The producer who helped turn Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen into stars. The radio legend who first played Biggie and Jay-Z on the air. Two male roommates who have dressed identically every day for the last 12 years. A tiny room, on 1st street and 1st Avenue in the East Village.
It sounds like the formula for a confusing joke. But those are the types of the characters who make up East Village Radio, the pirate-turned-internet station that reached its tenth anniversary last year. Along the way, its members have included some of the most distinctive music personalities in New York City. And the station really got started when it seemed fated to fail: when the FCC decided to shut the place down.
Restauranteur Frank Prisinzano founded East Village Radio in the spring of 2003. Having found success with the neighborhood staple, Lil Frankies’ Pizzaria, Prisinzano found himself wanting to give back.
“I’ve always been a real fan of radio,” Prisinzano says. “It just disappeared. The FM radio that we remember was not all Clear Channel based, believe it or not.”
Inspired by similar pirate stations like Free Radio Austin, he decided to set up his own station, operating it out of the back of his office. But four months in, a reporter at The New York Times caught wind of the station and decided to write about it.
“I was like ‘C’mon man, you cant write an article about it, you’re gonna put me under!'” Frank remembers. Within about a week, the station got a cease and desist letter from the FCC. Prisinzano didn’t want to deal with fines, or the possible jail time threatened, so he decided to move the operation online and broadcast from a small booth facing First Avenue.
“It’s one of those New York success stories that, because of its success, became a failure,” say AndrewAndrew, the joined-at-the-hip, lookalike duo best known for their appearance on HBO’s Girls. The two were early fans of the station, and eventually got their own show.
“It just had this aura,” they recall, rattling off the station’s programming line-up. “Mark Ronson, The MisShapes, Tedward…there wasn’t any other forum where all these characters could have cohabited peacefully.”
Eli Escobar, of the show Delancey Music Service, also found the station through Ronson. Escobar hosted the British producer’s show before eventually starting his own.
The station is “one of the last things in Manhattan that feels kind of cool,” Escobar tells me.
The allure, for those looking in from the outside, can be chalked up to the stations’ easy facility with a diverse array of music. Each DJ is an expert in what he or she plays, and the shows range from hardcore to world funk and soul to club music.
“It’s a place where I was sort of able to play stuff that I loved and have a conversation about it,” says Jon Oliver, of The Main Ingredient, where he showcases almost exclusively new music that he’s found over the course of combing the hundreds of soundcloud and bandcamp pages that have caught his eye.
“They are very hands off, and give you the freedom to just figure your stuff out,” say AndrewAndrew.
A visit to the station’s home base on 1st and 1st reveals the centripetal force around which this cast of characters revolves. That’s day-to-day operations manager and soon-to-be co-owner, Peter Ferraro.
“It’s individual, but it all comes from us,” Ferraro clarifies, when I mention the station’s personalities. A tough-looking guy with a shock of electric-white hair and a bulldozer’s energy, he works out of an office above the station’s street entrance. The room is filled with books about musicians like Frank Sinatra and Niles Rodgers and decorated with posters of Biggie and Tim Maia.
Ferraro was recruited to the station in 2008, and says that the place was a mess upon his arrival.
“You’ve got a bunch of people who don’t know what they’re doing, basically,” he says. “It was the inmates running the asylum.”
Ferraro worked to get East Village Radio in line with the regulations of publishing bodies like ASCAP, BMI, and Soundexchange. In doing so, he helped begin the transition to legitimacy.
“What we’ve done is we’ve shown [the DJ’s], since we’ve become compliant, that if you play new music and you feature new music and you help a band sell a record, that’s what radio is. You know some DJs go in that studio and drink beer and party. And that’s not where we’re going. We’re striving to be like BB6 Music, NPR. We’re not striving to be like a hippie radio station in the East Village.”
I asked how a personality like Ferraro’s gelled with those of DJ’s like AndrewAndrew, who cite the most important part of their jockey education as “learning how to be a good enough broadcaster that you can be drunk on the air and still make a quality show.”
“If they didn’t have listeners, they wouldn’t have a show on the station,” Ferraro responds. And indeed, he has not been shy about canceling shows that have not been working. Frozen Files, a 90’s hip-hop show hosted by Schott Free and Matt Life drew his ire and was soon shut down. The Smith’s bassist, Andy Rourke, also saw his show removed from the lineup, because “we couldn’t get it right.”
Ferraro comes off as a hard-ass (at one point in our conversation, he compared himself to his favorite coach, Rick Pitino, saying “if you have a job like mine and you strive to be liked by everybody, you’re a loser.”) But he’s working for a pair of legacies: what he remembers radio to be like when he was growing up in Queens, and the musical lineage of the East Village itself.
“Listen to the words ‘East Village Radio,'” he says. “It says Charlie Parker. It says The Ramones, it says The New York Dolls. Basquiat. Madonna. We’ve tried to make sure that we understand why we’re here. If we were West Village Radio it wouldn’t mean anything. The fact that we’re East Village Radio says so much because of what came before us.”