Author : Ivna Franic
Photo Credit : IDA Radio
After years of being represented mostly by reports about the rise of podcasts, or only discussed as an alternative to the cold, automated streaming algorithms, online radios seems to finally be coming into the spotlight. If we take a look at just the past couple of years, the number of independent online radio stations that have popped up across Europe is quite impressive, from Athens’s Movement and Tbilisi’s Mutant Radio, through Bordeaux’s (now Marseille’s) Ola Radio, Leipzig’s Sphere and Warsaw’s Radio Kapitał, all the way to, say, Skopje’s recently launched Amok Radio. Those that have been around a little longer than that – such as Dublin Digital Radio, Brussells’s Kiosk Radio, Malmö’s Retreat Radio, Kyiv’s 20ft Radio, the Tallinn-via-Helsinki IDA, Lisbon’s Rádio Quântica, Munich’s Radio 80000, Copenhagen’s The Lake Radio or Berlin’s Cashmere Radio – make for essential parts of their local scenes, as well as a bridge to what increasingly feels like a closely connected international radio landscape.
Much more than an amalgam of podcasts and curated playlists or DJ mixes, online radio, especially its community variant, inhabits a unique space – one where journalists, DJs, promoters, curators and other enthusiasts, come together to create content for a like-minded audience. This reliance on a broad cultural environment, where the borders between creators and audiences are very much blurred, provides these radio stations with a certain degree of resilience compared to mainstream media. Of course, running them is no easy feat – it takes a lot of hard (unpaid) work to get a community together and maintain a regular program. Still, independent radio stations’ dedication to maintaining their autonomy and non-commercial setup seem to make them a perfect outlet for uncertain times like these.
The team behind Warsaw’s Radio Kapitał sums it up nicely. “Community radio gives local artists, collectives, organizations and activists all the pro of centralisation without the con of losing their independence,”they say. They give an example of Polish scene, which doesn’t lack independent culture and activist groups, “but they were all totally dispersed before the launch of Radio Kapitał.” The community radio turned out to be a perfect platform for bringing these groups together, and providing them with an opportunity to exchange experiences and contacts, as well as to grow their audiences.
For IDA Radio’s Robert Nikolajev, one of community radio’s crucial traits is providing an alternative to mainstream radio. “People who would never get a chance to present their selection on a public station have a platform to shine, and that’s only good in my perspective,” he says. “The contemporary independent radio scene in Europe is fascinating,” finds Ola Radio’s art director Alice La Terreur, adding that online radio stations have come to form a significant part of people’s daily routine – especially in recent times.
Keeping the music alive during the pandemic
The ongoing Covid pandemic only seems to have added to the growing importance and influence of online radio stations. With technology becoming increasingly available, a number of stations have been able to broadcast online from various locations. Apart from enabling radio hosts and DJs to exercise social distancing and air shows from the comfort of their homes, online broadcasts also make building international connections easier, which has proven to be crucial in 2020. According to Kiosk Radio’s Jim Becker and Mickael Bursztejn, not being able to broadcast from the studio for a while also encouraged some innovative practices in broadcasting and “brought along a lot of creative streams based on computer-generated imagery, an unusual location to stream from, live performances from home etc.”
Other ‘side effects’ of the quarantine period include huge spikes in the number of listeners, like the one Ola Radio has experienced. “Overnight, we had like ten times more plays on the live show [than before], so we had to be really reactive – that’s why we offered several daily live shows,” says Alice La Terreur. Ola’s telephone line also provided comfort during difficult times. IDA Radio also noticed more listeners tuning in. “Numbers are only growing!” says Nikolajev. While in lockdown, IDA broadcast the morning show from their Tallinn station and played the pre-recorded shows on shuffle for the rest of the day. Their Helsinki station opened in March 2020, right before the pandemic hit, but they try to focus on the positive: the lockdown has given them enough time to renovate the studio space.
