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Making Waves

Broadcasting live from a basement in downtown New York, Aaron Bondaroff's Know Wave Radio and its band of creative misfits have found a radical form of expression in an unlikely place

Published April 09, 2014
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Radio is the last place you'd go to curate your image. Live radio—with no programming, planning, scripting, or syndication—is like selling your image out of several cardboard boxes on a stoop. Which is why Aaron Bondaroff, the transmissionary behind Know Wave, is digging it.

"I've had guys do a show and go on and on about this sneaker brand that's giving them a paycheck," says Bondaroff, who started Know Wave in 2012 as a pirated radio station from a mansion—"Charles Mansion"—in Los Angeles. (His sojourn there was relatively brief.) After moving back to New York, he retooled the format with help from his cofounders at OHWOW, and about six months ago, Know Wave began broadcasting live to Web from the tiny, literal underground of OHWOW's bookstore on Waverly Place. "I had to cut them off—like, don't come back if you're selling something."

And if you're selling yourself? Well, another word for "personal brand" is maybe just "personality," and Know Wave presents a good opportunity to practice having one. On-air, all appearances are canceled, so the radio "personality" relies on what's beneath: wits, candor, some current-events ken, and a love or talent for the extemporal. It's intimate but not comfortable. It feels aimless. Above all, what you say on the air seems to stay in the air, hanging unseen—not screen-grabbed, not retweeted—and making the experience resistant to self-quantification. Regular shows on Know Wave include "Performance Art 101," hosted by glam-punk legend Kembra Pfahler; the "Terrible Records Show," hosted by Terrible Records' Ethan Silverman and musician-producer Dev Hynes; and an untitled show with the teen-gaze photographer Petra Collins, all of whom volunteer their time in exchange for unmediated attention. "It's a way for us to hang out and make something with our friends, but also we get to interact with great creative people—from all different cultures, high or low or whatever—that we don't work with directly [at OHWOW] or maybe even know personally," Bondaroff says, adding that when newcomers do a show, he tells them: "Don't think so hard. Just let something happen."

Know Wave is more salable, or "shareable," than it was in its pirating days. Bondaroff and the OHWOW interns run an Instagram account (@know_wave), which is how most people know to tune in to particular shows. (Homemade fliers are posted just hours before.) There's also a SoundCloud that functions as archive; all shows are recorded live, then uploaded a few days later. But the site's design is so lo-fi that whenever you're listening, it feels like an accident. The space looks deeply unmonetizable. According to Bondaroff, it's anti-monetizable, and Al Moran, a cofounder of OHWOW, agrees. "There's really no agenda," says Moran. "Know Wave is a rare platform that is totally free of sponsorship or [art world] politics. We could be leveraging it a lot more than we are, but we're not—we're not making money. We're keeping it raw so you can come on and say whatever you want."

Satellite radio rules? Community radio vibes? Bondaroff nods: "It's definitely about trying to make a community out of a lot of random connections in New York City. It's about making our place in time."

In this respect, Know Wave reminds me of Glenn O'Brien's public-access cable show, TV Party, which ran from ’78 to ’82 and had a great, reactionary manifesto that seems prescient now because change is slower than we think. I quote:

"All parties occur in the present time.

"ALL FUN IS NOW.

"All parties occur in physical space.

"Use party theory to propagate party mode in real time and space.

"YOU DO NOT HAVE DIGITAL FRIENDS. ONLY PEOPLE YOU CAN TOUCH ARE FRIENDS!

"Use your digital devices to organize physical life."

When I suggest the likeness, Bondaroff laughs and says, "Maybe." The following Monday, O'Brien is a first-time guest on a Know Wave show, wrapping the hour with a song by the late Gene McDaniels, then adding: "Nobody knows who that is." It's true. But there is a significant difference between O'Brien's generation and mine, which is that few of us now put very much faith in obscurity. Gone are the days when you could languish in underrated-ness until, decades later, posterity coughs up your due. Instead, we chase fractured recognition in a shrinking present. So to stop time with an hour-long, promo-free, honestly point-free radio show to which only your die-hard friends are actually, physically listening…feels sort of blessed. I know because I've felt it: In March, I became a Know Wave inductee alongside curator Piper Marshall (we called our show "Cheap Talk"), and after trying the #nofilter method, I want to keep doing it for as long as nobody quotes myself back to me.

And maybe I'm blowing up my own spot, but since I'm here, I should add that this weekend at the Dallas Art Fair (that's Dallas, Texas), Know Wave takes over the Comme des Garçons PLAY storefront at The Joule Hotel. Guests include artists Richard Phillips, K8 Hardy, and Ryan McNamara; your hosts are Will Boone, Lele Saveri, and Marshall, who promises not to let the enterprise get too professional. "Know Wave reminds me of art school," says Marshall. "It's fun, while generating discourse." More fun still, it makes "discourse" feel once again like "talking."

Photos: know_wave / Instagram
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