The Revolution Will Be Broadcast: Inside The Online Radio Coup
In DJ Apachi’s online radio show, he stands framed between two CDJs and a green screen and mixes seamlessly between broken beat, dark industrial and Korean rap. Abstract monochrome graphics fly behind him. An in-studio audience of hipsters wearing fanny packs and black graphic t-shirts periodically appear in the background to dance, check out a record or sip beer as the songs play out. This rather unconventional performance—which can be viewed or heard live or post-hoc—is standard for Seoul Community Radio, the first online radio station to launch in South Korea’s capital. Founded in 2016, SCR’s central concept, goals and motivations are emblematic of the explosion in online radio that’s happened on a broad scale over recent years.
The proliferation of these online, community-oriented underground broadcasters is a response to the corporatization and consolidation of traditional, terrestrial radio spurred by the United States’ 1996 Telecommunications Act. The bill aimed to deregulate media and communications industries to increase competition. It also addressed internet broadcasting in legislation for the first time. Before 1996, any one company was prohibited from owning more than 40 radio stations in the country; since deregulation, a few monoliths have come to dominate the industry. In 2008, for example, top radio revenue conglomerate iHeartMedia launched its own online radio network, iHeartRadio, in order to aggregate content from local stations around the country rather than producing audio specifically for the web. This corporate tide has echoed across media outlets the world over and has forced most local stations to succumb to increasingly uniform advertising, marketing and styling techniques as well as reduced musical diversity. When economics drive programming decisions, it follows that radio play will steer toward the most lucrative demographic through narrow playlists and conservative content.
When the first online radio stations appeared in 1993, a feat made possible by the American technologist Carl Malamud, they began to grow in popularity among college stations and younger, internet-fluent audiences attracted to its convenience and flexibility. The format allowed listeners to access information and burgeoning trends beyond the confines of their geographic boundaries, which remains an alluring theme for similar projects today. The success of the venture capital-funded live streaming platform Boiler Room, which launched in 2010, played an instrumental role in the movement away from AM/FM frequencies. Their broadcasts disseminate music “as it happens” in nearly 100 cities worldwide, the majority of which are focused almost exclusively on electronic genres. “We believe that where you live shouldn’t dictate what movements and sounds you can be a part of,” their website says.
Online radio, then, is a revolution against the homogenization of public programming and a chance for experimental and non-commercial producers, aficionados and DJs to take ownership over content and to access audiences overlooked by mass media—a movement of independently conceived and produced DIY actors who often identify themselves as community stations. And while they all help to shape, unite, reflect and promote the music created and shared by organic local scenes, many of the web broadcasters that have appeared in the last two years have various motivations for opening their netwaves.
The sea change is facilitated by the ease and convenience that digital technology affords to online broadcasting. “Everyone’s behind their laptop for work so you don’t really need to be on the air on FM or AM frequency,” said Hugo van Heijningen, the co-founder of Amsterdam’s Red Light Radio, at an open-air event in Berlin. “Online radio is super easy. You just need a soundcard, a computer and a DJ setup to broadcast, so you don’t have to be a pirate on a ship with a high antenna to broadcast. You can just do it and get your music and your friends’ music out there.” The advent of live-streaming platforms like Facebook Live have further facilitated the process of capturing and sharing multimedia programming.
Van Heijningen and his business partner, Orpheu de Jong, have built Red Light Radio into a heavy-hitter in the world of independent and loosely club-music-oriented online broadcasting over the past seven years in one of the window-plated parlors in Amsterdam’s eponymous district. The initial vision behind the project was to allow passersby to see and hear music that thrives in the city’s underbelly, like punk, metal, jazz, disco, house and techno. “It’s really working,” van Heijningen reflected as he shifted his weight on the edge of a beer crate placed outside of the open-air’s entrance. “People like to be involved, people find radio charming, and there’s just too much music that people like to share. It’s always relevant to start a station in your town. The Amsterdam community can have their place to be alone or be with friends and play music they just discovered or found. People are there to explore and hear new music.”
That radio’s appeal largely stems from its informality as well as the ease with which it can be posted and streamed online seems to be a common sentiment among many of the programs that have emerged in the last 24 months. “We might meet someone, and they might have great taste in music and put on a great night, run a label, or we just really get on, but they might not be there just yet with the technical aspect of DJing,” said Ollie Ashley of London’s Radar Radio over Skype. “But all it takes is a few hours of practice to get over the boring bit of learning CDJs and how a mixer works. Once you know it, you can just start doing a radio show.”
