Meet The Women Who Are Killing It In Online Radio

Six females shaping the online radio revolution—from NTS to Red Light—talk about increasing diversity and challenging prejudice in the music industry.

Humans have prematurely anticipated and wrongly heralded the “death of radio” since the internet upset the status quo in all sectors of mainstream media. While major-market terrestrial stations endure technological changes, the medium has also found a renewed relevance on the web via online live streaming, which involves fewer restrictions than AM and FM broadcasting and more flexibility for listeners to tune in at their convenience. Early webcasters like East Village Radio, the New York outpost founded by Veronica Vasicka in 2003, paved the way for today’s fertile crop of digital stations like London’s NTS, Berlin Community Radio, Amsterdam’s Red Light Radio and Red Bull Music Academy‘s radio platform, which is undergoing a relaunch this year. Last week, Williamsburg joined the ranks with the inaugural transmission from a new station called The Lot, which is run by a team of two women and three guys and already counts the Discwoman collective among its roster of hosts.

In addition to the added convenience and liberties afforded to DJs and listeners, online radio seems to provide more job opportunities to diverse groups of people who face numerous systemic disadvantages in traditional, mainstream and corporate stations. It seems that every prominent digital broadcaster has at least one woman in an important position, be it behind the scenes in a managerial role or behind the decks as a show host—or both. We asked five of them—RBMA’s Vivian Host, NTS’s Tabitha Thorlu-Bangura, Red Light’s Lieneke Wielhouwer and Berlin Community Radio founders Sarah Miles and Anastazja Moser—to shed some light on how they came up in the industry and tackle issues of diversity and sexism in the field.

Tabitha Thorlu-Bangura, Production & Partnerships at NTS

I came to NTS in a pretty organic way—I was always passionate about music, and at university I hosted a breakfast show on my student radio station. One day, a listener got in touch who happened to be a friend of Femi’s [Adeyemi, NTS founder] and told me about how he had recently started NTS. I started listening to NTS religiously, and at some point I wrote an article for Truants about the shows that I was into at the time. A few weeks after that NTS happened to be looking for an editorial intern. I started out as that intern but almost immediately started working on European broadcasts too, partly because the team was even smaller back then than it is now. I have a pretty broad range of responsibilities these days, which is challenging but also a lot of fun.

I’ve been a senior member of staff for about 18 months. I work on external projects, partnerships, events and day-to-day management. I also oversee a lot of editorial content, produce and host international broadcasts, and I’ve got my own monthly late-night radio show. I play a variety of genres, but it’s usually fairly experimental and a little bit off-kilter. Femi says I’m “the scaffolding that holds NTS together,” but I don’t know how I feel about that metaphor…

NTS is all about eclecticism, and so diversity has always been an essential part of what we do. But through the years I’ve definitely seen an improvement in how we consciously work together to sustain and increase diversity—with DJs and hosts, but also among members of staff behind the scenes. I have to say that I think my willingness to be vocal about those issues, particularly issues of gender, has played a role in that.

Photo of Tabitha by Alex Zalweska.
Photo of Tabitha by Alex Zalweska.

One of the main reasons I’ve stayed at NTS is because it’s run by an extremely open-minded Nigerian Londoner, so the station was never going to be dominated by straight white male DJs or selectors. As far as programming and lineups go, we try to make things as balanced as possible. But we can’t rest on our laurels, because we’re still not perfect.

I had the responsibility of hiring some new staff recently, and I actively tried to recruit marginalized people. Obviously we hire people on merit, but it’s really crucial to work with people from a diverse range of backgrounds in order to have a wide range of perspectives on music and on life in general. I regularly speak up for and champion DJs and hosts on the station who are incredibly talented with brilliant taste and also happen to be female. The team sometimes jokes about me being such an outspoken feminist, but that’s fine with me if it means everyone thinks more deeply about these issues. NTS is definitely evolving, but there’s still a long way to go—like almost every company or platform in this industry.

I think it’s ridiculous to congratulate yourself for booking one more female DJ, or for having a few more musicians or DJs of color on your lineup. There’s still so much work to be done from the ground up, across the whole industry. So many people—even some who consider themselves feminists—say, “Oh there just aren’t as many famous female DJs.” People use the current economic climate in a pretty lazy way, saying, “I could book this DJ who’s really great and happens to be a woman, but she’s just not going to sell me as many tickets as this [famous male] DJ.”

