• About: Lot Radio

    Belgian multi-media producer Francois Vaxelaire spent years admiring an unkempt lot situated at the Williamsburg-Greenpoint border on his commute to work. Dissatisfied with current freelance projects, Vaxelaire noticed the triangular plot was for lease and immediately had an idea - transforming the space into an independent online radio station. For nine months he worked tirelessly to develop the platform’s foundation, navigating the complex network of NYC regulations and acquiring talent. Inspired by NTS in London and Red Light Radio in Amsterdam, Vaxelaire sought to bring the same excitement he found in European stations to his own city. From a modest reclaimed shipping container, The Lot Radio went live for the first time at the top of 2016.

    Now broadcasting from 8 am to midnight, TLR has focused on community since day one. While providing a channel to shine light on up-and-coming artists, the station has also become a neighborhood retreat for residents old and new. Funded entirely by their coffee kiosk, the Lot team welcome anyone to take a load off in their yard or beautifully redesigned school bus parked on premise. They’ve also made friends with a neighboring church who now work with TLR to host live events. On a gray afternoon at the station, Vaxelaire spoke to us about staying independent, the importance of taking your time, and his irrational love of music.  
    Photos by Nina Westervelt, Words by Jeffrey Silverstein

    You launched in beta-mode back in February. What was the initial response to the station like?
    First when the container arrived…I was cleaning a lot in January, so there were a lot of people who would stop and ask what’s happening. When I was explaining that it would be an online, independent radio station, 100% of the people were either intrigued or interested. They seemed pleased that it was not yet another super commercial or super weird project starting up in the neighborhood. A lot of people who stopped were older, more worried about what was being built. When they heard it would be a radio station they said, oh that sounds nice! They didn’t care much. I explained that it would also be a coffee shop because that’s how we fund everything and they said oh we’ll have to come back. To be honest, now 80% of the people at the coffee shop are people from the neighborhood. A lot of older people come. They are not connected to the radio site, but they really love the idea that it is independent and super chill. 

    Sounds like there was a sense of relief. 
    I felt that. A lot of neighbors thought the idea was fresh and enjoyed hearing it wouldn’t be some huge building. I felt so pleased to hear that from them.

    Have there been any major changes since launching?
    To be honest, there hasn’t been a huge amount of change. There has been a huge amount of stuff happening, and the speed to which we have reached stepping stones has been incredible. When we opened in February it was beta mode because we had no idea where we were going. We just wanted to create the platform and it was ready, but during the nine months I prepared that project, I didn’t talk to everyone. When you say something and then it takes a year for it to happen, it doesn’t look serious. So I didn’t talk to a lot of people about the project. When we launched, everyone started to hear about it. The big unknown for me was will the DJs respond well? Will they come? I thought deep inside that it was a good idea but you never know. I thought it would take a while to fill the timetable, but in one week it was absolutely full. I said you know what let’s embrace it and let’s make it work. So we started to broadcast from 8 am to midnight every day. Since then it hasn’t stopped. 

    Were you always an avid radio fan or listener?
    Music has been the most important thing for me since I was a teenager. With the internet, when I was a kid, I started to avidly steal music. I was living in Belgium so it was harder to have the good record store, etc. Thanks to the internet, I got access to everything. I’m also a lover of the internet. Since I’ve been in NY and a bit before, I started to listen a lot to online radio. My two biggest inspirations are NTS in London and Red Light Radio in Amsterdam. They also had integrated the video feed before us. I took the idea from them because I felt it was super logical and a great addition. 

    Was there something you thought was missing from U.S radio that you wanted to add?
    It was not as clear as that, but that is kind of a reflection that I had. When I saw that the little triangle was for lease, I was working there, I saw the poster and said this triangle is magical. We need to do something intelligent with that triangle. I’m going to do this. When I got here I thought yeah radio, and then I realized that I was missing something. Back then I was literally way more connected to Red Light and NTS. I lived in New York for six years and thought it’s not normal that I don’t have the equivalent excitement about radio here. I want to be clear, there were a lot of online radio stations that are still on and still doing a great job. It’s just me personally, I was not totally connected to them. Be it East Village Radio or the other ones. I said ok, I’m sure this means there is room. I said let’s do ours and make it as open as possible and see if it works. The few people I talked about the idea with, like Lloyd Harris from Tiki Disco, etc. Everybody agreed there was room and that it was needed. The proof is that after two weeks, all the DJs wanted to have some time on the radio. 

