an interview with Mark Sanders of Gutsy Radio

an interview with Mark Sanders of Gutsy Radio

I think we can all agree it has been a tough couple of weeks for people who care about independent music. The change in Bandcamp's ownership from Epic Games to Songtradr has slashed their workforce in half, and some gnarly comments about Bandcamp's union by Bandcamp's current editorial director also surfaced this week. Meanwhile we have companies like Rough Trade offering a pittance of a salary for what's supposed to be a "supervisor" job in New York City. Music is everywhere and yet it's doesn't feel like anyone in power values it.

It would be easy to feel nothing but despair about the State of Music Right Now, but I want to highlight musical undertakings that feel like they have a sense of hope and generation rather than just miserable consolidation and venture capital maurauding. A Better Musical World Is Possible!

So today on the blog we have an interview with Mark Sanders, whose project Gutsy Radio is one of the most exciting internet music endeavors I've seen recently. Gutsy is a decentralized community radio station with an eclectic roundup of DJs from all over the country who play more or less whatever the hell they want within 2-hour programming blocks. It brings some sleek, stream-it-anywhere tech capabilities to the scrappy, anyone-can-do-it sense of college radio. I think it's cool as hell and I was super excited to talk to Mark about how Gutsy Radio got started, how it works, how they create and maintain community, and...why they got involved with a pinball competition in Baltimore?? Check it out.

I contribute videos to this music website The Alternative, and it has a Discord. And one of the Gutsy Radio DJs has been posting her shows in the "promote-yourself" channel of Discord —which, I understand there's a Gutsy discord as well. That's how I found out about you guys.

Cool. Glad it was able to link us together. Oddly enough, one of the harder challenges is getting people to find us.

I'd love to hear about the initial conception of Gutsy Radio — what was the inspiration to start it?

Anybody who's in radio at this point probably had a former life in it. I did it at a college radio station: Clemson, in South Carolina, WSBF. I had a brother who went there before me and joined the station and I just thought, I can't believe you can do this. You can broadcast over the air and people will let you do that. I did that for four years and then stopped, as everybody does after college radio. And really thought about it year after year, how can I get back into that? As things moved into the podcast culture and the streaming culture, that idea of just "live radio," having a collective experience where you're listening together, and in this case you can chat together, you can talk, you can request. How could we do that in a way that felt close to radio?

A lot of that just was waiting for technology to catch up — to not have to have an FCC license, not have to do all those really big practical things that go along with it. And finally, I hate to say that the pandemic gave us the kick in the pants to do that, but it did. So the idea morphed into: how can we make a community radio station, that is national? How can we bring in DJs from any part of the USA who have an idea, who maybe have never been a DJ before, but have a passion for music, love going to shows? How can we push radio into talk and experimentation? And how can we do that really inexpensively, really efficiently and really quickly?

We've been through a few iterations, but at this point, we have DJs in probably 23 states now. At one point we had 56 DJs running at once. We keep a very light curatorial hand on the shows that we do. If you have an idea and you're really invested in it and you have an audience that you're interested in reaching, then we will let you do that. We don't have the FCC restrictions around language and other things that would be legally required. We certainly do not want any hate speech or anything that's defamatory. But on the other hand, we want people to feel like they can have a place in radio and have their community join them there or bring a new community in.

We're going on three and a half years into this project now. We became a nonprofit, so we have some legitimacy and some legal protection around that. We have a board, which I'm super excited about. We can fundraise. We have people who are dedicated to doing promotions, to onboarding DJs, to working with the technology that we use to make this as accessible as possible, and to really build and foster our community, but also maintain it.

I didn't realize that there are so many hands behind the scenes, but that's very impressive to wrangle people in that way.

It's a lot. I was doing it with a very small group of other people up until we became a nonprofit in May. It's a very efficient operation. We're getting ready to have our own app that we've developed internally. We're thinking about moving away from a commercial streaming platform and using our own streaming server. And then my idea has always been, let's open source this thing too. We've got a good product and we've got a whole system and a whole ecosphere, so if somebody else wants to put a radio station together that allows you to work around the U.S. or another geographic area, we can show you how.

That's very cool. I'm a big fan of open source approaches to things. Has that always been important to you as a tenet of what you do and what you create in the world?

Absolutely. I'm a web developer and a professor of design by trade, so that's been an ethos from the beginning. I've been doing web since 1995. I've watched walled gardens come together and prohibit people from being able to participate, or think about something like this, and I don't see it that way. If it can help build a community in a way that's organic and feels authentic, that's perfect. I'd rather share that out.