I think those arguments are particularly weak if promoters and platforms aren’t also invested in the scene at entry level, on an everyday basis. It’s about nurturing talent from the beginning, rather than saying, “Oh well, these are the only DJs on offer, so my hands are tied.” It’s about making sure that marginalized people at the start of their careers feel like they can progress to the “top” as well, and actively challenging oppressive attitudes in daily life, whether that’s transphobic, ableist, racist or misogynistic behavior. If only actions are corrected, then attitudes don’t change. Changing attitudes at an individual level is the only way to get real progress.

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Vivian Host, Host/Producer at RBMA Radio

I used to do college radio at UC Berkeley. They have a really great station called KALX 90.7FM, and having a weekly slot there taught me a lot about how to structure and run a good show and how to feel more comfortable on the microphone. I was obsessed with electronic music at a really early age—I started DJing raves and writing about dance music in high school. Later on, I became the editor-in-chief of XLR8R Magazine and VICE’s THUMP channel, and I freelanced for a bunch of other publications before I started working for Red Bull Music Academy.

At RBMA, I do a range of things: some interviews and lectures, artist relations, some event planning and production. We’re doing a huge relaunch of RBMARadio.com this year, and I’ve been hosting quite a bit of radio from around the world—I’m currently doing a pop-up from Sonar Reykjavik, and last year we did broadcasts from San Francisco, Paris, and points beyond. In a couple weeks, I’m starting a weekly Wednesday afternoon show that focuses on different styles and trends of music discovered during my travels. I’m really interested in micro-scenes around the world, club music, dance movements and the way elements of past genres (like shoegaze rock or Miami bass) get recycled into new ideas. There are a lot of people out there interested in new music who don’t have time to scour the new releases list or spend hours on YouTube or Hulkshare seeking out the best of Angolan kuduro. Hopefully as a radio host, I can bring some new stuff to you that you haven’t heard in a way that’s informative, approachable and fun to listen to.

I’m also working on an episodic show called United States of Bass, which highlights regional bass music pioneers from around America. And I currently do an NYC-centric show called The Slice that will be soon handed off to the extremely awesome music writer and cultural commentator Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, aka @jawnita.

Radio is so dynamic compared music writing—a lot of crazy things and happy accidents happen and you get to hear them in real time. I like that it’s so off-the-cuff; artists go off on tangents or you find yourself in funny conversations; things that you might normally cut out in a written feature because they don’t make sense can live on radio. I also think it’s particularly charming to hear different people’s accents, speech patterns and their way of describing what they do.

I definitely make an effort to have a diversity of voices from different genders, races, backgrounds and music styles on my shows. Sometimes music reporting can be overwhelmingly filtered through a lens that’s white, male and of a certain age, or it’s just a bit…overly serious and dry. I don’t want to put anyone in a box and say those factors determine someone’s musical taste, but live radio is a cool opportunity to hear artists in their own words, unfiltered through an editor or writer. It’s a cool medium to be able to hear different voices and to understand where various people are coming from. No one wants to hear 20 people in a row who come from the same socio-economic background and the same cultural place talking back to back. It’s not as exciting as hearing a 23-year-old female rapper from The Bronx next to a guy who’s 65 and grew up in the Scottish punk scene next to a 40-year-old Japanese gabber producer. That’s dynamic and that’s interesting—to me, anyway.

In general, covering a diversity of music leads itself to a diversity in voices and backgrounds. The best radio is relatable. So I don’t really think you can leave women out of that conversation—we’re half the world! In the current landscape of FM radio and internet radio, some of the most popular radio hosts are women. Hearing people like Terry Gross, Mary Anne Hobbs, Annie Mac and Moxie talk knowledgeably about music and doing interesting, informed interviews with big-name artists definitely changes some people’s perception that women aren’t as knowledgeable about or engaged with music as men are.

I’ve felt that the music world is a boys’ club more as a DJ/producer than I ever have as a music journalist or radio host. There’s often a sort of silent discrimination or banding-together that goes on between managers, booking agents and festival promoters; women artists are often held to different standards than men and there are still people in the industry who think female DJs aren’t as capable or as marketable. I don’t really spend too much time dwelling on it—I guess I’m more like, “Show don’t tell.” I just pursue what I’m excited and passionate about and hopefully that entertains, inspires, or challenges some people along the way.

