Serial Nation: The Rise of Radio and Podcasts in Brooklyn

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Heritage Radio Studio

After years with few options aside from major label butt-rock and yawn-worthy Top 40 flooding the FM airwaves, radio has entered something of a renaissance, and the medium is finally seeing the establishment of a well-represented avant-garde. While this trend is a national one, with many of the most celebrated indie radio stations based far from New York, Brooklyn has now joined the list of places where you don’t need to rely on the usual spate of offerings, but can instead tune in to a wide range of curated, interesting new forms of the medium.

Take, for example, Heritage Radio, a nonprofit Brooklyn-based streaming radio station. The station currently airs 39 shows about food, drink, and agriculture, many of which tackle the social, economic, and political facets of food—and there’s music, to boot. Erin Fairbanks, the executive director of Heritage, described the mission as “trying to bring new people into the food space, to reach across the aisle and to include not just ‘foodies’ in the conversation.”

Jack Inslee — Heritage Radio Network's Executive Producer and producer of Roberta's Radio

The resurgence of local independent stations has been spearheaded by a cohort of people determined to either revive the spirit of radio before it became a steaming pile of garbled corporate vomit, or break all the rules and trek far beyond the bounds of traditional radio through experimentation. Everyone involved can agree on one thing: It’s a passionate undertaking if not a borderline obsession.

But there is one major challenge that can’t be overlooked: It’s not turning out to be a great business model. In fact, streaming radio has a peculiar problem. The more popular it is, the more expensive it becomes to maintain. There’s a sweet spot wherein radio can still be free and donations or minimal advertisements (on the website platform only, in most cases) cover the cost of royalties. That’s what almost killed East Village Radio (EVR), the beloved independent station that operated in a storefront on First Avenue, which aired what was to be its last show in June 2014, after more than a decade streaming online. As the number of listeners tuning in each month surpassed one million, royalty fees skyrocketed. For a while things were looking grim.

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“You know, we had every intention of shutting it down, and with the emergence of the streaming music services we just didn’t feel like we could compete properly,” former program director Peter Ferraro explained. But after the station called it quits, something unexpected happened. Scott Keeney, aka DJ Skee, approached Ferraro and the two developed the idea for Dash Radio, an internet radio platform with an eye toward indie programming. And together, they’re reviving the old EVR, back in the original storefront space.

“We were all disillusioned with the state of radio and how homogenized it had become, and each market seems to have the same station, the same five forms,” Ferraro said. Dash’s aim is simply to “get back to a time when radio was good,” he says. “We live in a world now where people are making music in their bedrooms and putting it out themselves; it’s no longer a few record labels determining what gets released. We feel there’s a great deal of good music out there that just isn’t getting heard.”

Ferraro also has plans to extend the spirit of EVR into Brooklyn by way of Brooklyn Radio, which will be housed in a new building currently under construction at North 7th and Wythe in Williamsburg. “We’re going to program [both stations] so they complement one another, so you can hear something a little different,” Ferraro said.

A venture like Newtown Radio, which was founded in a Bushwick warehouse in 2010 by Colin Ilgen and Mark Brinda as a volunteer-only operation, exists in a space where the rules of self-preservation, profit, and unimpeded growth do not apply. The Newtown Radio site occasionally dumps regular listeners onto a page asking for donations, and even with that, they only just barely break even. “This is a station that doesn’t generate money,” Brinda explained. “It’s essentially a charity organization.”

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Ilgen emphasized that making the station profitable would involve sacrificing their commitment to quality content. “You’d have to blow this thing up and play music that would appeal to a more mainstream audience, and that just doesn’t work,” he said. “The scenario we’re in at the moment is keeping it cool and interesting while we grow, but we’ll have to figure it out as things develop and stuff.”

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about the state of radio in the mid-2010s without addressing the resurgence of the podcast. Some of the forerunners of the reinvigorated format are Radiolab, for tickling aural receptors we didn’t know we had; Serial, for inspiring the sort of intrigue rarely experienced in radio; WTF with Marc Maron, for its at-times precarious frankness. Though some of these have reached household name status (at least among pretty specific households), they’re just a few of the countless varieties of podcasted shows. The medium is still a new frontier, not just in terms of format, but in its approach to economics, delivery, and artistry too. There’s room for experimentation, and no one really knows where exactly this thing will land—or what, if any, effect it will have on the world of radio programming as a whole.