    What I thought made EVR special was being able to see the DJs as you walked by. It added a community aspect to it. It’s clear that matters here too. How important has that been to your growth?
    Part of the success with this little project really has to do with our offline life. It’s super important. When I was struggling for the nine months to get all my permits, I was on the verge of collapsing emotionally. All of my friends said let it go, do it somewhere else, rent a little loft in Bushwick….we have all the people on board already. I said that’s not going to work, it doesn’t make sense. It’s going to be adding noise to the noise of the internet. There is enough noise. We need that triangle. That triangle is the cornerstone of that project. It sets an example of the spirit of people. I wanted to do something totally creative, totally uncommercial and sustainable in a really prime, gentrifying neighborhood. The fact that we did it and that everybody is part of it, everyone is proud of that. We are showing everyone on a daily basis, streaming 24 hours a day that it is possible and that we are making it. That little triangle is vibrant. Since then I think a lot of people feel connected to that idea. All these kids, not all of them are on the radio but people feel connected to that little triangle. It’s a little triangle of freedom. 

    You’re providing space for comfortable conversation to speak of music.
    That's right. In a place that’s offline, during the day. You don’t have to buy something. We have a lot of people just coming and hanging out on the bus. We don’t ask people to buy something to come in. 

    It’s very welcoming.
    That is the only thing that differentiates us from any online radio in the world right now. It’s that offline place. I wanted the project to be not impressive to people. We have quite an edgy crowd in the studio. That’s cool, that’s great for them and everyone is happy, but I don’t want to feel the average neighbor to have to be impressed to come and have coffee. It’s already the case. Most of the people they come and just have a coffee. They have no idea what’s happening on the radio. They know there’s a station, they like to support it, but they don’t have to feel impressed. They come with their kids. It’s very low key and low profile. 

    How does one go about buying and designing a shipping container?
    That was interesting. That was really the early beginning. I had this idea, I had the place and I had to go through a lot of options. I thought maybe a trailer is faster so first I was looking at an airstream, but there were complications. Then I didn’t want a trailer, I wanted a place that was not on wheels. I wanted the project to be rooted in the place. It’s important, the form. If it was a trailer, it’s not serious enough, it’s not stable. I went with the container because I thought it was intelligent. It was complicated, but the end result is that it took 9 months to get all the permits, to design it and cut it and have it shipped. It was a struggle, but it forced me to really think about the project a million times. Now the container is better insulated than my own apartment. It has double windows, dual AC, and heating. It feels serious. I think that is important for the whole experience, even for the DJ. If you come to a studio and the two turntables are half working, the mixing is messed up, etc. We need it to be serious enough for people to want to get involved. 

    There has to be a level of seriousness for people to keep doing it as well.
    Exactly - that’s the interesting part. Most of the online radio stations, like Newtown, the guy is doing a great job but the guy has a full-time job. He does that on the side because he can afford it which is great, it’s a sacrifice. Me, I said if I want to do this properly I need to stop working. I was a freelance photographer. I said I can’t take jobs anymore. I concentrated on this for six months, it was a sacrifice but I’m happy I did it and put all of my seriousness into it.

    Has there been any sort of limitations or challenges associated with such a small space?
    At the end of the day, the only limitation now is just the few people who work here all day don’t really have room to fit in the container so we are here or in the bus or outside. The container has been great. The studio is big enough, we have people setting up for live electronic sets. Also thankfully a lot of good things have happened. The space is limited, the triangle is limited, but since then we’ve made really close friends with the church across the street who offered to use the church as a concert venue kind of whenever we want.  We’ve had more than twenty concerts there now. 

    You went through a good deal of frustration with NYC regulations, etc. Has some of that died down?
    I’m an expert now! A lot of people have started to ask me about the radio, etc. I’m super happy to explain all the parts. I met someone who wanted to do a radio on Staten Island, I helped her a lot. I’m happy if I can share my knowledge. I’ll even do a workshop of the live-streaming. I learned a lot about those techniques. All this I’m super happy to share. The regulation of New York was the toughest part. It’s incredibly tough, I learned a lot. It’s a lot of useless knowledge but it’s really hard to open something in NY if you don’t have the time or at least a little bit of money to get help around you. It’s almost impossible. I was disappointed by that but I managed to power through and now if I can help anyone I’m happy. 

