By Louis McGill
At 3 a.m., the streets around CHIRP radio’s studio are quiet, and DJ Steven Chesney is signing off.
Chesney is the Chicago Independent Radio Project’s only night DJ, and like everyone else who works there, he volunteered for the time slot. He is a night owl by nature. He works nights for his paying job, and when he worked for a Deerborn, Michigan, college station he played the night shift as well.
He is one of a dying breed in radio, as most Chicago stations are losing their night DJs to budget cuts, national syndication and voice tracking.
“It’s kind of a small endeavor, it’s kind of a selfish endeavor,” he said.
Playing music on an Internet radio station such as CHIRP, which is trying to secure a low-power broadcast license, Chesney’s boss sometimes jokes about if anyone is even listening.
If they aren’t, Chesney doesn’t mind. It’s his personal time, sitting alone in a radio studio in the middle of the night, listening to the music he enjoys as he winds down from the week.
“There’s nothing else I would volunteer to do for ten years and not get paid to do it,” he said.
When Chesney’s set is winding down, Gina Ferraro of Dance Factory Radio, a late-night block of dance music broadcast on three separate FM stations (92.5, 92.7, and 99.9 FM), is still playing through the night. She’s in the studio from 1 to 5 in the morning, playing music and taking calls.
“I think I’m the only live DJ in this time slot,” she said.
Because of this, her dance music show gets a rather unlikely audience. Mixed in with calls from the usual partiers are calls from cops and truck drivers who need a little music to keep them up at night. The cops and truckers are among her most loyal callers, with ages far beyond the show’s target demographic.
Ferarro is a good fit for commercial radio. Her background in broadcasting makes her more of a radio personality than a music nerd. However, to work in radio she doesn’t need to be.
“The business has gone in such a way that we don’t have to be, because we don’t have a say in what we play. It’s all predetermined by the program director,” she said. “Whereas in the 70′s and 80′s, the DJ were picking what’s good and what’s hot, now it’s revolving so much around what record companies have to say that we don’t even have a say.”
For Chesney, volunteer radio has combined an intense love of music with the spirit of a collector. He started amassing vinyl records at age 13 and never stopped despite other formats coming and going through the years. While he has an extensive collection of CDs and MP3s as well, he said that his roughly 5,000 vinyl records are “the only things I’d be upset about if my apartment caught fire.”
“Other than late-night radio, going record shopping is my weekly relaxing period,” he said. “I actually like going to [record stores] and digging through the vinyl racks and finding stuff, as opposed to sitting behind my computer and buying random MP3s in under five seconds. To me, it takes all the fun out of it.”
While he enjoys volunteering at CHIRP, the prospect of working at a commercial station doesn’t appeal to him.
“The reason I like doing radio so much is that I get to do exactly what I want to do,” he said. All the music that he plays is what he wants to listen to. He refers to the music played by “real” radio stations as “comfort food music.”
Part of the problem may be the fading role of the DJ as the radio personality becomes nothing more than a pre-recorded voice.
“When you listen to stuff like Jack FM, their schtick is that they don’t have DJs, which to me says ‘We’re playing the same music you’ve been hearing for the past 25 years, so there’s no need to have a DJ because you know exactly what this is,’” he said
Ferraro agreed. “It takes away what radio is at its core,” she said. “It’s just so much easier now to have someone voice track. It’s what I grew up with, and it’s not the same anymore.”