When WBEZ launched its new ad campaign, it knew it would push some buttons. As part of the station’s yearly member drive, WBEZ has been satirically urging listeners to “go make babies,” arguing that “interesting people make interesting people.” The idea is that WBEZ wants to get new listeners tomorrow, and the campaign saucily plays into that idea. Aimed at the “curious class” (the station’s pet name for its listenership), billboards and ads urge the WBEZ faithful to “do it…for Chicago.” Rick Kogan apparently just has an effect on people.
Although the station has never before delved into Jonathan Swift territory, it’s hardly the first tongue-in-cheek campaign from the local radio station. Last year’s summer fundraising campaign featured cat videos, having fun with the idea that cats are the superstars of the internet. The campaign’s tagline quipped, “Research shows that cat videos make people happy. Happy people donate.” One promotional video starred cats in wigs playing Terry Gross and Gene Simmons during a particularly tense interview, and others recreated segments with Bill O’Reilly and Kanye West as incorrigible felines.
However, while cats are politically neutral (although I imagine the dog lobby got barking mad), babies are different. The use of babies is inherently loaded, commenting on our national discourses on procreation, family planning and population control. In the past few weeks, the station has received concerned calls and emails from listeners who felt that the campaign promoted overpopulation and eugenics, and some were even concerned that the “Go Make Babies” message would inspire children to do the same.
According to Vanessa Harris, the Director of Marketing at Chicago Public Media, WBEZ anticipated some of these criticisms and assures people that the station doesn’t actually expect anyone to make children. It's about visibility, not babymaking. It's about people.
However, one criticism has been particularly close to her heart. In the weeks since the campaign launched, some LGBT Chicagoans have voiced their concerns that the campaign leaves them out of the discussion. After billboards began to pop up across the city, criticism of the ads quickly populated Facebook and social media feeds: What if we don't want kids? Do we have to be like straight people to be included? Is heteronomativity part of the deal? Others wondered whether their inability to make children makes them less valued as listeners. As someone who works for WBEZ, a friend of mine approached me to ask how she should respond to the ads. Not only does she identify as queer, but she and her partner might not be able to have children. She felt like the campaign was insensitive to her struggles with fertility.
The campaign’s heteronormativity gets more explicit when you log onto WBEZ’s new dating app, which you can access through GoMakeBabies.com. The app attempts to set you up with other “interesting” people in the Chicagoland area but assumes all its users are heterosexual. When I informed the app that I’m single and ready to mingle with a nice Chicago gentleman, it suggested some eligible straight men for me—even though our endless love might be bound to have a few, um, obstacles. The app thought I was a hetero lady. (Not that there’s anything wrong with hetero ladies.)
Last weekend, I sat down with Vanessa Harris at the Bourgeois Pig in Lincoln Park to discuss the campaign and address the LGBT community’s concerns about its rhetoric. I felt they had a right to feel marginalized, as the campaign potentially sends the wrong message, and that WBEZ had a responsibility to be accountable to that criticism. Harris said that she understood the concern and didn’t want any of the station’s viewers to feel excluded. Of all the concerns, Harris felt that this was the one that had the biggest potential to turn off a core group of the station’s viewership.
For Harris, this criticism is particularly relevant, as she made a decision fifteen years ago not to have children. However, to her, the campaign speaks to the idea of exposing a new generation to public radio. Harris stated that people are exposed to public radio in one of two ways. Either they were exposed to it in college, by a friend or a classmate, or they grew up on it. I’m a prime example of the latter, as my mother would listen to A Prairie Home Companion on the weekends when I was young, and I finally understood what Garrison Keillor was talking about when I got older.
Although Harris doesn’t plan on having children, she fully expects to help raise her sister’s children and “make them awesome.” She felt it was a part of our intergenerational exchange: “As an adult, you just want to seek children out and expose them to things.”
As an older brother, I understand the sentiment, and sometimes I feel like Zooey Deschanel in Almost Famous, passing down my wayward rock-and-roll records. (A recent mix included Beach House and Vampire Weekend.) The last time I visited home, I was determined to make my tween-aged brothers into Joss Whedon fans. Getting them to like Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog is one of the prouder moments of my life, although we’re still working on Buffy. They’ll come around eventually.
Harris and WBEZ want to pass public radio down to a new generation of young people, who often don’t surf the radio in traditional ways. For WBEZ, the problem becomes: “How do you stumble across public radio?” According to Harris, WBEZ has to “tell people we exist.” “We want everybody to give public radio a try,” Harris said. “People see millions of advertisements a day. Only one is going to stick with them. We wanted to do something to break through and reach people.”
According to Harris, society is changing, and LGBT people and same-gender families are a huge part of that. Examples like the TV program Modern Family show that people find themselves in families in “so many different ways,” whether that’s adoption or otherwise. There is no one way to have a family, whether that’s the one you’re born into or the one you choose.
The station hopes to further reach out to Chicago’s LGBT community through advertisements specifically oriented to a queer audience, which were meant to be released shortly after the start of the campaign. Forthcoming print and digital ads will ask queer listeners: “You know who loves rainbows? Infants.” They will be released in local LGBT publications like Windy City Times. According to Harris, the only reason WBEZ didn’t push them sooner was because the station didn’t want the ads to come out of nowhere, instead having them build on the preexisting campaign. Without context, the ads wouldn’t make sense.
When I asked her what she would say to that LGBT listeners who might have felt left out, she put it simply: “I’m sorry. I wish I could hug each and every one of you. We are completely dedicated to you as an audience. We’re in this together.”