As a DJ, radio producer and documentary maker, radio has been a cornerstone of my career. I’ve spent countless late nights and early mornings making shows and hanging around in studios all over the world: London, Kumasi, Harare, Berlin, Lisbon and beyond. Whilst every station links into its local music scene differently, there’s a common thread running between them: the alchemy when you lift the fader and feel the connection with the audience. Radio has the power to bring people together like nothing else. It’s no coincidence that listening surged during the pandemic.
London’s rich history of independent radio is largely rooted in the pirate radio stations that sprang up to play music which was often ignored by the mainstream. Genres like grime, jungle, garage, rare groove and many more would not exist in the way they do now without pirates. These days, many of them – including Kiss FM, Rinse FM, Kool and Flex – have gone legal and it’s a lot easier to set up a station. With increased broadband speeds you can be on air at the click of a button without applying for a license or clambering over a rooftop. In the last decade or so online radio stations have boomed, making DIY radio accessible to a wider range of emerging broadcasters.
The range of stations in London is staggering. There’s Soho Radio, the station I’ve been broadcasting on for the last 5 years. Rooted in the creativity of the bohemian Central London neighbourhood it’s named after, Soho host a massive range of genres and talent. Heavyweights like Norman Jay, Dennis Bovell and the legendary record store Sounds Of The Universe broadcast alongside younger creatives like Movimientos, Village Cuts, Amal Washington and more. Soho also curate festival stages, in-store gigs and host their own Vinyl Sessions where artists can cut their performances straight to wax.
“Every community station has their own thing that makes them special and that’s what beautiful about it” says Reprezent Radio’s Blue Canariñho, a DJ, producer and presenter. For Brixton’s Reprezent, “the main focus is to bring through the next generation of talent. Not just any talent, but the next interesting kid.” Blue originally got a show with his friend Melle Brown while she was still in school. They were asked to support the Gorillaz at the nearby O2 and played Parklife Festival in Manchester. Today Blue is one of the station managers: “We don’t care about numbers, big names. They always just come eventually… when you do the good stuff.
There’s Foundation FM, a female-led station with a focus on the underground and a brilliant cross section of women and femme voices on air. There’s NTS, of course, pioneers of the online model whose studios in London, Manchester and LA, artist development schemes and supporter model continue to set the tone in terms of what radio can be. There’s Threads, with a hyper-local focus; their shows are billed as coming from Bounds Green or Treptow-Kopernick rather than just London or Berlin. There’s also Vandelay in Peckham, Voices in Kings Cross, Bang 103.6 in Harlesden, AAJA in Deptford, Subtle FM in Hackney, Noods, 1020 and Ujima in Bristol, Reform Radio in Manchester and many many more.
Radio plays a vital early role in discovering and supporting new artists. “It’s been a great benefit” say KG, an artist, DJ and broadcaster. “Having visibility on different radio stations keeps you at the forefront… I’ve got quite a solid listenership in Paris… NYC as well, I was at The Lot Radio. It blows my mind, the power of the internet and how it can bridge the gap.” KG’s not alone in making internet radio stations part of her touring itinerary. Radio is so intertwined with local music scenes; many of the presenters are often involved in other areas of the music industry. Whether promoters, A&Rs, labels, journalists, artists or a combination of those roles, the vast majority of people involved in online radio do it alongside their main hustle and are rarely paid.
A network of stations with a similar ethos exists all over the world: Dub Lab in Barcelona to Kiosk in Brussels, Refuge and Cashmere in Berlin to Boxout in India. It’s exciting to see the sometimes-surprising collaborations. Veneno in Sao Paulo have around 45 shows whose archives contain everything from Brazilian grime with Peroli, a show playing library music and a podcast exploring music and politics. In 2021 they did a programming swap with Clyde Built Radio in Scotland and Alhara in Palestine. “Its so nice to connect to such cool radios that are making the same thing, and understand how they operate too” says owner DJ Bartigga.
