Daniel Kisslinger (left) & Damon Williams (right) of AirGo Radio//Photo by Jennifer Pagan

Damon Williams and Daniel Kisslinger aren’t your typical radio hosts. They’re not limited to an ivory tower of fancy microphones, cushy seats and high-tech soundboards. The duo exists outside of their WHPK radio station, living and breathing a mission to meld the realms of artistry and activism.

That’s why they created AirGo Radio, a live talk show on 88.5 FM where they interview prominent figures in the community who have a foot in both worlds. At the time of this interview, Williams and Kisslinger, both members of the Let Us Breathe collective, were gearing up for their 100th episode. After initially meeting at Grinnell College, and going their separate ways after graduation, the two reunited again in Chicago in the midst of social and creative movements. With Kisslinger wanting to get back into radio after hosting a college show, and Williams seeking a home for his art and passion to spark change, they launched AirGo Radio in 2015.

“I think there is a really strong independent artist movement happening here [in Chicago] and that independent spirit spills over into the streets as all of us are talking about the system and revolution,” Williams says. “So it’s not like we’re trying to uncover something that folks don’t know about. We’re just trying to add a piece to help give it parameters.”

The premise of the show is building community through humanizing conversations with artists and visionaries. Among the people they’ve interviewed are Jamila Woods, poet and recent performer at Pitchfork Music Festival, Terrence Thompson, whose latest film, Drive Slow, recently premiered through the Chicago Track program, and LaSaia Wade, a leader of the trans liberation movement in Chicago. According to Williams and Kisslinger, it’s important for people to be able to look back at the beginnings of such work to appreciate and value its place in today’s world.

“Politically or artistically, some or all of these people are going to be historical figures because of the work they’re doing,” Williams says.

Kisslinger says that art and social movements go hand-in-hand. “They’re not separate communities; they’re not separate practices. They don’t just inform each other; they are one practice.” Think along the lines of songbird Nina Simone with “Strange Fruit” and “Mississippi Goddam,” or poet Amiri Baraka and the 1960s Black Arts Movement. Williams adds, “the art of gathering people for collective change is an artistic, creative endeavor.”

Stretch and Bobbito, hip-hop radio legends, are among AirGo’s heroes. Their 90s radio show out of Columbia University’s WKCR launched the careers of many big wigs in hip hop, including Notorious B.I.G., Jay Z, Busta Rhymes, and the Fugees. Kisslinger explains that these premieres weren’t part of big marketing or promotional schemes. “It was people staying up late and recording off the radio onto these tapes and passing them [along],” he says. “So I think about that as a way to decommodify the music industry.”

Photo by Jennifer Pagan.

Studs Terkel is another one of AirGo’s influences. Terkel worked Chicago’s WFMT for 45 years, interviewing literary greats like James Baldwin. He also wrote Working, a book in which he talks to people of different social classes in Chicago about the relationship between their work and their labor. “I think about what [Terkel] did as an art form and a humanizing form of organizing people to rethink the ways our city and our culture work,” Kisslinger says.

AirGo strives to follow in these traditions, giving the everyday voice a space to breathe. So often, the leaders of movements and the outspoken activists of today are only known through their campaigns and social media. On AirGo, they become human.

“The more we can humanize that space, then the more we can humanize all of the other things that we’re fighting for,” Williams says about protection against police brutality, equal pay, and a better education system.

As AirGo marches on, Kisslinger and Williams hope the show becomes a digital archive of sorts; a living document of the social and political climate we live in.

“That’s what’s so different about this moment [in time],” Kisslinger says. “We have the tools and the right intentions to try to create [a lane] for those trying to build on [their] ideas down the line.”

AirGo airs every Thursday at 12 PM central on WHPK 88.5 FM. Be sure to listen here!   

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