THE SPIRIT OF Y100 - the once-beloved, now-defunct alternative-rock radio station - just won't die. Now called Y-Not, that spirit resides in Josh T. Landow's apartment.
It's been a year since Landow, his stable of 25 DJs and cat mascots Hugo and Starla, started broadcasting Y-Not over the Internet from his West Philly home. "Or, the Bunker, as we call it," Landow said.
His goal is to continue the legacy of Y100, playing similar music without the restraints of corporate playlists, allowing the DJs to play deep album cuts or indie bands, as long as they fit with the station's identity.
Since Y-Not began broadcasting at ynotradio.net, Landow has paid all fees - about $1,000 a month, including streaming, royalties and promotion - out of his own pocket, supported by a part-time job at radio trade magazine FMQB. He earns no salary and all of the DJs work for free. Ideally, Landow would like to get sponsors or partner with another organization, but doing things like selling ads isn't part of his DNA. Recently the station has started taking donations to defray costs.
In a perfect world, Landow would be back on terrestrial radio. He still has a soft spot in his heart for the FM dial. Not to mention, the FM listeners.
The number of people tuning into Y-Not fluctuates, but on a recent Wednesday morning, 93 were listening. He admits it's not a huge number and it's a far cry from the average 384,000 weekly listeners logged by Arbitron in Y100's final years. But Landow is philosophical. "It's just nice to know someone's listening."
Y-Not broadcasts via Internet radio network Live 365, which calculates the popularity of a station by measuring listener hours. As of Monday, Y-Not had logged 21,361 total listening hours.
"To get a station over 1,000 or 2,000 is pretty difficult," said Chris Houghton, online-marketing manager at Live 365. Y-Not is the fourth- most-popular alternative station that broadcasts through Live 365. And Y-Not differs from the three more popular stations because it caters to a Philadelphia audience, not a global one.
Landow mans the mic Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. until he is relieved by another DJ. Y-Not is on the air 24 hours a day with a live host curating and introducing music from 9 a.m. to 10 or 11 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays. On Sundays and the off hours, Landow puts the station on autopilot.
"Realistically, I would like to have my living room to myself one day a week," he said.
When most radio stations go off the air, DJs scatter to available jobs and listeners find new buttons on their radios. But the former Y100, once called Y-Rock, has refused to go down quietly.
Its first death was February 2005, during a wave of format-switches away from alternative rock, when owners Radio One decided to switch to a more popular hip-hop sound. Program manager Jim McGuinn led the troops to a spare room in his South Philly house and Y100 Rocks was born. "I thought that if we kept the audience together in one place and we kept some semblance of a staff, that someone with an FM frequency might be enticed to relaunch the format," said McGuinn, now a program director at the Current, a public-radio station in St. Paul, Minn.
The freedom of Internet radio was exhilarating for McGuinn and Landow, especially after the increasingly corporate management of the final years of Y100. "For the people who worked at the original Y100, doing the Internet thing was getting back to why we got into the business in the first place," McGuinn said. "We were the people that wanted to come over and sit on your couch and play you some really cool record that we found. The Internet enables us to get back to that initial impulse that brings most people to radio, or should."
With little to no competition in the alternative market at that time and a mailing list of 50,000 email addresses, Y100 Rocks thrived. "It accidentally became a business and a thriving Internet radio station," McGuinn said, who credits volunteers for helping the station file for taxes and make sure everything was legal. "We were blown away when listeners and members of the community wanted to join."
In July 2006, McGuinn announced to his volunteer staff that Y100 Rocks would become a part of WXPN as a new service that would appeal to a younger audience, Y-Rock on WXPN. Until last year, Y-Rock was broadcast over the airwaves for 10 hours a week and around the clock online on XPN's HD-2 channel.
But in 2010, XPN pulled the plug. The tough economy forced the station to cut paid employees from 52 to 45, and Landow, the only remaining Y-Rock full-timer, was let go, along with six other staffers. "It was part of a really sad time," said XPN general manager Roger LaMay. "Frankly, Y-Rock in terms of paid staff was just one small part of it."
Landow wasn't naive; he saw the writing on the wall after many closed-door budget meetings. But what he didn't expect was that XPN would retain the Y-Rock brand without him. "They thought it was theirs to keep, I found that to be wrong," Landow said.
LaMay sees the situation differently. To him, Y-Rock was the creation of a new service, rather than an extension of Y100 Rocks. About six months ago, XPN changed the name of Y-Rock to XPN2. "I wish [Josh] well and I'm glad he's doing his service," LaMay said. "I wish that we had been able to continue to spend the money on it, but I'm happy to say that I think the service [XPN2] is as good or better than ever."
When Landow left, many of the former Y-Rock volunteers left with him. Cat Collis, a Y-Not DJ who started as a Y100 intern in 2004, was one of those who stuck with Landow. She initially wanted a career in radio before she found out it was a business like any other. "The music will be sacrificed for the bottom line," she said. "I stuck with Josh because [music] is what it was about."
Landow's apartment is a tight one-bedroom spot on a sleepy West Philly block. "Everything that runs the station is on this coffee table," Landow said pointing to a 3-foot-square table holding two mixers, two mics and a Mac loaded with MegaSeg, a DJ program Landow calls "iTunes on crack."
DJs sit on Landow's couch, next to his DVD collection (heavy on the sci-fi, "Star Trek") and facing his large flatscreen TV. Landow refrains from watching while on the radio, but some DJs will keep the Phillies on in the background.
Amanda Damron, lead singer of local band GANG, has done her share of radio-station appearances, but nothing like the bunker. "We were just sitting on the couch with headphones on with kitties climbing all over us. It just felt like were hanging out at someone's house. Sometimes you can be really nervous doing radio interviews, but that took the pressure off."
Landow isn't one of those DJs who sounds like he's mainlined Red Bulls before going on the air. He's calm, conversational and often directly addresses the listener. He's lived and breathed Y100 since he became an intern in 1997 and worked his way up to promotions coordinator. He joked that in college, he majored in Y100.
At one point during a recent broadcast, Landow made it a point to mention Y-Not's new mobile app that allows listeners to take the station with them even when they aren't tied to a computer.
While Landow is forward-thinking in that sense, his vision of radio is somewhat retro. Some of his holdover habits from terrestrial radio are quaint: No longer constrained by Federal Communications Commission guidelines, Landow doesn't have to worry about lyrical content, but he still won't curse on air. So he'll play Cee Lo Green's "F--- You" but refers to the song as "Eff You."
Some critics see radio an outdated medium. Listeners can create their own hours of commercial free radio with the creation of an iTunes playlist; Websites such as Pandora and Turntable.fm can create a station that caters to a specific listener. But Landow considers these cold experiences.
"The audience comes to trust the people to deliver the music they want to hear," Landow said. "Not just the music they want to hear but the music that they don't know that they want hear."
Corporate-controlled radio's response to these new technologies is to play it safe, stick with old favorites and stay away from new music. Landow and his DJs try to eschew this trend, by adhering to what Landow calls "adventurous radio."