Radio Is Soulless. Can These Radicals Make It Great Again?

East Village Radio general manager Peter Ferraro, left, and CEO Frank Prisinzano, right, in New York City, March 28, 2015. After closing last year, East Village Radio is going back on air. East Village Radio general manager Peter Ferraro, left, and CEO Frank Prisinzano, right, in New York City, March 28, 2015. After closing last year, East Village Radio is going back on air. Bryan Derballa

“Where’s that smoke coming from?”

Frank Prisinzano, burly, with a deep-shag beard and a white v-neck t-shirt, is standing in a 5-by-5-foot soundproofed booth on 1st Avenue in Manhattan. A floor-to-ceiling window affords a view of the few hapless pedestrians caught outside in the latest in a series of winter snowstorms. On the desk in front of him sits a brand-new mixing board, troublingly covered in moisture. White steam—it is not in fact smoke—billows into the room from behind a seam in the soundproofing. It turns out a valve in the radiator has sprung a leak. The building manager will have to repair it.

“Oh man,” says his colleague Peter Ferraro, worriedly eyeing the pricey equipment. “That’s not good.”

It may not be fancy, but for much of the last 11 years this ramshackle warren has served as an unlikely mecca for music fans. It is the home of East Village Radio, a pirate-turned-Internet radio station dedicated to preserving and extrapolating the neighborhood’s junkie-genius musical legacy. (You know the legendary litany: Talking Heads, Blondie, New York Dolls, Television, etc.) Prisinzano, who owns three Italian restaurants in the neighborhood, created EVR in 2003 as a bulwark against creeping gentrification. “People were forgetting about it,” says Prisinzano. “They were walking around with fucking CBGB t-shirts, but nobody was going there. So much was leaving to go to Brooklyn. Then one day I was eating white truffles with a friend of mine and he started telling me about Free Radio Austin, a pirate station that went undetected for years. It hit me: This neighborhood needs its own radio station.” (Ferraro came on as general manager in 2007.)

If the East Village risked losing its rebellious spark, radio seemed an unlikely medium through which to rekindle it. The broadcast booth might have once provided a home to forward-thinking renegades—think of Alan “Moondog” Freed, Wolfman Jack, or Kool DJ Red Alert, beaming their soul-fuelled samizdat across the wastelands of Square America—but after the mid-’90s deregulation of the airwaves, radio became an antiseptic stalking ground for warring conglomerates. Corporations like Clear Channel and Cumulus snapped up stations all over the country, then pumped them full of centrally programmed playlists designed to appeal to the broadest possible audience. The result was that all the biggest stations played the same pop pabulum, the DJs doing little more than providing bumpers between tracks. Satellite radio provided a free-range alternative, but there were only so many listeners willing to shell out at least $10 a month for what used to come free over the airwaves.

Microphones and a new soundboard are set up at East Village Radio station. Microphones and a new soundboard are set up at East Village Radio station. Bryan Derballa

EVR gave its DJs freedom to play whatever they wanted, a hands-off policy that attracted passionate music fans. Atlantic Tunnel, hosted by a pair of middle-aged UK expats, spun deep-cut British esoterica from the past and present. Ashok “Dapwell” Kondabolu, a member of underground rap phenomenon Das Racist, hosted a show called Chillin’ Island. Superproducer Mark Ronson DJ’d a weekly show; Amy Winehouse popped in one afternoon as a surprise in-studio guest. Ferraro also hired Bobbito and Stretch Armstrong, who hosted a legendary early-’90s hip-hop show on WKCR. EVR’s street-facing studios routinely drew celebrity guests—Drake, Richard Hell, Jimmy Cliff, Joy Division’s Peter Hook, rapper Danny Brown.

“Our job is to bring music that would otherwise go largely unheard,” says Gaz Thomas, one of the hosts of Atlantic Tunnel. “Prolific, fantastic artists that otherwise might not make it to America—if we’d never played it, nobody would have heard it.”

What began as an outlaw hobby—powered by a rooftop antenna that was quickly slapped down by the FCC—soon became a pioneer of a new medium: Internet radio. Early on, Prisinzano established an EVR channel on live365, an Internet radio network, then eventually built out a website and, after the advent of the iPhone, an app. When social media emerged in the early 2010s, EVR began reaching out to listeners via Twitter. With each new technological breakthrough, the station attracted a greater audience. By 2014 what began as a 100-watt signal that couldn’t be heard north of 14th street had grown into an international cult juggernaut, regularly reaching a million listeners from such far-flung locales as Berlin, Tokyo, and Sydney.

East Village Radio occupies a tiny storefront space on First Avenue next to CEO Frank Prisinzano's restaurant Lil' Frankie's . East Village Radio occupies a tiny storefront space on First Avenue next to CEO Frank Prisinzano’s restaurant Lil’ Frankie’s . Bryan Derballa

This sounds like a good thing, but it was actually a huge problem. Thanks to the vagaries of copyright law, EVR was financially punished for every new listener it gained. “You have to pay per song, per user, and we have to mine that data and report on that,” Prisinzano says. “You’ve got MBI, ASCAP, all that stuff—and those numbers can only go up.” Unwilling to barrage their listeners with massive blocks of advertising, and with a scrappy staff that wasn’t particularly motivated to seek out corporate sponsorships, Ferraro and Prisinzano decided last year that the time had come to shut down the station. EVR hosted its last broadcast on May 23, signing off with an appropriate musical selection, Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.”

