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Issue 227

On Montez Press Radio, Failing is Having Nothing to Say

Paige K. Bradley profiles the NYC radio station that subverts the role of the celebrity and has a place for everyone on its airwaves

BY Paige K. Bradley in Features , Opinion | 30 MAY 22

In 2010, a New Yorker named Fran Lebowitz pointed out that Andy Warhol screwed us all over by making fame more famous. She claimed, in the Martin Scorsese documentary Public Speaking (2010), that this problem started as an inside joke: the artist telling actress Candy Darling, who wanted to be a star like Marilyn Monroe, that she was, in fact, a superstar. Yet, even if a star was indeed born in that moment, by humouring Darling with this hyperbole a jest got into the water supply and seriously ruined the world. It’s hard to argue otherwise, and we might do well to keep it in mind when anyone not from New York innocently says the phrase ‘Dimes Square’ – a quip that has been blown entirely out of proportion by an exceedingly small circle of personalities who leverage their proximity to it for social rather than artistic credibility. It’s a cute moniker of sorts, though, for what in reality is a mere two-or-three block stretch of Canal Street in New York’s Lower East Side – where a restaurant called Dimes is, indeed, located – along a seemingly development-resistant boulevard that snakes through lower Manhattan. It also serves as something like the new dividing line of relevancy, similar to how an old-timer might have once said ‘below 14th Street’ to denote downtown doings of yore. ‘Dimes Square’, though, is an in-joke that has gotten out of hand. A wisecrack, repeated with gravity by the naïf, then re-recited facetiously by the in-the-know, like a game of telephone for hype beasts.

Montez Press Radio (MPR) is not responsible for ‘Dimes Square’ – which I, Jean Baudrillard, am at pains to remind you does not exist – but its provenance is also not unrelated, since it is one of the more real cultural waves on which the area’s vibe – as they say – rides. Started in the summer of 2018 and located at 46 Canal Street – not too far from the early 20th-century site of Radio Row – the station was set up in the former space of David Lieske’s Mathew Gallery, initially as an offshoot of the London-based publisher Montez Press. Early days of programming segued into late nights of partying, which slid right back into early mornings live on the air. Despite the casual approach to programming – if you have an idea for a show there, it can probably happen – it’s all competently curated by artist Thomas Laprade and writer Stacy Skolnik, and broadcast live, for free, on a more-or-less monthly basis. You don’t have to be an expert in radio to be involved – Laprade and Skolnik aren’t either – but that’s OK. MPR is giving the sound of intention hacking its way through the underbrush of uncertainty towards a clearing of fulfilment.

Ajakia Smith (aka RiichPsycho) and D3ad6oy on ‘555-Let It Go’. Courtesy: Montez Press Radio

After four years of operation, what’s now clear is that there’s more than enough care and diligence here to maintain what is essentially a DIY space for mostly artists, both in the US and abroad. Commendable, in the same way that running your own record label or booking your own tour probably involves more hassle and grunt work than being a star on a major label, though the former may well reap more meaningful rewards. And they have gone on tour in a sense, including broadcasting runs last year from Tirana and Kunstverein Hamburg, all while local institutions have taken note of their activities, resulting in a recent residency at the Queens Museum, among other upcoming collaborations. The social restrictions of COVID-19 guiding the programming away from live show and into more pre-recorded segments scheduled ahead of time, combined with the discipline required to sustain any project long term, have evolved the radio station into its own small institution of sorts, with a mix of regular contributors, recurring shows, and eclectic one-off forays. It’s not easy to become a micro-celebrity by getting on the mic at MPR, however. The ethos of the station doesn’t elevate anyone above anybody else; if you have a show on MPR, so do 2,000 other people. This sets it apart as a space for creative work without the stakes of clout-chasing.

