Sheri Barclay spends most of her time inside her very own shipping container–turned–recording studio in a delightfully dingy corner of Bushwick’s punk “flea market alley.”
The ten-by-ten-foot box is replete with turntables, mics, and recording equipment; a revolving, flashing Technicolor disco ball; vinyl records stacked on wall shelves; couches; and a space heater. KPISS.FM, as the station’s called, is Barclay’s baby, named as a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the container’s smell before she renovated it. Barclay uses the name as a litmus test to filter out anyone too uptight to record their show on a station whose moniker contains the word piss. The K and .fm serve to compound the joke: The internet radio station, with its charismatic DJs and talk shows, may be reminiscent of its terrestrial cousins — what KPISS DJs and Barclay herself have compared to the old East Village Radio — but Barclay has taken it about as far from basic radio technology as any self-made audio engineer could.
“When you think about it, I’m taking the piss out of internet radio,” says Barclay. “There is no normal radio. Some of the the internet radio stations are more niche; they kind of have to be. My niche is developing the unique personalities of each broadcaster.”
The community station functions like a cooperative radio school. Barclay finances the station mostly herself, but also with the help of her DJs, who each pay $30 a month to air their 25 unique shows, and get their own set of keys. Barclay gives each DJ a crash course in the technology, supplemented by video tutorials — tips on audio formatting, self-promotion, social media, and broadcasting etiquette.
“The way that people express themselves is very different,” says Barclay. The station’s diversity, a reflection of its Bushwick community, sets it apart from its peers.
Brandon Kirshner, who books shows around Brooklyn at venues like Palisades (across the street from KPISS), DJs his own weekly show, Hour of Power. MTA in NYC, run by Marcus Hillman and Joel Lyons, is a talk show about New York politics. And Livin’ and Lovin’ in NYC, hosted by Victoria Davis, Laura Jean Moore, and Isaac Fornarola, is a queer podcast about sexcapades, sexuality, and the general mayhem of dating in New York.
“Most internet radio stations are either totally established or sort of one person at a time streaming by themselves out of their bedroom, but this is something in the middle,” says Kirshner. “It’s a shared space and embodies the DIY aspect. It’s basically like a co-op with a bunch of us living around the Brooklyn area putting out content each week.” And that content brings in more listeners. The 25 shows, run by a total of 52 DJs, each have their own following, in addition to some 22,000 total unique listeners KPISS has attracted since Barclay founded it in August. KPISS doesn’t air live 24/7 — only when Barclay or the DJs are there. During each DJ’s set, Barclay often leaves the shipping container, giving them freedom and agency to air their shows as they please.
The music ranges from rock to punk to world music with roots everywhere from Indonesia to Africa to France. “This station isn’t just another piece of the gentrification puzzle,” Kirshner adds. “Different people from all walks of life are putting out their own quirky content. That’s truly diverse radio you don’t see nowadays.”
KPISS features shows hosted by Bushwick natives who’ve been in the neighborhood long before it became a hipster mecca as well as shows by relative newcomers. Julissa Vale, who’s lived in Bushwick since the Seventies, hosts On the Rocks with Jules, which comes off like the soundtrack of 1977, while hairdresser Hayleigh Hatcher, a more recent addition to the neighborhood who runs a home salon nearby, hosts Mess With Your Head, a combination of real talk and live hairstyling in the shipping container. “I get [hair models] off the street. I’ve had more neighborhood local people [who] are not part of that gentrification movement,” says Hatcher. “On the show, I’m not always doing hair. I bring in people, girls who are clueless or struggling with life, and I give them the 411 on inner and outer beauty.”
Dental hygienist Bianca Buchanan hosts the show Beating Around the Bush, about everything from getting over an ex to losing your virginity; Ben Pomeroy’s show, Swell Season, is dedicated to the Rockaway Beach surf scene. “Ben goes surfing every weekend, even in the blizzard,” says Barclay, “and he recently interviewed [Christopher Swain], who swam the Gowanus Canal to raise environmental awareness.”
The DJs and hosts listen to one another’s shows for inspiration, she adds, which motivates them to keep improving. “They’re like, ‘holy shit, I gotta step it up.’ When you listen to it, it sounds like you’re listening to NPR,” she says. “Of course, there are still people who are kind of hanging around, experimenting, too.”
