It’s 3:45am in Miami Beach’s Crobar nightclub. The music reached a fever pitch over two hours ago and hasn’t let-up since. Off to one side of the packed VIP room a lone male rips off his shirt, climbs up atop one of the gigantic speakers that flank the multi-level room and breaks into some serious dance moves completely oblivious to the crowd below him. It soon becomes quite obvious that at this particular moment in time this individual doesn’t give a damn about anything but the music...The music.
His real name—Justin Altshuler—is among the most guarded secrets on South Beach. His adopted moniker – Buster – is, after all, a more apt self-expression of the over-the-top, bleached-blond, speaker-dancing party boy who first made a reputation for himself as marketing director of Ego Trip Magazine, a back-pocket fixture among local hipsters since its creation in late 1999.
Today, as South Beach enters its new tourism and social season for 2003, Buster is a major force on the scene, a unique personality in a place where self-expression is a sacred rite.
Born in Beverly, Massachusetts, just north of Boston, he attended Emerson College and majored in communications before getting his big break in local radio just before his scheduled graduation. Just over two years later, he relocated to Miami Beach to start his life over again, with fewer drugs and more focused ambition.
After two and a half years as the public face of Ego Trip, Buster left the magazine earlier this year to pursue an opportunity to be an important player in the launch of the country’s first full-powered dance music radio station, Party 93.1 FM, operated by Cox Broadcasting. Simultaneously, he and two partners created A3TV, the country’s first all-dance music video channel, which is broadcast, via cable, for seven hours each night.
How did you get into radio?
I met the program director from WBCN, one of Boston’s biggest rock stations, at a dinner party. And I said, ‘you’re playing Chemical Brothers, you’re playing Crystal Method, you’re playing all these electronic bands. Why don’t you have a mixed show?’ And he said, ‘call me and we’ll do it.’ So, I just gathered up all these local DJ’s and I hosted a mixed show every Saturday night. That was my first on-air gig.
How old were you?
How long did you have that first job?
For about two years.
After that, I got to a point where I couldn’t really go any further in Boston, and I really got to a point where I was being known personally for the wrong things. I used to do a lot of drugs when I was younger. I was known as this club kid who was crazy, crazy all the time. But it was the wrong image, because I was just known as that. So, I really had to start over, so I came to South Beach.
In 1999. I had met Buzzy Sklar, the founder of Ego Trip Magazine, about a year before. I had his card, so I called him before I moved down. When I first got to South Beach, I worked briefly at a couple of night clubs, Wax and Groove Jet. Then I tried to work as a dancer, because that’s what I really love doing. I like putting on a show.
But your real introduction to South Beach was working for Ego Trip Magazine?
I went to work with Ego Trip a couple of months after I got here. The magazine was just getting started and it was something I could really sink my teeth into and keep focused on. Before that, I didn’t want to work nightlife particularly. I wanted to work in and around it.
What appealed to you about working for a new magazine?
My whole thing was, I just needed to focus this energy that I had. So, I really sunk my teeth into Ego Trip. I really wanted to do the best I could and use it as a vehicle to get to a lot of people.
How did you react to the opportunity?
For the first time in my life, I tried to be as responsible as possible.
You were that much of a reprobate in your earlier life?
(after long pause and sigh) I just wasn’t going anywhere. I just kept going down and down. So, I had to get motivated to be successful, and I had to do it on my own terms.
So, I came down here and got my chance with Ego Trip.
How long did you work there?
Two and a half years.
Many people say you were the heart and soul of the magazine, its most visible presence, during your time there?
I wore many hats, but it was a huge team effort. I went out every night and took the club pictures, and I would write most of the copy, a lot of it with David Winn, a founder and editor.
What do you feel that you accomplished during your stint at Ego Trip?
I really learned an unbelievable amount about marketing and sales. I became a lot better as a writer. It got me to meet the right people. Meeting people was the best part of the job.
What caused you to move on after two and a half years?
Well, there was only so far I could go there. I was marketing director of a regional magazine that was absolutely the coolest magazine. I will always think that. I worked with a really cool staff. But there was only so far I could take it. I knew the next logical step would be to go from a regional magazine to a national magazine. And I really had to think about that at the time. But in the end, I decided I wanted to try to put my time and energy into my own project.
And what is that?
It’s called A-3 TV and it’s the first 24-hour dance music video channel.
How did you decide on TV as your next move?
I had this little Ego Trip television thing going on. It was a one-minute bulletin of what’s hot and happening in clubland. It showed 30 times a week on MTV, Comedy Central and
So, how did the TV network materialize?
I was working with my partner, David Mardini from Onboard Media, and we said to ourselves, ‘if Ego Trip can buy 60 seconds to put me on the air, why can’t we buy 60 minutes’? Then we thought, ‘why can’t we just buy from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. and make it late-night TV, after-hours TV?’ It could be a little bit risque But then the question was, ‘what will we fill it up with?’
