“This is the stupidest story ever — I can’t believe I’ve even started telling you this!” Launching into an obscure tale involving his first guitar, a towel and a light switch, singer-songwriter Jeff Caudill has just become the latest guest to be gently disarmed by DJ Jon Hershfield on his Internet radio show, . . . Is Good.
Between Caudill’s heartfelt acoustic renditions of his Americana-tinged songs, Hershfield almost subliminally gets him to open up about his previous band, the revered O.C. emo precursors Gameface: “Honestly, truth be told, we weren’t that good . . . we really weren’t that talented of a band,” says Caudill.
Hershfield has been hosting . . . Is Good on the Internet radio station Kill Radio from 10 a.m. to noon Thursdays since August 2005 (recently adding a second show on Wednesday mornings). From the station’s sticker- and flier-covered two-room office-cum-studio in a musty building on the northern edge of Koreatown (sharing a second floor with businesses offering “Potencia Sexual” and “Productos Religiosos y Esotericos”), he starts his show with an hourlong DJ set of acid jazz, trip-hop, electronica, indie rock, obscure remixes, and covers (on this particular morning including Utah Saints, David Gray and Orbital), with a backbone of local artists (Brutus Gets the Girl, the Sweet Hurt).
But it’s the second hour of . . . Is Good, consisting of an interview and acoustic set from an emerging area act that showcases Hershfield’s ability to engage his guests in an actual conversation (transcending the usual “When’s the album coming out?”), and which defines the show.
“I tuned in to killradio.org and, honestly, I was so impressed at how poorly the show was done that it kinda made me think, ‘Well, if I had a radio show, what would it be like?’ ” says Hershfield, a boyish 30, of his first encounter with the station, a couple of years back. “Kill Radio seemed user-friendly enough that someone from the outside could come in and just try it.”
Kill Radio (“short for Kill Corporate Radio, or Kill Monopoly Radio, or K-ILL Radio,” according to its Web site) was born from an Internet-audio interface created by the Independent Media Center in Los Angeles to provide coverage of the protests during the 2000 Democratic National Convention. When that event was over, the audio stream remained and morphed into Kill Radio, hosting a motley collection of political and music shows. Funded entirely by $10 monthly dues from around 40 members and occasional benefit shows and donations, the defiantly democratic station boasts alumni including the popular Get the Fuck Up show (now on the Little Radio Internet station) and Buddyhead Web zine–record label impresario Travis Keller. (I used to love Buddyhead.)
Raised on a Maryland farm, Hershfield began obsessively assembling a “personally huge and hugely personal” collection of music as a teenager, working in mall music stores, where he’d immediately exchange each paycheck for CDs. Deejaying was a logical next step (he’s manned the decks at What Bar? in Glendale, Hollywood’s M Bar and the roaming Unlit house parties), but he hadn’t considered radio until word of mouth led him to the critically lauded, yet still ultra-DIY, Kill Radio.
“I get so much more freedom here than I do deejaying at a club or a bar,” says Hershfield, a just-married NYU theater graduate who makes his living as an actor (as well as by creating his own electronic music, which has appeared in indie movies and on TV). “This is truly what got me interested in deejaying in the first place, because here I can play a song that nobody’s ever heard of without feeling apologetic about it. You could join Kill Radio without being very specific. I just said, ‘Well, I’ll probably play some music, and in between songs I’ll probably bitch about the president or something.’ ”
In fact, his show is warmly focused on music, the people who make it and why they make it. Hershfield’s criteria for selecting guests (who’ve included Ozomatli, AM and Wired All Wrong) are both visceral and tangible.
“Most of it is ‘Do I like the music?’ ” says Hershfield. “It doesn’t matter what the genre is, but there has to be something about it that I respond to, that makes me feel a certain way. Separate from the music, I look at things like ‘Does it appear to me . . . that they’re working hard, that they really want to do it?’ And then, ‘Are they doing something a little bit different?’ I’ve had a lot of indie-rock bands here, but I’ve also had hip-hop, jazz, and I had a string quartet [the Sonus Quartet, who’ve since toured with Gnarls Barkley].”
He defines the sensation he seeks from music in actor’s terms: “I think if you look at your life like a movie, music is the soundtrack to your life. So when you hear a song that makes you think you’re in a scene, I think that’s probably what I respond to the most.”
Hershfield’s unscripted interviews include questions that we’d all want answered but might be wary of tackling, his empathic manner allowing him to touch potentially raw nerves without even a waft of snideness. He earns his guests’ respect by genuinely absorbing their answers and delving deep into their person to find where their songs come from and why they feel compelled to share them.
“I give a lot of credit to the musicians I’ve had here,” he says. “Maybe what I responded to in their music is somehow related to who they are as people . . . Maybe it’s not the most comfortable environment physically, but I get them to play in an emotionally comfortable environment.”
The limitations of Kill Radio’s setup have also inadvertently shaped . . . Is Good. As its “studio” is in fact an office, devoid of soundproofing, drums and loud guitars aren’t practical, meaning that bands have to perform with a stripped-down frankness that often spills over into their accompanying interviews.
. . . Is Good’s listenership is modest: Hershfield estimates that 50 folks max catch the show live, with more catching its iTunes podcast or downloading the archived version (via www.myspace.com/thisisgood). Yet he remains enthused about the . . . Is Good format: He’s expanded it into live shows at venues like Molly Malone’s, the Mint and M Bar, and has ambitious plans for IsGoodMusic.com, due to launch later this summer as “an alternative to MySpace for the L.A. music scene.”
As if things weren’t already precarious enough for the likes of . . . Is Good and Kill Radio, in March the Copyright Royalty Board (CRB) — the system of three copyright-royalty judges who determine rates and terms for copyright statutory licenses in the U.S. — announced its decision to adopt a “per play” system of Internet-radio royalty rates (replacing the previous revenue-related system), retroactive through the beginning of 2006 and gradually increasing through 2010, which, for most Internet stations, will mean paying out royalties in excess of their total revenue.
“I don’t know what they hope to accomplish from it,” Hershfield sighs. “Even the bigger companies, it sounds like, are going to take a serious hit . . . it’s kind of funny to see organizations like Clear Channel and NPR and Kill Radio all agreeing on one thing!”
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While Hershfield confirms that Kill Radio’s members are predictably up in arms about the CRB’s announcement (they participated in the June 26 “day of Internet-radio silence” to protest it), far from having a demoralizing effect, it’s actually galvanized their resolve.
“The difference is the upswing of interest among the more active members . . . It’s given us a sense that Internet radio is something worth saving,” he says. “There’s a bit of a strange distance from the issue because Kill Radio is so small . . . we don’t really have any revenue from which to pay in the first place. So we’re always walking this fine line: We want more listeners, but we don’t want to have to deal with the problems that bigger stations have to deal with — and this is a big one.”
And besides, Kill Radio has always been an act of defiance.
“We’ve been broadcasting progressive news and alternative media since the beginning without wondering ‘Is someone going to say we can’t say this?’ I don’t know that any change will be necessary until we get more attention,” says Hershfield. “Even if Internet radio is destroyed, . . . Is Good will have to find a way to continue — it has to be that way. I still walk out of here feeling that I’ve done something amazing. After 100-plus interviews, I’m not bored of it yet!”