Laney College’s 9th Floor Radio brings Oakland’s music scene to the Internet
on May 22, 2012
Inside the sound studio at 9th Floor Radio, the music is starting to fade. It dies down to almost nothing as Michael Wertz and Andy Cowitt scramble to snap headphones around their ears and get to their microphones. “That was David Byrne and Bryan Eno,” says Wertz, looking at Cowitt. “Did you say you have music to play?”
“Oh that’s right. I was going to do this.” Cowitt slides up a fader control on the large mixing board in front of him. A bright jazzy piano sound fills the tiny, five-by-ten studio.
Wertz smiles. “Ah, lovely.”
“Except I can’t pronounce this person’s name,” Cowitt says.
“Let’s see,” says Wertz, looking at the iPod plugged into the mixing board. “Emahoy, Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou. It’s from one of the Ethiopique compilations. This song is called, ‘Tenkou! Why Feel Sorry?’”
It’s a little after 5 pm on a Thursday and this is the “I’m Sorry” edition of Argyll Adventure Radio. The Byrne/Eno song “Mea Culpa” was the first of many more apology-themed songs Wertz and Cowitt will play today on their monthly music show that airs exclusively on 9th Floor Radio—an Internet radio station that serves the four Peralta community colleges: Berkeley City College, Laney College, Merritt College, and the College of Alameda. Tucked inside a portable building with no address near the corner of 8th Street and 5th Avenue in Oakland, 9th Floor Radio streams 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Although it is no longer located on the ninth floor of the Laney College administration building where the station originated four years ago, 9th Floor Radio holds on to the name of the space where it all began.
Twenty-eight different shows currently air, but over the years more than 60 shows have come through 9th Floor Radio—everything from sports news to talk shows to psychedelic pop rock. The main focus of the radio station, however, is on music local to Oakland.
“One of our missions is to document and support the music scene here,” says Melissa Neal, the station’s manager. Over 80 percent of the station’s shows are music shows, and more than half of them play almost exclusively music from Oakland-based bands. “All the local garage band stuff—Primitive Hearts, Shannon and the Clams, NoBunny—all gets played on a really regular basis,” Neal says. “They’re popular but I never hear them on the ‘regular’ rock radio.”
9th Floor Radio is not a “regular” radio station. It has no call letters, and no frequency where its shows can be heard playing over the airwaves. Everything that happens on the 9th Floor happens on the web. Neal says this kind of setup can be seen as a sign of the times. “This is not like the 50’s where people are gathering around the radio at 4 pm to listen to something,” she says.
And because 9th Floor archives all of its shows, people can come back and download things later. Neal often sees shows that only get twenty downloads the day of the broadcast, but over the course of the month will often wind up with hundreds. In 2011 the radio station had 32,000 unique visitors to the site, and Neal is predicting around 80,000 for 2012. In July, 9th Floor will launch a new one-button app that will enable users to listen to the live stream and click through the archives on their phones or other mobile devices. The station also manages a music blog that covers cultural events in Oakland and features interviews with bands from around the area.
“We offer one thing that you can’t get anywhere else—on-demand original content,” says Neal. “There’s a complete dearth of music coverage and documentation in Oakland. There’s no singular channel to push it through and contain all that—if this weren’t here it would all just kind of evaporate.”In addition to providing a home for local music, 9th Floor Radio also spends a lot of time and energy bringing up the next generation of Bay Area DJs. The requirements to have a show on the 9th Floor are minimal—you have to either be a current or former student at one of the Peralta Colleges, or a resident of Oakland—but you have to put in the time to get trained in audio editing and engineering. Neal is the only full-time employee at the station, and she and production assistant Aaron Harbor teach all the new DJs that come through everything they need to know to run a live radio broadcast. Oftentimes, 9th Floor show hosts will take their newfound skills out into the community and DJ at clubs or music venues.
“What’s unique about here is that everyone gets to play exactly what they want,” Neal says. The station is less regulated than “normal” radio stations; it has no commercials or underwriting announcements, and no censorship by the FCC. The Peralta Colleges pay the general usage and royalties fees that allow 9th Floor DJs to play and banter without restriction.
“The beauty of it is that it’s completely freeform, so we just have fun with it,” Wertz says. He and Cowitt have been DJing at 9th Floor Radio for nearly four years—tonight is their 47th episode. Their show, originally dubbed Argyll Adventure Tree, actually started back in 1988 at KCSC in UC Santa Cruz. That’s where Wertz and Cowitt met, when they were both undergrads. They took a break from the show a few years later, but 9th Floor Radio has given them the opportunity to bring it back. “We met doing music and we feel really lucky to be here and continue that.”
Wertz and Cowitt get the word out about their show via their blog and social networking sites. Wertz says that earlier in the day he posted the “I’m sorry” theme on the show’s Facebook page and within a few hours had received a number of suggestions from people making requests for apology-themed songs.
“I’m going to be getting to as many of those as I can,” he says into the dangling microphone.
“So stay tuned,” Cowitt says. “We will be here until ten minutes to seven and then at seven o’clock, Ninth Ub Radio.”
“This is Argyll Adventure Tree on 9th Floor Radio,” says Wertz, just as the sound of large truck rumbles through the walls of the studio.
“And that is a very loud vehicle going by,” Cowitt says, lauging a bit.
“That was nice,” Wertz adds. “I wonder if it was that tank…”
“That armored personnel carrier?”
“Yeah, the armored personnel carrier from OPD,” Wertz says slowly, drifting off a bit before catching himself and refocusing his attention on the show underway. “Well, anyway, this is Argyll Adventure Tree on 9th Floor Radio.” He cues up the next song, “Sorry For Laughing,” a poppy indie number by Josef K, on his iPod.
You can listen to 9th Floor Radio live or download archived shows at http://www.9thfloorradio.com.
Argyll Adventure Tree airs live episodes the first Thursday of every month from 5-7 pm.
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