The fascinating thing about podcasts and serial radio in general is their special position to cover subjects exhaustively without the risk for fatigue posed by other mediums. Listening to a podcast each week on one subject is a lot less daunting than spending hours each week watching documentary films. With radio, there’s a sense of catching up on the news and being able to enter, exit, and then re-enter a conversation at will. Plus, the more passive audience experience of podcast and radio listeners requires less energy than the more active forms of media which require consumers to engage with more than one sense at a time. In other words, podcasts and radio have all the appeal of having a story read to you, which is to say, lots.

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And this appeal is clearly catching on: Lately, big players are incorporating podcasts into traditional radio models. WNYC is allocating the vast majority of a $10 million grant they received last year toward digital features and an app, essentially carving out a nook in the podcast space for local public radio. And yet in traditional radio circles, it seems like enthusiasm about the future of podcasts is mixed with something not unlike hostility toward the freewheeling ways of the medium.

“The podcast space is so exciting because it breaks down barriers to entry and there’s room for small, niche material,” Erin Fairbanks of Heritage Radio explained. “But quality programming is quality programming.”

Jack Inslee, of Roberta’s Radio, argues that having a nice space like Roberta’s to run a radio show out of, “makes it a lot easier to invite the community to come and talk; it’s a very communal space.” He added: “If you’re hosting a podcast in your bedroom with Skype, I think it becomes a little harder, and that’s not what I’m into.”

“I think it’s great that so many podcasts are happening and there are so many people taking initiative,” Inslee said. “But you get so many people in silos, which is not to say it’s bad; it’s just that what we’re doing is different. We’re in this active, lively space and it just lends itself to this totally different energy.”

With so many new podcasts and streaming radio shows emerging, finding the ones you feel particularly connected to might seem daunting. Our advice? Since indie radio seems to find its perfect zen in staying small, it might not be a bad idea to look to your immediate community or neighborhood. In Brooklyn especially, you’re bound to find something that speaks to you. •


A Guide to NYC Podcasts and Radiobk17_podcasts_2

Chances With Wolves
CWW is slated to be back on East Village Radio when the station returns to the streaming airwaves, but for now you can catch occasional episodes on the CWW blog. The show produced by childhood friends Kenan Juska and Justin “Kray” Cox is beloved for its focus on a diversity of genres, prowess for pulling up deep cuts, B-sides, and rarities from across the recorded music time-space continuum and arranging them into stylized two-hour long journeys through chopped bits of found dialogue or voice over bits, noise, but an electrifyingly eclectic playlist.

How I Learned
This podcast is recorded at the accompanying live show held each month at Union Hall in Park Slope. The host, Blaise Allysen Kearsley, curates the live event which features writers, comedians, and anyone else with a knack for storytelling, who prompted with a question of how they learned to, for example, “lie, cheat, and steal.” Kearsley also produces the 15-minute episodes spotlighting individual stories which are always hilarious, sometimes touching, and without fail entertaining.

Gimme Tinnitus
Captained by Bob Reich, who also happens to be the editor of music blog Gimme Tinnitus, the show focuses on punk, indie-rock, noise—basically whatever as long as it can be played loud as hell. Reich loops in big players on the local scene as well as emerging artists.

Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen
The official show of the local record label and musician collective by the same name is hosted by Oliver Ignatius and recorded in a DIY studio in Bushwick. MCCFK broadcasts live acoustic sets, discussions of the local music scene, and artists on the house label with a focus on rock, soul, funk, and folk.

The Read
Kid Fury and Crissle, the hilarious hosts, just so happen to be transplants from outside of Brooklyn, but they’re no less adept at talking trash and throwing shade. Listening to The Read is like having drinks with your bffs who are into discussing pop culture, hip-hop celebrities, music, sex and relationships. The pair have a magnetic rapport and can seamlessly move from lofty talk of the first African woman to receive Nobel Peace Prize to interpreting Nazi imagery in a Nicki Minaj music video.

Roberta’s Radio
Heritage Radio’s darling is broadcast from a studio overlooking the dining room of the Bushwick pizza fortress where guests gobble slices, not always knowing what’s up behind the glass. Featuring serious food talk from chefs and bartenders, funny anecdotes and revelry from back-of-house, and discussions of neighborhood-wide concern. Executive Producer Jack Inslee’s favorite episode features Bushwick business owners voicing their disdain for Santacon, which threatened to invade the neighborhood last December. “Santacon ended up not coming to Bushwick; I don’t know if it was because of the show, but we like to think so,” Inslee said.

Brooklyn Radio
Stay tuned for this new radio station on the horizon, brought to you by the same people behind East Village Radio. “Because we’re in Williamsburg, people might assume it will just be an extension of what’s been going on there for the past 10 years,” EVR’s Peter Ferraro said. “But there’s so much more to Brooklyn than what all these transplants came to in Williamsburg, which is now spreading to other parts of the borough.”

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