Justin Hammel is completely unaware of the anachronism unfolding around him. As he taps on a silver MacBook, the hooves of a chestnut horse click down the road behind him, coaxed along by a ruddy man in an oversized top hat. The man in the hat is gesturing wildly towards neon signs dimmed by the bright January sun as his party moseys toward the green-gray Cumberland River. They pass by and the window of opportunity for Hammel to take in this moment passes with them.
Hammel, in this corner studio tucked inside of downtown destination Acme Feed and Seed, is editing a radio show before a guest stops by for a feature on new-kid-on-the-block Acme Radio.
Nashville’s latest paradox, the streamed station is bringing back old school, unfiltered radio with the help of TuneIn, a streaming application.
The marketing minds at Acme, the same who crafted Feed and Seed’s sophisticated core and kitschy surface and the same who managed to reinvent an old feed store into a local-approved destination on the once-tacky lower Broadway now want to send every customer home with the sound of the new Nashville in their ears and on their screens.
In the form of Acme Radio, the station and studio boast the ability to stream vinyl records and radio shows independently and instantly.
Without pesky FCC rules to mold to or FM-necessitated time constraints, the one-man team of Hammel, in this sparse but cheery studio, is blissfully free to put his own support behind artists, local personalities, and frankly, anyone else he chooses.
“I want this to be a playground,” Hammel said, ensconced in an arc of silver “Acme” emblazoned microphones.
And a playground it is, without teachers to spoil the fun. Here, anything goes. Hammel stands up behind his desk at high noon, but it is easy to imagine darkness creeping over the river, slithering up lower Broadway and settling her heavy veil over the city, allowing the currently dull but flashing signs to become beacons of debauchery.
While a line of brunchers weave through Acme, perusing red-and-white checkered Acme Feed and Seed candles to pass the 20-minute wait, the possibility and inevitably of the nighttime dancers feels close by.
The fun continues with the themed late night parties. Their Valentine’s Day party is advertised with the cheeky line “Chances are you won’t be leavin’ alone.” Every Saturday, Acme takes the party “Way Up,” with rooftop clubbing, naturally.
And for New Year’s Eve, they enticed partiers with the critical question “who do you want taking the final shot (of Fireball)?” This unfiltered nature of the restaurant and club seeps under the glass door of Acme Radio’s studio, through unpacked cardboard boxes of records and up to the man in charge, who plays what he wants.
As he still spins for a Lightning 100 show, the615, Hammel built his career on local talent. When he pulls his iPhone out of his faded jeans and scrolls through a laundry list of new artists to share, Hammel’s interest in the new Nashville slides from DJ rhetoric to a professional commitment to the city’s scene.
“If you’re one of the better players in Nashville, you’re probably one of the better players in the world,” Hammel said.
Spinning 60 to 70 percent local music, Hammel handpicks tracks he is personally excited about, and at Acme, he is freed from the pressure airwave regulations induce and is unencumbered by the potential executive breathing over his shoulder.
“We don’t have to ask for permission, just forgiveness if we do something wrong,” Hammel said, shrugging. “But I don’t know who would have a problem, or who would forgive me.”
Acme Radio is available for streaming at any moment, but listeners can tune in to scheduled specialty shows. Hive Hour features local guests discussing health and the lifestyles of Nashvillians. Admittedly, this is not exactly controversial content.
During another specialty, show, the Vinyl Lunch, airing from 11:30-1:30 p.m., disc jockey Tim Hibbs spins records with Nashville connections, forging connections between the budding Acme Radio and artists scattered throughout the city, like local artist Joshua Black Wilkins, whose first introduction to Acme happened after his music hit the airwaves.
This focus on local simultaneously draws attention to the acts and draws the acts’ attention to Acme.
“Yeah, Tim Hibbs just called me the other day to tell me they were playing some of my songs,” singer Black Wilkins said.
To Black Wilkins, Acme Radio’s laser focus on local and insistence on records is the best counter to what he calls the “horrifying” streaming services like Spotify.
Hammel is aware of the current Crosley craze and wants to use both the public’s obsession with retro and the artist’s appreciation for the sound of vinyl to create a symbiotic relationship that seizes upon a niche, a market with smartphone schedules but turntable taste.
Black Wilkins, who produces vinyl recordings of his own work, sees Acme Radio’s live-streaming of the plastic disks as a savvy move, contemporary with the resurgence in the popularity of vinyl.
“Vinyl is expensive to have made, but it is something that people are very willing to purchase right now because they enjoy listening to music that way,” Americana and folk artist Black Wilkins said.
To carve its niche in the business of promoting music, Acme Radio hopes to set itself apart from the droves of other music city music groupies with its ability to broadcast any stage in its three-story complex live and release its own records, a point Hammel repeated several times.
There is, after all, room in the corner gift shop for a few Acme-exclusive vinyls, and Hammel suggests the possibility of an Acme Radio collaboration for charity.
Despite these virtuous ambitions, the Acme Radio website is currently nothing more than a play button. There is allegedly a calendar, a library of shows and interactive playlists planned, but the full launch date, delayed repeatedly, is nebulous as Hammel tries to assemble a team and build a reputation.
Hammel jokes about convincing people Acme Radio is more than a few guys in a garage with a mic, but the concern is more fact than punchline.
Still in its soft launch phase, Acme Radio has its toe in the waters of independent radio and seem to be taking its time easing into the market before making records, pausing with trepidation before entering the growing, and at times savage, market of online music.
When Acme Radio submerges itself into the crowded Nashville media market, it will certainly be faced with competitive opponents.
And while Acme Radio will likely reap the benefits of entering the radio market under the successful Acme umbrella and is bolstered by the experienced guidance of Hammel, the young station will still face inevitable growing pains.
At the moment, Acme Radio is riding the success of the business of Acme Feed and Seed, and its viability as a helpful addition to the brand is pending until the full launch.
A group of men in cowboy boots crosses the street, parallel to the murky river. With his back to the window, Hammel does not see a denim-clad man peer into the studio, into Acme Feed and Seed, into this once-undesirable piece of real estate transformed into three stories of food, cocktails and music trying to prove itself as a veritable addition to the music scene.