The news about Vocalo Radio being taken off the airways has sent shockwaves throughout Chicago. One former Vocalo host told The TRiiBE she believes Chicago Public Media’s decision to end Vocalo’s broadcast is a direct result of the $61-million acquisition of the Sun-Times, a merger with WBEZ that created one of the largest nonprofit news organizations in the country. 

“It definitely did,” Ayana Contreras said when asked if the merger played a role in ending Vocalo’s broadcast. She spoke to The TRiiBE in an emotional phone interview on April 6, a few days after Chicago Public Media announced the layoff of 14 positions. Layoffs include staff from the Sun-Times, staff from WBEZ’s podcast “Nerdette,” “Making,” and “When Magic Happens,” and Vocalo Radio’s terrestrial broadcast on 91.1 FM is scheduled to end on May 1. Afterwards, Vocalo is scheduled to live on as a digital app. 

“[The merger] was indicative of the changing priorities of CPM to really focus on local news, as opposed to a broad approach that included music and all these other cultural things that Vocalo really centered,” Contreras continued.

An article written by Crain’s Chicago Business mentions Chicago Public Media making a statement that Vocalo’s audience had not grown, “reaching just 11,000 listeners weekly, with the broadcast station running at a significant financial loss for many years.” 

Contreras told The TRiiBE that Vocalo was “perennially” underfunded, and efforts to drive viewership were virtually non-existent. 

On April 19, a spokesperson reached out to The TRiiBE on behalf of Matt Moog, CEO of Chicago Public Media. In an emailed statement to The TRiiBE, they wrote, “Vocalo has been a priority for Chicago Public Media for over 17 years. We have invested $20 million over nearly two decades and increased funding by 25%+ over the last two years. Over the years, the Vocalo team experimented with many different programming formats, marketing, and fundraising campaigns. Unfortunately, the radio audience never reached a sustainable level, and revenue did not grow to cover expenses.”

According to the statement from Moog, Vocalo has its own budget and, despite substantial efforts to generate revenue from donors, members and sponsors, the radio station’s expenses have been more than twice its revenue. Moog wrote the station lost $2 million over the last five years, with this year’s expense being $650,000 with a forecasted revenue of about $150,000.

“I was constantly asking questions, like, why isn’t Chicago Public Media’s membership department trying to come up with a membership strategy for Vocalo? We haven’t had a pledge drive since 2018,” Contreras said.

Contreras helped conceptualize the early vision of Vocalo. Back in 2006, she was a staffer at sister station WBEZ. She and a few staffers from WBEZ set out on a mission to understand the needs of the community, calling it “the Secret Radio Project.” In search of a younger, more diverse audience, the Contreras and the group went out into the community, asking people what they wanted in a radio station. The group also wanted to understand what people weren’t getting when they tuned into other radio stations. 

In the fall of 2012, she became the host of Vocalo’s “Reclaimed Soul,” a weekly radio program that airs on the station. While hosting her show, Conteras also served as the music director and director of content at the station, until her departure in November 2023. 

“We got a lot of answers that really informed what Vocalo became, which was a combination of citizen journalism, storytelling, local music, supporting the DJ community, [and] really just reflecting all of the beautiful subcultures in Chicago,” Contreras said. 

Funding to support the $61-million acquisition of the Sun-Times came from some of Chicago’s most prominent philanthropic foundations, including John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Pritzker Traubert Foundation, among others. The acquisition of the Sun-Times marked the start of a new era, and a shift in focus. According to Contreras, the canceling of Vocalo, was “Indicative of the changing priorities of CPM to really focus on local news,” 

Contreras said she first heard “whispers” that they were thinking about dropping the Vocalo frequency in 2023. 

“I immediately said that I thought it was a bad idea and that there would be blowback,” she said. “But I felt very dismissed by that, so much so that at that time I was ready to quit.”

That led her to leave the station in November 2023 for a new role in Colorado where she’s currently serving as the assistant general manager of radio at Rocky Mountain Public Media. She’s still sending archival episodes of “Reclaimed Soul” to Vocalo until the station’s broadcast ends on May 1.

Contreras explained that leaving Vocalo was her way of preserving the feeling that working on her life’s passion gave her. 

“I did not want to have to be the person to defend why it was happening if they kept my job. And if they didn’t keep my job, I would be so bitter,” she said. 

The TRiiBE reached out to the MacArthur Foundation, asking if the acquisition had any effect on the cancellation of Vocalo. Sean Harder, Head Communications Officer for the foundation sent a general statement that was sent to other media outlets, saying: “We remain optimistic that this merger can ultimately be a model of success and financial sustainability in the news industry at a time when our democracy needs it most. We recognize there are precarious periods in any transition, and it’s in these times that patient philanthropic support is most needed.”

When asked about the cancellation of Vocalo and the recent layoffs, The TRiiBE reached out to Union reps who were unable to say whether or not the merger had anything to do with the cancellation of Vocalo, as well as WBEZ’S podcast department. They repeated a general statement that was published on social media on April 4. A part of the statement reads: 

“These losses are devastating to our listeners and members. The decision also contradicts CPM’s stated commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion – both at WBEZ and to communities of color that we serve.”

In Moog’s emailed statement to The TRiiBE, he wrote, “While we are optimistic about the potential to expand Vocalo’s audience on digital platforms and reach many more people through WBEZ and Chicago Sun-Times, we are also open to talking to community members who have reached out to find a way to save the radio broadcast and potentially operate Vocalo as an independent entity.  We estimate any interested parties will need to raise millions of dollars to support Vocalo for the next several years.” 

For many Chicagoans, Vocalo was a true depiction of what the city’s diverse music scene had to offer. The station gave many up and coming, independent and underground artists, a chance for their music to be heard on the radio, many of them for the first time. 

“You didn’t even have to have a connection with anybody at Vocalo and they would be playing your music,” MFnMelo told The TRiiBE. He’s a member of the Pivot Gang rap group from the West Side of Chicago.

He expressed that the Vocalo staff’s main focus was the music, while also building genuine relationships with the artist as well as the community. 

“They really were for the culture. They really were for the Chicago scene. They really were for the people and the music,” MFnMelo said. 

The TRiiBE also spoke to the head of one of Chicago’s most prominent PR agencies, Briahna Gaitlin. She is the CEO and president of Swank Publishing, who have represented entertainers like Vic Mensa, G Herbo, and comedian Lil Rel Howery, just to name a few. 

Gaitlin has a firm grasp on the landscape of Chicago’s media, music and culture. She was recently featured on Vocalo as a guest on the station’s morning show with host Bekoe. 

“The closing of Vocalo Radio is very disappointing considering they recently remodeled the studio and are a part of one of the largest media nonprofits. With the influence that this station has had on Chicago’s local culture, it tarnishes its legacy and everything it meant to the city,” she said. “So many great DJ’s, radio hosts and musicians were represented and bloomed from that place. It’s disheartening that it will be reduced to an app and the many people that work there will lose their job for no reason. Something could have been done.”

Looking back at her time at Vocalo, Contreras tearfully said, “I’m very irritated. I’m sad that Chicago Public Media is such a different place than it was when I got there in 2006.” 

She continued, “Getting rid of the podcast, and getting rid of Vocalo, is less about money to me, because neither of those departments were huge financial drains. It was more about a change in what they think is important, which to me, doesn’t seem to be in line with what the community thinks is important.”

is a culture correspondent with The TRiiBE.