Having to close the physical space of the radio station meant a lot of changes for Kiosk Radio as well. They operate out of – you’ve guessed it – a kiosk, located in Brussels’s Parc Royal, where you can get a drink, hang out and dance. Although the studio had to close during lockdown, Kiosk’s peculiar location and setup proved to play a crucial role, as it allowed for people to hang around outside the shack while maintaining social distance. Things are looking even better now, as Becker and Bursztejn say. “Since the end of restrictions in May and the re-opening of bars, the [listener] numbers are still there, but we have also seen more and more people turn up to our physical place, meeting in real life.”
Others have noticed a significant rise in the number of people who’ve expressed interest in getting involved with the radio. Radio Kapitał, for one, has had a substantial influx of new collaborators and a growth in the number of new shows on air. “As a consequence, our schedule has grown a lot,” they say, currently counting over 260 shows by some 300 authors! Mutant Radio’s Tata Janashia points to another aspect of the ‘new normal’, and a very important one at that. “We believe that due to the pandemic, internet radio became more meaningful. We feel that internet radio has kept music and cultural exchange alive during the pandemic.”
Leipzig’s Sphere Radio started broadcasting right around the time the pandemic hit. Even though it may seem like they can’t really compare the ‘before and after’, the Sphere folks do feel that some things might have been easier had they started their activities before the Covid crisis. They would have, for example, been able to put on events – which would have helped them financially. It’s clear why they would feel that way, considering that a lot of the independent stations founded before 2020 have relied on events as an important source of their income. Even though lockdowns dealt major financial blows to many independent radio stations, a lot of them have come to pursue other avenues for funding their activities.
Funding opportunities for independent online radio
Starting a community radio station seems like an endeavor best undertaken as a DIY project. After all, what better way to present an alternative to mainstream stations than to completely avoid the institutional frame? Although many stations start as small passion projects based on volunteer work and the founders’ funds, the further the project develops, the more difficult it becomes to maintain it without consistent financial support. Between opening the door to advertisers and applying for public grants, most stations have found that the latter better ensures maintaining their independence and the anti-mainstream agenda. Athens-based Movement Radio is a rare example of an independent online radio station that has been lucky enough to have had ongoing financial support from the start. It is “produced and funded by Onassis Stegi and supported by the Goethe Institute & SAE Institute Greece,” say Voltnoi and Quetempo, Movement’s artistic directors.
For most other stations, though, public funding only makes for a small part of their income, and an irregular one at that. For example, Warsaw’s Radio Kapitał started as a part of a publicly funded project by renowned avant-garde theatre and organization Komuna/Warszawa. Since then, they’ve had to explore different funding options. “For now, we mostly rely on crowdfunding platforms and private donations,” they say. “The income from these platforms is far from enough, but at the moment it covers the fixed expenses such as software subscriptions, website hosting, copyright levies, etc,” they continue. Although they currently have two city-backed projects running, the team behind Kapitał points out a common issue that comes with the project-based nature of much of public funding: often, it is only possible to apply for and receive funding for a specific project. This poses a problem for a lot of radio stations given that a complex endeavor such as running a radio station would be much better suited to long-term financial support for its everyday running costs.
The Helsinki and Tallinn radio station IDA also relies on crowdfunding and donations, as well as (in smaller part) on some basic merch sales, but new options seem to be opening up. “It took us three years to finally get some public funding, which we now hope to get on a regular basis,” says Nikolajev. “Running a radio station is a lot of work we all put in for free. Every day is a hustle to make ends meet on this project that is dear to us and to a lot of people who we provide the platform to,” he adds.
For some, this past year marked a rare opportunity to receive some public support. Ola’s main source of funding used to be event activities, but “since the start of the Covid crisis, Ola Radio operates only thanks to public funding from local and regional institutions,” says Alice La Terreur. The support received, however, has been quite low compared to the costs of running a radio station, so they also started a crowdfunding campaign earlier this year. “We don’t want to pollute our radio by advertising so we need to find other ways to stay independent,” she says. Mutant Radio’s Tata Janashia describes a somewhat similar situation: “Typically there is no public funding in Georgia for these ventures. We did receive a small amount of funding during the pandemic, but this was an exception.”