Stacy Skolnik and Tom Laprade, co-directors of Montez Press Radio. Courtesy: Montez Press Radio

MPR is a place to try things: the only real failure scenario is having nothing to say. A persona isn’t a replacement for insight, and this isn’t podcasting, ergo it’s less a place to try and further a cult of personality than it is a medium for collaboration, sharing and response. As a form of publishing, MPR occupies a unique position between the decentralization frenzy of freelance-driven media and the useful convenience, and context, of a source that is at least loosely centralized. It could be a magazine, or it could be like this.

On offer are experimental cocktails of artists’ customized quarantine music mixes, play readings or conversational interviews à la Skolnik and Laprade’s own ‘Two Hangovers’ show. Recent highlights have included ‘Maggie’s Broken iPod’, artist Maggie Lee’s pre-sabotaged DJ set spun from her cracked device’s library. Its scattershot compilation of tunes began with British folk legend Vashti Bunyan’s wistful ode ‘If I Were’ (2005), which started, stuttered and repeated before being interrupted by southern Californian sonic terrorists Xiu Xiu’s ‘I Luv the Valley OH!’ (2004). The tonal shift into this savage anthem of the San Fernando Valley would be abrasive, if such a segue weren’t characteristic of my own ye olde iPod line-up. I hear that the broken iPod sees me.

Graphic for Maggie Lee’s segment, ‘Maggie’s Broken iPod’. Graphics designed by JMMP. Courtesy: Montez Press Radio

That degree of coincidental specificity though, which doesn't seek to anticipate what some imaginary or otherwise fickle audience would want, speaks to the mentality of programming at the station. The volume sometimes fluctuates between or during tracks, as it might if someone were in your house playing songs for you, which is what Lee’s show comes across like. Many other segments, however – such as the summer 2018 transmission of clips from tape recordings that the late artist and writer David Wojnarowicz made of his journal as he drove through the American southwest in 1989 – can come off as solo odysseys to which the listener just happens to be privy. This frequently intimate quality, its obstinacy, is seemingly belied by the public playlist function of MPR – which, for the past couple of years, has provided structured access to the show archive when broadcasts aren’t scheduled – wherein anyone can choose to queue a show up and essentially participate in the daily programming of the station for everyone who happens to be tuning in, rather than ordering up content on demand for private entertainment.

This skosh of added difficulty isn’t so much about being difficult as it is about building in buffers against a shallow, grazing approach to culture. And, since there was no demand per se for what the radio station began doing in the first place, it similarly wouldn’t make sense for its content to accede to demands. People may well not know what they want until someone smacks them upside the head with it. Maybe you’ll see stars then. Radio, it turns out, can be a relief from the bombardment of choices produced by a ‘pick me’ creator economy. Take ‘Art Sound and Song’ – a two-part show by Adrian Rew, proprietor of local store Ergot Records, and curator Bob Nickas. It collates Louise Lawler’s Bird Calls (1972/1981) – which includes a chirping shoutout to Dan Graham, RIP – with a 1984 Martin Kippenberger cover of the 1960s Cher single ‘Bang Bang’; Jack Goldstein’s c.1970s re-recordings of ominous weather systems, weeping and crackling fires; and many other odd gems you might not know to reach for.

Abby Lloyd performing on karaoke competition ‘Montez Got Talent’ hosted by Lena Greene. Photograph: Taylor Ervin; courtesy: Montez Press Radio

These artifacts are, perhaps, hard sells in terms of engagement, which, like ‘exposure’, has a nebulous connection to educating audiences or gaining material support for artistic endeavours, and so the station isn’t going to sell you on it. Such things instead might just come up, found by chance while scrolling through the now-sizable online archive, or the recently fired-up blog for highlighting excerpts from the former. The radio archive then becomes something of a museum, albeit a playful one. If Marcel Broodthaers were alive today, he’d definitely have a show on MPR. Paraphrasing what Lebowitz said in the preface to her collected comic essays, The Fran Lebowitz Reader (1994), it’s ‘art history with a difference: modern, pertinent, current, up-to-the-minute art history. Art history in the making.’

Main Image: The Montez Press Radio studio. Courtesy: Montez Press Radio

Paige K. Bradley is an artist and writer from Los Angeles, USA.