TED TALKS: The Sonic Black Hole of the Everything BAGeL
Ask Ted Leibowitz where the musical roots of his nomadic Bay Area-founded internet radio station came from and he will invoke Queens where he was raised with a nod to Brooklyn where he was born.
“I was raised in a musical household and I had zero musical talent. My brother and sister did and my mom did—I had none. My way in was to pick songs.”
Now he picks songs all week for his shows "480 Minutes" and "Fuzzy Road" that "span four decades of alternative, post-punk, indie rock and noise pop."
Teach Your Siblings Well
Back in the boroughs of his youth, Ted Leibowitz's tastes, like many of our generation, were in conflict with traditional rock and at some point diverged with those of his elders. Turning away from the Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby Stills and Nash, Carly Simon and Billy Joel he grew up on, he started listening to new or alternative music of the 80s.
“I brought home Blondie’s Parallel Lines and my sister wouldn’t let me play it on her turntable because, ‘That’s punk rock!’”
Young Ted did not know what punk rock was.
“I just knew that my friend in High School had it and I liked it and I bought it, and that my sister had the turntable and I didn’t.”
Ted’s sister quickly got over her punk rock mental block and took her little brother to see live shows on a regular basis, while Ted amassed a record collection any growly voice disc jockey would have envied. Though he was the youngest, his sibs and eventually his friends came to him for recommendations.
In high school he and several friends rented a brownstone on the Lower East Side and threw a party and charged an entrance fee.
“The three of us with the biggest record collections were the DJs. That was where it all started.”
As a teen, Ted began DJing at nightclubs and college radio, and this led to a long stint in band promotion, booking and management of indie bands, managing nightclubs and releasing records through a label he founded.
Hack to the Future
Flash forward to 2002 when Leibowitz was doing software quality assurance work at a bank in San Francisco.
“I’d been bored out of my mind and a friend of mine suggested that I do something to get back into music. I had done the clubs and DJing and bar-tending and booking bands. In Boston in the early 90s I had a little record label that I put out a couple records on and I got away from that. So, I started looking into Internet radio.”
In the burgeoning era of hack-an-industry with do-it-yourself technology, Ted wanted to stream his epic record collection to himself during work. His plan was as simple as that. His friends suggested that this would be Ted’s way back into music. He didn’t take this suggestion too seriously, at first.
“I was just thinking, ‘wouldn’t it be great not to carry these CDs back and forth to work.’”
Ted created a playlist that would be queued up through a service called Live365 and then started giving the URL of his station to friends. That was in February 2003. Leibowitz had already been distributing a weekly email listing local concerts and venues of bands to check out called "Bay Area Gig eList," so he took that name "BAGeL" to form BAGeL Radio.
“At the end of 2003, I looked at the server logs and there were people listening in all these countries and all these different US municipalities, and at that point I thought, Oh, I should probably pay more attention to this 'cause they were listening to my record collection A through L. That’s all I had digitized by that time.”
Smells Like Bob Mould
The format of the station is sometimes described as alternative rock involving or influenced by pre-Nirvana alt rock. The site says BAGeL includes Indie Rock, Alternative Rock and Noisy Pop but not “Testosterock”.
(Note: When I wrote this article, as I listened to BAGeL Radio, I heard everything from Black Keys to older Pixies and a lot of bands I had not heard before such as New Zealand-based artist Anthonie Tonnon, The Generationals, Sink Tapes, and others I did (Lush, The Kills, TV on the Radio, The Big Pink). Ted had mentioned an Animals song he played, “It’s My Life,” which got some push back from purists, but he seems to enjoy some controversy.)