I'm currently thinking about this a lot, of the way the internet has been working lately, and how attention is shunted through platforms with algorithms that aren't transparent, and with something like Twitter, it can easily go completely off the rails. Do you think Gutsy possibly represents another way to do the Internet, in terms of offering something different?

Yeah, a lot of my research and my creative work is around building small communities. If Gutsy Radio became 100,000 listeners? Fantastic. But I'm actually happy sometimes we only have five, and making a very meaningful connection with those five people. Even if you're just holding a handful of people, maybe you're trading silly gifs, or maybe you're talking about music, the first time that you saw this person's show, or you've never heard of an artist before. That's much more authentic, and I think more meaningful. And there's that direct, I'm beaming out a signal. I'm playing this music, I'm talking to you and somebody is able to engage you directly with that. So I really like that kind of level of connection and intimacy.

And, you know, it's an experiment. Almost every project I do is. If you're in it for the long game — because I've been doing this a long time as a designer and a teacher — it's going to change in odd ways. We're getting ready to do a live DJ event for something called PinBaltimore, which is a pinball contest in Baltimore, and which is serious stuff, actually.

Ah, I know people take pinball seriously.

So this is a music festival and a pinball...I shouldn't even say contest, it's a competition. We're being brought in because I'm out of Baltimore. We'll do six hours of live deejaying as a soundtrack to that competition for one night. So those things are fantastic. We've talked about being in Christmas parades because we've got a very portable platform — as long as you have an Internet connection by a cell phone, you can broadcast from pretty much anywhere. We could do a live broadcast in a car if we need to. It's those things that I think are really interesting.

How did you first find the DJs that got the radio stations started to begin with?

They were people that I DJ'd with in college, to be honest. It was a couple 50 year olds who were stuck in the '90s and maybe a bit of the '80s working on this. Then it became a friend of a friend network. Which I think is the best way to go about this. And we just kept expanding outward, because we have an easy to use platform and we're very accepting of people who have not done any DJing before. We want you to figure out how to do it. That ease and accessibility has been another great way to have people have come to us that didn't think they could do it. And they've been some of our better DJs, to tell you the truth.

I must ask, what did you play when you were at your college radio station?

I just did a general show — they called it a "rotation." Being a college student in the early '90s, I was into industrial, into electronic, and then certainly punk and post-punk. I won't lie, I've listened to a lot of the Smiths in my life.

Hey, the Smiths are great.

We have a guy [on Gutsy] who's in his late seventies who does a progressive rock show, and he's been doing it for 35 years.

Oh my god!

He joined us during the pandemic after a long stint on over the air radio. And so he does a show every week. And all of his old buddies listen to it every week and they chat. We all have our own style and curation for our shows. I change musical styles like a chameleon, weekly, and sometimes every half hour. I love that puzzle of trying to get things to fit together that don't, necessarily. On Saturday I did a show, all pool party pop from the fifties and a little bit of Japanese garage rock.

Very cool.

The wilder the idea, the better for us. Or if you've got a niche, we're going to let you do it. That's what I want the station to feel like: you're going to hear something different every hour, and you're going to hear something every day that you've never heard before. We don't do that to be different — it's just what people who are here are playing.

We're fully licensed. It's been something that was absolutely important to me, even though it's extremely expensive and frustrating and complicated to do. But if our licensing can get even a nickel or another listen for a musician or band, we're more than happy to do that. So we go to that effort to really support artists as best as we can. We get lots of music submissions and we try to play as much as we can, or at least put them with the DJ pool to see if folks want to play it. We tag artists frequently on social media.

We have almost 2800 shows archived on Mixcloud now. I didn't want to have an archive at at all — you know, the whole schtick is that we're live radio. But I got talked into it and it's been a good thing. We have playlists for every show for the last three and a half years that we post on our Discord. Any way we can draw people in and make a connection, we're trying to do that. All of it goes towards that central mission of getting radio in the hands of as many people as possible who haven't been able to before.

Anything you're excited about in the near or far future for Gutsy?

I'm always excited about new shows. We haven't had a lot of new people coming in, but we've made a lot of moves lately to really change that. We're getting ready to do a big push, reaching out to college radio stations, to folks that are graduating and might want to continue being a DJ. It's really nice when new people start, because they're like, Whoa, wait, we can do this? And it's funny, the first question I get from new DJs is "Can I swear on air?" Why not, go for it, as long as you're not being mean! And it's just great to see how other people react to the station, how they want to participate, how strongly affiliated they are.

I've run a lot of businesses, and it's nice to feel like you've got something to push over the hree year hump: getting the word out, thinking of new ways to figure out what radio is. If we can continue to grow, and have new voices and new ways of looking at music, I'm perfectly happy with that.

Here's Gutsy's website. And their newsletter! And their Discord! By the way, they're looking for DJs!