What Does Hipster Radio Smell Like?

Article, photos and video by Angie Martoccio

The studio of KPISS.fm once reeked of urine, but Sheri Barclay doesn’t want to talk about it.

“No one would rent it, because there was a homeless person living here for like five months,” the station owner acknowledges. “But every time I tell this story, people accuse me of having evicted that person.” Though she is a native New Yorker, Barclay is often blamed for gentrification. “They see Bushwick and they see hipster project and they automatically put two and two together,” she said.

Hipster project or not, KPISS.fm was named after its lingering smell. A 9×7 magenta studio, KPISS sits at the end of Punk Alley, a narrow outdoor flea market in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. Right below the thundering J/M/Z train, the tiny studio often feels like being in a kitsch time machine. Camp objects and rock and roll memorabilia—a Rolling Stones tongue telephone, a Bee Gees transistor radio—litter the equipment tables, while a vibrant, trippy poster of a unicorn adorns the main wooden wall.

Since opening in 2015, KPISS has become a very popular internet radio station in Brooklyn. “Time has a lot to do with it,” Barclay said. “We’ve had two years. There were times when I never thought my Instagram for this would get past 60 people.”

KPISS broadcasts over 70 shows a week, including comedy, talk shows and a wide variety of music—from rap to country. On Side Hustlers, a show that airs Mondays at 4 p.m., host Paige Winston discusses how artists are able to live in New York while maintaining their craft. On Wednesdays at 6 p.m., host Lauren Argentina Zelaya plays “immigrant-centered” music on her show Gringa Accent Radio. On his Thursday evening show HYPERFROWN, DJ Hector Montes plays a Halloween favorite year-round: Bobby Pickett’s “Monster Mash.”

The music producer Roger Greenawalt said of Montes: “Hector has deep knowledge of popular music of the last 50 years. He sees connections less-passionate listeners might miss, and shares it with them. His commitment to music is total.”
KPISS broadcasts more than 70 programs each week, including comedy, talk shows and a wide variety of music.
Though you don’t have to be experienced to DJ at KPISS (Barclay’s one requirement is that applicants know what WFMU is) most of the DJs have done college radio before, including Barclay. Barclay went to college in Edmonton, Alberta, where she got her first taste of radio experience: “You could reach a million people, but you had to play certain types of music.”

Eventually, she got in trouble for making fun of one of the show’s sponsors. “I wasn’t doing anything malicious, just weird Brooklyn humor,” she said with a laugh. She wanted to start a radio station that was free-form and relaxed. Thus, KPISS was born.

“When you have a show here, I try to make people feel like it really is their studio,” Barclay said. After DJs learn how to open the combination lock to the studio, they’re free to do pretty much whatever they want. They can drink beer and throw parties, as long as they clean up afterwards and they don’t attract the cops. “You can feel that when you’re in the space, that people have just had good times here,” Barclay said.

This fun, creative atmosphere is what makes KPISS stand out from other Brooklyn internet radio stations—and there are many, including Newtown, Bel-Air and 8 Ball Radio. “Everyone and their dog has decided to open an Internet radio station,” Barclay said. Based in Greenpoint, The Lot Radio is extremely similar to KPISS. Not only did both begin around the same time, both have studio containers — former shipping containers fitted out as broadcast studios — that live stream their shows. Barclay calls The Lot and other stations “a total boy’s club. We have so many women here compared to other projects.” 

KPISS, its studio dotted with memorabilia, has more female contributors and producers than various “boys club” projects.

Barclay used to do her own shows, including one, Call Your Mother, in which she’d converse with her mother on the air. “I’m a little bit rusty,” she says. “I’m not as good as I once was.” With the growth of KPISS, Barclay has been quite busy. With several new shows added each week, she recently had to raise the monthly fee for DJs (from $40 to $55). There have even been celebrities on the air, like Spencer Pratt from The Hills.

When she’s not in the studio, Barclay is out networking. She regularly attends conferences and festivals, seeking out potential talent. Just this week, she asked a Brad Pitt podcast (March Bradness) to stream from the station. “I remember what it was like trying to get shows,” she recalled.

Barclay takes full credit for the phrase “NPR on Crack” on the KPISS site. “I didn’t come up with the Golden Stream, though,” she admitted. “I wish I did.”

Asked what the future holds for KPISS, Barclay isn’t sure. Though there are other shops in Punk Alley (a bookstore, a record store, and so on) the rent is month-to-month, and nothing is for certain. To preserve KPISS and its formative years, Barclay is writing a film about it. Except it involves aliens. “It’s basically like Empire Records meets Mars Attacks!” she said.