When Patrick Brennan was two years old, and living in his native state of Texas, he fell off a balcony. He still remembers the song that was playing at the time, ‘One Less Bell to Answer’ by The Fifth Dimension. Tunes are ingrained in his life, his mind: “When I listen to music, it isn’t music,” he says, “it’s like watching a playback of something in my memories.”
He’s surrounded by music, now. He runs an Internet radio station, andHow.FM, which pulls in 18,000 to 20,000 listeners a month, scattered out around the world like the spokes of a wheel whose hub is his small concrete basement room in a suburban cul-de-sac in Papakowhai. Britain’s Daily Telegraph named the station one of the best in the world, even though probably only a few thousand people in Porirua even know it exists.
Brennan started up andHow.FM – named after a catchphrase from the 1930s show Little Rascals – in 1998 when he was still living in Texas, back in the days of dial-up modems and slow downloads. Then it started to take over his life. “I had a swimming-pool business that I owned, but I neglected it,” he says, adding, with no apparent irony, “It wasn’t keeping things afloat anymore.”
It didn’t help that the US authorities wouldn’t license his Internet radio station. But he had heard that New Zealand’s licensing regime was “a little more liberal”. And so he came down under. “I was ready for change. I was willing to do whatever it took, because I didn’t want to give up.”
AndHow.FM now broadcasts 24 hours a day, playing an eclectic mix of indie, alternative, electronica and retro rock, some of it programmed by popular online vote. It has listeners in Turkey, the Philippines, Portugal and countless other places, plus those tuning into the standard FM signal in the Porirua area.
Brennan describes himself as “driven” (this may be an understatement). A big, bear-like man, he has a high laugh and at least one typically American attribute. “I wish there was a volume knob sometimes, because outside of my friends and family, I’m very private, and sometimes I wish I could keep my mouth shut.” But he’s aware of the volume issue, which isn’t very American – and of course it’s no bad thing for a radio man.
He’s still proud of being a Texan, but his Texas is one that draws on Cajuns as much as cowboys. He’s part Cherokee and part Choctaw. He’s no fan of George Dubya Bush, whom he once likened to a Horseman of the Apocalypse. And he’s open-minded: his studio features an American flag in one corner – but in the other, a Russian flag.
Brennan is now a partly naturalised New Zealander, as you can tell from the way he addresses his listeners, alternating between “man” and “mate”. He lived in Gisborne for a while, “and man, it was an experience. When they say it’s an old boys’ club, I know what that means.” But he became immersed in Maori culture; a powhiri he once attended was “the most amazing thing I had ever seen”, and he has since “made it my duty” to pronounce Maori well.
AndHow.FM doesn’t pay its way, despite taking up to 30 hours of Brennan’s time each week, so he also holds down a job in IT. But the station never seems like a burden. Quite the reverse: when he had to give it up for a few years, he was like a man unmoored. “I was really kind of lost in those few years,” he says – and his face falls, like a child’s, and he looks genuinely bereft.
There may have been times when he doubted what he insists is “a passion, not an obsession”. But seeing the movie High Fidelity and its portrayal of a neurotic – but also heroic – record store owner “made me feel like I was okay. I didn’t think I was crazy anymore.” Now, he adds, “I don’t know what else I would do. When I started back doing this, I felt normal again.”