Low end hypothesis: how Dublab became the world’s best online radio station

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From modest beginnings 17 years ago, the DIY L-Abased station has become a world renowned destination for everything leftfield and left of the dial

On a sweaty summer afternoon in Los Angeles, Carlos Nio sat behind the boards in the modest, un-air conditioned studio of Dublab, the internet radio station thats been broadcasting for 17 years. With a bushy beard taking over his face and a blue-gemmed ring on his pinky thumb, Nio transmits supernatural jazz and acid-licked folk boulder at a bit rate of 320. His co-host Miguel Atwood-Ferguson sat in the corner, with a Mac laptop balancing on his knees and his shoes nowhere to be seen.

At around half-past two, they switched on the microphones for a brief spoken interlude. This is Theme Galaxy, our theme today is mystical, spiritual, and psychedelic. Lets talk about these pieces, said Nio with the easy tone of a waiter explaining your salumi plate. Carioca in the set. He is one of the great keepers of the Santo Daime mystic music of the ayahuasca tradition in Brazil, and this album that he made, which I love dearly, is called Mistrios da Amaznia. We heard an excerpt of the title way, which is much longer and truly keeps going into all these different spaces.

Wow, Atwood-Ferguson replied.

Nio and Atwood-Ferguson are both respected composers and players around the city who have collaborated on anthems with everyone from Flying Lotus to the 1975, and while Nio has had a depict on Dublab in one form or another since the station began in 1999, this monthly joint venture was still less than a year old. Behind Nios head, Dublabs motto glowed in neon letters, FUTURE ROOTS RADIO. Alejandro Cohen, the stations Argentina-born executive director, has pointed out that the sign, and the others around the station, were gifted to them by a Dublab DJ who once interned for the guy who does all the neon for the stores in the Valley.

For the best part of two decades Dublab has existed on a subfrequency of Los Angeles-born radio, one not advertised on highway billboards or emblazoned on tote bags earned with a pledge of $10 a month. Its become a haven and destination for seekers and eccentrics, an unconventional entity that might start its broadcast day with languid disco and that schedules its hyper-kinetic juke reveal for the early afternoon on a Tuesday. People usually explore music in such a limited capacity compared to what is possible, says Mark Frosty McNeill, one of Dublabs co-founders.

Besides what they send out streaming into the world, Dublab has become an experiential presence in Los Angeles. The station hurls its own themed events, like the ambient-focused Tonalism, and defines up club nights where they only play sad music and maintain boxes of tissues on hand. The broadcast schedule is filled with an evolving roster of Los Angeles DJs and music obsessives. As McNeill says: Any night of the week, Dublab DJs are playing somewhere in the city.

A broad swath of foreigners also seek out Dublabs curatorial talents. The High TimesCannabis Cuphad them take over a stage this past summertime at its event in San Bernardino, while the Los Angeles Music Center Downtowns hub for usually staid classical music and opera began a relationship with Dublab a little over a year ago to get them to advise on and volume special events.

McNeill started Dublab and was the stations director for its first 16 years. Now he broadly defines his role as: DJ, members of the security council, creative consultant, project director, spirit guide. He became interested in radio while attending the University of Southern California in the 1990 s. Back in the 1970 sthe school turned its station, KUSC, over to public radio, where it was staffed with professionals and became the regions biggest classical music station. In reply, a group of students made KSCR, an unlicensed, low wattage radio station. While working at KSCR, ONeill became the station director and stimulated the decision, progressive at the time, to schedule electronic music shows throughout the day , not only during the late night hours. More importantly, he discovered that USC had an unused Real Media server sitting in a closet, so the station began broadcasting its FM signal through the internet, a rare move for any radio station during that time.

The Federal Communications Commissioned aimed up shutting KSCRs terrestrial broadcasts, but McNeill already realized the possibilities of internet radio. He observed a partner for his vision in Jon Buck, who was more interested in the business side of medium. With a fiscal investment from Bucks family, Dublab began broadcasting from a storefront off of Melrose Blvd that had been converted into a studio.

DubLab radio. Photo: Politenes of DubLab

From the start, McNeill put together a cultivated roster of DJs. He brought along KSCR DJs, such as beat scene mainstay Daedelus. He picked up his favorite DJs who also had shows on local freeform FM stations like KPFK and KXLU. He scooped other talent, including Aurelito and Shakespeare, a pair that famously ran a reggae soundsystem from inside of a converted ice cream truck. In later years they brought on artists like Gaslamp Killer and Flying Lotus, whose Brainfeeder radio show on the station would come to provide the name for his own record label. Recent DJs include the ultra mellowSuzanne Kraft and Brian Shimkowitz of the Awesome Tapes from Africa imprint. This year alone has seen new displays for more established names, like Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio, Jennifer Herema of Royal Trux, and underground LA hip-hops Cut Chemist.

We considered online radio as the wild west of media a place that could be defined, could be invented, and could be made to do what we wanted to do, says Cohen, who got involved with Dublab in its early days.

Internet radio and streaming music were still in their nascent stages, and Dublab had to develop custom software and programs to even be heard. In the beginning they continued to broadcasting over a dial up modem. Taken with the interactive possibilities of this technology, they originally had an active text chat so people could communicate with the DJs and a video simulcast that up the bandwidth. A global community of listeners soon saw them. For a lot of people “its like” sorcery, and for us it was magic that people were out there, says McNeill.

As Dublab procured its footing, in 2001 the internet bubble explode. The situation got dicey, but it managed to hang on, even as its more well money challengers ran bust. A lot of these players in the late 90 s were hurling fund at these radio stations[ that were] basically not challenging the notion of what music could be online, says Daedelus. Dublab was truly something from a different direction, especially in those early days.

The station moved to its current place above a nightclub on the fringes of Silver Lake, parted styles with Jon Buck and in 2008 it officially changed its status to a not-for-profit. Theyve sought side projects, like releasing music as a label and putting on art proves, but over the past few years theyve decided to return the focus to the station itself.

As streaming becomes the norm, major streaming services have put together squads of actual humans whose undertaking is to create highly specialized playlists for users to draw from. But theres still something charming about Dublabs loose approach. Theres something nice about clicking on the radio and having something thats familiar, but within that, having the unexpected start.[ Dublab is] this brain trust of music, and the people who are involved have dedicated “peoples lives” to exploring music, and theyre also very open to sharing, says McNeill.

Mark Frosty McNeill( left) and Alejandro Cohen of DubLab radio. Photo: Politenes of DubLab

While Dublab keeps refining its niche in the global streaming music scenery, it will soon establish an even greater local presence. After working on it for five years, they lately received a Low Power FM Radio license from the FCC and will also be terrestrial in Los Angeles. In 2017, listeners will be able to find them in the middle of the dial at 99.1 FM. Im literally driving around go looking for builds in the area to put the antenna, says Cohen.

On a late August evening, DJ Heidi Lawden wrapped up Magic Roundabout, her bimonthly demonstrate filled with cosmic housemusic and charming dance edits. Next up was House Shoes, a Detroit transplant who has been in Los Angeles for a decade, to wrap up with the last live decide of the night. The lights were dimmed to merely an eerie purple. Then toward the end of his set all the power to the DJ equipment and computers suddenly cut out, resulting the dreaded dead air.

As House Shoes and his friends expended several minutes tracing wires and flipping switches use their iPhones as flashlights, I thought of something that McNeill had told me. We always wanted to make those folks understand that this is not a computer thing, he said. We wanted to every once in a while have the needle skate across the record or Jimmy Tamborello knock a coffee over into a DJ mixer and you heard it sizzle out live their lives air.

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