Normally, the Tbilisi-based radio would cover the basic expenses thanks to the small bar at the station, but of course, that was not possible for much of the past year. “Now, we are slowly re-opening with our remodeled and expanded bar and listening area,” Janashia explains. “We are also applying for funding from different sources such as grants etc.” They’re not the only radio station financed primarily through the bar accompanying the studio. On top of their bar income, Kiosk Radio receives “some additional small subsidies from the city of Brussels”. The Kiosk team explains that although the bar income is very helpful, the station still depends on volunteer work in their day-to-day operations. But – unlike most other stations – “we do not ask for donations,” they say.
Sphere Radio seems to be coming from the opposite direction of Kiosk and Mutant. Set up as a non-profit organization, Sphere covers its expenses through a combination of “membership fees and different temporary public fundings as well as collaborations with public institutions (e.g. museums).” A recent funding opportunity helped them improve their infrastructure a bit by enabling them to buy some professional radio equipment. They, however, are looking to become less dependent on public funding, and are working on developing other avenues of financially supporting the station – such as selling drinks from their studio container.
Whether it’s running a radio station from a bar, a record store or a local museum, or hosting radio shows by and for different scene participants and social groups, independent online radio stations are often at the heart of their local communities. More and more of them seem to transgress the borders of the local scene, working towards creating an international community of like-minded peers.
From local to global
“The idea [to start a radio station] started rolling on an afterparty, the birthplace of all ‘good ideas’,” says IDA’s Robert Nikolajev jokingly. Their background story sounds familiar: with many avid music fans active in the local scene, taking things into their own hands and starting a community radio seemed like a logical thing to do. Copenhagen’s The Lake Radio has been one of the key actors in the local experimental music scene since its founding in 2014. The station is a part of a broader cultural platform that includes podcasts, events, festivals and other projects. “From the beginning, The Lake was created by artists, musicians and cultural workers,” says The Lake’s Kasper Vang.
Whether it’s recording concerts and interviews with international artists performing at Copenhagen’s experimental music venues, hosting shows by local artists, or organizing their own festival at a pool in the suburbs, The Lake’s presence is always felt on the scene. Although they’re very much locally grounded, The Lake’s crew had always counted on the possibility of being heard by people in different places. It was important for them to play all kinds of genres from all over the world and to broadcast online “so that people from different places could share a listening experience, by listening to the same thing at the same time,” Vang explains.
Sphere Radio – whose members had been active in the music and culture scenes for years – saw community radio as an “appropriate medium to build strong personal and intellectual connections on an international scale,” as this is at the foundation of a “sustainable cultural network.” Their Warsaw peers share a similar story. Established in 2019, Radio Kapitał was a culmination of longtime efforts by various actors of the local culture, activist and music scenes to come together and form an inclusive platform to amplify their voices. There’s been a lot of talks on starting a community radio in Poland, they say, but it had somehow never materialized until then. Apart from the lack of public support for small, independent projects like these, another obstacle was the western-centric orientation of some of their potential audiences. “The conviction that all good things happen only in Berlin, London or Amsterdam is really common here, so it was easy to accept for people that if you wanted to listen to community radio, it had to be NTS, Cashmere or Red Light.”
Although this might ring a bell to anyone coming from a less hyped scene, one thing that those online radio paragons, role models for much of the contemporary independent radio scene, have shown, is that a unique geographic location is far from essential to building a community. Particular approaches to creating and releasing music, an affinity towards specific genres and styles, similar aesthetics, a shared set of values and goals, among other important factors, all work towards bringing people together. When it comes to choosing between a local and a global orientation, different radio stations take different routes.
