Phinney Ridge Couple Shuns Sleep for DIY Radio With Hollow Earth

This is as free-form as “radio” gets, so pretty much anything goes.

In the middle of a set of music by Northwest artists like Natural Bridges and Jordan O'Jordan, the voice of Warren G comes over the Internet airwaves. One of his signature smooth beats fades in, like a commercial, and the rapper says, "This is Warren G reminding you that if you're gonna go out drinking, just make sure you have somebody to drive yo' butt home."

Amber Kai Morgan and Garrett Kelly both giggle.

"It's from this CD," they say, handing me a compilation CD of old public service announcements by celebrities like Faith Hill and John Larroquette. Along with PSAs like that one, Morgan and Kelly get a kick out of broadcasting voice-mail messages, impromptu infomercials, and other found sounds. Such is the spirit of Hollow Earth (www.hollowearthradio.com), the couple's DIY, Internet-only radio station. Here, in the basement of their house on the west slope of Phinney Ridge, they and a handful of friends broadcast every day from noon until at least midnight.

Tune in, and you're liable to hear Northwest punks Dead Moon, British shoegaze legends Slowdive, a demo song from local Japanese exchange student/songwriter PWRFL POWER, or a live-in-studio performance from the Webelos. Or, you might hear a fuzzy voice retelling a dream or the playback of an old voice-mail message salvaged from a used answering-machine cassette found at Thriftco in Greenwood. This is as free-form as "radio" gets, so pretty much anything goes.

Kelly and Morgan began streaming Hollow Earth (named after a cult Kelly once read about that believes the Earth is hollow) on Jan. 1 of this year, launching with the song "Non-Fiction" by the BoontDusties. Since then, they've broadcast every day, sometimes going well into the wee hours of morning when a good night's sleep seems comparatively uninteresting.

While the two were never big radio buffs, a series of occurrences in their lives eventually compelled them to start broadcasting. Morgan, for one, had developed a friendship via the Internet based solely on sound.

"If I was out at a show," says Morgan, a Georgia native, "I would just call this person and hold my cell phone up so they could hear the music. Or, if I was at home, I would go outside and hold the phone up, and they'd hear the lawn mower next door or a baby crying. It was cool. I never met this person. I still don't know what they look like. But it was a pretty cool connection to have with someone."

Meanwhile, Kelly, a Humboldt County, Calif., native, had an interest in CB radios as a kid and used to sit in during his friend's graveyard DJ shift at a local pirate radio station. He also established a small collection of random sounds in college, one of which showed him how powerful the hit-or-miss medium could be. While digging through a thrift store, he found a tape of a church meeting where the congregation was voting on whether or not to oust a pastor.

"You could tell it was a pretty emotional thing," he says. "You could hear them counting the votes and people crying."

He recorded a bass riff over the top of it and posted it on his personal Web site. Soon after, he was contacted by the pastor's daughter (she found the audio file by a simple Google search of her dad's name), who told Kelly that hearing that recording brought about a lot of healing between the estranged congregation members.

Morgan moved to Seattle in 2003, Kelly in 2004, and they met through mutual friends, initially playing together in the orchestral indie-rock band Beast, Please Be Still. They soon began putting on house shows at 414 House in Wallingford and recording them.

"That was kind of when the idea for the radio station came about," says Morgan. "We were just like, 'There's all this great music here that no one's ever going to hear.'"

Hollow Earth is, presumably, the only station of its kind in Seattle (research for similar stations proved fruitless). The studio's setup is remarkably simple: Tucked into a narrow room with wood-paneled walls and sunken couches, Hollow Earth Radio is nothing more than a computer, a handful of hard drives, a mixer, and a collection of about 400 CDs sent to the station from bands and random listeners, plus assorted records from Morgan's and Kelly's personal collections. The music is organized via iTunes. Kelly and Morgan also recently acquired a microphone so their DJs could talk to the audience while broadcasting.

In terms of outlay, they pay $100 a month to Rock n' Roll Hosting, which handles how many people can listen to the station at one time, $50 a month to a broadcasting company called Loud City, and $30 a year for an online phone so listeners can share their dreams and life stories. An estimated $100 a month goes to miscellaneous equipment, software, advertising, and postage, bringing the annual operating budget to around $3,000. The only revenue comes from benefit shows thrown at the house.

"I don't think any one independent station, no matter how great, could or should possibly cater to the different tastes in a big, weird city like Seattle," says Levi Fuller, a local musician and Hollow Earth listener who recently became a DJ at the station. "KEXP is a wonderful thing, and I love it, but I originally come from a city, Boston, with many small college stations catering to different tastes, and often venturing way off the deep end into strange, obscure music."

Aside from simply playing music in Kelly and Morgan's basement, Hollow Earth has made efforts to think beyond the normal radio format. To wit, staffers will occasionally record artists performing in private residences; they also play a taped broadcast every week featuring music culled from the 500,000 records stashed in the basement of Bop Street Records on Ballard Avenue. Here, Morgan and Kelly pick a theme, such as "planes, trains, and automobiles," and pull records from the Bop Street shelves which relate to that theme. Kelly then makes MP3s of the songs, via his mixer and laptop, right from the vinyl record as it spins on the turntable.

"I was down in the basement with them, and it seemed like a pretty cool thing they're doing," says Bop Street owner Dave Voorhees. "I don't mind them going down there and pulling records off the shelf and spinning them."

Though they stream throughout the day, nighttime is Hollow Earth's prime time. On one recent evening, the station's playlist consisted of music by Hank Williams, the Innocence Mission, Mayan Blue, and Bob Dylan. Later, a muffled woman's voice came on to discuss her autobiography. This was an MP3 Kelly made of a random person who called in to the station and left a message on the station's voice mail. Her speech was slurred: It sounded like a transmission from another planet—or from the grave. Considering it was past midnight, the effect was chilling.

This paranormal element is a big part of Hollow Earth and is what distinguishes it from being simply a music station. The radio station broadcasts all sorts of voices from unknown individuals, and people call in at strange hours to recount on the air dreams they've just had. Morgan and Kelly salvage microcassettes out of answering machines at local thrift stores. They keep them in a jar marked "beans" next to the computer monitor. In an age where radio has become rather cookie-cutter, Hollow Earth's embracing of the human element will no doubt attract a niche audience yearning for natural imperfections.

"I think it's part of a general movement in Seattle, and probably the world, toward something that seems more genuine and personal and less slick than the 'indie rock' that we're getting from the blogs and the TV commercials and many other radio stations," says Fuller. "I think Hollow Earth is set apart by its complete lack of pretense and professionalism, as well as its open embrace of weirdness."

bbarr@seattleweekly.com

 
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