Fire on the Prairie

Interview with Emily Udell and Aaron Sarver

AREA:

Give us a little background about Fire on the Prairie. How long has it been running? Can you explain your affiliation with In These Times magazine?

Emily:

Fire on the Prairie began broadcasting in October of 2003, and it started airing initially on WLUW, a community radio station on the north side of Chicago. Since that time we have started airing on another community station in Chicago, as well as on several online stations – and we have our own website now, where we archive the show. Aaron pitched the idea to WLUW by saying, “Hey I work for In These Times , we’d like to do a show,” and they accepted the pitch. I had a little bit of experience in radio, but none in news radio, so I decided that the project interested me. I came on board and nobody else did. So it was just me and Aaron. We are currently in the process of producing our twenty-first show.

Aaron:

We had no idea what we were doing in the beginning. The first six shows are not even archived online because they are horrendous. The sound quality is bad; the interview questions are bad. I had literally done nothing with radio before, so I didn’t know how to work the equipment or how to have an interview that was not unbelievably awkward.

Emily:

It was intimidating even asking people for interviews. Once you got them in the room or on the phone, it was really intimidating. And we were so bad at doing things like fading music and editing out junk that we had a few totally throw-away interviews.

AREA:

In the early stages, directly following the first pitch, was FOTP responding to a particular lack or gap that you had identified? Was that articulated as a goal of the project?

Aaron:

I felt like there was a lot of stuff going on in Chicago that wasn’t being covered. So here was WLUW, a community station very much in transition from being owned by Loyola, to becoming quasi-independent. I saw WLUW developing as a space where you could do what you wanted, and I saw our news dominated by corporate and more nationally-focused media like WBEZ, which reports with a national focus from a local perspective. The gap I wanted to address was, what about local stories with a local perspective, where we don’t have to worry about how it relates to New York or even the rest of the world? That goal evolved as we developed the show – we didn’t have a plan for what niche we were going to fit. Another gap we wanted to fill was to cover radical movements and events without being super biased in our coverage. Often with progressive news outlets like indymedia.org or Pacifica Radio, there is a really shrill, reactionary tone that I don’t find inviting. Emily and I were working within the idea of a community station, where potentially anyone who flipping the dial could not dismiss what they were hearing as crazy, reactionary, leftist media. We wanted to create progressive media that would speak to everyone.

Emily:

I agree with Aaron. When FOTP started, we came to it with limited knowledge of how to do it technically, so it was impossible to know what kind of niche we were going to fill. But there was definitely a sense that there were things going on here and in this country with radio that we felt like we could add to. It’s not necessarily that we saw a gap – because there is a lot happening – but we felt that there needed to be more voices. With all the activism going on around media reform and media issues, we felt we could participate in the huge tide of dialogue around these issues, especially coming from the position of working for a progressive magazine like In These Times - which doesn’t provide us with much financial resource for this project, but which does provide us with access to a progressive community. Since we were gaining the knowledge of the technology, we thought that we could provide another venue for those voices like the ones speaking in In These Times and similar magazines.

AREA:

Could you elaborate on how you view the overall media landscape in Chicago, ranging from independent to corporate?

Emily:

I am really inspired by what is going on in Chicago right now. There are independent publications that are political, that are catering to ethnic communities, and that are cultural and fun. I think that Chicago is a city where people feel like they can make media, be it print, TV, video, radio or whatever. As far as corporate media in Chicago, I think there is a lot to counter it.

Aaron:

Regarding national media, Chicago is different from other cities that cover their mayors because Mayor Daley is such an institution here, which affects mainstream and corporate media. I think that Chicago is very de-centralized, and it operates that way. One common moniker is that this is the ‘city of neighborhoods’ – and it does seem like there are a lot of different groups doing good stuff as far as media activism. But there may be some ‘recreating the wheel’ and overlap. Through WLUW we have met other folks whom we’ve done some skill-sharing with. We’ve run into and offered tips to a lot of other people working on their own, and they say “I wish I would’ve known this before!”

AREA:

Where do you see the project going?

Emily:

We are going to take over the world with radio waves!

 AREA:

What kind of affiliations, alliances, and collaborations would you like to develop as the project moves forward?

Emily:

Aaron and I recently went to the Allied Media Conference in Bowling Green, Ohio, where we led a workshop on radio and how to make a radio story. Part of our goal of doing that was to share information that we had gained after two years of doing this show and some of the knowledge we have under our belts at this point. We wanted to share all of that with people who want to make radio, but who are intimidated, or find aspects of it mysterious. That is definitely one of the goals that I have – continuing to share what we have learned to make it possible for other people to join in making quality radio. As far as other collaborations go, we are definitely open to it. Pretty much anyone who wants to collaborate, we will hear them out and see if it works.

Aaron:

Building on the workshop we did at the Allied Media Conference, I’d like to create a setting, at WLUW or wherever, where people could come in and get their crash course in radio. We hope that the workshop made people feel like they could start out, feel confident, and go get a mini-disc online and make a radio piece. We want to give people an introductory skill set so that they feel they can attempt radio – whether they want to do it on WLUW, WBEZ, or set up some online podcast. That way, they can go into Chicago communities, talk to people, and do news stories, investigative reporting, or just basic interviews.

One thing we have talked about is that a lot of our friends travel a lot, go do great things, and meet great people. They could be provided with a little mini-disc recording kit. Our friend Kari Lydersen, for example, is a great journalist who goes all over the place. She recently went to Colombia to write about the Coca-Cola Union busting, and she just takes her notes shorthand in a notebook. I wish she could record that stuff, either for FOTP, or even on another offshoot web space where she could put all this raw audio and these amazing stories.

Emily:

Some of the limitations on collaboration are the fact that this is not our paying job – it’s our labor of love. We are overcommitted, and so sometimes it is hard to make time to develop collaborations. We are too busy running around with the mini-disc recorders. Hopefully, in the future, we can get more funding together and produce more shows, and eventually do a regular weekly show. This might provide more space for collaboration as the project goes on.