CHIRP Radio is a volunteer-driven, online community radio station that focuses on music, arts, and culture. CHIRP Radio can be heard daily from their studios in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood. Back in February 2012 CHIRP’s news department began producing a program called Person of Interest that features the voices of people from all around Chicago. We talked with our fellow Recollective member and POI producer, Whitney Henry-Lester on the eve of the program’s one-year anniversary.
The Recollective: On the CHIRP Radio Blog, News Director Dan Epstein said “The title (Person of Interest) is a deliberate attempt to appropriate the phrase law enforcement likes to use to describe people who aren’t yet officially suspects. Despite its degree of separation from ‘suspect,’ this phrase now shares the power of ‘suspect.’” That strikes me as a somewhat political perspective on what could just be catchy program title. What is your take on the title and what it means to you?
Whitney: Dan came up with the original name and idea for the series, and I ran with it. I do think it’s primarily a catchy program title, but I do think that it works as an appropriation. While the phrase typically refers to someone worth keeping an eye on (in a criminal sense), in our context the phrase simply identifies someone worth noticing, perhaps someone that you might not otherwise meet or speak with. It identifies someone worth listening to.
The Recollective: CHIRP is community radio. Is there a community-based goal for its programming? What do you think CHIRP’s goals are for POI?
Whitney: An overarching goal of CHIRP is to support community radio, both in theory and in practice. CHRIP was very influential in getting the Local Community Radio Act passed in 2010, which will give more community-based organizations access to the limited space on the radio dial alongside the huge for-profit media companies that currently dominate the airwaves. CHIRP offers anyone in Chicago the opportunity to get involved in community radio, and it gives listeners a station that is by and for Chicagoans. The News department strives to bring local stories and voices to the air. Producing news with a staff of volunteers brings its own challenges, but Person of Interest has been a great start for the department. I think the goal is always to improve the quality of the work and entertain listeners while also helping people learn new production skills and tell their own stories. Ultimately, I think CHIRP helps listeners connect with this city, especially by supporting the music, arts, and culture that originate here. And I believe POI contributes by encouraging people to connect with their fellow citizens.
The Recollective: As a producer what were your goals or hopes for POI?
Whitney: Like anyone living in a big city, we in Chicago are constantly surrounded by crowds of people, but we tend to find our people and our daily patterns and stick to them. I wanted POI to introduce listeners to some new people. I wanted it to be a reminder of the wonderful diversity of ideas, perspectives, and humans that we are surrounded by in this city. I wanted to create some curiosity, so I aimed for stories that felt like eavesdropping into someone’s conversation for a couple minutes, rather than a full profile of a person. My loftiest goal was to inspire listeners to seek out some of the people and stories around them in their daily Chicago lives.
The Recollective: Was there a learning curve for you in terms of figuring out what you wanted POI to be? I’m asking about the stories, of course, but I’m also curious about things like aesthetics and community engagement.
Whitney: I think POI is still evolving. As a producer, I want to say that each POI segment would be a pristine, three minute audio clip that makes you laugh, moves you to tears, and reminds you why radio is a beautiful medium. But the beauty of it is that it is still imperfect and evolving. I am fortunate to be involved with this thing called community radio with a community, and thus, POI has many contributors. Other people have and will leave their own stamp on it. I’ve had wonderful flexibility and support from the News Department (namely News Director Dan Epstein and fellow producer Iris Lin) to be able to get it off the ground and have fun with it. And I’ve been able to share some methods with new producers. But other people will tell other stories, and I think there’s a lot more that POI can be.
The Recollective: Has POI changed your relationship to the city of Chicago in any way?
Whitney: POI has made me a serial eavesdropper. I’ve always been someone who wonders about the backstories of people around me on the train or in the supermarket or in a cafe, but POI has given me an excuse to find out! When I have my recorder I have a reason to ask people personal questions, but I also can’t have a casual chitchat with a stranger because I’m wondering if I should be recording them. That’s one of the hazards of being a radio producer, I think. But walking around and interviewing strangers has been a great way to get to know the city.
The Recollective: Did you come to POI with some inspirations in mind? I’m trying to think of other programs on the radio, community or otherwise, that feel similar to POI and I’m having trouble thinking of any past or present.
Whitney: I think the short and sweet nature of Atlantic Public Media’s Sonic IDs were the biggest inspiration. Each one stands alone as a quick and direct glimpse into an individual character, but collectively they’re a real portrait of life there on Cape Cod. I definitely wanted the POI pieces to be about people but also collectively about the city of Chicago.
The Recollective: How did you find your storytellers?
Whitney: Some people of interest were friends of friends that myself or Iris had heard about and were interested in interviewing, but the majority of the storytellers came from stopping and chatting with people while walking in the park or on the street. I met one storyteller because he hit on me while I was walking around my neighborhood. I told him I wouldn’t give him my number, but if he was willing, I’d interview him about his life. It was good incentive to carry my recorder with me always.
The Recollective: Can you describe the interview process? Are the clips that are broadcast drastically different from actual interviews?
Whitney: It almost seems too simple to describe. I will spend a chunk of an afternoon walking around a park or a neighborhood, and I’ll stop people and ask if they want to be interviewed for CHIRP. I am still amazed that some people can completely be themselves in front of a microphone, and I love chatting with those people. If new producers are trying their hand at producing a POI piece, they’ll hit the street in pairs, and one will run the recorder while the other will focus on the interviewing. Typically, Iris or I would edit a first draft and then we’d send it around for feedback. Every piece was better after a second set of ears had heard it. Interviews range from 5 minutes to an hour, with most interviews being around 20 minutes. The final piece can come from the answer to just one question or it will be bits and pieces from an entire interview. The content of the story is drastically the same as the original interview, but with some extra side stories cut out. People tend to sound much more eloquent in the edited piece than in the interview.
The Recollective: What is happening next with POI?
Whitney: Starting February 4, POI is going to air on CHIRP the first week of every month, and each podcast will continue to live on our website. I’m also stepping down as Senior Producer to get involved in other aspects of CHIRP. I’m handing things off to the very capable Iris Lin. But trust me, I will continue to interview strangers.