If you look and listen long enough, you can hear fragments of L.A.'s rich, continually expanding musical history via terrestrial radio. Turn to KDAY for locally grown rap from the '90s and early 2000s, Power 106 for the remote possibility of hearing Kendrick Lamar and YG, or public radio (KCRW, KPFK, KCSN) for slivers of every other genre sandwiched between talk programming.
To truly tune into the city's vast soundscape, you would need 24-hour programming from a diverse set of DJs, a station unconcerned with Nielsen ratings or fidelity to major record labels. Since 1999, nonprofit internet radio station Dublab has been that place, cataloging the sounds of the city without forsaking the inexhaustible reserves of music from elsewhere around the world. This year, Dublab will celebrate its 18th anniversary and finally make the leap to FM.
Alejandro "Ale" Cohen, the station's affable director, says, "99.1 FM. We have the gear. We're close to confirming the place for the antenna. Later this year, we'll be up and running."
Broadcasting from the same building that houses the Virgil, Dublab HQ is open yet cozy, the walls a calculated mosaic of station ephemera and art commissions, with one corner devoted entirely to vinyl. Cohen, 42, often works seven days a week. As he leans back in his office chair, the eyes behind his glasses brimming with youthful vigor, a glass neon sign in the studio booth reminds us that Wendy Hsu of ghost-pop band Bitter Party is "on-air."
Founded by Mark "Frosty" McNeill, Jon Buck and several KXLU alums, Dublab ranks among internet radio's earliest pioneers, broadcasting more than a decade before streaming became de rigueur.
"It was so innovative," Cohen recalls. "I went to the web page on a friend's computer. It had a tiny video screen of the studio, and the resolution was minimal. You could tune in for a little bit, but then you had to tune out because you were using your phone line."
Born in Buenos Aires, Cohen moved to Altadena at 21. When not working for the California State Assembly, he gigged around L.A. with his band Languis, an independent, alt-rock/electronic outfit that likely was ahead of its time.
A fan of Languis and of Cohen's organizational aptitude, Frosty asked him to become Dublab general manager in 2005. Cohen then spearheaded the station's candidacy to become a nonprofit. Due largely to his efforts, the station receives funds from various grants and the National Endowment for the Arts. It also gets donations from devoted listeners and a break on rent.
"Our landlord is a big Dublab supporter and gives us a good rate," says Cohen, now an Eagle Rock resident. "He is one of the unsung heroes of Dublab, a great patron of the arts."
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The station pays all its employees, and though DJs do their shows gratis, Cohen does his utmost to get them gigs around town, especially for Dublab events at places such as LACMA, MOCA or downtown's Grand Central Market, where it has an ongoing Friday night DJ series.
"It's definitely a labor of love. That being said, I try to offer all of the employees stability. Even if it's not a lot of money, at least you can count on it," Cohen explains. "Offering stability in the art world is really a luxury."
Right now, Cohen doesn't have the luxury of relaxing. In addition to his responsibilities as Dublab director, he's finishing an album with his band Pharoahs, scoring documentaries for public television and working with developers to update Dublab's phone app. He's also on the air every Wednesday.
"I still haven't lost that excitement of discovery. ... I feel excited for new music, trends and styles," he says. "The spirit of what we're doing will not change on FM."