What is Art?—a weekly event held Thursday nights at Idea Fab Labs (IFL) Chico—is a far cry from your typical coffee shop or bar open mic.
The stage on which it is held occupies one corner of a cavernous room rivaling the size of those at mid-sized, big-city clubs, and is lit by state-of-the-art LED panels covering the roof above it. Speaker cabinets the size of refrigerators sit in front of the stage, making up part of a sound system that one of the organizers claims is “probably the best set-up [in California] north of the Bay Area.” And every week, a growing crowd of supportive regulars and newcomers turn out to cheer on the evening’s entertainers—who are mostly musicians, but also include dancers, poets, comedians and other performance artists. All are welcome.
In addition to the opportunity to live out rock-star dreams on IFL’s superstage, performers are also given a more tangible reward: every performance is filmed and the audio and video are edited by volunteer professionals, posted to YouTube, and select tracks are broadcast via Maker Radio 94.5 FM.
Maker Radio is a nonprofit, commercial-free community station headquartered at IFL. It has broadcast intermittently for the last several years, since the maker space obtained an FCC license once held by the Chico Peace and Justice Center. But it kicked into high gear in 2023 after the radio station secured its nonprofit status in January.
The weekly open mics are an essential element of the radio station’s mission as stated by IFL co-founder and station director Erin Banwell: “The whole vision is basically to create an ecosystem for musicians in order to further their musical endeavors,” he said. “We want to go far beyond just radio.”
The hope for the still-developing radio station, coupled with the open mic, is that they’ll be able to help even greenest artists become performers.
“If you’re just getting started, you can perform at our open mic, and for a lot of people it’s been their first time getting on stage. It’s super welcoming and everyone is going to cheer you on, and you get audio and video recordings. Those are hard to come by for a lot of people because it’s hard to do it yourself when you’re on stage performing, or the cost of paying someone to do it makes it impossible.”
Maddie Quillin, a visual artist who works under the name Maevyn Corvid and earlier this year participated in IFL’s Resident Artist Incubator Program, serves as Maker Radio’s Events Director. “This place in general has always been a Willy Wonka Factory of opportunity for art, tech stuff and sharing knowledge, and this is a way to apply that to music as well,” she said.
“As an artist, I know that if I want to get into a gallery in San Francisco or New York or some other place I need a portfolio with high-quality photos of my work, etc. [The recordings] help musicians do the same, plus we’ve really built a community here. Performers have been able to find their audience here in town, as well as meet people and make connections.”
Thus far, What is Art? has been running 40-plus weeks and amassed a catalog of more than 300 performances on their YouTube channel. Quillin, who says she never had musical aspirations before, said the event even inspired her to get in on the act. After sitting in with a few regulars, she invested in a cajon (a wooden, box-shaped drum) and now regularly performs.
There is an equipment room at IFL housing the station’s computers, transmitter, and other necessary equipment, and the antenna is on the building’s roof. But to date, the radio station’s studio “has existed only in the cloud,” said Banwell, meaning that everything is pre-recorded and uploaded online.
Since October, however, the station has overtaken two large rooms adjacent to the area where the open mic is held, which are currently being turned into Maker Radio’s home base. One large room will contain audio and video editing bays, volunteer resources and space for the station’s administrative needs, while the other is being transformed into a separated control room and sound-proofed studio. Banwell predicted the studio will be ready to go live in four to six weeks and said it will do double duty as a broadcast and recording studio, giving the station the ability to do live broadcasts and to record musical acts. In the future, he envisions Maker Radio as its own record label, as well.
The station’s format has traditionally been ultra-eclectic: “You never know what the next track will be,” Banwell said. “It could be singer-songwriter, electronica, old-school blues, rock-’n’-roll, rap, R&B and anywhere in between.”
While the format will remain the same on weekdays, the station recently started broadcasting some scheduled programming on Saturdays (between 9-12 a.m. and p.m), including a show called “Dub and Grub” featuring a reggae-loving chef named Dr. John who talks food while dub music plays in the background. Banwell said more programs will be added to the weekend line-up in the future. Additionally, recordings captured at from What is Art? events are played around the 40-minute mark of every hour, introduced by local musician Fox E. Jeff.
The station currently has several fundraising efforts underway—to build and equip the studio; rent a boom lift to raise the antenna (which will increase the signal’s reach); invest in new video equipment; and cover other expenses needed to run a radio station. They already have 20-30 volunteers, according to Banwell, and are welcoming more.
“We are completely listener and community supported,” Banwell said. “The weekly [open mic] events are donation-supported. Since we’re a fairly new nonprofit, we don’t have any grants or funders, and we’re really operating on a shoestring budget.”
Maker Radio: 94.5FM
Live at Idea Fab Labs (603 Orange St.):
– What is Art? open mic/open stage, Thursdays, 7 p.m.
– Holiday Maker Market, Dec. 9, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.