HERITAGE RADIO NETWORK
Talking with Patrick Martins, founder
"Radio is democratic, inexpensive, and a powerful tool for people who don’t have access to other resources...We wanted to treat food seriously, to create an archive of key, influential people in the food business, to talk about important things, like biodiversity."
Meet Patrick Martins, founder of Heritage Radio Network (HRN), the “world’s pioneer food radio station” and freewheeling culinary clubhouse for gatherings of cool folks from every corner of the food and drink world. Thirty five shows as wide-ranging as The Farm Report and Wedding Cake broadcast from the Bushwick, Brooklyn, studio every week.
In addition to founding Heritage Radio Network, Patrick is the founder of Slow Food USA, and the author of The Carnivore’s Manifesto. His company Heritage Foods USA is the largest distributor of rare and heritage breed meats in the country.
Though this is a profile of Patrick Martins, in true anything-goes clubhouse style, there’s also input from HRN’s Executive Director Caity Moseman Wadler; Communications Director Kat Johnson; and Mike Edison, host of long-running HRN show Arts & Seizures.
AT A GLANCE
Business Start Date: May 2009—First show
Briefly Describe Your Work/Business: Nonprofit food radio network broadcasting out of two shipping containers behind Roberta’s Pizza in Brooklyn
For What Are You Best Known: Savvy, entertaining conversations about what’s going on in the culinary world
Top 3 Business Statistics or Milestones:
- 1 million listens per month
- More than 10,000 radio show episodes in our archive
- More than 35 weekly radio shows
What’s Your “Secret Sauce”? (Why/How have you achieved success?)
It’s a clubhouse for people in the food and beverage industry. Heritage Radio network provides a platform for chefs, brewers, farmers, writers, sommeliers, and more, to have meaningful conversations about food and drink, which is a rarity in the food media landscape. There’s a spirit and energy behind it that hosts, guests, and listeners gravitate to.
What event, experience, or collection of events/experiences compelled you to pursue this business?
PATRICK MARTINS; In 1998, I met and worked with Carlo Petrini in Bra, Italy. He’s the president and founder of the International Slow Food Movement…I met him at Remi restaurant. I had just finished my masters at NYU in Performance Studies. [Petrini] invited me to go to Italy to work [and where I helped with Slow Food].
Carlo was a doer…he had done things with charities, he had had a [pirate] radio station. He used an American military tank transmitter and broadcast on actual radio waves (even though the Italian government at the time said they only had enough bandwidth for the three official radio stations).
We discussed that radio is democratic, inexpensive, and a powerful tool for people who don’t have access to other resources.
Did you have any experience starting or running a similar project/business? Did you do research or training to prepare?
I knew I was good with people. From Carlo, I learned the meaning of connections, to bring people together, for starting a movement. I learned from Carlo how to organize events for people who care about food, how to talk to chefs to get them to [help out].
What was your first step toward making the project a reality?
In 2008, I walked into Roberta’s and asked if I could set up two shipping containers behind the restaurant. (The Roberta’s restaurant team had been buying pork from my company Heritage Foods.) Shipping containers were the cheapest way of building a structure. It was all about building the station with as little money as possible.
It took some months to set up, but my original show The Main Course began in 2009. At the time, food was being treated as a fashion, but the biggest issues, like global warming, the loss of farmland, and animal welfare, were being ignored by major media, such as The Food Network and The New York Times. This is what we talked about in the first episode of The Main Course. There was a little news, a little talk about chefs, a little about farmers. We were trying to treat food the same way sports and politics were treated.
What was the initial development period like?
I realized that the younger generations had skipped learning some things—how butter was made, that goats were seasonal animals, how to make omelets—and wanted to find out. I met some experts in the food world—Joyce Goldstein, Paula Wolfert, Steven Jenkins and asked them: “When was the last time you were written about?” They said “years.”
We wanted to treat food seriously, to create an archive of key, influential people in the food business, to talk about important things, like biodiversity.
[On the radio], there was Car Talk, but no Food Talk. A chef would say: “Hey, you have a radio station and I can talk about my three generations of family in the business? No one asks me that.” (They were inspired.)
There was no brewer show. We had and have a show by and for brewers. We were the first station to launch a food tech show. Dave Arnold hosts a show with live callers, who ask things like: “Why does ice melt in my cocktail?”
We knew it had the potential to be the most important place for food information.
When was the first glimmer that you were on to something?
The second we built the station and The Main Course, when someone could call in live. We talked about the lack of high-speed internet on farms and how much weather affected farm production.
Another sign was when important chefs said that they would come on the show. Chefs came to the studio to be interviewed, like Mark Ladner, Mario Carbone, Alice Waters, Mario Batali, Michael Anthony, and Carmen Quagliata. (The talent would come for the show then eat at Roberta’s.)
The station was a “f*** you” to mainstream media. We didn’t seek validation from outside, but The New York Times did write about us [in June 2009] (and we were covered by the CBS Morning Show [in May 2016]).
Did you have a business plan in place when you started? How has the business developed? Is the business financially sustainable?
It started in 2009 as a for-profit business. My company Heritage Foods paid for staff, expenses for about three years.
We thought a lot about: If you’re not reaching your potential, are you successful? We were just scraping by for a long time.
In 2012, we converted to a nonprofit and we got sponsors, including Hearst Ranch, Cain Vineyards, Sam Edwards.
We didn’t have the skills and the technical knowledge until, really, 2014, to plan growth and get more exposure by doing things like investing in Google AdWords.