While Barclay’s taken on more of a management position, nurturing her DJs, she also DJs, and broadcasts phone calls with her mother, energetic with a thick Israeli accent, who lives in Barclay’s hometown of Edmonton, Alberta. “If you had a relative like this, you’d do the same thing,” Barclay says during the first episode of Call Your Mother. On that first Sunday evening of the show’s debut episode, the two caught up on Mom’s recent trip to Vegas, Barclay’s latest breakup (“he said he would only buy me food if it was vegan”), and her latest prank: sneaking onto a panel of experts at the Intercollegiate Broadcasting System conference. She got away with talking about how to start your own radio station for 25 minutes.
“[Barclay is] this passionate crazy captain of this sort of rebel ship of really eclectic people,” says Kirshner. “She’s this underground star who’s always been in this community, but I feel like KPISS is giving her the voice that she wants.”
KPISS synthesizes the podcast community and the live-internet-radio community, Kirshner explains. DJs and talk show hosts broadcast live over the internet, but can also record their shows so people can listen later and the hosts can promote them as podcasts on iTunes.
What’s different about KPISS is the way people interact with the station, says Barclay. People chat online while the shows air, and anyone can stop by the shipping container and broadcast live at any moment, so long as another show isn’t airing. She notes one Sunday morning, when she invited in a man who wandered into the alley and stared through the KPISS window. Barclay showed him how to listen to radio through his phone and he told her about his drunken three-way hookup the previous night.
“Other people who are doing this aren’t literally working on the technology from the inside out,” says Barclay. Running KPISS is an experiment in innovation, as she constantly searches for the latest technology and develops software during her day job at ZenoRadio, an internet radio startup in midtown. The tele-radio technology Barclay uses to air her mother’s phone calls uses Zeno’s broadcasting platform.
Zeno’s model allows radio stations around the world to broadcast over a phone number. Listeners, often taxicab drivers, can call a number to hear stations from countries like Ghana or Haiti, where Zeno’s technology is the most popular. Listening to the radio through a phone number rather than through the internet has a simple advantage: Listeners don’t need to use data.
“We’re building tools for broadcasters and audiences to reach each other, to speak to each other, and to track each other,” Baruch Herzfeld, founder of ZenoRadio, says one afternoon at his midtown office. The station gets around two million monthly listeners, many of whom are immigrants. “We connect people back to the homeland,” says Herzfeld. “Marrying our technology, based on the conference call, to mass broadcasting technology is extremely useful.”
Barclay is at the crossroads of DIY and startup technology. Her work has earned her the attention of small-time DJs hoping for some airtime in the shipping container, and more established DJs alike. Her previous show, Radio Cheri, which aired from the Zeno office, featured guests found on Craigslist, including Jackie Mason’s daughter, Al Pacino’s sister, and Angel Salazar, who played Chi Chi in Scarface. Pitchfork’s Ted Shumaker invited Barclay to DJ a set on Pitchfork Radio, an internet station that broadcast live from spring fashion week, and before that she was interviewed on This Week in Radio Tech. Barclay says her work in radio upholds a kind of eclectic, esoteric aspect, “and certain personalities recognize it’s its own nerdiverse.”
Before permanently moving to New York, Barclay, 33, DJ’d at CJSR, a college radio station in Alberta, until she got “royally banned” for giving away free movie tickets to herself, drinking on air, and sneaking back on after initially getting kicked off. Her loyal listeners weren’t happy about her banishment. During that time, however, Barclay’s show, for which she was voted one of the best radio personalities in See Magazine‘s 2007 readers poll, had earned the attention of Viva Radio, American Apparel’s station.
“My show was sort of a mix of making fun of my hometown and referring a lot back to my life in Brooklyn, so I’d drop a lot of Brooklyn references and music,” says Barclay. She answered an American Apparel/Viva Radio ad on Craigslist and got a gig broadcasting from Edmonton. Employees and customers responded so well that American Apparel made a T-shirt with Barclay’s face on it. “It was sold internationally in all their stores to promote the station,” she says. “It’s truly the end of an era, though. Again, everything peaked in 2007. American Apparel was still cool, et cetera. Everything that I did when I was younger that was sort of cool is now NOT at all.”
Until a year ago, Barclay spent years couchsurfing around New York and taking the Greyhound bus back and forth to Edmonton. She finally landed a full-time job at Zeno, giving her enough stability to found KPISS.
KPISS and Zeno represent the first time Barclay’s been permanently grounded in something, doing what she loves. “I pull ninety-hour weeks doing both,” she says. “I have no life. I was a bum for ten years and I did nothing. Now I’m a workaholic and I couldn’t be happier-ish.”
But she says it’s a struggle to keep KPISS going, keep DJs motivated, and keep up with the newest technology. “When I talk to crazy engineers, I realize that I don’t know shit and I have a long way to go,” she says. “It doesn’t get nerdier than this.”