Radio Sucks

On August 12, Scott Keeney posted a video online in which he declared that “radio sucks.” This was not exactly news, except for the fact that Keeney was the one saying it. Keeney was also known as DJ Skee, one of the top personalities on KIIS-FM in LA, by some measures the country’s most popular radio station. (He also hosted a show on Sirius.) “To be blunt, I’m just not that excited about radio any more, and I don’t think I’m alone,” he said. “Most listeners are dissatisfied with it due to repetitive playlists, a lack of variety and originality, and the massive amount of commercials.”

That conclusion was borne out by the statistics. Between 2009 and 2014, the top five terrestrial broadcasters’ audience remained mostly flat, at around 300,000 average active sessions (a term of art that radio analysts use to measure listenership). Meanwhile, Pandora—the most radio-like of the streaming-music services that includes Spotify and Beats—was taking off. Between 2009 and 2014, its AAS leaped from less than 200,000 to nearly 2 million. The radio conglomerates responded by launching streaming apps of their own; Clear Channel, now redubbed IHeartRadio, launched its app in 2008. But the results have been lackluster. According to a recent analysis by Edison Research’s Larry Rosin, “no read of the data can argue for anything other than flatness (at best)” since May of 2013. That was still better than the streaming offerings from radio powerhouses like CBS and Cumulus, which were down by 22 and 14 percent, respectively, over the same time period. “In general,” Rosin wrote, “it is more than fair to say the business of streaming the content of American radio stations is stagnant at best.”

(I should add that IHeartRadio took issue with this analysis. Their rebuttal, and Rosin’s response, can be found here.)

Maybe that’s because the radio-conglomerate model—play safe songs that people already know they want to hear—doesn’t make sense in the digital realm. In a world where you can instantly look up and listen to any song you like, what’s the point? Meanwhile, the proliferation of new bands, and new genres, has made the musical landscape ever more difficult to navigate. Radio’s more natural role in this world might be in introducing listeners to new music, stuff they don’t already know they like. It might look a little more like the radio stations of old, before deregulation. That is to say, it might look a little more like East Village Radio.

WIRED | East Village Radio Bryan Derballa

At least, that’s what Keeney thinks. He’s in the middle of launching a new startup called Dash Radio, an app that will host dozens of stations, programmed and hosted by passionate personalities and credible tastemakers, not corporate overlords or bloodless algorithms. To hear Keeney tell it, the same kind of long-tail fragmentation that has already decimated the recording industry is about to hit radio as well. Spotify and Pandora may provide listeners with music, but they’re not the same as radio—live programming hosted by expert guides. Keeney believes there’s still a market for that, and he’s rounded up some big-name funders—including Epic Records CEO L.A. Reid and former Buddy Media CEO Mike Lazerow—who share his vision. “Broadcast is about to undergo a revolution,” Keeney says. “More music comes out every week than used to come out every year, but radio hasn’t changed at all. We have a huge opportunity.”

The Return of EVR

Keeney has that trademark heeeey-I’m-pointing-my-fingers-at-you-while-I’m-talking DJ voice, so it’s a little weird hearing him spout this kind of startup rhetoric, like Casey Kasem auditioning for a spot in Y Combinator. It is also frankly difficult to imagine him sharing a room, much less a business, with the dyspeptic Prisinzano and Ferraro. Nevertheless, when Keeney heard that EVR was closing down, he immediately reached out to Ferraro and asked him to join the company as a partner. (Ferraro also invested in Dash.) “EVR was one of the key stations where we were like, ‘We need to do stuff like that,’ so when I saw the news that they were shutting down, it was a blessing in disguise,” Keeney says. “They were basically a foundation of what a perfect Dash station would be, run by people who care and get it.” Meanwhile, with its army of lawyers and bankroll, Dash is poised to help pay for music while it negotiates the finer points of license law.

And so, in early April, EVR will return as a Dash station, operating out of the same street-facing studio. (Ferraro and Prisinzano are also launching a sister station, Brooklyn Radio, in Williamsburg.) It’s going to be a bit odd to see the outlaw spirit of the East Village corralled into a flashy app. EVR began as a passion project; now it’s a component of an honest-to-god startup, with investors who presumably expect some financial return. Ferraro and Prisinzano also plan to introduce a bit more professionalism into the station’s operations.

The online sign is seen from the sidewalk on First Avenue. The online sign is seen from the sidewalk on First Avenue. Bryan Derballa/WIRED

“It’s interesting now, because we get to hit the reset button,” Ferraro says.

“And we get to look at the schedule in a different light,” Prisinzano adds. “This is the new format, this is what we’re gonna be doing, this is what’s required of you.”

“Take it a bit more seriously as a platform,” Ferraro concludes.

It’s hard to imagine anyone taking it more seriously than Edward Rogers and Gaz Thomas, the Atlantic Tunnel co-hosts. One chilly March afternoon I head to Rogers’ apartment, near Astor Place in Manhattan. The place is a shrine to British pop—rare Beatles photos line the walls, and entire rooms are filled with obscure CDs and LPs. The men themselves look like living testaments to the mod era, both wearing patterned shirts buttoned all the way to the top.

“It’s kind of like old ’60s radio in America used to be,” Rogers says. “There was a blending of all kinds of music, and that’s what we’re bringing. We’ll play a northern soul record right next to a jazz record.”

“We do feel a responsibility to our listeners,” says Thomas, “to unearth a lost classic or introduce them to a song that’s coming out next week.” He smiles. “They trust us. They trust our taste.”

The duo has been the first of the EVR DJs to take on Dash—they’ve been given their own channel, meaning they have to put together 24 hours of programming every day. For now, they’ve mostly filled the time by re-airing archived EVR shows. Once the new studio is up and running, they’ll be planning a round-the-clock schedule: new shows, guest DJs, live performances. It’s going to be a considerable amount of work. But they’re glad to be back on the air.

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