The bass music-inclined organization has operated since late 2014 and has since opened an impressive, multi-room studio in the city’s center. It’s run like a “military operation” that boasts four separate practice areas in addition to a broadcasting room and a rooftop garden. The physical space has become a gathering point for more alternative-minded, creative people. And like Red Light Radio, what seems to unite its active members is that the programming encourages freedom of expression regardless of adherence to any certain kind of musical content, though it is more or less representative of the state of the scene that it’s stationed in—which in turn is often tied to local nightclubs and nightlife.
“What makes radio quite exciting as opposed to a club night or a record label is that we’ve got 164 hours in the week, and we’ve got to fill all of those up,” Ashley explained. “There are a lot of figureheads at the top of the pyramid, but there’s so much more weirder and more interesting stuff happening underneath it. We’re just scratching the surface.” Ashley went on to point out that, in its commitment to represent fresh sounds emerging from the local music scene, the station has become a hub for young people with limited access to musical resources elsewhere in London. Some of those who host Radar Radio programs are as young as 15 years old, and the station’s organizers share a philosophy that supporting younger voices like these will help open them to other artistic opportunities at an earlier age.
“We’re definitely not the first youth-focused radio station,” Ashley said. “And we’re definitely not the first uncensored internet platform. But the combination is genuinely quite unique, and I think that’s what’s yielded so many exciting results, such great shows and such great music. No one in their right mind would give some of these people the opportunity to say whatever they wanted, and sometimes I’m like, ‘Fucking hell, that’s a bit out there.’ But it’s important. It’s about having creative freedom and freedom of speech.” Radar Radio’s desire to fill a perceived gap in its local scene—by acting as a platform for young people to freely share music and opinions—is yet another unifying quality among online radio stations everywhere. Most have originated out of the shared goal to give creative channels to underrepresented demographics, whether they’re producers and DJs in geographic areas that receive little exposure or musicians too young to participate in more formal outlets.
For Richard Price at Seoul Community Radio, that meant creating a more high-profile arena for producers and party promoters living in South Korea. In some ways, SCR is a case study for these online community radios, which often express the aim of uniting people who are casually involved in a local music scene under a common cause and within a single organization. Price, a London native, started the station a little over a year ago after observing that Korea’s electronic music scene was a “hotbed of creativity,” but that it had no consolidated platform with which to launch local artists. Since starting, the station has accrued more than 500 different contributors from the Korean music community who want to share their tastes with a larger audience.
“Korea doesn’t really have the distribution network that Europe and the US have in terms of artists being able to get music out there, so I think we play a real role in helping artists who are producing,” Price said in a phone conversation. “We’re trying to reward artists, DJs and collectives that are trying to do something different and not really go with the formulas that have gone before them. We like to promote people who are making their own productions—that’s really important as well.”
Seoul Community Radio has become a place to gather outside of mainstream Korean culture. There’s a lot of genre mixing that happens on its shows that doesn’t occur in more traditional outlets: people play music that runs the gamut between garage, house and techno, and even more bizarre theme-based music, like Hawaiian vaporwave. As Price put it, “People choose their music to be different.” But SCR hosts don’t seem to experiment for the sake of experimenting; many of its members promote parties on the weekends, and the music that they play on the airwaves throughout the week is reflective of the bold eclecticism that they champion at their underground events. What makes the station’s diversity and outsider culture so robust is also attributed to its wide-reaching membership. While the station is primarily comprised of Koreans who participate and host shows in their native tongue, there are also many foreigners and visiting DJs who have found a home at SCR, all of whom host their slots in French, German, English, or the language of their choosing.
SCR seems to embody the spirit of contemporary online community radio in its dedication to inclusivity. Like other community radios, it provides a nucleus around which the disparate, disconnected artists and promoters of the local scene can orbit as well as a way for laypeople and fans to become producers in their local scene rather than passive partygoers. The proprietors of Munich’s online community station Radio 80,000 expressed similar goals and motivations in our recent feature on the shipping container-turned-web-broadcaster. “The idea is more to create a platform for people in Munich who want to do a show,” founders Leo Bauer and Felix Flemmer told us. “There are also shows from different cities, but they’re all in some way connected to Munich, because it’s about participating in the local scene…We were always interested in shaping the musical landscape in Munich in some way, in participating.”
