The cream-and-brown colored RV from which KPISS.fm broadcasts every day is now quiet — and empty. The online radio station doesn’t fall under the category of businesses that had to temporarily shut down because of New York City’s latest coronavirus-related ordinances. But founder and manager Sheri Barclay, 37, decided it was better to be safe than sorry, and closed it down anyway. Only physically, though. KPISS is not going to stop transmitting.
Sheri is encouraging program hosts to livestream from home. “I’ve had to have some chats with the DJs about their show, and the music, and the community being the priority and not just the space,” explains Sheri. So far, the DJs seem to be on the same page as her. “A few people are really, really, really wanting to be in the studio,” she says. “But I’m trying to let them think about the RV in spirit and broadcast from home.” To that end, she compiled two guides to teach them how to do it.
This isn’t the first time the location of KPISS has had to change since it launched in 2016. Once hidden in the back of Bushwick’s “Punk Alley” on Broadway, KPISS moved to a nearby pizza place in October 2018, due to power outage problems. It was a temporary fix. Finally, it landed on its current location, a hip RV that gives off 70s vibes, on a private lot in Bushwick.
“I call myself the janitor,” laughs Sheri while wiping down the RV’s dining table (which holds two directional mics). “But actually, this is like, 25 percent of my job.”
Sheri’s voice is calm and paced, the kind of voice you’d hear on the radio. It’s no wonder that she started DJing when she was a kid. “I had a boombox with two cassette players and a microphone,” she explains. “And I was making mixtapes and back announcing the music.” She’s sad she doesn’t have the cassettes anymore, especially because they were “German tapes!” from her time spent there.
Sheri moved a lot throughout the years. She was born in New York to an Israeli mother, through which she obtained Israeli citizenship. Her Canadian citizenship, meanwhile, comes from her step-father. After the first years in New York, she moved to Israel with her family, and then to a military base in Germany. At 9, she followed her family to Canada and lived there until she was 19. Then she inevitably moved back to New York. “[New York] is just like an abusive ex-boyfriend,” she laughs. “They’re like, ‘Baby, it’s gonna be different this time.’ No, I’ve been getting my ass kicked since 2003 — but you know, I love him, the highs are so high.”
Plus New York allowed her to give birth to KPISS radio, which she considers a “community center.” . Sheri is the station’s manager, but it’s supported equally by every DJ that hosts a program there. A sliding-scale membership fee of $75 per month includes four hours of airtime, equipment like mics and turntables, and, if needed, Sheri’s broadcasting lessons. Not that she lets just anybody DJ. “It’s free-form,” Sheri explains of the concept, “but there’s something [in the DJs] that’s like a mix of passionate, funny, smart, cares-about-music, maybe a bit of an oversharer.”
She encourages the DJs to tell personal stories, and loves to hear about Tinder dates. She wants them to have personalities, especially now that they have to work remotely. “It’s really important to hear people’s voices right now,” she says.
Some DJs are fully equipped to livestream from home — they have full studios and all the mics. Others don’t. But Sheri has a solution for them too. Using the program Audio Hijack, the less-equipped DJs can broadcast from the comfort and safety of their homes using whatever technology is available, “even with our shitty laptop mics,” Sheri says.
Lately, Sheri has been trying to actively help out up-and-coming musicians by requiring DJs to feature, during each show, at least one song from Bandcamp, an independent music platform aimed at supporting artists. The “featured artists” get a free shoutout on the website’s track list and the DJs are forced to explore new music. “There’s a lot of nostalgia freaks here, and I love that,” says Sheri, who admits to being an oldies freak herself. “But you gotta have fresh blood.”
It’s her old music promoter soul speaking. Booking bands and gigs was her entry point in the music industry in New York. When she worked at Williamsburg bar Black Betty, she had to book two bands a week. Calling up agents, going to events and meeting people was all part of her routine. It’s not like she didn’t enjoy it, though. She did it for the music. “Being a music promoter is kind of like being a drug dealer,” she shrugs. “Sometimes you do it so that you can do the drugs for free.”
As a result of her promoter years, Sheri knows how to talk to artists. That’s why she started reaching out to bands to tell them KPISS’s DJs were playing their music. When the responses were great, Sheri further followed her promoter instincts, and started inviting them to the studio. “The bands are starting to DJ here,” she explains. “And that’s really super exciting!”
Last week, when we visited the station, Mark Shue, the bassist of Guided by Voices, was doing a set, and Sheri was pumped. The circle of promotion and participation is evidence of a “small but powerful DIY economy,” in her eyes. “Pretty recession-proof too, which is pretty fun.”
Being tech-savvy, Sheri had built a mobile broadcasting kit that she had planned to bring to a show at Brooklyn Steel, so a band could broadcast from there. But with venues closing, plans like this have been either cancelled or postponed. Instead, she has been teaching her fellow DJs — and band members — how to create a pre-recorded radio show through a free audio editor, Audacity. “Vince [McClelland, guitarist] from Public Practice was one of the first people to pre-record a mix,” she says. “I can still get ‘appearances’.”
To further address the challenges posed by the pandemic, Sheri is also considering a reduction in membership fees. “A lot of us are scared about rent,” she says. She also expresses her hope for some forgiveness on the landlord’s part. “We’re planning on leaning into the collective aspect to keep the station going.”
Having lost money on the project in the past, Sheri is hopeful she can continue to break even and keep doing her thing with her people, her community. “When people contribute to something, they get a little bit of ownership of that too,” she says. “And it is cool that we can do this thing where the only other people that get to afford to do this are actual millionaires.”
Sheri holds dear the people who support the radio, and loves the impromptu parties that sometimes start up on the lot. In the end, they’re all fans, and they make up the community. With a few new community-oriented projects just launched, KPISS seems ready to grow strong and steady. Besides the band-on-the-set, featured artists and inclusion projects, I ask Sheri if she has any future plans.
“Yes,” she says. “finding out who keeps calling 311 for the parties and assassinating their phone use!”