Until recently, Radio-Active Records sat in a nook of the Gateway Shopping Plaza on Sunrise Blvd. in Fort Lauderdale, a hideaway between stores selling sandwiches and soap and vintage dresses. Like the archetypal record store of the imagination, Radio-Active was born when, creatively speaking, its surroundings were in the midst of a dearth — Blue Note, All Books and Records, and a slew of other mom-and-pop shops never made it past the untimely mass extinction of CD and record stores. So, it was a relief for area music nerds that Radio-Active grew to be such a haven.
It’s also the reason good local record stores become multipurpose gems in places like East Broward: They don’t so much provide sanctuary and stimuli for a few people who really love music; they reveal that it wasn’t such a small bunch after all. Serving time in the Plaza was fruitful for Radio-Active. The record store became an event space and a mini-label. Most significantly, it also became a sort of microcosmic lifestyle brand. To be brief, they did a lot of good work.
But in November 2011, operations manager Mikey Ramirez (such a well-loved cat, he’s the subject of a meme) moved Radio-Active to a smaller, streamlined space. It was wise to turn over a proverbial new leaf; the new, current location — where Record Store Day celebrations are to be had — is more visible, practical, and affordable.
“We have more customers now than we ever did,” Ramirez says. “Just people driving by and saying, ‘I’ve never heard of or seen this place,’ because we were tucked away in a plaza.”
Radio-Active has completely changed its face and its entire being from its original form — it used to be known as CD Collector. Ramirez, a music lover since his childhood in New Orleans, had an intuitive understanding of what it meant to produce an efficient business model. “[Before CD Collector], I was managing a Barnes & Noble. What I realized after three years is that you’re turning a huge profit for the company, but you’re not getting any personal gain from it. You have these corporate stores, and there’s one model set in place for a hundred of them. Something that might work in Nevada might not work in Florida.”
The shift from CD Collector to Radio-Active was rooted in this idea: a unique model suited to a particular place and a specific time. At some point in the early aughts, CDs began losing their significance, their purpose. “[The change] was at a time when the industry was different,” Ramirez explains. “Vinyl was on the come-up. You still had some validity to people purchasing compact discs, but that changed. So we had to change with it.”
That’s obvious — but downloadable music has been prevalent this entire time, and while vinyl is still valid, why did Radio-Active survive the shutdown of so many local record shops in the neighborhood? They not only lived to tell about it but completely reshaped the idea of what a local store could be. So what happened?
Again, Ramirez’s keen understanding of marketing played a role, and so did his personal background in music collecting. “We were already going in that direction [sticking to vinyl]. We weren’t necessarily being regressive and saying, ‘It’s a trend, it’s not really going to last.’ And more importantly, we were all vinyl collectors in the first place, so it was something we were familiar with. We saw that this culture was being implemented in stores like Urban Outfitters, American Apparel. You have to capitalize on that trend.”
Trends tend to last if they are appealing. Years ago, back in the Gateway Plaza, CD Collector had a red, orange, and yellow popsicle of a logo. Visually, it wasn’t entirely unappealing; but it also wasn’t suited to the new company model. The metamorphosis to Radio-Active was slow and steady, but one of the most obvious changes was the brand, the face of the store. “We had to continue with a facelift, a new brand, because we didn’t really have an image,” Ramirez admits. “We were using an old model and it was time to implement a new one.” It was Möthersky member and Ramirez’s co-worker Richard Vergez who, states Ramirez, “was responsible for the branding and giving us a look. One hundred percent.”
Richard Vergez’s process was inspired by both his own love of music and a desire to establish something that wasn’t time-stamped, that would last — much like the rest of Radio-Active’s upheaval. “My main inspirations behind the branding for Radio-Active came from my love for album cover art, especially the work of Peter Saville for Factory Records and Vaughan Oliver for 4AD,” says Vergez. “A well-organized and minimal aesthetic, clean and modern with a bit of an avant-garde edge. I set out to create something that would have a timeless existence in a world of genres, sub-genres, eras, conditions, scenes, and side-projects.”
It worked well. The new look, like the new store, is streamlined, more simplistic. While it does have the feel of a Factory Records release, there’s nothing about it that necessarily anchors it to a particular time; the yellow-and-black design, one that’s appeared on so many car bumpers and T-shirts, is modern, clean — bright enough to grab your attention, good-looking enough to hold it, basic enough to be applicable anywhere.
But trend-following and rebranding wasn’t entirely responsible for most of the company’s reformatting. It was that previously mentioned desire to make something that would last — that genuine, solid dedication to what the entire Radio-Active team loved most: music and its fans.
“We tried to always do what we thought was right and stick to what we thought people wanted to see and listen to,” Ramirez states. “There were times when we could have branched out and ventured into other aspects, like Uncle Sam’s did when it started selling items like corsets, candles. The focus had turned completely away from the music.
“We never shifted gears and went with certain style trends that had nothing to do with music, ” he continues. “The way I look at is this: if you’re not passionate about it, then you can’t sell it.”
The Radio-Active crew is a passionate lot, which is necessary at a time when the tri-county area’s individual music scenes seem to be solidifying. Radio-Active’s extensive collection of records includes a rackfull of local releases, and their in-store events bring nationally touring and local bands alike. Sure, he’s seen the local scene “go from top to bottom and then move all the way back up again.” Still, Ramirez maintains a sense of commitment, enabling him to have both the incredulity and dedication of a leader.
And all signs point to improvement in Broward, culturally speaking. Locally owned businesses continue to open and artistically minded areas, such as F.A.T. Village, are popping up outside of the downtown area. But Ramirez isn’t resting yet. He understands its problems from the perspective of an insider, a veteran. There’s still too much emphasis on money, he feels, and not enough camaraderie among hard-working people; as a result, there’s still not that much to do, nor are there enough artistic and musical outlets in South Florida, especially when it comes to Fort Lauderdale.
“I’m not a club promoter. But I can tell you this: the moment club promoters stop putting up barricades is when we can all essentially grow to achieve something more. I understand that making money is important, but the problem is that there’s no solidarity and no one wants to work together.”
Still, he admits, it isn’t all bad; there is just a dire need for more like-minded individuals willing to pool themselves together: “There are people, promoters, bands, that are trying to do this for their community. I’ve had conversations with people here and we understand that if we’re not going to put in 110 percent, we’re not going to get stuff done. For such a long period of time, touring bands didn’t even want to come down here.
“Essentially we’re filling the hole,” he continues. “The hole’s been dug and we’re trying to crawl out of it, and then we fill it,” Ramirez says of the local arts community’s battle to get Fort Lauderdale on a path to cultural relevance.
So why don’t we just abandon it all? Move to bigger cities, find better access to the creativity we want, and the money needed to support it?
“My life is here,” Ramirez says. “That’s why I won’t accept when people say that this place sucks. I won’t let it suck. If you work with other people with drive and ambition, you can make those things happen. They may not be on the same scale, but you can make them happen. People call this place a cultural wasteland, but nothing’s going to get done unless you do it. We’re sick of complaining.”