How did you answer that question for yourselves?
We’re such lovers of dance music and I had seen dance music videos before, but they’re never shown in the U.S.
So, the videos are widely produced but never shown?
Not in the U.S. In Europe, they’re huge.
So that’s how you got the idea of creating the MTV of dance music?
Yes. Originally, it was going to be a lot more diverse. If we had more resources right now, we’d have more types of shows. Right now, in addition to the videos, we have a show called ‘After Midnight’ that’s being done in strip clubs, with girls going in and interviewing strippers. We also have a show called ‘Plant Love’ from a well-known woman DJ on the beach named Snezana.
What’s you concept for developing the TV network beyond Miami?
We’re only two months old, so we’re starting on the beach to get our format down. We need to get local advertising sales going.
Why will people watch it?
Why do people read Ego Trip? Why do people read Ocean Drive? They don’t read them for the articles, as much as I would have liked to think they do. They look at them to see if they’re in there or their friends are in there.
How do you translate that to TV?
We fill up, in between every single commercial and every single music video, we throw in what’s called a ‘bumper,’ a local bumper ID of a local party person saying, ‘Hey, this is so-and-so, and you shouldn’t be home watching A-TV. You should be out on the town partying with me.’ That keeps it local, and it means people will watch in their local markets.
The other rule is, if it’s cool, we’ll show it. Dance music videos are cool. They have no words. They don’t screw themselves up by having too many vocals or words that try to give it some kind of meaning.
What real need are you trying to fulfill in the Miami media market?
It’s late-night. You’re going out, or you’re coming home. You’re about to have sex. There’s escort services on there. We’re in all the hotels, because when you turn on the TV at most hotels on Miami Beach, the default channel is channel 3. So, you’re automatically tuned in to us when you turn on your TV. So, we have that audience. And we have the local dance music/club crowd.
How do you select the videos that are shown on A-TV?
I call record labels. They want to get their videos shown. So, we look at them to make sure they’re cool.
You’re the person who actually decides what gets shown?
Yes, along with my partners, David Mardini and Peter Wolfson.
You’ve also come up with some unusual promotions.
Yes, like our ‘VIP for a Night’ promotion. We go to a club and take the people who are last in line and give them a bottle and throw women at them all night. We just did one where we took the last guys in line to see Paul Oakenfold at Opium Garden. Then we took them upstairs to meet him. It was amazing, a lot of fun.
You’ve also been involved in the launch of the country’s first major-market all dance music radio station, Party 93 FM. How does that tie into the TV station?
The radio station approached me about a month before I left Ego Trip. I had talked to them on behalf of the magazine and we had done some events together, like hot body contests at the Clevelander and things like that. So, after I left Ego Trip and took a little vacation, I sat down with the radio people and we made a deal for me to become promotions manager of the new station.
How did it feel to go back into radio?
I was really excited. I would have never thought I was going to get back into radio, especially not something like Party 93.
Are the radio and TV efforts inter-related?
No. They are totally different, totally separate. But they do feed on each other, because I always put Party 93 on the TV channel and every once in a while, the combination of radio and TV helps get an artist or something else that we want.
You’re also on the air as a DJ?
We don’t have DJ’s yet, so I just do a club report every Saturday night, from midnight until 3 a.m., from Club Space. All of our broadcasts are live from clubs.
You’re adding more clubs this season?
Yes, as new and hot clubs come in.
How do you divide your time between the radio station and TV channel?
I work full-time at the radio station, so I work with my partners David Mardini and Peter Wolfson in my off hours. David also still works full time at Onboard Media. So, we work in the evenings and on weekends to develop the TV concept.
But you’re equally excited by the radio concept as well?
Absolutely. I love radio. I mean, I really love radio. We’re the first full-powered dance music radio station in the U.S. It’s owned by Cox Broadcasting. They bought the old WTMI-FM, a classical station, for $100 million in order to do this. It’s one of the strongest signals in the Miami market.
How has the station done so far in the ratings?
We’ve consistently ranked right around number three ever since we started. And that really says something about dance music in the Miami market, and even dance music in the entire U.S., because the two stations that rank ahead of us are both hip-hop.
What is the range of the music and why?
I’m a jaded clubber. Would I like to see Danny Tenaglia and Paul Van Dyk on there? Sure. But it has to be commercial top 40 dance music. We are not a club station, we are a real dance music radio station.
What’s the difference?
Nightclubs are more minimalistic and underground. A top 40 radio station needs a real song. And everything we do is researched. All of the tracks are put out to research to find out what people think of them before we play them. Our purpose is to identify and play the dance music hits. Our average listener tunes in for no more than 20 minutes at a time, so our rotation has to play what’s hot – over and over again. We repeat the hits the same way any radio station in any format does. That’s what people want to hear.
