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A startup indie radio station gains a toehold in an unfriendly universe

Storefront booths, such as East Village Radio in New York, reach millions online – if they can cut legal static.

By Jordan HellerContributor / September 21, 2010

Nicholas ‘Inspektor Strawberry Soda Pop’ Ray plays underground rock 'n' roll on East Village Radio, a streetlevel studio in New York.

Ann Hermes/Staff

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New York

If you were walking in New York's East Village this past August, you might have passed by indie-rock legend Dean Wareham – the mastermind behind the seminal 1990s dream-pop bands Galaxie 500 and Luna – giving an in-studio performance at East Village Radio (EVR).

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For fans who were looking for a glimpse, radio show host Delphine Blue entreated: "We're in a storefront on First Avenue, so if you're walking by, you can stick your face up to the window."

"It's fun, isn't it?" chirped Ware­ham, who after more than 20 years in the music business seemed bemused by the throwback nature of the street-level radio booth.

It conjures up images of Wolfman Jack in "American Graffiti," or Samuel L. Jackson as the storefront DJ Love Daddy in Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing," where Jackson's character comments on the weather and the passersby, and, in a sense, is also a player in the theater of the street.

For EVR, that "fourth wall" is often further blurred, as friends, neighbors, and even strangers regularly pop in to say hello, and will likely find their way onto the air.

On a recent Thursday afternoon during "Pizza Party" (an EVR show that plays jangly pop and alt-rock obscurities), the electro art-punk duo A.R.E. Weapons came by to drop off a record to a friend hanging out in the booth. Impromptu, show hosts Kevin Pedersen and Max Wowch slapped the record onto the turntable, cued it up, and had the duo introduce their own song.

"Matt and Brain from A.R.E. Weapons are here, and they got a new record," Wowch said into the mike. "Tell us what it is."

"It's called 'Radio, Radio,' " said Matt, and just like that, A.R.E. Weapons got some precious airtime with a radio audience.

It's a refreshing change from the "payola" practice of commercial radio, where big labels offer favors (and sometimes, illegally, cash) to program directors in exchange for preferential treatment, resulting in a canned mix of commercial music fighting for airtime between commercial jingles.

With EVR, DJs are given a two-hour time slot and carte blanche.

How a start-up like EVR can gain a toehold in an industry that for decades has been unfriendly to the little guy can be summed up by a slight tweak to the illuminated sign hanging in the booth: In place of the familiar "ON AIR" is a sign that reads "ONLINE."

"Clear Channel" – the multibillion-dollar radio conglomerate – "kicked out a lot of people wherever they could, and just beamed in from another city," says Wareham. "Now, with the Internet, you don't have to have this huge transmitter."

With more than 1 million listeners a month, EVR is at the forefront of this emerging medium. In addition to fostering more independent voices and breaking underground acts, EVR has become a must-visit for big-label stars like Wareham and, more recently, Big Boi of the Grammy-winning, platinum-selling hip-hop group Outkast.

Meet the DJs

Just like its broadcast-radio cousin, online radio spawns stars. The show hosts on East Village Radio’s eclectic roster (eastvillageradio.com) get a weekly two-hour time slot, carte blanche, and some interesting experiences in the street-level booth they man in New York.

Steve Lillywhite, “The Lillywhite Sessions,” 1980s, 1990s, 2000s pop and rock

Day job: Grammy-winning producer of U2 and other iconic rock bands

Most noteworthy experience: A fan traveled from California, crashed his show with a cake that said, “Steve, I love you,” and ended up assisting him for the rest of the show.

Joshua da Costa, “Time Time,” punk and psyche rock

Day job: Assistant to an independent record label owner

Most noteworthy experience: He welcomed a passerby back to the city from a stint in prison and played his request, “Do Me Baby” by Prince.

Brian Long, “Infinite Eargasm,” psyche, soul, African, and electronic

Day job: Artist and label manager

Most noteworthy experience: He was robbed of an iPhone by school kids playing hooky.

Nicholas Ray, “The Holy S*** Sound System,” underground rock ’n’ roll

Day job: Clothes buyer

Most noteworthy experience: The actress Juliette Lewis crashed the booth, allowed herself to be interviewed, and then unsuccessfully performed a rap.

Kevin Pedersen, cohost of “Pizza Party,” jangly pop and alt-rock obscurities

Day job: Works in a pie shop

Most noteworthy experience: A “Howard Stern Show” cast member was walking by. Out of curiosity, he popped his head in and ended up co-hosting the rest of the show.

– J.H.

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