eliza berkon is a journalist and musician based in washington d.c. 

Why Do D.C.’s Boutique Hotels Keep Opening Radio Stations?

Why Do D.C.’s Boutique Hotels Keep Opening Radio Stations?

It’s 1 p.m. on a recent Thursday and Jack Inslee is sitting at a short wooden table in a sleek, light-filled recording studio at The Line hotel.

“In D.C., it didn’t feel like there was anything like this,” says Inslee, founder and executive producer of Full Service Radio. “And frankly, there’s just a lot of people here whose stories are not getting heard on a national level.”

When The Line opened in 2017, a radio station or podcasting hub housed within the hipster-chic environs of a boutique hotel lobby seemed like a novel idea. But with more recent entrants to the stage—including K Street hotel and cultural-hub-slash-coworking-space Eaton DC and, soon, Big Whig Media at the Willard InterContinental—that novelty may be bordering on local trend.

Neither The Line nor Eaton DC is the first U.S. hotel to house a radio station; their forebears include American hotels that predate the dawn of television, such as the DeSoto Hotel (now Le Pavillon) and Chicago’s Drake hotel, both of which launched stations in the 1920s. Hotels of late have been diving into the entertainment space in general, including venues that sport screening rooms and bowling alleys. W Hotels, meanwhile—which has a recently-renovated location in D.C—launched their own music label last fall. And in what’s been labeled today as the golden age of podcasts, it may be no surprise that hotels want a piece of the action.

So how does it all work?

Inslee moved to the city from Brooklyn in 2016 at the behest of Kathryn Bangs, who was then creative director at Sydell Group, the force behind The Line (which also has locations in Los Angeles and Austin). In 2015, Bangs had taken Long Island-bred Inslee on a tour of D.C. and proposed creating a radio station in the would-be hotel lobby.

“We wanted D.C. residents to reclaim the narrative of their city,” Bangs told DCist via email. “When people think of D.C., they think of the greatest hits—the Washington Monument, politics—and they envision a sea of blue suits. We wanted to showcase D.C.’s B-sides: the artists, activists, and deeply nerdy (and deeply earnest) people who populate the city.”

At the time, Inslee was executive producer for Heritage Radio Network, a station started by Slow Food USA founder Patrick Martins in 2009 and run from two shipping containers at the back of Italian restaurant Roberta’s in Brooklyn. The network, which continues broadcasting today, focuses on food content and emerged “right at the precipice of that big food explosion,” Inslee says.

“Podcasts had become so popular, but so many people do them in bedrooms or office buildings or some remote studio somewhere,” Inslee says. “With Heritage being in a restaurant, there was this real energy, where it’s like people come to a restaurant to have conversations anyway—why not record some of those?”

Working with Bangs and Morgan H. West, creative/culture director for The Line and founder of arts collective A Creative DC, Inslee spent a year designing the studio and developing the logistics for a digital radio station that would begin broadcasting from the hotel lobby in December 2017.

Eaton DC’s radio recording spot is tucked away beneath a flight of stairs in its lobby.Adrian Gaud / Eaton DC

About two miles away at Eaton DC, the brand’s founder and president Katherine Lo says the use of radio dovetails with her hotel’s mission of “social change.” Lo opened a second Eaton in Hong Kong last fall, and has locations in the works in Seattle, San Francisco, and Toronto. All will also have radio.

“From the very beginning, one of my first criteria for the concept was actually to have radio,” says Lo, who is also the daughter of Hong Kong real estate mogul Lo Ka Shui. “Historically, radio has been a true hub of the community.”

From a wood-paneled studio nestled under the Eaton DC lobby staircase, show hosts livestream programs in a video format, which Lo says was inspired by Boiler Room Radio as well as Eaton’s ideal-for-video aesthetics.

While the Eaton DC station was in development, Lo visited The Lot Radio in Brooklyn and KEXP in Seattle, noting that their broadcast sites doubled as hangout spaces. The latter boasts a community workspace, record store and coffee shop. She also points to East Village Radio as a model; the internet-based station that shut down in 2014 has a studio highly visible from a New York street. (East Village Radio, incidentally, is preparing for a return to the airwaves as an audio and video podcast outpost, says station partner Peter Ferraro.)

“There’s still something very precious about radio in that it is a more pure, archival art form,” Lo says. “It’s also a romanticist, old-school way of gathering community and telling stories that seems to be timeless despite the digital age.”

To that end, the D.C. hotel debuted its livestreaming digital radio station when it opened in the fall of 2018, airing interviews with social justice organization Unidad Latina en Accion, disco king Giorgio Moroder, and local maker Hadiya Williams.

That mix of talk shows on community issues, culture, and lifestyle—paired with music programming—is similar to the content lineup at Full Service Radio, which adds on a healthy serving of food-related content. Among the offerings are Beer Me!, Bad Feminists Making Films, and GTFO, described as a “morning talk show digest of spirituality, art, culture, and the internet.”

