In 2006, Sheri Barclay was living in Edmonton, Alberta, where she had a music zine interviewing groups like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and a local Metallica cover band, and hosted a radio show on the University of Alberta station CJSR-FM. Sheri is an unapologetic personality with good taste and a decent drawl, and her show, The Barclay Hour, was eventually picked up by Viva Radio, American Apparel’s internet broadcasting station housed in Park Slope. The hipster clothing brand fit a particular New York moment, advertising with billboards of Woody Allen film stills and tuning the stores to Turn On the Bright Lights. That physical and music landscape could never exist today.
The DIY scene was founded decades ago on punk proclivity and anti-establishment necessity, as the commercial music industry dominated official venues. Now the capital of creativity is more easily harnessed than ever before. The typical avenues of the Facebook conglomerate seemed at first an innovative way to promote an artist’s work (how could anyone become an overnight sensation without the internet?) but tear the thin sheen off the algorithm and that work is a commodity in a marketing ploy that is not the artist’s own. Online, the quantity of positive reception beats the quality of content.
Where does good but unpopular music go? It lives in our private libraries, at home, and in the computer. The act of sharing it, person to person, seems to have taken refuge in empty lots and camper vans across Brooklyn.
After Barclay’s college radio show was stretched as far as it could go—she was kicked off CJSR for “being too wacky”—she made a space for everyone else to keep their free-form college radio shows alive (or to start one, as a post-college aged adult). Thanks to a connection from her early New York days, and the previous tenant’s urination on the floor, Barclay secured a storage unit in Bushwick’s Punk Alley and began broadcasting online as KPISS-FM in 2015. One missing landlord and one temporary pizza-place space later, and the station reopened this January at 603 Hart Street, an RV in an empty triangle lot across from Bossa Nova Civic Club.
The RV floors are carpeted and the walls are outfitted in dark wood trim. Fuzzy dice hang from the rearview mirror and a taxidermied raccoon balances on a few empty cans. It’s a dream for a ’90s kid who misses the ’70s. The sound of the station is retro too, with post punk, free jazz, and live readings of personals ads. But even the DJs that play just-dropped Cardi B chat about their weekends and the weather, an honest and intimate banality that feels bygone.
“Every generation produces in-between people who grew up with a certain amount of nostalgia. And they’re always kind of searching for this other time,” says Barclay. “But I also know there are people who are totally just having a ball and tapped into something right now.”
Surf Allah, founder of Half Moon, is one of those. He describes his project, a hybrid beast of a broadcasting platform and party promoter, as a brand. Founded in 2017, Half Moon began operating out of a Lower East Side gallery basement. Their current headquarters are in a clean, cream-walled coworking space on the border of Bushwick and Ridgewood. On a Friday afternoon in February, DJ Korea Town Acid is playing live, mostly ignoring the young people hanging around the small, sunlit room. They flip through a vintage photo book, waiting for their phones to charge. A girl wearing a big orange puffer clicks between SoundCloud and Photoshop—she’s adding an alien face into the back of her front camera selfie. Surf is like their big brother, checking out their stuff while he deals with the tenant next door complaining about the noise, and who will spin the next set. They’re hip kids, in—or trying to be in—the electronic scene that everyone agrees is having a moment.
The status of New York’s underground venues, what’s still around and what’s not, will always be in flux. But in recent years, the shuttering of places where you could set up your amp and guitar seems more permanent, as the venues popping up are house and techno driven. Mark Brinda, co-founder of preeminent Brooklyn internet station Newtown Radio, estimates that of today’s DIY venues, only 30–40 percent are still doing some rock and punk stuff.
OUTPUT, the Williamsburg electronic music club open from 2013 to the last day of 2018, wrote in their statement of closure, “The mission was to establish a proper home for the music-focused underground which had been displaced by Manhattan’s wealth and celebrity-obsessed nightlife…Fast forward to the present and the Brooklyn scene is booming beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. NYC is not only back ‘on the map,’ it is once again one of the most vibrant hotbeds of club culture worldwide.”
In the early punk scene, zines and paper fliers were the way to find new bands and local shows. Isaac Scott djs Club Isaac on KPISS and at Pianos in the city. “Lately, [dance parties] have been more organized, and internet radio has been instrumental in that organization.”
The digital age can be characterized by a bifurcation of social interaction into the physical and online. When there is a person playing music live in a physical space and you can also access that digitally, from anywhere, internet radio becomes an in-between.
“We are the last stance between algorithms and streaming apps and computers telling you what to listen to,” says Surf. What radio fans stress is not really the superiority of human curation, but that you’re listening with other people. “We are one source, broadcasting to anyone who wants to tune in,” says François Vaxelaire, founder of Greenpoint’s The Lot Radio. “I think the problem in society now is that there is no source. Each individual is one point. When you’re on Spotify, you’re alone in Spotify. You do your own lonely discovery, which is not the same as your neighbor and that’s why you all pay five dollars every month.”
Streams on both KPISS and The Lot include chat rooms, producing cult-like, Reddit-forum style communities. Listeners post memes, GIFs, and screenshots of the DJ mid-dance from The Lot’s live, security-camera quality video feed. The Lot chat room has a book club. One of the guys frequently commenting has a daughter in the Girl Scouts, and instead of her selling cookies to her neighbors, the chat room buys her whole stock and sends it to the Greenpoint station, with bags made up for all the DJs.
“In any society, you have this idea of creating bonds. You offer a gift to create a social bond, it’s a gift/counter gift,” says Vaxelaire. “The DJs are giving their time, they're giving their expertise, they're giving music. The people of the chat want to give back—somehow they feel the need to.”
There was a new expectation that came with the internet: “I can access any media that I please for free.” That idea is being debunked, as we understand that we’re paying in our data and attention. Newtown Radio is Brinda’s hobby, funded out of his own pocket. The Lot sells coffee and beers. Half Moon has a Patreon account for fans to donate to. KPISS runs on a membership system, where DJs pay monthly on a sliding scale for air time and equipment. There’s a belief in every project about the purity of the music and the artistry of the DJ, and that they are who these platforms are for.
“I’m able to explore music territory that wouldn’t make sense in a club,” says DJ Awae. “I’m not trying to sell my audience drinks, essentially.”
“There have been people at major creative agencies who moonlight as pirate radio KPISS DJs, because they want to save some of their creativity for their show, where it doesn't matter if nobody's listening or not,” says Barclay. Because sometimes nobody is.
“We don’t give a shit if people are listening or not,” says Vaxelaire. “We have a lot of really weird shows, where we’ll have maybe 15 listeners, maybe one from Lithuania, two from Brazil. But if the person doing the show is interesting and has something to say, we keep them.”
Listening to KPISS on a Sunday night, the studio mic picks up the M train coming and going overhead during a set of Hole, Mitski, and Stevie Nicks. Anyone in the world can hear the signal from this triangle lot in Brooklyn. Radio on the internet might not actually be that oxymoronic; it’s just an extension of past listening practices into the present, and a way to remember what this era sounded like, in the future.
“Years from now people will be looking at these years like ‘Oh my god, I miss those times,” says Surf. “We’re building this big archive of New York history…. I’m a little sentimental.”