Pittsburgh Current Music Editor
The first time “Murder” Bryan Quinby and Brett Payne brought Street Fight Radio to Pittsburgh was in 2017. The recent presidential election had pushed a lot of people to the left, and reinvigorated many who had long called themselves leftists, so Spirit, in Lawrenceville, was packed on that Sunday afternoon in early spring. The hosts of the popular “dirtbag left” podcast Chapo Trap House, which was then a little more than a year old, were the headliners. But Quinby and Payne were the afternoon’s veteran broadcasters, having hosted their Columbus, Ohio-based radio show for, at that point, about 6 years.
Then, Street Fight Radio had around 450 Patreon subscribers, all paying a few dollars a month for additional content. Now they’re at nearly 3000. Quinby and Payne no longer have to work day jobs, because Street Fight — which they call “the #1 anarcho-comedy show on any station across the nation” — makes enough money to pay the bills. And they work hard at it: In addition to the original Basement Show which the duo hosts every Wednesday, there’s a call-in show on Sundays, which puts a worker-solidarity spin on the classic talk-radio format, and sometimes limits callers to women and non-binary people. Plus there’s the weekly subscriber-only bonus show, as well as Quinby’s personal podcast mini-series, which have included deep-dives into such cultural phenomena as shock jocks (Shocktober), sports talk radio (March Madness) and Kid Rock (American Podcass). Later this year, they plan to launch a television show on the anti-capitalist, worker-owned streaming service MEANS TV.
The Current chatted with Quinby ahead of a live Street Fight show scheduled for March 18 at Club Cafe. That show was postponed, of course. But even in the quarantine, Street Fight is going strong, still broadcasting from the basement. Rooted in a worldview of radical leftist politics and informed by decades of personal economic struggle, Street Fight Radio is a balm, a welcome distraction, and often a source of hope and community.
“The service industry is fucked, and those are our people,” Quinby lamented on a recent episode, and Payne asked listeners to reach out if they needed special crisis support. “If you have nobody to go to,” he says, “we would love to utilize our resources.” (Payne also warned listeners avoid MDMA for the time being: “It’s an immunosuppressive, so it could leave you in a vulnerable state,” said, adding, “based on my personal experience, acid is best way to go during this thing.”)
Fans will have to wait to see Street Fight live, but for now, there’s plenty of time to catch up on the archives at www.streetfightradio.com
You guys have had a significant increase in listeners in the last couple years. Obviously that represents a big financial change for you guys, but can you say a bit about how that expansion has affected your lives and the show?
It’s allowed us to do a lot of new stuff. It allows us to do a bunch of things that we always wanted to do. I’ve been doing more podcasting — I’m doing specialized stuff like the mini-series, and also it helped us get the studio set up so we can do the call-in show reliably. There was a period where we were doing it in the studio at the radio station, and it worked like 50% of the time. So we were able to buy all the stuff to have it done at Brett’s house.
It’s crazy what can happen when you don’t have to give all your time in a job that you don’t care about, what happens when you can create that space.
Yeah, in  I wasn’t able to put everything into it. I was still working as a Lyft driver and stuff like that. So now it’s like, I have 24 hours, I can make these mini-series that people love. I can be on tour. That is my job. I think it makes the whole thing better: being able to build out the world and stuff. And launching the TV show, we couldn’t do that if we had real jobs.
How does having regular call-in shows shape the way you approach things?
Brett and I always talk about how he and I are not working class, broke people any more. When we started the show we got a lot of credit for honesty about what it’s really like to work, what it’s like to be broke. What it’s like to struggle.
I don’t struggle as much anymore. I mean, I still do because I’m bad with money, but my life is a lot more comfortable than it was in 2017. And I think the call-in show keeps that element on the show. I think also we’re able to relay our experiences from the past in order to supplement the stories that people are telling. I really think that the call-in show has led to some of the most realistic conversations about work and about struggle that, I think, has ever been done on the radio. A realistic, true vision of what it is like to be in America in 2020.
I get messages and emails from people all the time, like, “Listening to the call-in show made me feel less alone.”
And I don’t think me and Brett can do that on the Basement Show any more. We have the same political opinions or whatever. But i think the call-in show is special in that it makes me feel less alone, it makes me feel less weird. For years I thought that I was some unique case of a guy who worked a real job and wasn’t able to fit in that space. Or that I was someone who capitalism kind of forgot. And that it was my fault, and it was because I was contentious and it was because my anxiety was a weakness on my part.
But as you talked to hundreds of people, thousands of people, and they tell you they have the same feelings you did when you were there, you’re like, “Naw, this is a systemic problem, this isn’t my personal mental problem.”
I have close friends who would say the call-in show helps keep them sane.
[Journalist] Alex Press … another Pittsburgh native! She pitched a story — which, this is what makes it so clear that we were on to something — but she wanted to do a profile of Street Fight. … She wanted to write about how we talk about work in a brutally honest way, and how we get other people’s stories. And she pitched it to Rolling Stone, and Rolling Stone said we were “too niche.” It’s something that’s been rolling around in my head for a long time.
On the show we read these chilling advice-for-management-and- workers blog posts on LinkedIn and make fun of them, and stuff. That kind of thing really makes me think that everything that is written about work is written by people who make 70 thousand to a hundred thousand dollars a year. And the fact that somebody at Rolling Stone could listen to what we do and say that’s too niche kind of illustrates that. Because I feel like what we do is so mainstream.