Radio redefines the concept of community beyond geography. In South Africa, gqom wasn’t really supported on Durban local radio. It exploded via shared taxis and filesharing sites. But DJs all over the world played gqom on their radio shows. Alongside their popular YouTube series, Gqom Fridays (now renamed African Music Concepts) had a long-running show Primavera Radio in Barcelona which, as well as the Gqom Oh! NTS show, served as a talent incubator for DJs and artists based in Durban. At a time when gqom was largely overlooked in South Africa, these international outlets helped to create an overseas audience for gqom. DJs like DJ Lag, Griffit Vigo and Rudeboyz started to build audiences and tour, which bolstered gqom’s reputation at home.
South Africa’s strong alternative scene is reflected in their radio output. There’s Lilies in Johannesburg who describe themselves as “freeform radio” whose mission it is to “reflect the lived experiences, voices and sounds of marginalised folk in South Africa through music + conversation.” Their record label has released artists like seventhgaze, Mawa and Dzulo. In Cape Town there’s The Other Radio who’ve welcomed guests like Jozi Vogue Nights, jazz ensemble The Brother Moves On and DJ No Diggety to the studio recently. Although they’re no longer on air, it’s also worth checking out Ham Shack Radio’s brilliant archive.
Cape Town is also home to Africa’s oldest community station, Bush Radio. They originally started as a pirate in 1993 after the apartheid government denied them a license. They broadcast in Xhosa, Afrikaans and English and were the first station in Africa to have a dedicated show for the LGBT community. They award journalism scholarships for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and a range of other projects such as lyric writing workshops for rappers who want to write more effectively about HIV. According to their website, they also have a crèche. Although these are not all directly music-related, initiatives like these show a real commitment to serving the needs of a diverse community and broadcasters, which strengthens output as well as the creative scene.
Of course, there’s a difference between a community station broadcasting on FM and an online station streaming DJ sets in terms of target audience and accessibility. Cheap and universal, FM radio is the still primary media across the African continent and traditional listenership remains high, with heavyweight youth broadcasters like South Africa’s YFM and Kenya’s Homeboyz still popular. Data streaming is expensive but there are a few online stations cropping up, like Radio 254 in Kenya and Oroko Radio in Ghana, both with a focus on local and alternative music. If the pattern of what’s happened elsewhere is anything to go by, it will be exciting to see what effect these stations have on the local scenes and for curators and creatives involved.
A big challenge for all stations is futureproofing. DJs are rarely paid, although having a show can help build profile and bookings. Artists aren’t paid. And staff often – not always – work for free, giving their time to gain experience and sometimes hoping to move on to paid work. It’s hard to say how sustainable this is in the face of the rising cost of living. Studios and kit need to be maintained, overheads need to be paid and volunteers often need to prioritise paid work. Last year, Balaami scaled down its operations and is now staffed entirely by the owner. Worldwide FM paused output to address its funding gap. Bristol’s SWU FM has stopped broadcasting completely. Alongside traditional funding models and brand partnerships, there’s an increasing drive to be self-sufficient too: Soho run a commercial podcast studio and many stations use a supporter model, asking fans to donate.
When Threads were evicted from their premises in Tottenham they took the opportunity to do things differently, “merging virtual and the physical” owner Freddie Sugden says. Threads International was a lockdown project where “we streamed for 6 hours in four different continents. We paired up really interesting AV and ground-breaking artists with live musicians and DJs… we’d have an audio visual artist in New York teaming up with someone in Oman…” While Freddie mourns the loss of the physical space where “different people who might not usually connect bumped into each other”, he says it’s “helped create some really interesting ideas like a nomadic studio model in London… we want to work with important grassroots spaces that are really embedded into their local area.”
There are urgent challenges for all arts and music scenes around the world; online radio is no exception. Yet radio still provides a focal point for emerging scenes to develop in the absence of youth clubs and other physical spaces where creatives can meet, and a way to share music that might not otherwise get heard. Recently, Lithuania’s Radio Vilnius launched Ukraine Resistance Radio. Their mission is to “go beyond words and jam available outlets across Europe and internationally with signals of Ukrainian expression.” With the war on Ukraine widely seen as a direct attack on their culture, this is even more vital and an act of resistance in itself. With the ubiquity of streaming and questions around AI’s creative capabilities, there are people who’d like you to think radio is dead. But whatever future form radio takes, the need to talk to each other, reach beyond borders and communicate through music has never been more necessary or more human.
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