Celebrating its 21st birthday today, internet radio station and cultural collective Dublab has nourished L.A.’s independent music community since 1999. From its humble foundation laid by Mark McNeil, John Buck and a handful of DJs like Carlos Niño, Nobody and Daedelus, to now boasting around 150 DJs on rotation per month, as well as satellite stations in Japan, Spain, Germany and Brazil, Dublab’s massive, ever-growing archive of programming provides a necessary alternative to mainstream radio’s humdrum emphasis on so-called “hits.” Instead, Dublab gives DJs full reign over what they select to play, churning out wide-spectrum sets that bridge the past and present through every known genre, often introducing music styles that have yet to be named. For this alone, Dublab deserves 21 pats on the back.
Typically, Dublab throws a huge party to celebrate its birthday, and this year is no exception, despite not being able to host it in the physical realm. The party might be virtual but offers one heck of a marathon, with DJs, live performances and surely some surprises comprising 24 hours of special content kicking off Friday at 11 p.m. Another credit to the taste-making radio collective turned non-profit turned global phenomenon: They know how to throw a party.
We checked in with Executive Director Alejandro Cohen to reflect on Dublab’s legacy and see how the pandemic has affected and perhaps even inspired the organization to evolve.
Straight to the point, how has the pandemic affected Dublab?
Directly on the day-to-day, it affected us in how we interact with the DJs and staff and how we conduct our programming. It used to be all in-person in a recording studio where we all share the same walls every day in an almost old-school way. The pandemic took us to a place where we’re talking over the phone or over Zoom. All the content is created by DJs from their home studios. That’s been the biggest change. Aside from that, the program itself hasn’t suffered at all. We’re very fortunate to be able to continue doing what we do, to continue creating programming that is relevant, that provides a voice in the community, that brings a sense of connection. That’s the part that I’m very proud of, the resilience of the organization to adapt and continue.
Has there been any bright side? Have you been inspired to develop in any new direction?
The pandemic provided the opportunity to develop one particular program, “The Quarantine Tapes,” in partnership with Onassis L.A. This is a daily conversation that happens Monday through Friday where the host, Paul Holdengräber, who is the director of Onassis L.A., talks to different people about the pandemic. Sometimes in direct relationship to the pandemic or really addressing the times we live in through dialogue. And that really allowed us to move in a direction that for a long time we wanted to. This sort of pushed us to do so.
And that direction would be?
Going beyond music. Always through the lens or the vehicle of music or as a music-centric organization but looking at other aspects of our community in ways that we can support and provide enrichment. For example, another program we did recently was a conversation about the 2020 Census with the L.A. Department of Transportation. We tried to get people to understand why it’s important to participate. And these initiatives really align with our personal values. When I say ours, it’s the values of the staff and the board of directors and really the organization itself. The DJs have expressed a desire to have an element of that in our programming as well.
As the times we live in throw us more challenges, I think being an organization that provides enrichment is not enough. I believe we have to do more than that. It’s not enough to turn people on to great music, obscure artists, new music and things from the past. We have to take a stand in the community on what can we do to bring awareness to issues and communicate about these issues.
How has the station’s mission evolved over time?
In some ways, we let it evolve by itself by continuing to do what we do. Part of the evolution of the station comes with adapting to the times, adapting to the financial needs of the station and the financial realities that we all face. Part of the evolution is determined by the DJs and the people who join the organization and by the staff itself, including myself, you could say. I brought my changes 13 years ago when I joined full-time.
And then, we continue to see evolution through the new staff that has joined Dublab. You have Rachel Day, Lottie Moore, people like Jay Are, Gabrielle Costa and Brennan Mackay and Chuck Soo-Hoo. What’s been important for Dublab is to always give room for these people to execute and bring their ideas to the table.
Part of where we’re at today is the consequence of the new staff who has taken the organization in that direction. These are new voices from the younger generation, and they come with questions and ways of doing things that we didn’t have in mind. But we live in different times, and the new staff is bringing awareness to those issues.
Like what for example?
Certain issues in our community of Los Angeles were non-existent in the city in 1999. Or at least weren’t as prevalent or weren’t part of the general conversation. For example, gentrification housing issues may have been underway in 1999, but it wasn’t so much in our day-to-day reality where we have to take a stance about it. For online radio stations at that time, really, the focus was music. The role of the organization was different from what it is today. That is part of the learning curve. That is part of realizing who you are. It takes years. It never really ends. We are learning and continue to learn and expand what we can do.
How does it feel to hit this milestone? Dublab can now legally go to bars.
Last year when we celebrated 20 years, it was all about looking back, looking at our history, who we were as an organization and what it means to be 20 years as an online organization. I saw it not only as a celebration of Dublab as a radio station — it was a celebration of the online radio medium. I believe we are probably one of the only ones that continue to broadcast back from 1999. And the fact that we made it to 20 years means that online radio made it to 20 years. For 21 years, really, the focus is different. The focus is looking at the future. What’s coming next? Who are the new voices? What are the communities emerging from Los Angeles, and what are the ways we can support these communities? It is, in a way, a restart period for us. It feels like we have to assume certain innocence again. We are here to learn and see what we can do. And it’s always in the same spirit as it was in 1999.