From Shipping Container to Independent Radio Station: Inside The Lot Radio

Founder François Vaxelaire is keeping independent radio alive in Brooklyn and beyond.

Music 
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[gallery columns="3"]What do you do you when your barista calls in sick to your Williamsburg-based, internet radio station the day your supposed to give an interview? You say “fuck it,” and do it yourself. It’s those words and that attitude that helped François Vaxelaire take The Lot Radio from pipe dream to reality in late 2015.

After six years on the New York club scene, listening to every inch of the sonic spectrum, François saw a void. What he didn’t see was the New York City Department of Buildings and their six months of red tape. Reflecting on it, François considers the additional time a blessing, in that it allowed him to flesh out his concept and devise a plan to remain independent. At the time however, he described the process as “hell on earth.” It’s amid this story that our conversation picks up, in-between pulling shots of Sunday morning espresso of course.

Can you introduce yourself and talk a little bit about your background?

My name is François Vaxelaire, I’m from Brussels, Belgium and I’ve been in New York the past six years. My background, basically I was doing photography freelance in Africa, then here I was getting a little bored with the type of work I was getting and that’s when I noticed that little triangle (Nassau Ave/Banker St./N 15th St.).

I knew about it, because it’s kind of famous in the neighborhood for being abandoned for like 40 years. One day I saw the “for lease” sign and I thought it would be a good place to do something different. I thought about online radio and that’s how it started, a bit more than a year ago, but I had like a nine-month fight with the city to be able to just put a container on an empty piece of land. There was a lot of fighting with the city.

The important thing for me was making sure the radio was totally self-funded. I thought about it for a while and decided to divide the container in two and have a coffee stand on the right and studio on the left.

And from the beginning, your vision was to remain independent?

Yeah, I didn’t want to work with any brands. It had to be independent or nothing at all. I wanted to show that it was still possible in Brooklyn, or anywhere, to create a cultural project completely independently, just us. It makes it relaxing, we can just do what we want and we don’t have to worry about getting millions of views.

It had to be independent or nothing at all. I wanted to show that it was still possible in Brooklyn, or anywhere, to create a cultural project completely independently, just us.

Have you been approached by any brands?

(Laughs) Yeah and it’s not to say we will never work with a brand; if a brand wants to rent the space, I’m happy to, but they’ll never influence what’s on the radio.

What was your fight with the city like?

It’s crazy. I’m from Belgium, and I had no idea how it works here. I thought it was going to be easy to create a business in New York, it’s absolutely not. It was hell on earth. The department of buildings is crazy, they have too much work, so when I arrived and wanted to put a container on vacant land, they just didn’t get it. They told me for months to go away. I would go there every day and say, look I need to make this work, but we managed. It forced me to create a solid project, because I had nine months to think about it.

Who helped you launch The Lot?

It’s my idea from the start and then I surrounded myself with friends who are into music and I respect. There is Lloyd Harris who is the co-founder of Tiki Disco and there is also Pauline who helps a lot with the administration. Then there’s Chris Cherry who helps me keep in touch with emerging scenes. I used to go out a lot and try to know all new music, but I don’t go out as much anymore, so I surrounded myself with people who still go out and kind of know everybody.

From Shipping Container to Independent Radio Station: Inside The Lot Radio

Do you DJ at all?

Yeah, for fun in Belgium I used to throw parties and here I just did it with friends for fun. I never did anything professional with music, because it was my first passion, so I was kind of sacred. But when I found this place, I was like “okay fuck it.” It’s such a good spot.

Did you have any prior radio experience?

No.

Technically I had the computer knowledge, but no radio background. I was always listening to radio online though. NTS from London and Red Light Radio from Amsterdam, those were my two inspirations and when I was living in New York, I couldn’t really find any equivalent. I knew there was East Village Radio, but I was not feeling that there was a platform for all the people who were thriving off the energy from the clubs to gather during the day.

That was the whole idea, to give people who are irrationally in love with music a home. I think that there’s a lot of people who are in love with music and I think it’s beautiful, and I wanted to give them a home to express themselves.

Technically I had the computer knowledge, but no radio background. I was always listening to radio online though.

So when did idea for the coffee stand hit you?

