What follows is an article about a radio station which happens also to be the transcript of a show on the radio station about the article about the radio station which happens also to be the transcript of a show… you get the idea.
If Patrick Martins’s vision is fulfilled, right now, via earbuds, somebody somewhere is raptly listening to David Arnold explain the greenish tint that forms on sous-vide-cooked meat or Louisa Shafia talk to Michael Harlan Turkell about her Iranian pop-up at an Italian restaurant. Around the pale fire glow of a computer, perhaps, a family is huddled, transfixed by a description of dining on the Trans-Siberian Railway or an exploration of the legal intricacies of nutritional labels.
If the vision of Heritage Radio Network, the Internet radio station with 39 shows a week, 1,491 shows a year and millions of listeners from over 200 countries, has come true, you might even be listening to the sound of my voice this very moment.
Hello, this is Joshua David Stein, host of the Joshua David Stein Variety Hour… Half Hour. Tonight we have a very special story for you about the Heritage Radio Network (HRN), the very station that broadcasts this show and 38 others, from a shipping container at Roberta’s, a pizzeria in Bushwick, and has been doing so since 2009.
“The sustainable food movement needed a mouthpiece.” That’s Patrick Martins, the clearly enunciating founder of HRN, explaining why he founded the station six years ago. Martins is something of American royalty in the sustainable food movement. In 2000, he founded Slow Food USA, the American outpost of the Italian organization. By the time the radio station idea had occurred to Martins, he had left Slow Food USA to launch Heritage Foods USA, a closely aligned for-profit company that sells foods Slow Food USA championed, like Black Narragansett turkeys and Red Wattle pork. The radio station marked his return into the sexy world of nonprofits. “Having moved from the nonprofit to the for-profit,” he says, “I wanted to give back.”
But in a way the seeds for HRN had been planted earlier by Carlo Petrini, catalyzer of the Slow Foods movement. “Pero, será una battaglia dura. [It will be a difficult fight.] Non é simplici. [It’s not simple.] Viviamo nel mondo complesso. [We live in a complex world.]” That’s the handsome bearded Petrini speaking at an event last year at Roberta’s with Alice Waters. And that’s Patrick translating.
Petrini founded the Slow Foods movement in 1986, when he and a few other activists armed only with bowls of penne pasta protested a proposed McDonald’s near Rome’s Spanish Steps with chants of “We don’t want fast food. We want slow food.” What followed is a story readers of this magazine know well. Slow Food has become the hard-punching counterweight to corporate food culture.
What is less known, perhaps, is that years earlier, Petrini was a pirate radio mastermind. In 1975, using chutzpah and a discarded radio transmitter from an American tank, Petrini launched one of Italy’s first underground radio stations, Radio Bra Onde Rosse. “Radio” is obvious, “Bra” is the small Perugian town Petrini called home, and “Onde Rosse,” Red Wave, well, he was a bit of a pinko. Audio is hard to come by these days — the station ceased transmission in 1978 — but according to Martins, Petrini was “broadcasting everything that is being broadcast on this network today.”
That is, programming consisted of some of the most progressive, thoughtful minds of Italy at the time, those with a countercultural bent, getting together in a room to, what Italians call, chiachere. Or chat. Plus, says Martins, “He’d have his friends drop by to play rock ’n’ roll.”
Though food was less of a focus at Radio Bra Onde Rosse, revolution was primetime space. Martins befriended Petrini during a two-year stint in Italy, and in 2008, when he started to think of how best return to the nonprofit world, he decided he’d pay homage to Petrini with an underground radio station. He reached out to one of his pork customers, Carlo Mirarchi, the chef at Roberta’s, to see if he couldn’t turn a patch of dirt behind the Bushwick restaurant, then used for dirt bike races, into a new Radio Bra Onde Rosse. Carlo was like, sure, whatever.
Martins and his friend Tristan Steinberg — a designer better known for his interiors such as Brooklyn Bowl and set design for ads such as Victoria’s Secret campaigns — bought two old shipping containers and, using a hi-low lent by the very un-Heritage-y but nice people next door at deli meat giant Boar’s Head, built the small studio that stands today.
