“There was no concerted effort in Philadelphia to do anything digital let alone optimize a platform for politics,” Barnett says. So Media Bureau did both.
Ten years later, Media Bureau had the highest trafficked political site (PA2010.com) in the state during the campaign season. And what’s in store for next year’s elections is already on display at PA2012.com, a one-stop shop for news, analysis and opinion on all of the state elections.
Barnett leased the Fourth Street warehouse in 1998. “The idea was to create a scene,” says Rosenblatt, who remains a friend and consultant. “It was not just a business, it was a gathering place.” So they had several of the walls knocked down, leaving a few communal spaces. “We filled them with couches, we would throw concerts and receptions.”
What ensued was a constant flow of artists, some of whom have set up shop in the warehouse’s studios, like Eminem’s guitarist, Curt Chambers. The artists who make up the Bureau’s “ecosystem” regularly volunteer and perform at its events, and in return get discounted rent. The hospitality extends to visiting artists who just need a place to sleep for the night. “People know it’s a pretty chill place and if someone needs a place to crash, so be it. That’s kinda the way Media Bureau is,” Cohen says.
“It’s an ideal environment to be creative, and we think its working,” says Barnett, who rattles off a list of the Bureau’s previous tenants: professional skateboarder, musician and 2011 Pew Fellowship Award recipient Chuck Treece; world-renowned DJ, poet and producer Big Rich Medina; DJ and producer King Britt.
“It was like Andy Warhol’s factory in a way, but with more creative thinkers who have all gone on to do great things,” says Britt, reminiscing about the building that housed his music studio for a decade. “Rich Medina lived upstairs and between the two of us and then what Ben was doing, it became an epicenter for some amazing creative collaborations.” One such endeavor includes a documentary about the making of Britt’s Sister Gertrude Morgan album and the Sylk130 reunion show at World Café Live, expected to be released soon.
“Media Bureau was definitely a fantastic hub for the underground scene,” says Britt. “It was a space that was really special and run by some amazing guys who weren’t in it for the money but for the cultivation of an amazing pool of talent.”
And at the very core of Media Bureau is a revolving cast of characters working behind the scenes.
For years Barnett hitchhiked across the U.S and Europe, taught English in Prague and worked on CD-ROM interfaces in Israel (where he co-designed the interface of the original Space Invaders game).
Wherever he went, he went in search of things off the beaten path. “I would just go to a country or city and look for it.”
What exactly “it” was, he didn’t know or care.
“I research and read all the time, talk with colleagues, travel the world, all to look for signs,” he says. “Those signs are human digital migration.”
Today, the settled father of three is captain of the Media Bureau ship. “Somehow I manage to be a film festival producer, program director, political reporter, researcher and digital media gadfly,” he jokes. His official titles include community manager, digital media strategist, director of new business and his least favorite, landlord. In addition to managing the 27 websites under the Bureau’s umbrella, Barnett has directed 10 music videos and once collaborated with Chuck Treece and Philly rapper Schoolly D to create a 21-song film soundtrack.
Shortly after receiving a degree in International Public Relations from Hartford University, Cohen—who also goes by “MC Keylime Pie,” “Oil Slick,” and “Scrappy K,” depending on the day—sold all his belongings and headed out west. There, the Bucks County native landed a role in the mockumentary The Making Of: Invasion of the Freedom Snatchers , starring as a zombie leader alongside the likes of Forest Whitaker, Dennis Leary and Chloë Sevigny.
Cohen, 36, also co-founded the Freedom Cinema Festival, a showcase of global activist films. It was when he came to the Bureau to audition for the role of a monk in the science-fiction documentary The Order of the Quest that Cohen first met Barnett. He didn’t get the part, but Cohen parlayed his film experience into a spot in the Bureau and immediately got involved with the Indie Film Fest. “I jumped in January 2008 and didn’t look back,” he says.
Cohen spends his days tackling various Bureau duties, whether it be screening films, interviewing artists or dealing with the electricity bill. At night, he’s a consultant at Nutrisystem, helping people stick to their weight-loss regime. “That job helps pay the bills and feed the vital organs, and this world of the entertainment, film and music helps me feed the soul,” he says.
There’s a crew of several other media-savvy visionaries backing up Barnett and Cohen, including Keith Atkinson, the Bureau’s chief technology officer. Atkinson, who grew up just outside of the city, worked in the aerospace electronics, military IT and communications industry for several years. Meanwhile, he was also playing in bands around the city, which is how he first met Barnett. As soon as he returned from tour in 1998, Barnett offered him a job.
“I figured that it would be a perfect opportunity to combine my experience in music and computer engineering,” Atkinson says.
And at any given event, there’s a slew of volunteers working the ticket booth, helping with sound or lighting, manning the bar or guarding the garage door making sure no alcoholic beverages leave the building.
This commitment may just be their way of paying it forward. “Ben has been an amazing mentor and so generous to the Northern Liberties community with everything he has done over the last 13 years,” says Cohen.