First and foremost it was about the radio. I wanted to do it in a container, because it made sense and at first I reached out to some restaurants to see if we could do a food truck, but it didn’t work. The people that I reached out to didn’t understand the project so I was like “fuck it,” let’s do it ourselves, so I divided the container exactly in half.

From Shipping Container to Independent Radio Station: Inside The Lot Radio

Is that something that people do more abroad, run businesses out of containers?

It’s a trend, I mean you see it more and more people doing houses out of containers; you see it in Manhattan in Madison Square Park in Times Square, people serving food out of shipping containers.

To be honest, there was a radio station in Brooklyn run out of a shipping container way before me. It was called Beat Box Radio. There was DeKalb market and in there, there was one container dedicated to a radio station. I actually tried to contact them, I wanted to buy their container, but they never got back to me.

And how big is the container?

So it’s a standard 20-foot container by eight feet that you see everywhere in the world.

From Shipping Container to Independent Radio Station: Inside The Lot Radio

So are most of the DJs friends of yours, or friends of Lloyd’s?

I mean I knew a lot of DJs because for six years I was going out and going to see them. So a lot of them I knew, but they weren’t friends. I didn’t talk about the project until it was ready to go. I kept it to myself, except for Lloyd. So when I started, I reached out to the DJs I respected the most and a lot of them were on board. To see the people that I respected the most, to see them come here and they’re proud to work with me, I consider that success.

Can you talk a little bit about the live stream? I remember when I first heard about The Lot, I hit the website and I was fascinated by watching people DJ live on-air.

So to be honest, Red Light Radio does that. I thought it was a great idea, so I decided to replicate it, and it kind of adds something. We also have a little chat room so people can interact with the DJs. People basically ask, “what’s this song?” every five minutes. It gets crazy sometimes, but now we have regulars. I guess they’re at work, we don’t really know, but they’re great. They create bonds and get along.

From Shipping Container to Independent Radio Station: Inside The Lot Radio

And do the DJs enjoy interacting with fans live?

I think most of them really enjoy it. A lot of people will record screens of the DJs doing stuff and re-post it in the chat and the DJs love it. I send it to them all the time.

The chat never gets hectic like the HYPEBEAST comments?

No, I mean we have some randoms who pass by and never come back, but the regulars embrace it. I was expecting to have to moderate it at some point, but actually the chat is getting better and better.

So I know you guys have done some merch with T-shirts, do you have plans to expand that in the future?

I mean it’s more like people were asking us. They all wanted T-shirts, so we made T-shirts. I think if we want to make the shop grow, I just don’t want it to be all merchandise. I talked to the DJs, and if they have LPs coming out or T-shirts, I’m happy for them to use The Lot to help them sell stuff. Hopefully it will go that way.

In terms of the future of the radio, there is one more step before the project is complete. We’re applying for a beer and wine license; it’s been one year. I think we’ll have an answer in a few weeks. So for me the project is still not complete, I need that last piece. I mean everything has been a struggle, from the internet, to the water, every step of the project has been insane and this is the last thing. Once that’s done, we want to do more and more concerts in the church. We use the church next-door as a concert venue; the priests are super nice and they like our project so they let us use it.

They don’t make you play gospel?

(Laughs) No we play live electronic music, whatever we like.

From Shipping Container to Independent Radio Station: Inside The Lot Radio

What has the overall Williamsburg/Greepoint neighborhood response been like?

Since we started, there has been a lot of curiosity.

Everybody in the neighborhood knows each other and the community is tight, so when you show up, it’s kind of like people have to vouch for you. Even when old people come up and say “what’s this?” and we explain it, they’re really happy about it. I think people are just happy that it’s not another super commercial beer garden or something shitty like that. That’s also what I wanted to prove, that even in Williamsburg/Greepoint, it’s still possible to do something, alternative, self-funded and cultural.

Basically we’re funded by the neighborhood. We have a lot of regulars and we’re super thankful, because without them the radio wouldn’t work.

Okay last question: Sunday morning playlist, what are you listening to?

To be honest, Sunday might be the only day I don’t listen to music. Normally I’m here every day and from like 8 a.m. to midnight, so Sunday might be the one day I don’t listen.

To learn more about The Lot Radio or how to stream their shows live, head over to www.TheLotRadio.com.

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