“We spent the next six to eight months building the station, carving out the doors and window, sanding the floors. Meanwhile I started to go to all of my friends in the food world to convince them to do a show. Sure enough they said yes. Some were old, some were young.” The first hour of Martins’s own show, The Main Course, included a segment on a RUPRI Center report on regional competitiveness and an ask-a-farmer segment with Brian Kenny from Hearst Ranch. Since then, practically the entire cosmos of food luminaries have spoken into the microphone, as have a handful of non-orbital bodies. Academics like Marion Nestle, chefs like Eric Ripert, legends like Wendell Berry, locavore matriarch Joan Dye Gussow as well as the actress Frances McDormand and Fab Five Freddie because, hey, why not? We all eat, don’t we?
And that chair, with the collapsed buttock area and little lumbar support, that’s where I’m speaking to you from now. From where I sit, I see four microphones, three chairs in a sorry state around a low table and a taxidermied boar gazing unseeingly at me (I guess the Boar’s Head touch can’t be overlooked). If I look through a small window, I’m likely to see the face of Jack “Jack in the Box” Inslee, the executive producer of HRN, sitting in the small control booth. Hi Jack. “Hello.”
Inslee, who arrived in 2009 fresh out of NYU, and a vivacious Michigander named Erin Fairbanks, the station’s executive director, are the twin turbines who keep HRN running. Fairbanks, whose own show, The Farm Report, “digs into the nitty-gritty of agriculture with the people producing our food,” is a food journeywoman. She worked at iconic Michigan deli Zingerman’s; as a farmer up at Flying Pig Farm in Shushan, New York; in the kitchens of Savoy and Gramercy Tavern; and finally entered the Heritage orbit by delivering pigs out of a U-Haul truck with Patrick.
She perhaps best embodies the spirit of Heritage. Here is a woman who is deeply engaged in the issues of revolutionary food justice and can still say things like, “One of the interesting things about the evolutions of both organizations is that with an enhancement of organizational structure, it hasn’t been organization for organization’s sake.”
She’s talking, by the way, about how both Roberta’s and Heritage started out as devil-may-care outsiders but have gradually become institutions at the center of their respective universes. Remarkably after seven years, the station has forestalled that famous restless itch. It has neither become ossified by institutionalization nor self-destructed by its own rebelliousness. “It’s hard to remain subversive when you’re successful,” says Martins.
But HRN is both successful and subversive. Though the studio isn’t much to look at, the room contains a plenitude of rarely heard voices that can’t help but be disruptive. Recent social-justice initiatives include the “Saxelby Radio Scholars” — Martins is married to cheesemonger Anne Saxelby, whose parents, Pam and Bill, endowed the program — which trains low-income students from Rockaway, Queens, to record and produce their own programs.
An attempt to list the topics covered on HRN’s thousands of archived episodes would be as useless as lauding a dictionary for the inclusion of words like “apple” and “pillowcase.” On Heritage, everything is discussed and anything can happen. During the course of my two short seasons at the station, I’ve had an acrimonious debate over New York’s bagel superiority over Montreal, hosted musical guests from sitar players to klezmer bands and interviewed fellow critics, chefs, film directors and deli men.
But, one of my proudest moments, and the one with which I’ll leave you, was from an early episode, in a segment called “Food Poem in an English Accent.” To me, it embodies the strangeness, the freedom to be weird and the ferment found in that former dirt patch turned epicenter of a global food network. Here is my friend Daniel Thurlow reading a Ted Berrigan poem, “Dinner at George and Katie Schneeman’s.”
She was pretty swacked by the time she
Put the spaghetti & meatballs into the orgy pasta
bowl—There was mixed salt & pepper in the
“Tittie-tweak” pasta bowl—We drank some dago red
from glazed girlie demi-tasse cups… For
dessert we stared at a cupboard full of art critic
friends, graffitoed into underglazes on vases. We did
have a very nice time.
Sometimes profane, always entertaining, very important, often brilliant, Berrigan’s words ring true at Heritage: We always have a very nice time.
This is Joshua David Stein, thanks for listening and see you next week on Heritage Radio Network.
Photo credit: Joe Martinez