From left, Shawn Askinosie, founder of Askinosie Chocolate, and Violeta Edelman, co-founder of Dolcezza Gelato, on an episode of Edelman’s Full Service Radio show, “Dolcezza Sherbet Experience.”Farrah Skeiky / The Line

Inslee gets plenty of requests for new programs at Full Service Radio, he says, airing about 30 discrete programs per week over a 16-week season that are recorded and produced by radio staff. He says he tries to greenlight most projects and has a piloting process to help new shows find their footing. Though the hotel partners with Full Service Radio, it is not involved in content curation, Inslee says.

“I’m not ratings-driven; I’m not looking for people who have big followings or huge media backgrounds,” Inslee says. “It’s really and truly more about, ‘Does this speak to an authentic part of the D.C. community?’”

The hosts at Full Service Radio include local print journalists—such as Washington Post and City Paper music freelancer Chris Kelly and Brightest Young Things managing editor Brandon Wetherbee—photographer Kate Warren, life coach Sara Oliveri and video-content creators (and twin sisters) Yodit and Ariam Solomon.

When the Solomons met Inslee in 2017, the sisters had recently returned to the D.C. area from their time at Ithaca College, where they studied television and radio. They were already creating music and arts content on their YouTube channel, and adding a radio show to their portfolio represented a new opportunity for both the greater community and their careers.

We’d like “to be a name for people and a household source for creative inspiration and motivation,” Yodit says. “Hopefully if we are at a place where we get picked up [by] somewhere bigger, that would be ideal, because we would love to do this all the time.”

Speaking of moving on to other stations, D.C. style guru Paul Wharton (whose many talents include fashion show hosting and candle design) hosted Paulitics at Full Service Radio for nearly a year before a SiriusXM station, Channel 141-HUR Voices, recently picked it up for syndication. Though the program will be rebranded as The Paul Wharton Show, it will continue to be produced at Full Service Radio.

“Anybody that does something with us owns their content,” Inslee says. “That’s sort of the goal, is to be a place where you can build your thing and then take it to a bigger platform.”

Eaton Radio, likewise, receives many show proposals and looks at each one, says Andrew Grant, who co-directs Eaton Radio. The station has nearly 50 programs on its roster, most of which air weekly. Its talk content includes Blvck Broadway (hosted by journalists Akil Wilson and Micha “Mimi” Green), Girl Meets Food (hosted by Girl Meets Food editor-in-chief Mary Kong-Devito) and You Lost Me at Namaste (led by inspirational speaker and trainer Michelle Schoenfeld).

“There’s still something very precious about radio in that it is a more pure, archival art form,” says Eaton DC founder and president Katherine Lo.Adrian Gaud / Eaton DC

Yet while these programs support their hosts’ career passions and add some cachet to their respective hotel brands, the venues don’t appear to be cashing in.

Both stations livestream the program audio inside the hotel and on their hotel websites. Listeners also can pull up archived episodes on sites such as Mixcloud or Simplecast and—for Full Service Radio’s talk programming—podcast platforms such as Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

While Eaton Radio says it does not currently have numbers on its listenership, Full Service Radio reports nearly 300,000 listeners in the past year of programming, Inslee says. Could that mean 300,000 opportunities to build the hotel’s brand?

“The station was designed to support the community and not make a profit,” Bangs says of Full Service Radio.

Indeed, The Line “supports” Full Service Radio, Inslee says, but declines to get into the specifics of the station’s funding. (The hotel, meanwhile, has been in a dispute with the D.C. Council over the fate of a $46 million tax break.) While hosts aren’t paid, he offers hosts the studio and production support free of charge, and allows them to bring in show sponsors (with hosts retaining the majority of the funds).

Eaton Radio also offers its production services to program hosts gratis, and the station’s co-director Jamil Hamilton provides training to newcomers.

Indeed, for both of these hotels, radio seems to be another tool for community engagement, much like The Line’s locally curated library or the local art on Eaton DC’s walls.

“It’s about amplifying the hosts—that’s the whole point of this,” Inslee says. “It’s not to be a money maker. To stay sustainable, sure. But to be a platform to amplify these local voices.”

Meanwhile, Big Whig Media is aiming to turn a profit from the convergence of broadcast media and the hospitality industry.

In late July, PR firm Nahigian Strategies announced a new multimedia collaboration with Carr Companies breaking ground at the Willard this month. The project, Big Whig Media, will set up shop in the Willard courtyard and include rentable TV studios, audio suites, satellite uplink studios, and editing rooms.

“Podcasts are moving from being crummy things in conference rooms” to content made by people “demanding higher-production value,” says Keith Nahigian, founder and president of Nahigian Strategies, whose offices are at the Willard.

Multimedia—and video specifically—is becoming an ever-critical component of the package that clients seek from PR firms, Nahigian says. And as many PR firms don’t own their own studios, he says, Big Whig Media may give his firm a leg up in the D.C. market.

And though a digital radio station is not currently part of the project, it’s not outside the realm of possibility, says a firm representative. Is there space for multiple hotel-based broadcast media outlets in one town? For Hamilton, the answer is yes.

“I see us as partners in trying to provide a platform for arts and culture,” he says of Full Service Radio. “The more the merrier.”

This post has been updated with the correct title for Carr Companies.

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