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Media

The Other Alternatives

From DIY to slick and glossy

Alternative-media mecca Qumiby’s

Marty Perez

By Martha Bayne
September 22, 2006

A LOOK AT THE honor boxes on any busy streetcorner shows Chicago’s stuffed with printed matter, from the society rag CS, a local project that expanded to other cities, to the nightlife guide UR Chicago to the green living Conscious Choice. Factor in Time Out Chicago, the local edition of an international chain, glossy monthlies like Chicago magazine, and neighborhood pubs like the salmon-colored Chicago Journal and it would appear the town is covered from Rogers Park to South Shore. But there’s more to local media than immediately meets the eye.

Chicago’s home to a clutch of nationally distributed indies. Punk Planet—now with a new and improved Web site (punkplanet.com)—focuses on punk and DIY culture. The new issue, titled “The Revenge of Print 2,” includes a Harvey Pekar retrospective and interviews with musician and writer Ian Svenonius (whose The Psychic Soviet was just published by the local record label and publisher Drag City) and queer authors Michelle Tea and T Cooper. The gynocentric Venus Zine (venuszine.com), founded in 1995 in editor Amy Schroeder’s Michigan State dorm room, is now a thriving showcase for coverage of women’s indie culture; the fall 2006 issue includes an interview with designer Anna Sui, an over-the-top homage to the late, lamented Sleater-Kinney, and a thoughtful exploration of the weird world of pro-anorexia Web sites and blogs. The mag recently got an infusion of energy (and cash) from new publishers and is poised for a redesign and expanded distro. Rounding out this trifecta is Stop Smiling (stopsmilingonline.com), a glossy lifestyle mag published approximately every couple of months out of a Wicker Park storefront that doubles as an event space called “The Syndicate.” Stop Smiling bills itself as “the magazine for highminded lowlifes,” with each issue organized around a theme. In practice that means—as in the recent “Ode to the Midwest” issue—features on an eclectic range of cultural producers, from Garrison Keillor to Dave Eggers to the founders of Steppenwolf Theatre. If the features tend to be a little puffy the organization as a whole appears to be thriving—at least if their jam-packed parties are any indication.

Punk Planet, Venus, and Stop Smiling all maintain high profiles around town, but their content itself isn’t Chicagocentric. To get more of Chicago you need to pick up a copy of Lumpen. Launched in 1990 as the Lumpen Times, the free, approximately bimonthly has some of the most enduring local agitprop. The zine’s fortunes have waxed and waned over its 100 issues but the snarky blend of anarcho-radical politics and hacktivist theorizing remains the same. Hell—with CDs, a Web site (lumpen.com), and projects like the digital culture, art, and media festivals Select and Version, it’s become a brand. In a much more sober vein, the investigative monthly Chicago Reporter (chicagoreporter.com), published by the nonprofit Community Renewal Society, does some rigorous research and data crunching on issues of race and urban poverty.

The year-old free tabloid AREA: Arts/Education/Activism (areachicago.com) functions as a clearinghouse for artists and activists to talk about their work. Issue #3, titled “Solidarities: The Things We Want and Mean When We Say ‘We,’” is due out September 30; contributors celebrate with a party at Woodlawn’s Experimental Station (6100 S. Blackstone). An incubator for a range of cultural and artistic endeavors, the ES is also home to the Baffler, the long-running if erratically produced journal of cultural criticism founded in 1988 by Thomas Frank and fellow University of Chicago grad students.

Online, at the three-year-old Gapers Block (gapersblock.com), Andrew Huff and crew maintain an events calendar, blog about local news, and provide original content including sports commentary, a cooking column, and analysis of local politics. Of similar scope, if more scattershot and boosterish in tone, is Chicagoist (chicagoist.com), part of the national family of urban “ist” Web sites that began with New York’s popular Gothamist. Former Chicago magazine columnist Steve Rhodes launched the Beachwood Reporter (beachwoodreporter.com) earlier this year, and though it has yet to produce the degree of original reporting Rhodes promised, he’s doing a fine job as a media watchdog. For longer-form treatment of politics and media check out Fire on the Prairie (fireontheprairie. com). The monthly half-hour radio show, produced by the lefty biweekly In These Times, serves as a forum for progressive thinkers of all stripes. On the arts beat, the podcast Bad at Sports (badatsports.com) has only been around a year, but the quick wit and critical acumen of its hosts have made it great entertainment for anyone interested in Chicago’s art scene. Also fairly new on the block: Sharkforum (sharkforum.org), run by artist Wesley Kimler (aka “the Shark”) and Dave Roth, covers all manner of local arts and culture, with some standout longer pieces like the one by Bloodshot Records honcho Rob Miller, a blistering account of volunteering with Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Bookslut (bookslut.com), edited by Jessa Crispin, has two parts: a magazine side that’s updated monthly (give or take) with new reviews, columns, and author interviews, and a blog (coauthored with Mike Schaub) that’s an essential daily hit of lit news and commentary. Bookslut and the local advertising and design firm Coudal Partners, whose site, coudal.com, is an anything-goes experiment in the creative potential of Web publishing, were both recently included in PC Magazine’s list of “Top 99 Undiscovered Web Sites.”

Last but not least are the food sites—of which, in keeping with the city’s exploding culinary culture, there are many. Among the best are the newbie Hungry (hungrymag.com), which podcasts proprietor Michael Nagrant’s in-depth, often hilarious interviews with local chefs, and the culinary chat site LTH Forum (lthforum.com), Chicago’s go-to resource for informed, opinionated discussion of everything from the best fish tacos in town to the politics behind the City Council’s recent foie gras follies.

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