When you started to be able to live off of Street Fight did you have to deal with questions from people, or any inner conflict with being comfortable and not scraping by?
Well, I think early on, yes. Very early on when I started making pretty good money, people started criticizing us for making pretty good money … But people were criticizing me for making too much money when I was making $2000 a month. So i don’t know really know what to say. I only make $3600 a month now, we don’t take home that whole [monthly subscriber amount]. We’ve hired a ton of people on this show. We pay a lot of people $20 an hour and I dont think people know that.
And I also believe that, like, I came from nothing and Brett came from nothing, we’re in Columbus, Ohio, and every one of the odds of making it in show business are against us. And for somebody to say that we don’t deserve what we have, to me, feels like somebody saying working people don’t deserve a chance to get out of that world, you know? Like, a Lyft driver doesn’t deserve the opportunity to lift themselves up out of that world. And from my experience, when I was doing a lot of working class jobs and stuff, everyone wanted to get out of that world.
… I understand the critique of making money, I guess, but I also think that socialists and anarchists and communists deserve stuff that is kind of tailored to their tastes, and the people doing it can’t do it as good as possible if they’re not getting paid to do it. Like, I don’t feel as bad anymore because I think I work very hard on the stuff that people pay for on Patreon. You know, Shocktober and March Madness and American Podcass, these are deep dives into, like, a specific subculture or person, these shows take a lot of time to make.
So i don’t feel like i’m ripping people off by asking them for $5 a month to listen to something that I am working on sometimes 12 hours a day … whether they think that listening to Opie and Anthony for 12 hours is work or not — and it is work, i promise you — but it’s what I have to do.
If you were a doctor, even if you said ‘I’m a socialist,’ people wouldn’t question it as much. But there’s a prejudice against doing something that might seem fun. It’s like, if you care about it, that should be enough and you shouldn’t profit.
I see that too, and I think that’s a specific kind of thing that comes from being on Twitter. Because on Twitter there’s an expectation of free content.
People aren’t mad that stand-up comics make money, people aren’t mad that actors make money. For some reason, it bothers them that podcasters make money. That we don’t deserve it, that we’re amateurs. We work very hard to do a professional thing, and a thing that is fun and vital, commenting on the times as things happen. I just think, I don’t think there was a time people were saying, “Howard Stern doesn’t deserve to make any money from his radio show.”
I tweeted something a few days ago about Street Fight being the Rush Limbaugh of the left, if only in terms of the format. I think you said once that at some point in your life you weren’t really aware of the politics and just thought Limbaugh was a funny political show, which is sort of my experience as well. Obviously Rush is a totally shitty person, but he’s a good entertainer.
Oh no, I agree with you. I’ve said it before, and me and [Chapo Trap House host] Felix [Biederman] said it on our [Shocktober] series that we do together, that this stuff is inspired by, like, Opie and Anthony, stuff like that. Maybe not Rush Limbaugh, because i had kind of gotten away from it, but i’d always found him to be an interesting and entertaining guy.
This stuff is inspired by those five-hour shows. Those shows had a definite impact on the culture that I think most people don’t give them credit for. Writers rooms were listening to this stuff. It was informing pretty much all of edgy pop culture. And all I wanted to do when Brett and I started to do Street Fight was, I wanted to do Opie and Anthony. But I want to be good, and I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. I want to be as inclusive as I possibly can. But I want to be funny, I want to push buttons and I want to cross lines.
The criticism that we’re all like Rush Limbaugh or any type of news show, or that we believe our shows are influential and result in activism … I think that’s such a stretch because I know the people who make all these shows and they all feel like me, like, people probably listen and laugh and have a good time, and maybe it leads them to do things, I’ve heard people say that our show has led them to do things. But it’s not activism. I make money and my first goal with Street Fight was to make money. But the material and the politics oozes from the part where I’m funny. I just want to be funny.
I have to say, the funny thing about Limbaugh being given the Presidential Medal of Freedom is, like, well there’s another thing that no longer means anything.
[Laughs] I mean, maybe I’ll get it someday. That’s what it made me think.
Going back to the idea that Street Fight makes people feel less alone, listening to your deep-dives into these cultural things that “smart” people aren’t supposed to like, or aren’t really supposed to know about, it’s like, “Oh, its ok that I have all this weird knowledge of talk radio,’ or other things that i wouldn’t necessarily mention in “polite” conversation.
The funniest thing about Shocktober to me is … that thing is so popular, it’s one of the most popular things I’ve ever done. People just really love it. But one of the things that happens a lot of times is, women in their 20s, they would come up to me after [live] shows and be like, “I did not know that any of that stuff existed, and i am so fascinated by it, I’m excited every time a new show is coming out.”
It never occurred to me, because everyone in my life was familiar with that stuff, but it is very under-studied. People don’t really talk about that stuff.
It’s also a great historical archive. When people talk about how un-civil we’ve become, it’s like, ‘Well, no.’ It’s always been this insane mean streak through our culture.
The kinds of things that lead to Trump, you can watch them happen — millions of young men were listening to that stuff. Besides the fact that Donald Trump has been on every shock jock radio show. And every sports radio show. They helped build his aura. I think it’s important to look at that era … Like, the world is so different from when those guys were at the top of their game. They’re all on the wind-down now, and it’s fun to be mean to them because they were so mean to people when they were on top.