FBi for the people: BYO gets behind the scenes with Dan Zilber ahead of FBi Turns 10!
This Sunday will see Redfern’s Carriage Works host FBi Turns 10!, the tenth birthday celebration for Sydney’s beloved FBi Radio. Having gone through thick and thin to get to this point, FBi has now successfully provided a platform for Sydney musicians to launch their careers for over a decade. So in the lead up to these celebrations, BYO took the time to catch up with FBi’s newly appointed General Manager, Dan Zilber, for a chat about FBi’s growth, it’s troubles along the way and most importantly his non-involvement in the Reclink Community Cup AFL exhibition match which I attended a couple of weeks back. “You may have seen from my tweets that I’m a big fan of the sport, but if you’ve met me, you know I’m not really in the sort of shape to play it.”
Dan’s enthusiasm for AFL is more than matched by his enthusiasm for the Sydney music scene. “I came back from London with the express interest of working in Sydney and working with Australian music and making a contribution to Sydney music because I love the city and I wanted to be a part of it”. Dan can’t be faulted for ambition either, having always believed he could be a major part of shaping FBi and taking it into the future. “That was kind of the exciting thing about starting FBi as it was launching full time. We had the chance to make a radio station and try and build it in the way we thought would be best for Sydney.”
But harping back to an old cliché, there is, underneath his ambitious and driven exterior, a radio romantic. There is intense passion for its unpredictability to the listener, its ability to entertain and, most importantly, its potential to educate. Taking me for a trip down memory lane, Dan recalls to me his own early music education. “I think back to when I was in my teens, listening to the radio late at night when you’re supposed to be asleep, and getting a musical education from the people on the radio and finding out what’s happening around town.”
Despite his love for traditional radio there is also an acceptance and enthusiasm for exploring new mediums. Indeed, FBi has become a cross-platform media organisation. It has expanded beyond a community radio station to release compilation CDs and provide a range of online content, as well as bringing radio to life with their own live music venue, FBi Social. Dan has a particular enthusiasm for the role that FBi Social plays in promoting diversity in the live scene in Sydney, and with its introduction it has showcased FBi’s core values in 3D. “It is a space where we can accommodate weird psychedelic drone or electronica or experimental indie. Its not constrained by having to sell 200 tickets to every show, it’s about supporting the art form and making sure those artists have somewhere to play.” As always with FBi, it is about good art, not necessarily marketable art.
With this continued growth of the station beyond the airwaves, there was a perceived need, as they entered their tenth year to restructure at the top and so Dan was moved across into the role of General Manager with Stephen Goodhew, another faithful FBi servant, taking up his old position as Music Director. Dan obviously has no qualms about the appointment. “Stephen has a good understanding of balance in programming with a good level of attention to balancing sounds… That is ultimately the task at hand when it comes to music programming. He’s also a really nice guy which helps a lot.” The shake-up has allowed Zilber more time to work across the online functions of the station as well as working closely with Goodhew in regards to music programming.
It is amazing that a station with such a wide reach only has two senior employees in charge of music. Really, when you look at the big picture, in comparison to the impact that FBi has had on the Sydney music scene the number of FBi’s staff, seven full-time employees, is miniscule. This is a testament to the efforts of the two hundred or so music lovers across Sydney who currently volunteer their time at FBi radio as well as all those who have done in the past. There’s solid evidence that, through their volunteer program, FBi have not only assisted Sydney’s musicians but also provided a platform for budding media professionals to launch their careers. As Dan remarks “We’ve got a pretty strong track record of sending our volunteers out into the world to get full-time jobs so there’s a bit of an FBi alumni littered throughout the music industry now.”
It’s statements like this from Dan which vindicate my long held view that community stations can often have more to offer than national stations. There has been an enduring comparison between FBi and Triple J Unearthed, which, in my opinion boils down to them being two platforms which musicians look to, in the very early stages, in order to get themselves heard. But obviously there is something more to FBi. Dan’s explanation is simple, “There’s a level of engagement that FBi has with the community, venues and artists around Sydney that is very hard to achieve when you’re a national station. There might be a cross-over [with Triple J Unearthed] in terms of people’s tastes, but I think we both do pretty different jobs.”
One thing that is definitely a point of difference between FBi and Unearthed is their funding positions. Being a community radio station FBi’s funding is limited and over their ten years they’ve seen several near misses in terms of having to shut up shop. None of these misses was nearer than the dire financial situation in 2009 that saw FBi embark on their well-documented ‘Save FBi’ campaign. It was here that Sydney’s music community, for so long supported by FBi, came to the rescue. “We were completely rescued by our listeners and the Sydney music community who played 23 or so gigs and donated cash and door sales.“ FBi’s staff pulled out all stops to save the station, even staging a media stunt with Richard Branson, asking him to donate $1 million. “The idea was that we could generate enough awareness of FBi’s situation that, if we were desperate enough to ask uncle Richard for a cheque, people would realize that we were actually in really dire straits.”
Whilst these close shaves have been a recurring theme throughout FBi’s history their debt has now been restructured and drastically reduced, thanks to former Managing Director, Evan Caldor. There is even hope that, with FBi Turns 10!, FBi could be debt free for the first time in it’s history, and its thanks to the donation of time by Sydney’s music artists, who have no qualms in giving back to the station that has stood by them all these years. If there is one thing that seems to flow throughout my chat with Dan it’s that whilst FBi loves Sydney music, Sydney music loves them just as much. “Lets not muck around, the money we’re making [from FBi Turns 10!] is a result of [the bands] not charging for their sets. So we’re really riding the backs of the artists here in terms of fundraising activity.”
Dan makes out that these artists are doing them a massive favour and claims that FBi do not “break bands” and that they don’t do anyone any massive favours it’s just “what we love”. But when put in perspective many of those artists giving their time to lend a hand at FBi Turns 10! would never have been in the position to do so if it wasn’t for FBi in the first place. Heading the bill, The Presets released their debut EP Blow Up just as FBi was launching and became one of FBi’s first causes. “For us, back then, they were a new band making a brand new sound,” recalls Dan. More recently Hermitude, also on the bill, have been given strong backing. “All their albums have been albums of the week here and they were our most played artist in 2012.” Another, more emerging act, Oliver Tank was taken to Iceland by FBi Radio as part of the Northern Lights festival. He will also donate his time this Sunday.
It’s clear that FBi is in good hands for the future, and Dan seems relaxed and optimistic about FBi’s future. He’s a little less so about next year’s Reclink Community Cup. He tweets me after the interview “I’ve got 51 weeks to get myself in shape.”
- Joshua Manning