Lieneke Wielhouwer, Studio Manager at Red Light Radio

My friend Gabbi introduced me to Red Light Radio. She was an intern at the station, so through her I ended up going to RLR’s third anniversary party. It was sick; the diversity of station reflected so perfectly on the program for that night. When Gabbi had to move to London, I grabbed my chance and went for an interview with Hugo and Orpheu, the founders. Soon after I started as an intern one or two nights a week. After six months, I was offered a job as studio manager, so these days I work on our musical archive, upload recordings on our music channels, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I have to make sure everything runs smoothly in the studio. Besides that, I also do productions for the RLR events.

I also recently did my first show at Red Light. After hearing so many great shows over the years and meeting so many talented people at the station, I have to say that I was a bit impressed by it all. Femke, one of our monthly residents, invited me to play my favorite records on her show Tuesday Night Prayer Meeting. It was so much fun that I eventually asked Hugo and Orpheu if I could do my own monthly program. So that’s happening at the moment. I have no particular vision in mind—I’m just eager to learn more about music.

All the shows on Red Light are outcomes of a natural process of getting people together. We as a station are not actively recruiting anyone. The goal was and is to offer diversity in music, so that’s the diversity we bring to our studio. There are no deeper thoughts about whether we should get more women onboard. I must say that I’m happy with the variety of people here.

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Besides the residents, we always try to keep space left in the roster for artists who are in town that week. We as a team all have a share in the programming side. There’s an eclectic mix of people working in the music industry at large, although there’s still a big portion of under-represented female musicians in the music scene. Inequalities are in embedded in the structure of this industry, but I think it’s not obviously apparent to everyone involved in it. It’s good that more awareness is being created around this matter. More ladies are stepping up in the game and are not afraid to talk openly about their career and difficulties they experience. In my opinion, you can’t force these things, but making people more conscious about it will encourage others and, hopefully, eventually change this unevenness.

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Sarah Miles, Co-Founder of Berlin Community Radio

Anastazja and I started doing a radio show, Welcome To The Room, five years ago. It was DIY; we would set up a studio in a club when we wanted to interview an artist who was coming to town. We’d both been radio lovers and felt like it would be cool to make a bigger platform and then enable other people to do a similar thing. There has been a lot of learning on the job and some tough learning curves. We did some parties at the very beginning to launch the station and had a few experiences where we aimed a bit high and lost quite a bit of money. At the same time, you gain such a wealth of experience by setting things up on your own.

At Berlin Community Radio, we’ve got an almost equal number of men and women hosting shows, and that wasn’t even something we had to try to do; there are so many amazing female DJs and producers out there. This isn’t true for the rest of the music industry, though, with so many all-male line ups taking place. I think a responsibility lies with bookers and agencies to represent diverse talents. I can’t believe there are agencies out there that still only have male artists on their whole roster.

I hope with the developments in online radio and what we’re doing at BCR that we can help by offering a new place to find DJ talent, as opposed to artists having to put a release out in order to get noticed. At the same time, we’re very encouraging of those people who want to give it a go for the first time!

Anastazja Moser, Co-Founder of Berlin Community Radio

Sarah and I were both inspired by the movement of online radio happening worldwide. We wanted to do something a bit different to what was happening in New York, London and Amsterdam, which is what Berlin Community Radio has become. I think it’s really inspiring to be like, “Okay I want to do that. I don’t know how to do it, but I can figure it out.” Just learn by doing it.

I enjoy keeping an eye on everything. It’s something I do very naturally. I think I need to know what’s happening everywhere. Whenever I see something interesting, I try to hit people up and see if they’re interested in appearing on BCR, and I even offer to teach them radio production when I can. We also try to stay away from pure hype. You have to determine who’s actually at the forefront. That’s definitely something that I find really interesting to showcase: new sounds and ideas.

BCR programming choices are also influenced by the strong will for inclusion, to have show hosts and guests who are usually underrepresented in the music industry. They may not draw big crowds or have hype around them because it’s so much more difficult to build hype around someone who’s underrepresented. I strongly believe that we have a responsibility to pass on the knowledge and opportunities to others who don’t have them. I used to think it was enough to simply do the work and that you don’t need to talk about it, but I’ve spent the last year listening to and learning from people who are doing great work on social media by being outspoken about problematic issues in music, culture and general life. I now understand having those conversations is important and so this year I definitely would like to speak up more often about these issues, even as I still have a lot to learn.

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