It all started when I was hired as a freshman to DJ the dreaded 2 AM to 6 AM shift on Sunday mornings at WZND, the student-run radio station at Illinois State University. And yes, that time slot is just bad as it sounds.
With the exception of my roommates, I'm fairly certain nobody ever listened to my four-hour block. However, the lack of an audience meant that there was no pressure to perform at a high level doing something I had never done before. While in high school just north of Chicago, I was on the debate team, I hosted pep rallies at school assemblies and I anchored a daily public access TV program, but all of that felt like small potatoes compared to live broadcast radio.
By spring semester of my freshman year, I really got the hang of things—my mother always told me I was a natural—and I was promoted to the 10 PM to 2 AM shift on Saturday evenings. If I was a crazy party animal this would have been an awful time slot, but I wasn’t. I also knew how hard my Dad worked to send me to college, working tirelessly my entire childhood so that I wouldn’t have to take out student loans. If I was going to pursue a career getting paid to talk I needed all the practice time I could get.
Before school ended that semester I was introduced to another WZND DJ, Rod “Suava” Lake. A native of Belleville, Illinois, Lake was a fellow mass communication major, smooth on and off the microphone, and like me, a huge fan of hip-hop music. At the time, he was handling the premiere weekend shift—Saturday nights from 7 to 10 PM—and so I eyed an opportunity for a second promotion. After several conversations and a thumbs up from our program director, I joined Lake during his shift the following week. We clicked almost immediately. We knew we had great chemistry on air and so did the station; before school was out for summer break we were told that starting in the fall, we would have our own show.
August 2003: the Saturday Night Party was officially born. Together, Lake and I reformatted his Saturday evening timeslot, branding the show as a pregame event for students before they went out that evening. For two years, we spent every Saturday evening together, introducing our small but dedicated audience to the latest hip-hop. We were by no means the second coming of Stretch & Bobbito—JAY-Z and Nas were never in-studio for a freestyle session—but we certainly tried. Twice we were nominated for a College Broadcasters Inc. award for producing the best variety program across the nation; twice we came up short.
But awards didn’t matter to us; ears did. Labels and publicists began to blow up my inbox on the daily, trying to schedule time for us to speak with their artists. Prior to his first record deal with Interscope, Freddie Gibbs became a regular guest on our program, and we once came super close to interviewing Afeni Shakur. In total, Lake and I conducted 131 interviews, including conversations with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Clipse, Nappy Roots, Rick Ross, and Royce Da 5’9”. We even spoke with Gucci Mane when he was in prison—the first time—and Proof a few short months before he was killed.
Interviews were conducted during the week, edited for air and later broadcast during the 8 PM hour of our show. The acclaim we received on campus from our interviews was inspiring; it reaffirmed that the 30-plus hours a week that we spent at the station was worth the lack of sleep, missed social gatherings and un-drank red Solo cups. But I wanted our interviews to have a greater shelf life. I wanted our hard work to have a larger audience.
As a mass communications major on a radio broadcasting and journalism track I had no idea how to build a website, but I knew that would be the only way I could share our interviews with a larger audience. So during the winter break between the fall and spring semesters of my senior year, I went to the library and checked out a few very large How To books. Needless to say, web design and HTML coding were not my things. I was completely lost. There was no SoundCloud, no Audiomack, no free-streaming platforms. YouTube had just launched, but unless you had a cat video to upload you weren’t on it. I knew I needed help, but where would I find it?
What if, instead of building a brand new website to host and stream our interviews, I found an existing website, with all the bells and whistles already in place, that was looking for content?
I surfed the net for days, navigating through an endless sea of pop up windows and incessant flashing ads until I finally stumbled across a website: DJBooth.net.
The date: December 21, 2005.
At the time, DJBooth was a DJ-only oriented platform featuring gear and equipment reviews, playlists, DJing tutorials, and a forum. There were no streaming capabilities, and nothing about hip-hop on any larger level, but the site was well organized and professional, not bastardized with cheap ads. After a few minutes of browsing, I found the About Us section and located the contact information for the site’s administrator, Dave Macli.
While I couldn’t find my original email to Dave, it went something like this:
Dear Mr. Macli,
My name is Brian Zisook, I am a senior at Illinois State University and I am a DJ for our college station, WZND. I have been recording interviews with hip-hop artists for our weekly program for the past 2.5 years and I would love to stream them on DJBooth. I do not expect any money.
My phone number is below, please call me if you’re interested.
Within an hour of sending Dave an email, my phone rang.
It was Dave.
He told me he loved my ideas and wanted to know if I had any others in mind. I pitched him on a slight reformatting of the site, turning DJBooth into a platform to read about and stream new hip-hop music in addition to remaining a destination for the more niche DJ community. Within weeks, our Saturday Night Party interviews were streaming on the site and by the middle of the following month, now January 2006, we were also streaming new records sent to us by the record labels and running album and song reviews to accompany them.
That May I would graduate from ISU and accept a position as a producer for the Steve & Joey morning show on a now-defunct Chicago radio station that shall remain nameless. The hours were brutal—4 AM to 12 PM—the pay was abhorrent and several days a week I would have to dress up in a gorilla suit and drive a beat-up van to some remote location where nobody was listening to the program. I was always tired, I was never hungry and I started to lose my hair. Eight months into what I had hoped would be a long and illustrious career in radio, I'd had enough. I was done.
With the support of my parents, who were still providing me with food, shelter and health insurance, I left the station and put all my eggs in one basket; the DJBooth basket. Soon after taking the leap and putting all of my time into the site, our daily traffic began to rapidly increase. Suddenly, I was no longer tired, I once again hungry and, most importantly, I was happy.
Sadly, the hair I lost has never grown back.
Dave and I would go on to become business partners, we turned the website into an LLC, and Dave eventually quit his full-time online sales job in New York. A year later, in 2007, we found Nathan Slavik, our former Managing Editor, via a Craigslist post. Since then, the three of us expanded our team to a number of full- and part-time team members and opened an office and studio in SoHo with partner site Audiomack.
It might sound corny, but DJBooth has allowed me the privilege of never working a day in my life. Sure, there are moments when I no longer want to sit in front of a laptop screen and I strongly consider opening the nearest window and chucking my smartphone as far as my shoulder will allow, but the collateral damage is almost always kept to a minimum.
DJBooth has changed a great deal over these past ten years, constantly shifting with the changing winds of technology, the music industry, and social media, but strangely, it feels like it’s just the beginning.
Ten years ago I simply wanted to share my love for music with the world. Nothing's changed.