Do you think there will come a fork in the road between the radio and TV ventures?
I can continue to do both things, because I love doing both. I can a lot of support from both things. As far as I’m concerned, I’ll always be the promotions director at Party 93. As for the TV thing, once we get going, we can hire people to do the things that need to be done in order to develop it.
You’re planning to develop the TV concept nationally, into other major markets?
Yes. But we’re going to fully develop the Miami market and infrastructure first.
How strong is Miami’s influence now as a dance music capital?
It floats in between the second and third largest market by way of dance music sales. But the Miami market is huge for dance music.
Why do you think that is?
One of the biggest reasons is the influence of English-speaking Hispanics. Music is so important to the Latin culture. And dancing and expressing yourself is very important. I went to a Latin Thanksgiving dinner last year and there was a DJ and people were dancing and there was an open bar. And I said to myself, ‘Thanksgiving was never like this in Boston!’
Another factor is the club scene down here. It has become so widely known that it really infects people. And another big factor is that for the first time last Christmas, more turntables were sold then electric guitars. So, dance music is absolutely huge, and getting bigger all the time.
Going into a new tourism season, what’s your assessment of South Beach as a nightlife phenomenon?
It’s changing. It’s definitely going more urban. Hip-hop is the popular music on the scene now. And that’s a very good thing, because it brings in a lot of money. Maybe the wild party scene that you used to see on E! Channel is gone, but the beach will always have the VIP scene. We will always be the Ibiza of the U.S.
What do you say to those who have pronounced South Beach ‘over’?
(laughing) Stay off my beach! If it’s ‘over,’ fine. We’re always going to long for the days of old. But I know that every new person coming to live on the beach will have the time of their lives over the next few months. And then they’ll say, five years from now, ‘Oh, remember back when the beach was like it was then?’ We’re just jaded, because we’re partied out.
What exactly do you think makes South Beach so unique?
It’s a small town. It’s a neighborhood of a small city. It’s like a village. I didn’t even have a car here for the first two years. I just had a scooter. You can get by with a bicycle.
Why do you like living here so much?
You can be whoever you want here. It’s very free. For someone like me, I have developed a higher comfort level here than I had in Boston.
And the smallness of the place contributes to the opportunities you can develop?
Yes. When I first got here, I was determined to meet everyone. So, I brought RollerBlades down with me and every day, I went from one end of the beach to the other end of the beach, going in every single store and introducing myself.
How did the famous Buster persona develop?
The name comes from when I raced jet skis as a teenager. I was actually a nationally ranked champion. My sponsors said, ‘OK, we’ll sponsor you, but everybody who rides for us has a nickname. And I said, you can call me Susan for all I care. Then they said, ‘Bustin’ Justin.’ Then people started saying Buster and that was it. So, I brought the name with me from Boston.
Describe the Buster persona as it is so well known and appreciated on the beach.
I’m a Gemini, but I’ve never really been a believer in astrology, But my friends who are into astrology have always told me there are two sides to me and that it’s very pronounced. And I came to realize that there really is a difference between Justin and Buster. Whenever I’m dating a girl, there’s always that moment when they say, ‘What do I call you?’ I say, call me Justin but call me Buster when you’re mad at me so I’ll know.
But the Buster persona when I’m out is that I don’t take anybody seriously. I always try to have as much fun with people as possible. It’s very loud, but hopefully in a good way.
And nobody gets more than a few seconds?
I’ll have a hundred 30-second conversations in a typical Saturday night, yeah. I talk so much I come out with what I call club throat. It’s really hard core.
How different is the private Justin person from the public Buster person?
I like to stay in and watch movies and chill. And when I’m out, I meet a lot of fake people and people who just can’t turn it off. I try to get to know people well enough that they can turn it off for a second. And I do the same thing. I try to turn it off.
So, most people don’t know the real Buster – or Justin?
Most people think I’m a freak who stays out all night every night. People see me at Space on Sunday morning and they don’t realize I got up an hour before that because I love Ivano Bellini as a DJ. So, I go to bed and get up early to go out and see Ivano on Sunday mornings. I call it the breakfast club. People who see me think I’ve been up partying like a maniac all night.
What do you think is the next evolution of the scene here?
This is always going to be an entertainment and nightlife mecca and there will always be clubs here. I think there will be more urban clubs and that the diversity will become really interesting.
So you categorically reject the opinions of those who say hip-hop has had a negative influence on the beach?
Hip-hop has had a positive influence on the beach. It has had a positive influence on music nationally. It brings money into this community.
What do you think would most surprise the people who think they know you?
I’m in my office every day by 9:30 or 10 a.m. I’ve learned to be focused. I’ve learned that you can actually use this energy that you have to actually get something done. And I know for a fact now that it’s going to pay off.