Everyone knows New York real estate is tough. Two people who know it particularly well are Tom Tenney and Robert Prichard. Both were involved with experimental Lower East Side performance space Surf Reality, which garnered repeat mentions in the Times for their contributions to the alternative comedy scene of the mid-late ’90s and was one of the home bases for the Art Star community, along with nearby Collective Unconscious. Surf Reality went a similar route of many experimental venues in the neighborhood, and closed in 2003. It’s since been replaced with a Bikram yoga studio. Faced with the inevitability of an unaffordable rent and changing tides, they turned to the airwaves and began online community radio station Radio Free Brooklyn in May of 2015.
To do so, they set up shop in a Bushwick basement, renting a small room below Velo bike shop on DeKalb Avenue. Recently, the bike shop packed up and left, leaving them in a momentary bind. But unlike so many New York artists, real estate was on their side this time.
“We took [the lease] over, we know the landlord really well, he’s actually my landlord where I live,” Tenney explains. “He didn’t raise the rent on us, so we’re getting this great storefront at prices from eight years ago.”
This situation may seem like a miracle to most New Yorkers, and they’re very aware of their luck. “We could not have the luxury of doing this if it were not for having a really good landlord,” adds Tenney. “We have a landlord who is not fighting us, who is helping us, who believes in this mission, who knows us personally. He actually becomes part of the community as well, so we don’t have this pressure to maximize profits. We have a bit of leeway to be creative. So it’s not necessarily the artist versus the landlord– sometimes the landlords can be on the side of the artists.”
However, taking over the lease meant they had far more space than their small basement recording studio. They had to figure out the best way to use the storefront with which they now found themselves. But Brooklyn is a small world—through someone at Human Head record shop in East Williamsburg, they came in contact with Federico Rojas-Lavado, a vinyl seller with whom they’ll now be partnering. Now, 1345 Dekalb will trade in its spokes for grooves; Federico will open a record shop upstairs, to be called Second Hand Records, while RFB will still operate downstairs, with plans to obtain 501(c)3 status and renovate and expand their basement space into a “media workshop area,” where they will have new media classes and youth education.
The two won’t be totally separate; RFB will set up a recording studio in the record store’s storefront window so they can conduct their business for the world to see (East Village Radio was an inspiration for that idea). There will also be monthly “rent parties,” where local bands will play acoustic sets in the basement while their records will be for sale upstairs.
“One of the thing Rob and I both learned from running performance spaces is art requires a community,” says Tenney. “It doesn’t get created in a vacuum, it gets created in a place where it can be nurtured and grow.”
“And at the same time, the cooler a neighborhood gets, the more desirable it becomes and suddenly there’s displacement, it starts to eat itself out from within,” adds Prichard. “I sort of saw that happening with Surf Reality. When I moved into my loft on the Lower East Side in 1993, there was a brothel in the basement, there was gunfire you could hear at night. Ten years later, my landlord wanted 300% more money, and most of the residents that I had known during the first five years were gone. And in a sense, I felt that Surf was more of a wedge than it was glue, it was a way for the real estate industry to start displacement. And we’re not about that. We wanna be glue.”
RFB hosts about 70 radio shows now, and they tell me that they’ll hit over 100 come November. A sampling of shows includes music from Cuban to jazz to punk, a burlesque star conducting interviews, queer talk radio, and syndicated shows like Democracy Now!. Though RFB prides itself on being free-form, this influx of programming has made them look at new shows with a sharper curatorial eye, mostly out of necessity. Tenney and Prichard say this doesn’t mean they’re going to become highbrow and picky; rather, they’ll select new shows based on what the station isn’t already playing, and what flows well with their current programming.
“The idea is to pass along community media to others, so they can continue growing [it],” says Tenney. “Because it’s something that has gotten smaller and smaller, as years go on and corporate media gets bigger and bigger, and swallows everything. And things like news [and] politics that should be local are becoming these monolithic, huge national things, and that doesn’t make any sense. That doesn’t do real people any good. What does, is media that’s homegrown, that’s bottom-up, that’s grassroots.”
Prichard mentions the recent news of The New York Times cutting regional coverage, calling it a “voluntary lobotomy. They’ve become exponentially less relevant with one move. So who’s gonna fill in those gaps?”
These new additions and renovations won’t come cheap. To help raise funds, they’ve been throwing a series of benefit shows throughout the city. Their latest is happening this Saturday at a DIY loft space in Bushwick. The concert will feature performances by four local bands: Dead Leaf Echo, Dru Cutler and the Heart & Hand Band, The Falling Birds, and Amos Rose. Several of these bands have been featured on RFB’s show Brooklyn Bandstand, a unique music station that only plays music by Brooklyn bands that have gigs that night, serving as a way for listeners to hear new bands but also know what’s going on in the music world around them.
Though they’ve traded their performance space past for community radio and records, that legacy has certainly not been left behind. As the team traversed the rain to place a decal with Radio Free Brooklyn’s logo in the front window, a truck rolled by. There was a moment of small talk, and the drivers almost instantly recognized Prichard from his Surf Reality days, proving that the so-called glue they laid down in those days on Allen Street has indeed prevailed.
“There’s a lack of spaces where you can find new music or current music, or be able to come and feel comfortable. People need to pay rent, cost of living goes up, the act of leisure becomes really expensive. That to us is kind of what we have here,” adds Federico Rojas-Lavado. “It’s very difficult to have this grassroots, DIY kind of thing. But you do it with a community.”
Radio Free Brooklyn‘s next benefit concert will be on September 10 at the Unit J Loft in Bushwick. Tickets are $8 in advance, $10 at the door. The soft opening of Second Hand Records is slated for September 15, with a grand opening on October 1.
Update, September 6: The original version of this post was revised to correct the date of the benefit concert: it is on September 10, not September 9.