Media Bureau Network's large studio/warehouse space on Brown Street in Northern Liberties is up for sale, which serves as a rite of passage not only for the neighborhood, which benefitted from MBN's presence, but for the company. One of Philadelphia's first digital media channels and webcasting pioneers, Media Bureau Network (MBN) was born in 1997. "When we first started," says founder Ben Barnett via email, "Media Bureau was a gritty mobile-webcasting and interface-design operation hustling ISDN lines across the city to be able to webcast while competing against similar VC-backed webcasting business models."
That grittiness and hustle extended to MBN's funky physical space, where a recording studio played host to live talk and music shows with some of Philly's most famous (and infamous) creative types. Often times, the atmosphere felt more like a party than a workspace. It was also, says Barnett, one of the city's first co-working spaces—one that was instrumental to bringing digital access to NoLibs at that time.
Now that the warehouse will be changing hands, we asked Barnett to pay homage to the space and to the neighborhood's tech history.
How did Media Bureau end up at its warehouse space?
"We looked for almost four years for the right spot. We were actually close to moving down the street from what was soon to become the Five Spot, before it was built, on Bank Street. My partner and I ended up installing the original sound system there. Not being able to raise the funds for the nearby property during that time, we eventually moved to more familiar grounds, Northern Liberties. North Philadelphia is where my family had a business for many, many years and opening Media Bureau there was special for a lot of reasons.
Why did the Northern Liberties space fit your needs?
"It was huge, secluded, had multiple addresses and could suit our need to provide for artists in residence while accelerating our desire for more original web content that we were collaborating on locally and via online connections. We built multiple D/V studios, HD screening room, digital viewing pods, public edit / viewing stations, etc. We were the only ones who saw the shared digital workspace vision in Philadelphia at this time and one of the early Media Bureau revenue strategies was to capitalize on this by incubating artists while producing our own content – i.e. film and music content that people wanted and could not get anywhere else. We needed a space that could accommodate that multimedia vision of a shared analog/ digital experience that we could distribute in-house."
You were a pathbreaker in terms of the city's digital growth. Do you feel you were also involved in the growth of the neighborhood?
"As part of the business model going in, we really tried to bring digital media capabilities to Northern Liberties and made many unique efforts to do this over a 13-year span. Northern Liberties was perfect for this at the time. Early on, Media Bureau Network installed the first fiber optics, ISDN lines, WiFi hot spots, and xDSL lines in the neighborhood, with redundancy, and gave it away for free while we up-sold our and the surrounding digital media community's creative, original content and database skills. This complete package enabled everybody who came into contact with us to have the ability to reach “mass” audiences."
We recall some parties in the space. Anything crazy happen there that you'd care to recount?
"Every day was a celebration somewhere in the 12,000 square foot studios. We knew we had a special place and were working with original raw business and art. But we never threw a real party in the classic sense. We always were recording, webcasting, posting, and in general creating interactive content. That was a requirement or we would not produce the event. It was always important that people understood that we were producing live shows online for a “global” audience."
Best memories of the space?
"SO many. Really. We have been very, very lucky. Thinking out loud, the many neighborhood interactions, watching the Fourth and Brown corner sprout up as a cool crossroads in NL, the many social action groups we have come into contact with over the years— Congreso, PYN, Y.E.S, Kensington Welfare, etc. Connecting naturally for special moments with artists such as Rich Medina, King Britt, Jill Scott, Ursula Rucker, Black Ice, Jafar Barron, Tim Motzer, Elliot Levine, the Ortliebs crew, and others for open mic’s; having Eminem in before his first album came out; mixing the baddest show with Czech prog rock legends Utzme Doma last minute in the warehouse; watching eight cameras record Charlie Hunter for a one-of-a-kind interactive DVD with Ropeadope; interviewing Schoolly D at the Republican Convention and then providing him (and the Daily Show team) all-access passes to the convention floor; producing the Order of the Quest movie soundtrack with Schoolly and Chuck; Rich Medina interviewing Maceo Parker in the Real sessions; a screening in Cannes with a short doc film I did with King Britt; DJ Spookey crashing out at the studio for five or six days while we built the original DJSpookey.com; the many, many late-night jam’s, and perhaps most important the potent political discussions in the freeRADlab while watching political types weave in and out of the scene not knowing what just went down in the studio minutes before."
Incredible memories. So why are you selling?
"There are lots of reasons. But essentially, we feel we are finally back on track. We are going on the fifth year of the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival and we are now in a process of 'live designing' a news website and dashboard, TakeActionNews.com. The timing is right."
How has the neighborhood changed?
"There is a sense of place that Northern Liberties has in the citywide scheme of things (finally) in my view. I am proud to have done our little part in helping enable this neighborhood to be actively pursued by other Philadelphians as an artist’s destination. It's 12 months a year now in NL. You come down on a weekend and walk around, something is going on. It’s fantastic. There is an increasing influx of young talent including artists, professionals, college age students, combined with a great neighborhood association that bends over backwards to help out and maintain the coolness that is NL. People have stayed connected to why they moved there in the first place. I admire that."
Any last words?
"Thank you to my family, friends and colleagues who stuck by us and what we tried to do. We look forward to the next phase! Thank you! Media Bureau as a business would not have been a reality if the neighbors did not support and in turn enable our interactive approach to the creative and technology of film, media and politics. We really could not have produced the body of work and business that what we did without a giving and cool neighborhood to do it in surrounded by the artists and business community who believed in our model. We were given an opportunity by the locals and they welcomed us. Thank you."
· Listing: 338 Brown St. [Elfant Wissahickon]