Original Story URL: http://www.jsonline.com/story/index.aspx?id=602029

Radio network tuning in to Bay View

Posted: May 7, 2007

The southernmost reach of the Urban Radio Network is a plastic box attached to the Sky High skate shop, which is in Bay View, at the corner of Howell and Clarence, and on a recent morning, the URN's creators - Bridget Quinn and Jessy Vandevort - were busy changing the device's four AAA batteries.

They unscrewed the box - it looks a bit like one of those speakers people used to hang on their car windows at drive-in theaters - revealing an inexpensive walkie-talkie inside. A bubble of white noise popped from the radio as soon as its batteries were replenished. Jessy pressed the talk button.

"Hello?" she said. "Hello?"

There was a static-obscured response, which Bridget guessed was coming from one of the station's northernmost locations, about a quarter of a mile away.

"Hello," she said again, just to be friendly.

The URN, which went up Saturday and will probably come down by the end of the week, consists of seven devices scattered through the heart of Bay View, five on Kinnickinnic and two on Howell.

All the devices work the same. You press a button to talk and take your finger off the button to listen. Whatever you say into your box comes out of the other six in varying degrees of clarity.

"Please communicate responsibly," requests a little sign fastened to each box.

Bridget and Jessy, who met at Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (Bridget graduates this month, Jessy still has a year to go), came up with the concept last summer.

Originally, they were going to create their own phone company by attaching a very long piece of string to a couple of cans and then stretching the string from one part of the city to another.

They abandoned the can-and-string format when it became clear that a) such a thing all but invited vandalism and b) it didn't work.

The two-way radio idea seemed like a good solution. At first, Bridget and Jessy were going to just go ahead and make the boxes and set them up. Then they realized that the sudden and unannounced appearance of boxes with buttons on them might cause a neighborhood to wonder, if not panic.

So they hooked up with IN:SITE, an organization that facilitates temporary public art installations; URN became part of the group's spring project in Bay View.

Most of the businesspeople Bridget and Jessy asked said they were happy to have one of the radio boxes attached to their buildings but warned that the devices would likely be vandalized.

So far, none have.

Bridget and Jessy have listened to people play music on the radios, chat - "Where are you?" is a popular question - and send birthday greetings. They haven't heard anything nasty or obscene, which gladdens their hearts.

"I guess the oddest thing we've heard is when someone said, 'Watch out for the bananas, because it's a crazy night out,' " Jessy said.

Well. It's Bay View.

Contact Crocker Stephenson at (414) 224-2539 or by e-mail at cstephenson@journalsentinel.com.