The 'world's best radio station' that you've never heard

Resonance only has a three-mile range, but it's a big hit on the internet. Mira Katbamna reports
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The Independent Online

Ringing the doorbell at 9 Denmark Street, a few metres from Tottenham Court Road in London, is tantamount to asking to enter a parallel universe. You walk away from the sound of the traffic into a short corridor, before climbing a steep set of stairs into the tiny studio of Resonance FM, described by New York City's The Village Voice as "the best radio station in the world".

In the studio, Lukax Santana, a refugee from Pinochet's Chile, is unpacking his bags, bringing out pan pipes, pots, a wooden box, a whistle, a flying saucer that starts whirring manically as it lands on the floor, and what he describes as "found objects" - a kitchen whisk, a few square sound boxes (one sporadically emitting the "Whoo-ohwooh!" of a steam train and the other mooing gently to itself).

Chris Weaver, Resonance's engineer, sets up the whisk for sound without batting an eyelid. I, on the other hand, am panicking, because Lukax is here for my programme, London Diaspora Live, we're on air in two minutes, and I have no idea what he is going to do with all these objects.

Resonance listeners are used to this sort of ad-hoc arrangement. Broadcasting from a transmitter on top of Guy's Hospital, Resonance can be heard in central London, and worldwide on the web. The station estimates it has an audience of around 50,000 and growing fast.

People tune in for shows like Xollob Park, hosted by Reverso Mondo, where everything, including the DJ patter, runs backwards, and Headroom, a show devoted to "unexplained phenomena and exo-politics".

The station manager, Knut Aufermann, says Resonance is about more than just "being weird. It's about providing a space for great stuff that doesn't fit anywhere else," he says. "We fulfil a really important function for ... struggling artists, homeless people, teenagers, our engineers or presenters - and we have regular Congolese, Albanian, Iranian and Serbian shows."

The station has won an extension to its licence to June 2005, and is applying for a further five years.

Listening to Resonance sometimes feels as if Radio 4 went out, took too many drugs, partied all night, and then settled down to make Women's Hour. Last week's Diggers, a weekly afternoon programme, is a case in point. Presented by a visual artist, Sharon Gal, and a writer, Edwin Pouncy, their guest was Cathy Lomax, a gallery owner and artist. As well as talking about Lomax's exhibition "Girl on Girl" and how she selects artists for her gallery (very Radio 4), they also talked about her obsession with 1960s Sindy dolls and the new "girly" sensibility in art (very Radio 4 on speed).

Gal has been involved with Resonance from the beginning, and has seen the station move from a one-month only experiment on the South Bank as part of John Peel's Meltdown Festival, to its current incarnation as a fully fledged Access, and now Community, radio station in its third year. "It's amazing to me that we have come this far without losing how democratic and free Resonance enables you to be," she says.

Anyone can approach Resonance with a proposal for a programme idea (see their website for how to go about it). Aufermann estimates that around 3,000 people have passed through the studio, often as creators of a Clear Spot - an hour and a half every day devoted to musicians, artists, thinkers, critics, activists and instigators doing their thing. "We do turn down people who just want to play their favourite tunes or do something that would be better on a mainstream station but the Clear Spot is a good way of testing something out," he says.

So what's it like presenting on Resonance? Is it as chaotic as the listings suggest? Well, once Lukax has unpacked his instruments and objects, Chris waves from behind the mixing desk to indicate we're on air. A brief chat about his background - Santana is an experimental musician, exiled from Chile in 1975 as a result of Pinochet's coup - and he is off, creating an aural journey so moving that I forget it is a tin whistle and a whisk that is bringing tears to my eyes. More talking, more music, and our hour is up. We rush down the stairs to give the next set of artists time to settle down before they too are sharing their thoughts and sounds with London.

Like most London Diaspora Live programmes, the hour has been a bit like being a fly on Santana's living room wall. As well as hearing his music, I've got to hear about his life, being part of the student protests in Chile and then being jailed for it, working in London and what inspires him. It's really just the musician and me, and in theory, it should be terrible - but somehow it works. Sharon Gal thinks this is what makes Resonance so special. "There are points when you are listening and you just groan, but if there is too much control then everything ends up sounding samey, and there are already plenty of commercial stations that can do that. It's the unexpected that is the best thing."

Aufermann agrees. "Someone brought in a window in a wooden frame to play the other day, but what made me laugh was that the engineers behaved like it was a completely normal thing. I think it's great that an acoustic guitar is treated with as much respect as a window, or pot or a computer" he says, before adding as an afterthought, "She brought in utensils and scrapers so it wasn't just solo window."

Resonance in London is at 104.4 FM 'London Diaspora Live', Thursday 6pm