Keeping the “Community” in Community Radio
In the age of the internet, independent radio is easier than ever to produce. But even though the internet reaches much farther than a transmitter, modern independent radio makers are working to keep the community in community radio. Rebecca Scott has more.
I’m walking with Sheri Barclay down Punk Alley, just beneath the Myrtle-Broadway JMZ line in Bushwick. The alley is lined with shipping containers-turned book and record vendors. At the very end of it, next to a brightly painted Port-o-Potty, is the shipping container that KPISS.fm calls home.
(ambi: opening studio)
BARCLAY: This is how every DJ does it. They get the code then they let themselves in.
The ten by ten foot room is stocked with a turntable, a microphone, and thousands of dollars worth of recording equipment. Sheri says everyone who uses the equipment follows an honor system.
BARCLAY: I think I’m a pretty good judge of character because we’ve had over one thousand people in here over the last two years and everything has been perfect.
Perfect – but that’s not how she found it two years ago.
BARCLAY: It smelled like piss and that’s why it was still available in such a highly coveted and affordable area. Someone even came in there and said you’re gonna turn this into the radio station? What are you gonna call it? WPISS?
Sheri decided the West Coast “K” sounded cooler. Minus one urine-soaked carpet, plus a whole bunch of cleaning supplies, and KPISS.fm was born.
(ambi: I wanna I wanna I wanna be your piss slave)
Now, it’s home to over 45 DJs and 55 shows, including Barclay’s own show: Call Your Mom.
(ambi: phone ringing)
MOM: Hello, I just want to hear that you’re okay.
BARCLAY: Mom, I’m fine.
MOM: Do you miss me a little bit?
BARCLAY: Of course mom, all the time.
For Sheri, radio is not meant to be a solitary passion. Whenever she’s hosting a show at the studio, she tries to make eye contact with people passing by outside of the big front window. She calls it her weirdo-to-weirdo glance.
BARCLAY: I was in here and I was playing Air Supply and doing a deep dive into Air Supply and this guy Raul looked in and I could tell so I waved him inside and we both enjoyed the rhythm and enjoyed Air Supply.
(AIR SUPPLY MUSIC)
TENNEY: We have a woman doing a show called The Fitness Witch. She’s actually a witch and she has a fitness company and the concept of the show is how does your witchcraft feed your everyday life.
Tom Tenney – Further down the JMZ subway line is Radio Free Brooklyn. Radio Free Brooklyn is an independent internet radio station that Tom founded in the basement of a record store just two months before Sheri’s KPISS.
TENNEY: What we’re doing now here right now in the space that we’re sitting in, if we had been doing this 20,30 years ago, we would have a transmitter on the roof.
The set-up is similar to KPISS.fm – minimally decorated with just enough space for the equipment and those who use it. And like Sheri, Tom is obsessed with the idea of independent radio as a community space.
TENNEY: People know now that there is something in the neighborhood that is relevant to them. Right? And I feel like that feeling of community is kind of seeping out of American culture. And we kind of want to be a glue that reinforces it and keeps it here.
He says the internet has made it so much easier to legally produce independent radio – but he’s nostalgic for the past. (15)
TENNEY: One of the things I do think is being lost with new technology is the aspect of discovery. People are only getting and listening to the things that they choose to listen to. And that to me is making us into a world of morons.
Discovery is the reason Tom doesn’t allow his hosts to archive their shows until five days after it airs. He says if they did, nobody would listen live. And if nobody listens live, they’ll never discover the last five minutes of the show that airs before it – or the first five of the following. Another aspect of internet radio Tenney can’t stand? The obsession with numbers.
TENNEY: We’re such a numbers and data driven culture right now. And with pirate radio you had a transmitter out there and the idea wasn’t how many people were listening, the idea was somebody was listening.
SCOTT: How many listeners do you guys get?
( everybody laughs)
BARCLAY: More than Howard Stern.
Back in Punk Alley, Barclay shares a similar disdain for the numbers. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t hustling to get the word out about KPISS. To her, the radio station belongs to everyone in the neighborhood – and she makes her mission to let everyone know it. Like this couple that she stopped outside of the studio.
WOMAN: Cool. What are the shows about?
BARCLAY: trThere are 55 so like there’s a show about dating there’s a show about surfing so yeah, all kinds of stuff. Please check it out. We’re on Instagram too.
MAN: It’s like internet radio or?
BARCLAY: Yeah, yeah.
KPISS is Barclay’s life. Literally. She doesn’t have a day job, even though KPISS only brings in 14 thousand dollars a year from monthly DJ contributions. This means skipping meals and never leaving her neighborhood – but it also means more time to hang around the studio spreading the good word about KPISS. And when it comes to community, Barclay is confident that independent radio – like the grandfather of it all, WMFU – only attracts the good eggs.
BARCLAY: If you were to meet another WFMU fan, I’m sorry but there’s a one hundred percent chance that person is not a serial killer. Maybe they haven’t showered in thirty days or something, sure. But not serial killers because serial killers don’t listen to Jonathan Richman.
This, perhaps, is the only rule at KPISS.fm. No serial killers allowed. Rebecca Scott, Columbia Radio News.