The Nirvana thing. “I was listening to alt rock radio and in the early to mid 90s it dawned on me everything was sounding like Nirvana. Even though I enjoyed the sound and I was a big Nirvana fan and I was a big Smashing Pumpkins fan, so much of the stuff that was getting on the radio, you couldn’t connect because the hooks weren’t there. You had all these bands that were trying to do this big grungy sound that couldn’t necessarily write a chorus for their lives. The songwriting wasn’t there. And then [post-1994] all of a sudden there were all these bands to whom music began and ended with Green Day’s Dookie, Side 2, and that’s when I really lost it. Green Day wrote great pop songs. They were hooky and they stuck in your head. But so much of what followed in their wake was lame, not in the colloquial sense, but in the actual sense.”
In the late 90s, the music he heard at venues and on the radio did not move him so he retreated into his own collection and went out to shows for new musical acts less frequently. He stopped listening to radio entirely. But this changed as Ted started to get positive feedback on the playlist he broadcast, and he slowly began to go to a lot of shows again.
Music Business Model: Give Them Your Money in Some Way.
“I was always one of those people who would go to shows early and hope to catch lightning in a bottle and see some amazing act I had never heard of before. I’d gone to the NoisePop Festival and would see 30 or 40 bands. Every once in a while, it was gold.” He would show his appreciation by buying records at the “merch” table.
In the face of the ever dwindling records sales, Ted’s mantra is, “buy a tee shirt. Just give them your money in some way. And do it selfishly because if you do it, there’s a better chance they’re going to come back with another record you love.”
“Even before there were streaming services and before file sharing was as rampant as it became, the message was always, ‘go see these bands, and get there early and go see the opening bands, too’.”
Sustainable Playlists: Buy Local, Buy Fresh
The result of seeing so many live shows is that Ted Leibowitz can cultivate a special play list by identifying new great bands early on. When asked to name a band he caught on to early by checking out smaller live shows and opening acts, Ted mentions Silversun Pickups.
“They had put out an EP in LA [in 2005] and it had gotten less than zero traction. But I heard it and it blew me away. That EP was album of the year for me and I kept trying to come to Silver Lake or have them visit San Francisco to play a show. I went down to LA to see them in a little place where nobody showed up. I did get to see them in San Francisco and it was me and eleven of my best friends at Slim’s. A year later they put out that debut album, Carnavas.” Ted was smitten and he couldn’t believe LA hadn’t been.
Ted says they gained momentum but it wasn’t until the song, “Lazy Eye,” was released on the album. The song broke ground for the band and was ultimately used during the 2007 World Series by Fox Sports Net.
Leibowitz adds that there were a lot of here were little bands like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and others who put a few songs on line and BAGeL Radio would watch their shows grow from from a 300-capacity venue to a large venue. In the case of CYHSY, “by they time they made it to the West Coast they were much bigger,” says Ted, who ended up DJing for the band during one of their tours.
What makes BAGeL Radio different are the personal touches in the programming and his specific tastes. He knows “not everyone who listens likes everything I listen to” but whether it’s a three-minute electronica number, heavy psych rock, an indie pop song, or “jangly poppy stuff” sans heavy guitars or lush production, he says “it’s the taste of somebody who grew up on alternative rock radio when it was still rock radio and who wishes it was still alternative rock radio.”
The Rebirth of Seat-of-Your-Pants Radio
Ted had been cultivating the relationship with SomaFM for years.
“When I first started the station [formally] in 2003 I had done a little bit of research first. And I stumbled across SomaFM, and the other station Indie POP ROCKS done by Elise [Nordling] was one of my inspirations. We had a lot of bands in common.”
“When I was up and running, I got in touch with General Manager and Founder of SomaFM Rusty Hodge.” Ted told him about the traction and my San Francisco listener base asked to work together. The response for years would be ‘no,’ and that everything at SomaFM is done in house. Through the years, the two ran into each other at festivals and music conferences and became friendly. In 2007, they went to D.C. together to lobby against the Copyright Royalty Board changing of the rates.
Years after that convergence at the Capitol, Rusty contacted Ted and asked him to broadcast his Friday live show. And the relationship grew from there, though the transition took a few weeks to coordinate.