This approach rejects the exclusive attitude that can germinate in membership-oriented scenes. Those familiar with the Dutch electro bastion Intergalactic FM may remember its predecessor, Cybernetic Broadcasting System. In a recent interview with Red Light Radio at the Amsterdam Online Radio Festival, Intergalactic FM and Cybernetic Broadcasting System founder I-F (a.k.a. Ferenc van der Sluijs, who will play at one of our forthcoming Telekom Electronic Beats Clubnights in Leipzig) commented that his decision to close the inaugural station was largely due to the “elitist” mindset that began to materialize among its members. He, like Price, believe that online radios should be spaces free of judgement and that encourage experimentation. Growth in a scene can only happen when curators feel free to be truly creative.
The appeal of building open-minded, democratic institutions in areas with little or no artistic cohesion has undoubtedly spurred the rise of radios in Asia, India and parts of the Middle East in the last two years. Up till now, however, the struggle to get these stations off the ground has mainly stemmed from a lack of infrastructure and technical knowledge that bigger and better-established radios in Western cities have had the time and resources to put into place. In our phone conversation, Price expressed trepidation that the exciting proliferation of radio stations in the East would take too many cues from stations like these in the US and Europe. This, he fears, could eclipse many communities’ local music cultures as they attempt to model themselves after already-well-known radios in foreign scenes. “I tried to model SCR on something I understood from the UK and Europe, but I realized that I’d really like to establish a homegrown network of radio stations here that have grown organically and that aren’t necessarily exported from the West.” In Price’s view of the underground music landscape, grassroots programming is especially valuable to regions with non-Western musical traditions.
There seem to be an increasing number of stations appearing in unlikely places that have adopted a philosophy towards radio production that isn’t bolstered by Western ideologies. Hong Kong Community Radio, Into The Blue Malaysia and Boxout.fm India are among those that have cropped up in recent months, as is New New World Radio in Moscow, Russia. “If we were doing a ‘Russian NTS’ or a ‘Russian Rinse’, then we would probably stop,” said its founder, Ivan Zoloto, via email. “Life is too short to imitate somebody else. We would to remain a freaky online source of well-curated worldwide mixes. I don’t know about everyone else but for us. We try to avoid concentrating on musical trends from NYC, London and Berlin and be on the lookout for fresh sounds from Beirut or Tampere, for example.”
Zoloto also noted that very few of New New World’s station members are from Moscow proper or around Russia, and that the programming is a diverse amalgam of each host’s unique background or root influences. And after fewer than six months, it’s already amassed a unique roster of artists who aim to defy normative musical trends. The show Synesthesia with Daria Beskorsaia is emblematic of New New World’s “post-genre, post-geography” policy: it careens through searing noise, free verse and glitch-studded sounds that border on kitsch. Though not all of the station’s shows are as pastiche-oriented as Beskorsaia’s, they do all consciously defy the styles that have come to define more traditional music outlets.
Artistic institutions develop differently in different countries, but they allow for freedom of speech and expression that refuse to pander to mainstream audiences or commercial concerns. A lot of the music played on these stations is not the standard fare that you would find at the top of the month’s Beatport charts: they’re field recordings, rare records and tapes that have been found in moist basements and on grandparents’ shelves. Online radio hosts—and radio stations, by extension—popularize sounds and provide windows into the worlds of the people that play them. Listening to a station like New New World Radio or Intergalactic FM, for example, endows listeners and DJs with a sense of that landscape’s musical and cultural identity. The inverse is also true. By broadcasting sounds unique to a community, online radios can irrevocably shape the musical landscape on an international scale. For instance, I-F’s decision to begin disseminating Dutch electro and Italo disco in the early ‘00s helped to revive the genre and to define its canon among DJs and record collectors worldwide.
The impact that online radios have on global music culture as well as on their immediate communities—as places where people can meet like-minded creatives, gain a foothold in the music world, publicize their own productions, or just express their personal taste in a free-format environment—makes it critically important to preserve existing institutions and to support those that are just beginning to emerge. With corporate streaming services like SoundCloud, Spotify and Apple Music becoming more mainstream and less stable, online radio has developed into one of the last strongholds for truly unique programming. Grassroots stations represent local flavors and individual tastes instead of trends, and more importantly, they serve to amplify the voices vital to underground music’s ongoing dialogue.