A military reveille blares through the speakers in a small studio in downtown Los Angeles. As the bugles fade, Bob Rosebrock leans forward into the mic. "Fellow veterans, and friends of veterans," he says. "This is a wake up call."
Rosebrock is hosting the debut of his podcast, "Veterans Revolution Radio," a show devoted to a topic that he holds dear: ending veteran homelessness in the city.
VRR is one of a series of shows put out by SkidRow Studios, a small internet radio station that has been building momentum over the past three years.
The station broadcasts online and streams live video. Listeners can also listen to podcasts available on iTunes and Stitcher, among other outlets. Its approach is live talk radio by way of the Internet.
With shows like SWAG (Sistas Working Against Gang Violence) Talk, The Dark Mark Show, Intellectual Kink, Neighborhood Love Radio and Positive Perspectives, you're as likely to encounter a serious discussion of chronic homelessness as you are to land on an earful of off-color comedy.
The shows are typically unpolished, sometimes uncomfortable, and occasionally jarring in relation to one another — not entirely unlike the rapidly-changing area from which they emanate.
Reflecting the sound of downtown
SkidRow Studio's walls are covered with scenes from downtown L.A. — a man in baggy clothes pushing a cart stacked with belongings; the marquee of a local bar, and portraits of downtown luminaries. Those include one of Charles Bukowski, the so-called "poet laureate of Skid Row," whose cigarette smoke curls into a quote that hovers above the recording studio: "Poetry is what happens when nothing else does."
If SkidRow's shows have one thing in common, it's that they each pay $50 an hour for use of the equipment and its technicians.
That's more of an editorial strategy than a money-making scheme, says the studio's founder, Jeremy Hansen.
"Anybody can come in here —anybody — and talk about what they want," he says. "It's very important to me that we as the studio do not influence the content." He adds that he prefers to allow each show host to stumble toward his or her own on-air voice and style.
Hansen says he had a kind of "Field of Dreams" approach to creating his studio. "Build this and they will come," he says with a slight smile.
And they did come. The station brings in former hustlers and service providers from Skid Row and aspiring comedians from nearby lofts. It brings in deejays and artists from the Arts District and religious figures from downtown's recovery community.
But it doesn't bring in much money.
"We're nowhere close to being profitable." Hansen says he loses about $1,000 each month on the project.
He says he's fine with that; he makes enough as a computer programmer to shoulder the cost, but adds he'd love to see the station break even at some point.
Caption: A taping of The Qumran Report is livestreamed online.
SkidRow Studios is no bootstrap micro-power operation. It's a high-end production house, complete with state-of-the-art soundboard and deck, sleekly-designed branding, and paid board operators who oversee audio and video production.
Hansen even used his skills as a programmer to automate some of the tasks usually performed by board operators at larger outlets. He calls the project a combination of his twin interests in talk radio and Internet technology.
But his hands-off approach to programming doesn't mean that Hansen hasn't been involved at all in the station's content. He organized a live broadcast from the King Eddy, a local haunt that closed down before it changed ownership several years ago. SkidRow Studios was there to buy drinks and capture the last day before the dive bar shut its doors to be redesigned.
Hansen has said he sometimes brings people he meets on the streets into the studios to record on a whim. That includes several of downtown's popular characters — some of them, like the well-loved man known as Ricky the Pirate, are homeless or formerly homeless.
"When you get serious with someone like that," he says, "there's a real story, and it's very touching."
Honing a voice and vision for Skid Row
If Hansen is SkidRow Studio's sponsor and laissez-faire administrator, Melvin Ishmael Johnson is the studio's advocate and its muse.
Johnson — an actor, director, and community activist, among other things — has spun off around eight or nine different shows, including "The Bobby Buck Show," "SWAG Talk," "Echoes of Blackness," and Rosebrock's "Veterans Revolution Radio."
Each one was incubated on Johnson's hourlong program on community arts and culture, "The Qumran Report." It's the longest running show at SkidRow Studios. Johnson's hosted the show since the studio was run out of Hansen's apartment.
"What you have in Skid Row now, you have all of these elements that are at odds with each other. The business community don't get along with the activist community; the service providers and the homeless community—"
Caption: Melvin Ishmael Johnson is the host of The Qumran Report at SkidRow Studios.
Johnson says he saw an opportunity for downtown in Hansen's idea for an Internet radio station.
"There's all the different elements that are downtown in the Skid Row area," he says. "And I thought that SkidRow Studios had the potential to be the glue that holds all of these together."
"Skid Row is kind of a hidden community," Johnson says. "Everyone defines it from the outside, with the exception of the people who are on the inside."
The studio, he hopes, will help downtown to develop and amplify their own voice, and become a place to discuss the neighborhood's issues. So far, it seems to be working.
Hear samples of SkidRow Studios shows below (Careful, they contain graphic language). See the station's website for more.