The voice of the people: Meet the amateurs taking over the airwaves
A new community radio station is launched every fortnight - from the residents of Melton Mowbray running The Eye, to one man broadcasting beats from above a pub in east London.
Charlotte Philby is a writer at The Independent with a weekly column on motherhood in The Independent Magazine. She was shortlisted for the 2013 Cudlipp award for excellence in popular journalism for her undercover investigative work, and writes for various cultural magazines.
Saturday 05 January 2013
It wasn't the slickest of plans. Femi Adeyemi had been made redundant from his job as an online manager for a fashion company. He was 28 years old and soon found the days were skidding past: "I didn't know what I was going to do. I had a girlfriend at the time who worked in a bar with a little space that wasn't being used," he says.
"I asked the owner one night what he was doing with it and he said, 'What did you have in mind?'. On the spot I said, 'I'm going to set up a radio station'. It was the first thing that came into my head. He said, 'Go on then'."
Once the panic had subsided, Adeyemi set to work, digging deep into his archive of musically-minded friends. For his first show, he signed up a bloke called Martin whom he'd met at a party the night before.
It was April 2011 that the volume wasf turned up on NTS Live for the first time, with a four-hour session of Sunday-night-friendly house and electro. Eighteen months later, Martin is a distant memory, but NTS is here to stay.
Today, Adeyemi has eight staff members at the station's HQ at a suitably trendy spot in Dalston, east London. They are applying the finishing touches to an exciting new project. Following on from a musical extravaganza in New York City in 2012, NTS is heading to Krakow for the next instalment of a programme that sees local DJs and cultural know-it-alls lead a 10-day exposé of the music scene in selected cities. After Krakow, Tokyo and Sydney are next on the hit-list.
NTS, a purely internet-based station, already blasts its unique medley of non-mainstream music and random chit-chat to 10,000 listeners a day – exporting 150 presenters in the process. They include Leyla Pillai, whose slot, 'Who's That Girl', focuses on a different female artist each week, and the eponymous, 'James's Show', which has been known to fill a whole hour with nothing but static noise.
The key to NTS's success, Adeyemi says, is the element of surprise – and if you don't like what you hear when you switch on, there is a whole back-catalogue of podcasts on their website to choose from.
The smart kit the station uses to trace its listeners already shows little black blobs in Russia, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Nigeria, the United States, France and Germany – with more appearing every day. This goes some way to explaining why the presenters on the station pay for, rather than get paid for, their time on-air, to the tune of £25 to £50 a month.
"Lots of these guys want to be professional DJs, so they use this as a platform to get themselves out there. It's a tough game to get in to…" Adeyemi says. "This way, you get heard and you can end up getting lots of bookings and make that money back tenfold."
Now big brands, too, are queuing up to bask in the station's glory. Nike and Red Bull are among those who pay to have their events broadcast through the hippest station in town.
The majority of presenters on NTS are from, or live in, the Hackney area, and with a little help from the internet they are beaming their collective voice to all corners of the globe.
But in villages, towns and cities across Britain, local people are clubbing together to create a more intimate conversation.
There are now some 200 community radio stations filtering through airwaves across Britain, according to a new report from Ofcom. These local projects, which operate through tune-in FM frequencies rather than online, cover small areas and serve the needs of a specific population.
Melton Mowbray is a picturesque Leicestershire town, best known for its world famous pork pies. It is also home to 103 The Eye, the first community radio station to be awarded a licence by Ofcom, back in 2005.
Since then, the station, which is run entirely by volunteers, has gone 24-hour, broadcasting from a range of premises, including a school and various presenters' living rooms. "This morning, as part of our Sunday community focus programme, we had someone on from Vineyard Church in Melton, then a lady came on to talk about a new food bank being established in town, followed by a local councillor and a member of the rotary club talking about their charity club," explains the station's co-managing director, Christine Slomkowska.
There are 45 presenters on The Eye, their ages spanning 16 to 77. Their voices echo across an area home to some 80,000 people – through Melton Mowbray, past the Vale of Belvoir and beyond to Rushcliffe. "We are the community," Slomkowska says. "What we can offer that others can't is localness. We give a voice to people that a larger station could not."
As far as local radio is concerned, though, community isn't necessarily just about geographical identity.
Kane FM is one of a number of pirate stations to go legal in recent months. "It was out of necessity," explains Simon Foster, who launched the channel back in 1991 when there was no commercial platform playing foundation music, reggae, ska, UK hip-hop, garage, funk and boogie. Back then, the show was run out of someone's basement in Guildford, and Foster and his mates lived in constant fear of being shut down.
Last year, Foster, now 38, applied for a licence for the first time, for two reasons: "Firstly, the law [involving piracy] changed from a civil to a criminal offence. Secondly, we wanted to start working with groups on the fringes of society." Music, he says, transcends social barriers, and community radio, specifically, "reaches people in ways other media can't".
As part of the provisos of its licence, Kane FM now works with public bodies, including the police, youth justice and local arts organisations. "We work with these frontline services and help them to put positive messages across," Foster says. "We can talk about club nights going on here, and then give out information on helplines."
Now, with presenters between the ages of 14 and 40, they are drawing in around 100,000 listeners – a figure estimated through the number of texts received (60,000 last year) and Facebook interactions, rather than official tracking measures (which cost a bomb). Not bad for a year's work.
According to Ofcom, which issues licences at a cost but also makes requirements of its local stations, the essence of the community station is to operate "for the good of members of the public, or of particular communities, and in order to deliver social gain". New stations doing just this are popping up in cities and hamlets across the country. In Manchester, Gaydio serves the city's lesbian gay bisexual transgender (LGBT) community with discussions, events including a winter beach party, and a regularly-updated news and gossip section on its website – plus an online section offering work experience, on- and off-air, to local people.
While Insight radio, specifically for blind and partially-sighted listeners, lists relevant story-books alongside specialised talks and news affecting this particular community.
Since the first local project went live seven years ago, Ofcom says that a new community radio station has launched, on average, every 13 days. One of the latest is Garrison FM Blandford in Dorset, part of a wider network of local stations serving British Army garrisons across the UK, including Aldershot, Catterick and Edinburgh. These provide welfare and communication services to soldiers and civilians living and working within the Army community.
Running a local station isn't cheap. The licence costs £600. Internet radio, like NTS, isn't much cheaper by the time you factor in the cost of 24-hour live-streaming – around £700, Adeyemi reckons.
He launched his station with just under £3,000. He had no loans ("No one would give me one") and he worked a "crappy" job during the start-up to raise the initial sum. Today, though every penny is still plugged back into the business, this is a full-time job. But with advertising flooding in and the prospect of related projects popping up in far-flung pockets of the world, there is money to be made.
"People always ask if we're going to move to FM. No, we're not. This way we can do what we want – we don't have to answer to anyone," he says. And as long as the independent spirit remains, they'll still have plenty of people from all corners of the world tuning in to their idiosyncratic sounds.
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