CAITY MOSEMAN WADLER: Sponsorship is a bigger part of this now. For example, we’re doing a collaboration with the people behind the book Modernist Bread, which publishes this fall. It’s the biggest project we’ve done, with six one-hour episodes. It’s going to feature more interviews (with people whom are big names in bread), higher production values than we’ve done. It will be funky but polished. Bob’s Red Mill is the sponsor for that series.)
PATRICK: Without much of a budget, we have engineers, but the hosts do all their own work: they secure the guests, do research, interview them on air. They do fundraising for the station…and the hosts are unpaid.
Everyone has such a good time when they come to the station. There’s a clubhouse environment.
I don’t know if it would have survived if it wasn’t in/behind a pizzeria. It’s a creative, collaborative place. We never cared that the acoustics weren’t perfect or that the hosts didn’t have experience. It was the heart and commitment to the mission that people brought to their work.
An entrepreneur is needed to start things and have the outrageous and far-out ideas. That’s me. The scaffolding [to hold it up] comes from a whole team and culture. And you hope that the new team remembers the past; the meaning of the mission.
Did/do you have a mentor or consulting team?
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Distinguished Professor of Performance Studies at New York University. She was a professor in my graduate program; she created intellectual space for all types of minds and looked at everyday life as performance.
Carlo Petrini, founder of the International Slow Food Movement. Carlo taught me what it meant to do hard work. You don’t stop at 5 pm at Slow Food.
Alice Waters. She was a mentor, and through her example, I saw that hard work was the number one requisite for success at the station.
What is the best advice someone has given you?
Brian Kenney, from Hearst Ranch said: “Until pen hits paper, it’s just a good idea.” (It means you have to start things. Lots of people have ideas; not everyone follows through.)
Also, I met this guy who worked in rubber [manufacturing]. He said: “When I was 18, I was in a band. Everyone loved me. I was a celebrity. By the time I was 22, we stopped playing...It’s not sad. I still play. I know that and that’s all that matters.”
For Heritage Radio, if there were no calls, no money, it didn’t matter. Creating and developing the station was the right thing to do. Sure enough, people came. They listened, hosted, appeared as guests, donated.
What has been your company’s best moment so far?
In 2014, when Carlo Petrini and Alice Waters chose Heritage Radio as the media outlet to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the International Slow Food Movement. We closed the outdoor garden, had a day’s worth of events, and were live on the radio.
What has been your company’s worst moment so far?
In 2009, when the shipping container leaked during a storm and we [thought we] had to throw out all of the equipment. And there was a challenge of trust; I thought the engineers weren’t doing what was needed and they thought I hadn’t prepared the station properly. [The equipment and the relationships overcame the challenge.]
Also, the deaths of Ray Deter, co-host of Beer Sessions in a bike accident, and of Dorothy Cann Hamilton, who died last year in a car accident. [Hamilton was the founder of the French Culinary Institute (now International Culinary Center), host of HRN's popular Chef's Story, and a major supporter of HRN]..
What’s easier than you thought it would be?
That the hosts stay on; we’ve never lost hosts. I also thought we’d have trouble filling show time, but that’s not the case. The hosts have too much fun and too big a fan base to stop!
What’s harder than you thought it would be?
I thought it needed to be a household name quickly. It was a challenge to know the right pacing of a “movement.” It wasn’t taking off. We needed to get enough money to support the station. We needed people with skills. But I realized that it took the International Slow Food Movement ten years before they were talked about in the major press and acknowledged by food industry insiders.
Also, with a few exceptions, young people don’t have the same work ethic that they used to. [It was hard to] find people that respected the mission of HRN.
In the [HBO] series “The Defiant Ones,” they show [rapper, music producer, entrepreneur] Dr. Dre unloading equipment himself…It's challenging to find many young people today who would put in the same amount of work and dedication that Dr. Dre did during the early days of his career. Lots of people want to rush success and aren't willing to put in the hours it takes to move through the ranks.
What has been the funniest/weirdest thing that has happened so far?
MIKE EDISON: “[Unknowingly] eating pot cookies on the day of a show, before going on air. It’s already an out-there show featuring punk rock, pro wrestling, etc., but that show, we were talking about cat adoption and this crazy cat lady brought in all these kittens that were all over the studio. That was the fastest half hour…and the sloooowest!
PATRICK: That was symbolic of the ethos of the station—the free-spirited culture. Roberta’s has long been known as a gathering place for the most creative people, and that carried over to HRN.
Is there a quote, mantra, book, or something else that motivates you?
For a long time, it was: “Do It ‘The Italian Way’.” In other words, “just do it, and we’ll figure it out later.” Italy is the exact meeting place between bureaucracy and anarchy. The people just get by, they get things done.
For us, it was pressing the record button, embracing a little bit of anarchy, and figuring [things out] as you go! We did it “The Italian Way“ for years, but now we’re going a little more [official].
What do you hope to achieve from this point forward?
PATRICK: I hope to play a lesser role. My idea rests now with Caity and Kat. Caity has the five-year plan…We’re starting to do more post-production on shows. We hope to expand the shows so that we’re a platform for a range of shows: a news show, op-ed show, documentaries.
Now, in 2017, we’re in a new zone. Thanks to the hosts and wide range of shows. We have guests from all over the world. We have a board of directors...We should be the VICE of food or the NPR of food. But, I still meet people who haven’t heard of us. We want people to know that for anyone interested in food, we have free content for people all over the world.
CAITY: We now have 1 million listens a month—live and podcast downloads. Public Radio Exchange (PRX) has 4 ½-5 million listens/month. That’s our goal.
[This profile was edited for clarity.]