Solomon Bothwell & KCHUNG Radio

"We've lowered the bar."
Interview by Asher Penn 
Portrait by Cali DeWitt

KCHUNG Radio  is an independent radio station based in Los Angeles. Found in the Summer of 2011 by Solomon Bothwell, KCHUNG Radio has gone from broadcasting on the streets to over 63 shows and 140 hours of original programming a month, which can be streamed live, listened to online, or IRL on the radiowaves of Chinatown. With an organizational structure that defies the conventions of current “artist run spaces” KCHUNG Radio has in less than 2 years shown the potential of radio in the new millenium and established itself as an essential hub within Los Angeles’ creative community. 

Hey Solomon?

Hey man.
How is it going?
Good. I just got a new apartment, so I’m pretty excited about being out there.
Where is it?
It’s in Chinatown.
Is it walking distance from the radio station?
Yeah, two blocks.
Where did you live before?
I lived in my studio for a while, which is next door to the radio station. I’ve kind of distanced myself a little bit now that I’ve got an apartment. Before that I lived in Hollywood.
What do you do in your studio?
I do fabrication for artists, musicians, and galleries. The studio is sort of a workshop for that. I have a woodshop and an electronics workbench. Lately I’ve been working for a lot for musicians, modifying gear and stuff like that.
What kind of modifications are you doing?
I’m working for this guy who has these samplers from the 80s that used floppy disks.  I’m just replacing the floppy drives with floppy drive emulators that use an SD card. You can have 100 floppy disks on one SD card that you load in instead of needing a grocery bag full of disks.

KCHUNG's Modulated Carrier Wave

How did you get into electronics?
I guess when I was in college, but not through class or anything. I met a couple of guys who were older- one of them was this homeless guy named Steve who was this total fucking genius. You could just pick some arbitrary integrated circuit, tell him the name of it, and he could recite the data sheet to you. I had this other friend who was into radio stuff who would travel all over the world fixing stuff for people. After school I kind of stopped doing it for a while.
What did you study in college?
I kind of dropped in and out of school so I studied lot of different stuff. I’m really close to finishing a bunch of degrees. I was in a music program for a while, then I switched into technocultural studies. And then I decided to take art history on top of that; I tried to add philosophy, too. They are all pretty much finished, but I’ve been in and out of school for forever you know.
All at the same school?
I’ve been to a million different schools. I went through this phase where I figured out all the loopholes to take classes on different campuses in different departments. Now I’ve maxed out my units and I still don’t have any degrees. It’s really fucking stupid.
Did you do any college radio stuff? 
A little bit. At UC Davis I had a radio show for a while. I helped out with the studio engineering when bands would come in to play live shows or record. 
What was your show?
It was a late night thing where I played free jazz and modern comp. I enjoyed that quite a bit actually. At UC Davis they have a really good music archive, going back about 40 years. Original releases of some pretty cool stuff.

KCHUNG logo designed by Harsh Patel

How did KCHUNG start?
When I first moved back down to Los Angeles I didn’t really know what I was doing. I decided to volunteer at a radio station. I went to KXLU and a few others, but it seemed kind of complicated and not really doable for someone who wasn’t working within their system.
Did you end up interning or volunteering?
No, I ended up dropping it. Then a couple years later I was at the Mountain School and there was a guest lecturer from KCRW. He kind of rubbed me the wrong way. I wasn’t into his whole thing, and got the impression that other people felt the same way. After the class ended, a bunch of students were all hanging out in Chinatown, and I was like “I could start my own radio station and it would be way cooler than KCRW” I wasn’t really serious, I was just blowing off steam. Harsh Patel, who was at the Mountain school with me, looked at me and said, yeah you should do that.
Oh wow. 
The next day Harsh emailed me all these graphic design examples for this station that didn’t exist. He was already willing to put in work. I thought, maybe this is a cool idea. So, I started telling people that I was starting a radio station and everyone seemed pretty into it. It just became more and more real as if people were expecting it to really happen. Before we knew it there were a ton of people submitting show proposals and asking to get involved.

