Radio clowns

How freeform Internet radio is giving voice to the strange, the crass, and the stoned
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  May 12, 2011

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A hooker, an axe murderer, two white supremacists, and a little girl with pigtails are discussing their differences on air. Before long, the little girl is gnawing at the killer's ankle, while a Ku Klux Klansman takes a desk chair to the head. When that commotion ends, it's time to play Wheel of Fish, where one lucky contestant can win his or her weight in red snapper.

That's a description of a scene from the 1989 "Weird Al" Yankovic dorm classic UHF, in which a doomed channel with "the lowest ratings in television history" manages to top every major network in town. It is also the unofficial blueprint and motivation for UNregular Radio, a Downtown Crossing–based online radio station — run by five late-twentysomethings — that in the past year has become a force in Boston's fringe arts-and-entertainment community.

"That movie was a huge influence," says John Loftus, who started UNregular in a rented studio two years ago. "When I watched UHF as a kid, I remember thinking there was nothing cooler than having ridiculous programming that you can't find anywhere else. Nobody's ever going to approve that kind of shit at a commercial station, but it could turn out to be gold. I guess that's our business plan."

In the movie, an old-school UHF channel finds success by giving real people — weird people — a voice, even offering the cleaning guy (played by a pre-Kramer Michael Richards) his own children's show. UNregular is likewise democratic; only, since they don't have a janitor, their lead billing went to Dennis Robbins (better known as Dex Muthafukin Ter), a former circus clown and perpetually irie renaissance jester.

Located in a sweet party loft covered in wall-to-wall paintings, tapestries, and concert flyers, UNregular is more than just a radio station. This indie oasis — with a professional on-air studio, comfy couches conducive to pulling tubes, and enough space for several bands to jam at once — is also the home of F-Nice Records, which merged with UNregular a year ago. Together, their setup combines the resources of a record label, a screen-printing shop, a CD and DVD production house, and a Webcast — all revenue streams that keep the owners and five workers employed full-time.

Among local artists and music enthusiasts alike, UNregular is quickly gaining a dedicated fan base. They say unique visits to their Web site — where about half of their listeners tune in (the other half stream on iTunes and other services) — are almost doubling every month, closing in on half-a-million views in April. The most popular offering, Dex's Boston Local Music Show, clocks upward of 7000 listeners with each episode (as opposed to, say, the roughly 40,000 listeners that the 60-year-old WERS attracts at the same time). That sort of response has resulted in advertisers underwriting most UNregular shows, with companies like the Shipyard Brewing Company, Motor Mind Focus Drink, and various rolling-paper brands sponsoring entire broadcasts.

"It's all happening really fast," says Dex. "We knew it would go down this way, because nobody else is doing what we're doing with this kind of diversity and this level of fun. When we bring advertisers in here, and they see everything that's going on, they want in — they see that our fans are loyal."

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  Topics: Lifestyle Features , Boston, Weird Al Yankovic, Downtown Crossing,  More more >
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