The Alternate Side hopes to appeal to WFUV’s younger listeners by focusing solely on new, alternative music. (Photo by Pat Doherty/The Ram)
With a multitude of venues, countless bands and artists rolling through town to play shows, and an ever-changing array of home-grown talent, it is safe to say that the music scene in New York moves pretty fast. Some would say too fast; it can be nearly impossible to stay on top of it all. However, three radio hosts are attempting to do just that, right here at Fordham.
If you are a WFUV listener, you’ve probably heard of The Alternate Side and its hosts, Alisa Ali, Russ Borris, and Eric Holland. These three make it their job to know what is going on in the music world and to keep their listeners’ ears filled with the latest and greatest new music. According to The Alternate Side webpage, the station was born in December of 2008 as a way to reach out to new listeners and diversify the music played on WFUV. With the help of a grant from the New York State Music Fund, the station was soon up and running, to the great excitement of everyone involved.
“I was over the moon,” Ali said. “This was something that many of us at the station had … wanted for awhile.”
Although at first no one was sure how it would fare, TAS quickly found its niche. “I think in the beginning, WFUV looked at The Alternate Side as a ‘test’ to gauge interest,” Ali recalls. It quickly became clear, however, that TAS was no fluke. Its lineup of indie music resonated with a new demographic that had been less engaged with WFUV’s usual radio offerings, and soon enough the station was looking for ways to expand. In June of 2011, TAS began broadcasting on weekday mornings on WNYE, another New York public radio station. The move proved to be a beneficial one.
“[It was] a huge gain in helping to raise our profile,” says Borris. “We’re able to reach so many more people with the expansion,” Ali said. “It really helps to get the word out about TAS.”
With expanded time on the FM dial complementing its 24-hour online stream, TAS has continued to establish itself as a major player in New York radio. Although it has seen undeniable growth since its creation in 2008, Borris and Ali emphasize that the station has remained true to its founding mission of playing quality indie music, both old and new. Doing so means finding a balance between showcasing talented new acts, while also giving airtime to established bands and musicians.
“We were very careful to make sure that our music mix was not solely based on obscurity,” said Ali. The mission has remained the same, but the hosts have changed the way they approach it. They quickly realized that listeners, far from being afraid of new music, actually wanted more—and not just from New York bands, either. “Our listeners have a huge appetite for new music, more than we initially thought,” Ali said.
Rather than privileging local acts over others, they began searching for the next big thing all over the globe. “Good music is good music, whether it comes from NYC or Barcelona,” Ali said.
One of the most interesting and challenging elements of The Alternate Side is its status as a commercial free public radio station. Flip on your car radio, and you will be bombarded with advertisements, which is how most stations generate revenue. TAS does not air commercials, instead relying on member support to sustain itself. Being a public radio station is both a blessing and a curse, however. Member contributions through fundraising keep TAS, as well as all of WFUV’s other radio offerings, on the air.
“If we fall behind on fundraising, this impacts our budget, which in turn hampers progress and puts the station in jeopardy,” says Ali, adding, “This is a pretty scary idea.”
WFUV is currently in the midst of its fall fundraising drive, which entails making appeals for donations through letters, social media and on the air.
However, Ali and Borris are quick to point out that public radio stations have some very real advantages over regular stations. Borris said that they are free to run the station “as we see fit and with our best interests in mind.”
Member support also means that TAS has a loyal and committed following. “Public radio listeners are so much more engaged than your average commercial radio listener,” Ali said. “They know that they really are a part of the station.”
With such a dedicated audience to please, it is no surprise that determining what music to play is a full time job for the three hosts. Although their music choices take into account their target audience, trends in music and market research, their determinations are not always so formulaic.
“I do program a lot from gut,” Borris said. “We’re big believers in the human element.” One of the most daunting tasks is keeping tabs on new music. “We get bags of submissions every day and tons of emails with digital links,” Ali said.
They try to listen to as much as they can, sifting through the material to find the hidden “gems,” but finding the next big act also means stepping outside of the studio and diving into the vibrant music scene in New York and elsewhere. The hosts attend concerts and music conferences to stay up to date with the latest bands and artists, while also trying out suggestions from listeners. They’ll do whatever is necessary to “keep our eyes and ears open,” Borris said.
TAS has made great strides since first appearing on the airwaves, but the hosts have no intention of letting the station’s growth slow down.
“We just want to keep raising the profile for TAS as much as we can,” Borris said. A bigger staff, more on-air programming and making deeper inroads into the vibrant New York music scene with concerts and cultural events are just some of the goals they hope to accomplish down the road. Their track record so far is very encouraging. In just a few short years, TAS has gained a loyal following of listeners and made a big splash in New York radio. That success is no surprise given the hard work of its three dedicated hosts. As Borris said, “It’s a brand that we believe in.”