Luke Fishbeck at KCHUNG's first broadcast, 2011

What was the first broadcast?
My friend Luke Fischbeck said we should do an event. I got a little kit transmitter and Luke emailed a bunch of people. We did this afternoon event on Chung King Road. It was super fun. 
So you didn’t have a space or anything?
No. Harsh kept telling me that we needed to have weekly live shows. I wasn’t opposed to it, I just had no idea how that could actually happen. We didn’t have a space, and we didn’t have any equipment- we just borrowed everything for each event. Eventually Luke offered us his Chinatown studio for a month, just to see how it went. People donated equipment, as long-term loans or gifts...  things just started to build up.
And you already had a schedule?
The schedule happened really quickly. A lot of people wanted to do shows, in fact, almost immediately we had more people wanting shows than time available. We scrambled to find a new space when Luke came back to town. Our second studio was in a basement on Chung King Road. It was slightly larger and allowed us to have a somewhat expanded schedule, but it was a temporary move and came with weird restrictions on what we could and couldn’t do. We have since moved into another new space that is much larger and allows us to do pretty much whatever we want.
How often were you broadcasting at the beginning?
At first it was just one night a week. Then we added a second night. I was there every week for both of those nights. Then we added a third night, and at three nights I was like “oh man, this is a lot of work. I don’t know if I can do this many,” so stopped adding shows. Then a couple people offered to help with station managing. We split it between more people, and we were able to add a fourth night. 

Zen Mafia on KCHUNG Radio

But you were still kind of the manager the whole thing.
Yeah. At one point last summer I actually was really overwhelmed with it. There were about 25 shows at that point. There were a ton of people and there were all these expectations. We were doing events all the time. I was doing a lot of the work and was really stressed out. So I sent out an email- I basically said that if KCHUNG doesn’t get more organized with more of an infrastructure then I’m gonna shut everything down.
Oh wow.
I couldn’t deal with it anymore. But that kind of got things going. Since then, we’ve escalated the infrastructure. Every couple of months things change. At this point it’s really started to emulate the structure of a community radio station. We have a general manager, a music director, a PR person, an engineer, a finance manager, a mixtape production team, etc.
How are people getting these jobs?
Since no one really gets paid you can’t really expect anyone to do anything, so people kind of pick a job title that appeals to them. Then they just do the things that make sense for them to do under that job title.  There were attempts in the past to create these kind of positions and it never really worked out.

KCHUNG's new space, 2012

Is it expected that if somebody has a show they are going to make some kind of contribution in terms of helping run the radio station?
Well, practically speaking the biggest concern is rent. So people are asked to pay a certain amount per month- a pretty reasonable amount of money. As far as non-monetary contribution, I mean it’s always great when people want to do something, but there is no expectation from it. I’ve tried expecting things from people in the past, and I end up disappointed. You can’t expect someone to do something they don’t want to do.
How do you get a show on KCHUNG?
It’s pretty simple. You just have to have a little bit of patience, and be willing to send an email.
What happens when someone sends you an email?
You get a form- the form is a new thing. In the past there was no form. The form just covers your availability and what you’re interested in outside of doing a show. I guess there is a thing where it asks you to describe the show you want, but as far as I know that doesn’t matter.
So you really don’t try to curate the shows or anything.
No, not at all. I am really insecure and dont want to make important decisions. In the past when people emailed me show proposals I would not read the description. I just put their name on the list. We have a waitlist for when spots become available- like if we add a new timeslots, or somebody stops doing a show.

Current KCHUNG Radio Schedule

So the variety of show’s happened organically?
Yeah. The only reason why it might seem curated is people tend to find out about the station through their friends. Someone has a show, and then they bring a bunch of their friends over. Then they all want to get shows, so they get on the list and then they get shows, and they bring their friends. Everybody is pulling their social circles into it, and then they start to overlap.
It seems like a lot of people have discovered a whole new approach to “radio. There are things that are happening that are really experimental.
I think that is because no one really has any idea what they’re doing. When the station first started it was really kind of unclear what could or couldn’t happen, what was fun, what wasn’t fun. I was just talking to John Birtle yesterday about this topic.  You know him right?
He does that show Noooooooooooooooo, with Guan right?
Yeah. Their show would be pretty a good example of the kind of experimentation you’re talking about. He was saying the first time he and Guan did their show- afterwards he asked me, “so was that okay?” He has this really funny way of impersonating the expression I made.  I mean, I had no idea. I had no context, they had no context.

From Sex Magazine #3 Spring 2013
Labelled Film