After almost three years, Radio Free Brooklyn has undergone a world of changes. From its beginnings in a bike shop basement to becoming a globally-known source of the sounds and voices of Brooklyn, the station represents a point of pride and opportunity for the community. Our co-founder and Talent Director Rob Prichard shares more about the collaborative experience of starting an internet radio station from the ground up with co-founder Tom Tenney, his thoughts on the evolution of RFB and what the future looks like.
Talk to me about the origins of Radio Free Brooklyn, how did it come to be?
It was about January of 2015 and Tom was over at my apartment and I asked, ‘what should we do next?’. Radio Free Brooklyn came from an impulse to give something back to the community. My previous project, Surf Reality, had a similar motivation but this is different: It comes from a place of love. I suggested possibly an internet radio station and Tom already had a plan on how to do it from his master’s thesis proposal. We initially thought it would cost about $3,000, and I thought ‘I could do that’. And then Tom got to work. Tom had a platform designed that he put together and wrote a book about (The DIY Internet Radio Cookbook: A Beginners Guide), and by May 13th we did our first broadcast, in the basement of a Bushwick bike shop. We thought about what we could call it but didn’t think that Radio Free Brooklyn would be available; we bought that domain for $8.
What do you think about the growth of RFB since it began?
R: We’ve always punched above our weight. So in a sense, we’re continuing an upward trajectory in terms of how well known we are. We’re so small but so many people know about us. We started out in the basement of a bike shop and now we’re in this corporate workspace. We started with 30 shows and now we’re close to 90. All this in less than three years.
How would you describe the shows and offerings on RFB?
I think that’s one of our strengths. Our music shows are really good. Our talk shows are really interesting. The voices coming out are amazing. It’s almost self-curated. It’s like the community came to us and said ‘this is who we are’ and we put it on the stage. We’re trying to be as inclusive as possible and I think the programming we have is pretty awesome. One reason that it’s awesome is that Tom has made it sound good. The actual quality of the sound coming out of the speakers is just as good as traditional radio. So you’re listening to a professional product.
How do we compare to other internet radio stations?
Most other internet radio stations are really podcast destinations. And what Tom and I have wanted to do from the very beginning is treat internet radio as if it were terrestrial radio, as if it were a live event destination. And, I think that is a strength. I think that makes us interesting. Most other internet radio stations don’t care about that distinction.
What was that first broadcast like?
Our first song was actually a song called Radio Free Brooklyn by Brooklyn rapper Pete Miser. We broadcast a live show from Lucky 13 in Gowanus. We had live stage acts – they had girls dancing on poles on the bar in the front room and we were in the back doing our radio show.
Looking back to where we came from, and where we are now in 2018, what are the feelings that come to mind?
Right now the feeling that comes to mind is optimism. I feel like we are going to start finding ways to be of service. Like this new outreach with the upcoming show, Teens Take the Mic. I think more things like that are going to start to happen, where the community will see us as a resource. With Radio Free Brooklyn we want to be glue, we want to be part of what’s keeping the community together. So we want to be of service.
What do you want people to experience when they tune in?
Delight and surprise. I want their experience to be such that they want to turn it on again and see what else is on. I want us to be something worth exploring, and for people to not just have one favorite show. And, really, even deeper, I’d like people to go ‘hey, I can do that, too. Maybe I’ll go check them out and volunteer and see if I can do a show, too.’
What does being a platform for independent collaborators mean?
It means that people don’t want to be spoon-fed their media, they don’t want to be spoon-fed their outlets for creativity. They’re willing to assume some agency, and that’s a good sign. We’re not all automatons, we all have these crazy, different ideas. And for the reason for just doing it for its own sake. Not for some monetary reason or for some self-glorification reason, but because it would be a cool thing to do, and it would be fun to listen to. For an hour or two hours on our platform someone is ruling their world, and it’s giving them so much agency. After a few months to a year of doing RFB, this experience bleeds into people’s lives in a positive way.
What are the benefits of operating like a ‘teaching hospital’ where people learn to do radio by doing their show?
It’s another way to give agency. You stick your toe in, you get used to it. Then you’re into your waist, and next thing you know your swimming. That’s what Radio Free Brooklyn is here to do, we’re here to teach people how to swim in media.
In 2020, RFB will be 5 years old. Where do you think we’ll be then?
There’s so much going on it’s hard to get a handle on it, hard to direct it. How do we get this engine firing on all cylinders, that’s really the challenge. I see us having gotten a handle on ‘RFB Presents’ and our second stream, Local Chords 2, I hope will have more of the rest of Bushwick and Brooklyn represented on our website and stream. I want to see us become more diverse. We’re kind of like a mirror, so in that mirror more of the local businesses, more of the local organizations, more of the local political organizations. I see the mirror reflecting more and reflecting more accurately. I also see a lot more weirdness, we attract that. We got some really eccentric stuff coming out of those speakers. This whole underwriting thing is in its infancy and I hope that will be more mature. And getting our board of directors and fundraising strategy organized. I think we are going to continue to embed ourselves into the community fabric of primarily Bushwick, but I think Brooklyn in general.