    You got the station off the ground without any sponsorships or outside funding. Has it been hard to have to turn certain opportunities down when there is money on the table?
    No, it's hard in a way to say no to all those proposals because I really don’t want to sound arrogant. I try to explain, it’s fine, we are making our money with our coffee. It’s not marvelous but we are making our living. We don’t want to collaborate with you in that manner. We are not opposed to partnerships with brands, etc. It’s just our foundation, our living, we are self-sufficient. I’m totally open to collaboration, but most of the ones we got were a super 90s way of sponsoring. Come to my event, we put the Lot Radio on our flyers. This is not really intelligent, and I’m open. I’m telling them okay let’s try to find a better solution, something more interesting. And we have done some things. We’ve live-streamed at a few events. It was not incredible, but it was interesting. We are totally open to it. More and more we want to collaborate with interesting stuff, music or art festivals. 

    Making that your foundation allows you to pick and choose.
    For us, it’s very relaxing. We’re not tense about it. People used to ask me about plays and how many people are listening to the radio. At the beginning, I was always on Google Analytics checking. Then I stopped. We should concentrate on having the shows that excite us and the show that we are proud of. Bring on people that no one knows of to push them forward. It’s not about the numbers. We don’t need likes, we don’t need hits. That’s why we don’t sponsor our FB page or anything. We are happy that it is growing steadily. We are not pushing that. 

    It’s organic. 
    Exactly, we don’t like to force anything. A lot of people ask oh are you bringing this to L.A or London. Sure, it’s easy to duplicate, it’s a shipping container, but again we are not in a rush. I’ve been pretty strong on that. Let’s concentrate on our little triangle. Now a super interesting proposal came, it has to do more with Detroit. We are looking into that and it is way more organic. It makes a lot of sense. Organic is the key word. Everything is a bit slow but that’s how it works. The foundations are better, it’s more solid. 

    How are you curating the DJs and shows?
    It’s also organic. I’m not the only one because we wanted to be several different people. I wanted diversity. I know I’m connected to some scenes but not all of them. New York is so diverse in that way. So there is me, I’m older so I go out less. There is also Lloyd Harris, the founder of Tiki Disco who knows a lot of people. He’s a really nice person. Everybody knows him. Then there is Chris Cherry who worked at Trans-Pecos for more than three years. He is a friend of mine from before. It was important to have him on board because its gives us access to more emerging Bushwick crews that I don’t have access to anymore because I don’t go to noise concerts on Tuesday nights anymore. I used to do that. Chris is 29 but his excitement about music is like a 13-year-old. We are really happy to have him on board. Then we have Paulina who came on board right at the beginning also. More to help with the schedule and talk with the DJs and the curating.  She has more access to the indie rock scene. 

    The first batch I tried to reach out to all the people I respected the most in New York scenes, for me it was Mark Simonetti and Joakim. I was so thankful when they said yes to being on board and are really happy with the day to day of the project. Someone like Mark Simonetti, he was a difficult person, but when you see that he likes the project and is proud to be part of it, that really reassures me. It makes sense. Chris added a lot of people. Now there are the residents who have regular shows like 85% of the time-tables. We have so many random requests. We try to get everyone on board. We don’t ever filter upon a genre of music or anything. We don’t care. I tell everyone and the curators. There are shows that I don’t like at all, it’s not my taste but we keep them because we like the energy those people have. It’s a true, honest energy about music. It’s irrational love of music that you find in young people and that dies out when life happens. 

    I try hard to keep it alive.
    That’s why we wanted to create a little house, a safe place for that love. It has to continue. Music is something sacred and in our society nothing is anymore. Everything is money. Everything is rent. Everything is greed. Music is above all of that. There is no safe place for that music. Even clubs, some are trying to do their best but at the end, they have to pay rent. It’s always a struggle between the honesty etc. Here, again, we wanted to prove with a little coffee shop that helps us run, that it gives us total freedom to stay connected to that sacred safe place for music. When you are a teenager it’s so much emotion. Emotions were strong. When I listened to music as a kid it was a gold rush of emotion. We need to keep that. Even for younger people who are not yet connected to the radio. It’s an example that it is possible to do something honest.