Until last fall, neither Williamsburg nor Bushwick, two neighborhoods with vibrant music scenes, had rock radio stations to call their own. To what can we attribute this? One could venture a guess that residents, spoiled for choice, never noticed the lack. We might also ask whether a physical radio station is even needed, given that so much exciting music here is spread through the digital ether. But in an era when consumer-grade radio software is so easily had, it was only a matter of time before some kids found a warehouse in Bushwick, bought a domain name, and started webcasting.
And so with Newtown Radio, sending out web signals from a rented space in Danbro Studios (a former brewery), Mark Brinda and Colin Ilgen present proof of the inevitable. Functioning as a base camp for drop-in concerts, live broadcasts, and knowledgeable D.J.s spinning on a regular schedule, the fledgling radio station has seen its audience grow to around 250 web listeners daily.
The studios of Newtown are frill-free. No physical library is needed, and tables, chairs, and a monitor have been salvaged or reclaimed from the street. Neither Ilgen, 29, nor Brinda, 31, nor their third partner, graphic designer Tariq Abdus-Sabur, had experience in radio prior to starting Newtown. Their impetus to start a station was simply that there was so much worth documenting, and no one else was doing it. “It seemed crazy,” says Brinda, that no one had thought of this before.
Finding programmers through word of mouth, the station now produces 30 original webcasts a week. On Saturday nights disco legend D. C. LaRue spins, and BOMB magazine, a Brooklyn-based art publication, hosts a show on Sunday mornings. The mix is as diverse as any good college radio lineup: a punk show, the odd “Brewskee-Ball” sports hour, an old-time juke-joint session, and the San Francisco-based Arthur magazine broadcasting obscurities on Sunday nights.
Meanwhile, proximity to any number of small venues in the neighborhood allows Brinda and Illgen to adapt to impromptu concerts (the two have been known to pack a mic and a mixer so they can broadcast at a moment’s notice), and since July the team has been manning a recording booth at the JellyNYC shows in the Rock Yard.
While geography has lately seemed tangential to the spreading of music (and Newtown’s listeners are by no means all from Brooklyn), it is precisely Newtown’s location near the L train artery, in a 24-hour rehearsal studio and a stone’s throw from any number of small venues in the neighborhood, that makes it a psychological meeting point for musical exchange.
On a recent Sunday, Michael P. McGregor, the 26-year-old behind the well-loved music blog Chocolate Bobka, took the bus from his home in northern Brooklyn down to Newtown for his regular show at the station, Sunday Brunch with Chocolate Bobka & Friends. The station was hot and packed with people. Ari Stern, founder of the Underwater Peoples record label, had broadcast his own Newton show earlier that week but was there to help McGregor pick out records. “We play whatever we feel like,” McGregor says. “The last time we played all classic rock, and [Traffic’s] ‘The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys,’ which is like 12 minutes long.”
Some young guests were sitting on Newtown’s low, camel-colored vinyl couch. A long-haired law student named Clare Paterson, who had traveled that weekend from Montreal, said she was there to interview Stern for a paper she was writing on small record labels. Later that day, the studio quieted down as Future Shuttle, an all-girl band from Brooklyn, hunched down cross-legged on the carpeted floor to play a soft ambient set.
While Newtown’s weekly schedule is packed with original shows, the station sets the mood between sets using MegaSeg, a DJ software package that pulls from a “heavy rotation” list that Brinda compiles weekly. Brinda gave the Rail the magic formula he uses to put this mix together:
I listen to stuff online at work or at home and just
pick what I like. The sources I use for finding stuff are:
· listening to the bands that are playing upcoming shows at venues we like (Glasslands, Bruar Falls, Monster Island Basement, Death by Audio, Market Hotel, etc.)
· listing to bands that are MySpace friends of other bands we really like
· bands that I see perform live and really like
· bands that send us music that they want us to put on the air
· recommendations of notable music blogs
· music that our DJs or bands playing for us put us onto
· trawling through [music blog aggregator] Hype Machine
The amalgam that results is a kind of happy Brooklyn Common Denominator—as seen through Brinda’s eyes, of course. Recently one could hear a song by Pitchfork-approved White Ring, “Chin” by the Brooklyn-based I’m Turning Into, and “Neon Pussycat,” by André Cymone (Prince’s ex-bassist) all in a row. But why return to radio to document a movement born of the media that supplanted it? Brinda explains that radio is still the cheapest way to discover new music with minimal effort. “Nobody buys music anymore,” he says, and “if you go to music blogs you have to scroll around.”
While Williamsburg music promoters speak vaguely of pirate broadcasts on South 6th St. in the early aughts, Newtown is the first Brooklyn radio station devoted to rock. Though they eventually plan to solicit geographically and thematically relevant advertising, the station is at the moment focused on transmitting local voices. Says Brinda, “It feels like we’re just hanging out.”
MIMI LUSE is a Brooklyn-based journalist.