"I do things very differently. Everything that’s happening on my station comes from my desktop. And then is sent out to a server. And that server is where everybody connects to listen.”
Most other internet radio involves pre-programmed “playlists that live 'out there.'” People are programming them, but with BAGeL Radio, Leibowitz can immediately cut in live and start talking whenever he wants to. Since this customized approach requires that he is more reliant on his local internet access and his laptop, technical issues can arise.
“I am more traditional. More ‘seat-of-your-pants.’ If I have a local internet outage, I’m screwed.”
I asked Ted if this approach makes him more of an innovator or a dinosaur.
“I think I’m just doing what used to be done. The DJ used to be your friend. The DJ used to be that person you trusted who had interesting stories about the firsrt time they heard a song or band or concert. They sometimes had more access then you did so they actually got to talk to the band. And sometimes bands are really cool, and they’re nice people.”
In hindsight, the mechanics of starting a radio station was something anyone could do.
“Back then it was a Mac G4 with two disc drives in it so I could rip through my CD collection faster, a decent microphone and a USB interface to allow the microphone to connect to the computer, which allowed me to preview a song through a channel while another song was playing through another channel. I started with a service called Live365. They were and still are a provider of this service where you can upload a bunch of songs to the service and then move them around or shuffle them and, bingo! You have an internet radio station. They also have software that allows you to broadcast live from your desktop. You then are not limited to the space you rent on their site and you can talk to your listeners and say hello.
“Over the years I was carried by other networks. Until SomaFM’s exclusive arrangement, the others were add-on non-exclusive deals that offset expenses here and there. SomaFM is not advertising based but listener supported.
“It’s the NPR model. People give money, they set up recurring monthly donations, or they give one time and get a tee shirt, sweat shirt, a water bottle, a hat, a licensed compilation, a 7-inch single. That’s what so impressed me from the beginning. That they could get people to love them enough that they could be supported by listeners only. That made me feel like ‘this is real’ and it was how I wanted my station to be. I want it to be something not supported by outside corporations but the people that love it.”
Musical acts get in touch with Ted Leibowitz through multiple promo companies (from which he reviews up to 800 songs per week--about 60-80 albums worth) or by using a direct link to the song on the internet. Listeners relay bands they like to him.
“If it’s terrific then I’ll play it. I don’t care if it’s on a label. I don’t care if they recorded it in their living room. I get new music sent to me every single day. People send me links, or write me.”
“Every once in a while, there’s a listener suggestion and I’ll go check out a song on line,” he may reach out to the label if it’s something fantastic.
The music is fresh like a digital everything bagel, the audience is dynamic like back in Ted Leibowitz’s New York DJing days, and broadcast is from anywhere he and his laptop are. With BAGeL Radio you can always hear the best alternative rock playlist on the planet.
Ted Leibowitz is the Music Director of BAGeL Radio on SomaFM and hosts “480 Minutes” (Fridays 9AM to 5PM Eastern Time) (rebroadcast Friday nights, Saturdays and Sundays) and “Fuzzy Road,” the Psych Rock show at 3PM Eastern on Tuesdays (rebroadcast Tuesday nights and Wednesdays). He was twice honored with the College Music Journal (CMJ) Specialty Music Director of the Year Award, making BAGeL Radio the first internet radio station to win the award. Ted was featured in WIRED Magazine, ABC News, the New York Times, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, and on the “Invasion of the New Media” panel along a ClearChannel, XM, and Sirius representatives. BAGeL Radio was honored with the Best Live Show award at the Best of Live365 Awards. To subscribe or donate to the station, go to the bottom of the page and click on “Donate.” http://www.bagelradio.com/radio/index.html
To find out BAGeL Radio’s top 100 albums of 2014, click here: http://bagelradio.com/bestof/
See what’s On Now? http://somafm.com/bagel/songhistory.html
Or just tune In. http://somafm.com/player/#/now-playing/bagel