up to the microphone and spin their favorite tunes, there are several weeks of classes they must take, covering everything from FCC law and on-air presence and technical classes that explain the buttons and dials covering the sound board to community fundraising work.

"We've tried to make the training process fairly intensive just to weed out the people who aren't serious, and also because you need to know it. It means we get a better qualified staff.'

But Shawn won't refuse airtime to someone, not even Top 40 fans who think college radio should play more Dave Matthews Band. "You can't bring your big stack of 50-Cent records [because of the profanity], but anyone who is willing to learn music history and expand their knowledge of bands is welcome.'

Fig2. Jed James, host of WLUW's Radio Free Chicago, interviews Tim Kasher, singer/guitarist for Cursive.

Shawn's love of music and desire to be on the air began early, but she grew up listening to pop music. "When I went into college radio, I knew I wanted to work the radio station, but I didn't know that music we were playing because I had been a Top 40 listener. But I learned and educated myself about music. And now I'm respected because I know my stuff.'

She'd have to know her stuff in order to be assistant producer of Sound Opinions with Jim DiRogatis and Greg Kot, the music critics for the Sun-Times and Tribune. She works on the show, which airs Tuesday nights on WXRT, above and beyond her duties with WLUW. "I pretty much do what needs to be done to keep them flowing. Everything from checking email and picking listeners to answering the phones.'

Being the "biggest female music geek in Chicago' and working with the city's two highest profile male music geeks doesn't mean she's a music snob. "I like what I like, I like all kinds of music. But I'm never going to try to out-obscure anyone or out-avant garde anyone. People can come from a Top 40 background and be interested in a lot of different kinds of music. I don't believe in shutting people out because they're not incredibly educated about the music.'

Her resistance to snobbery carries over to the way she manages the programming. "We like our two-minute pop songs here. It isn't common to find a college radio station that plays as much variety or focuses on rock music as much as we do.'

Even though WLUW is in the college radio station category, Shawn considers the station better than most -- and far better than their local competition. Doubling the listener base and quadrupling the staff in the last four years helps explain why WLUW was voted "Best Local Radio Station' in the NewCity readers poll two years in a row.

"WNUR [Northwestern University's station] has 7200 watts. We have 100, so we can't really compete in coverage, but we have three times the number of listeners that they have. I love that they're up there, but it's a friendly competition.'

"Our listeners are pretty progressive,' Shawn says. "Some of them listen for the progressive music and some of them listen for the progressive talk programs. I like that I can draw the activist audience to music they might not have come across on their own, and that I can make music fans aware of politics.'

Before this politically aware program director had her dream job, she struggled at low paying jobs. One of her first jobs was working at a small suburban radio station. "While I was an overnight jock, there were several daytime positions [I saw] come and go that I expressed interest in. I was told by one of the other DJs that the management had said to him that they would never have a woman on a rock station during the day. I thought I was well-qualified to make $7 an hour during the day.'

Working in a male-dominated industry and being one of the few women in radio management has made her pleased at the number of women who show up at the station wanting to be a DJ.

"We don't do any recruiting for the station. And we may not have a 50-50 ratio of male to female students, but I'd say it's 60-40, which, for this type of radio station, is pretty good. It's a bit lower among the community members who are interested, but it's still betting than average. On commercial radio there is still the opinion that you only need one female DJ -- and she's probably going to be on the overnights.'

Unfortunately, the interest from women wanting to be WLUW DJs isn't reflected in the number of post-college women with heavy interests in music. "There are a lot of enthusiastic high-schoolers who are into music and college girls who are into music, but you get a little older and you don't see that as much. And then you get into your 30s and you definitely don't see it as much. Men can keep their little geeky things forever. They love cars, they love sports, they love music -- they have a passion and they really tend to carry that with them through their life.' She says the number of women with passionate interests seems to drop about the same time that women start to have families.

Shawn can't imagine not having her geeky interest in sports and music. "I'm kind of a junkie,' she says, laughing.

"Quite possibly my favorite band of the past five years has been Frisbie. I went and saw, like, 70 shows. I think that their debut album was one of the most exciting records I've heard in ages.' Since the band is taking a short break deciding their next plan of action, she's becoming impressed by The Red Walls (formerly The Pages), whose members are currently 18, 18, 18 and 20 and are managed by Mitch Marlow, who used to book shows at Nevin's Pub in Evanston.

"They're so talented and it's so nice to see kids that age who are interested in the whole spectrum of music history. They create a really interesting combination of retro style and a current New York style, and they got snapped up by Capitol Records and they're in the process of recording their major label debut. I have high hopes for them.

As much as she likes the Chicago music scene, Shawn says that "the biggest lack for Chicago is having only one all-the-time all-ages venue, the Fireside. I think that's frustrating if you're under 21 and you like to see live music.' Despite age limits on local club admission, she also feels "Chicago is a very supportive place to play live music.'

WLUW tries to bolster that support by covering local musicians, having live on-air performances and promoting shoes and other independent community ventures.

Their biggest challenge? Getting the word out that they're on the air. "There are a lot of people who have no idea there is anything left of 92 on the dial. There are a lot of people who would be potential listeners for us who gave up on radio long ago and they listen to CDs and MP3s.'

WLUW can be found at 88.7 FM on your radio dial or at wluw.org.

 

About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper often listens to independent radio while she works on her website.

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