Hug the DJ

Ted Leibowitz: the John Peel of Internet radio.

I am just old enough to remember real radio. When I say "real," I mean radio that was largely DJ-driven: DJs made the playlists, DJs told you why they played certain tracks, DJs made up special funny names for their shows as they saw fit, and most of all, you could hear in DJs' voices how much they loved music.

When I meet Ted Leibowitz at the Lucky 13, he acts like a real DJ from the get-go. He programs the jukebox immediately: The Dead Boys' "Sonic Reducer" blasts out first. "I can't stand dead air," he admits. Leibowitz is the proprietor of BAGeL Radio, a local Internet station he has run from his Richmond District home since 2003. I consider www.bagelradio.com a real radio station, and Leibowitz something like our own John Peel, the famous English radio man whom so many credit with introducing them to their favorite music. Through Leibowitz' show, I've discovered everything from Kelley Stoltz and James to Tapes 'n' Tapes and the Bravery. Nate Grover, lead singer of San Francisco rock act Love Is Chemicals, puts it bluntly: "Most of my favorite new finds from the last two years or so have been bands I heard first on BAGeL Radio, and I'm not the only one."

The BAGeL shows — really one big 24-hour show, since Leibowitz does all the programming — are eclectic, carefully balanced patchworks of new local and national indie rock acts alongside the classics, strung together with the DJ's enthusiastic descriptions. "Sometimes people [write in to] say, 'Shut up and play music,' but this is my forum," he explains. And then, he says, there are the e-mails from musicians, who send messages to the effect that "You played us on Friday and we got all these sales over the weekend."

Listeners write in from all over the world, soaking up BAGeL's San Francisco indie-rock sensibilities. Leibowitz can even be credited with playing a part in the popularity of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: "I downloaded those [first] three songs, and was playing them and talking about them before they had an album out," he says. Ditto the Silversun Pickups.

Grover adds that his band had been playing dive clubs for years, and "it wasn't until Ted and a handful of people like him started to care about us that anything began to happen."

Unsurprisingly, musicians love and trust him: "One time, a couple of the Birdmonsters stopped by with 22 songs they'd just recorded!" Leibowitz laughs. "That is a joy of the station, that local bands that listen come in."

This from a guy who gets 200 CDs a month in the mail and listens to all of them. Grover calls him "the magus."

A recent BAGeL Radio-sponsored show at Bottom of the Hill is packed with listeners who look genuinely happy to be there. Leibowitz is one of them. HIJK takes the stage playing its signature mathy pop-rock, and towards the end of the set, Leibowitz makes his way over to tell me the band has just covered a song by the headliner, Love Is Chemicals. It turns out Leibowitz has been trying to get bands to cover each other at the same show for years, and he's practically jumping up and down, he's so excited. He doesn't have much time to talk, though, since he's constantly besieged by fans who want to slap his back or hug him. This is the man, after all, who puts new great music into their ears, who can tell them why they're going to like something they've never heard — the way real radio should.

Read more articles in Listen Up 2008

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