IDA Radio’s two channels are based in two different cities. “Two very vibrant cities like Helsinki and Tallinn should have a ‘cultural bridge’ between them,” says Nikolajev. He explains that it’s quite common for Finnish DJs to play in Tallinn, so there had already been grounds for an exchange between the two cities. The station’s branch in each of them has local residents hosting the shows, but they both try to use the re-run slots to air shows from the other city. Kiosk Radio’s daily program is mostly run by locals, with a side program called ‘Outsiders’, which airs pre-recorded mixes from selected labels around the world. The ‘Outsiders’ mix series proved to be an important part of the program, particularly over the past year or so, as the Kiosk crew explains. “This allowed us to stay connected with the outside world and scenes during Covid when the borders got closed and guests couldn’t visit Belgium anymore.” Even though it has an international reach, Kiosk maintains a strong local base when it comes to its audiences.
As far as the online radio scene in southeast Europe goes, Greece seems to be leading the pack. There are several online stations popular among Athenians, such as Cannibal Radio and Fade Radio, as well as Random Access Radio – a platform uploading podcasts and curating a monthly residency on Movement Radio. Over in Thessaloniki, To Pikap is all that – a cafe, a radio station, an art community, a fanzine and a record label. Movement Radio gathers a wide range of local figures as its residents. According to Voltnoi and Quetempo, these include “participants of the Athenian electronic and hip hop DJ communities, collectors and diggers from the music lovers community, activists from immigrant communities in Athens”, as well as some international experimental music and future club heavyweights, such as Moor Mother, Deena Abdelwahed and Bill Kouligas, to name but a few.
For Mutant Radio, creating a local platform was essential, despite their aim to bring together and represent both local and international artists. The Tbilisi station gained a spot on the international scene very quickly, with residents and guests hailing from various corners of the world. If you take a look at their shows just from the past couple of weeks, aside from shows by locals, you’ll find mixes by the likes of the NYC legend Gavilán Rayna Russom and Turkish DJ Ece Özel, as well as takeovers by collectives such as the London label brokntoys or the Belgrade venue Drugstore. (The latter featured a set by Esclé of Leipzig’s Sphere Radio – see, it’s all connected!) Their audiences also balance between local and international. “Our approach is straightforward. We seek to unite like-minded people who share our passion for music and engaging subjects,” says Tata Janashia. This reflects on the local scene, where they also put on events featuring international DJs. “Having a physical space for listeners to gather is an excellent foundation for the local music scene,” she adds.
Shedding a light on geographically specific music scenes and placing them in an international context is something online radio stations have always been quite successful at. When it comes to Ola Radio, this has been at the core of their mission from the start. “Most of the European and international focus is on the Paris scene whilst, in our view, the most exciting stuff musically is happening in the south right now, in places such as Bordeaux, Toulouse or Marseille, which deserve more attention,” explains La Terreur.
The collaborative potential of online radio
The Radio Kapitał crew says their station is “all about the community, without borders.” Hosts include contributors not only from Poland but also from countries such as Ukraine, Belarus, Greece and the UK. “We are very keen on cooperation with other radio stations, artists, authors and promoters,” they say. They hope to get involved with more projects like the Easterndaze festival, which connected like-minded independent radio stations. IDA’s Robert Nikolajev also praises the collaborative possibilities provided by the connections not only between different online radio stations but also between radio stations and international festivals. He, too, mentions Easterndaze, as well as Meakusma and Intonal festivals, concluding that these types of collaborations have “reflected well on the local scene,” and sparked a lot of exchange with hosts from other radio stations.
Marseille’s Ola Radio is actively working on building connections with other online radios that share a similar vision. La Terreur shares some examples, “we’re quite close to Radio Kruzhok, based in Moscow, and Mutant Radio from Georgia.” Ola’s connection to Kruzhok was their mutual friend Holyld, an up-and-coming French artist based in Poland. He appears on both Ola’s and Kruzhok’s compilations, and the two stations have both promoted each other’s releases. “I guess this illustrates quite well how the local and international scenes interact, and the role we play in this interaction,” she concludes.
“Since we started, we’ve had the opportunity to meet countless artists from abroad and establish collaborations with web radios and institutions from all over the world,” say the Kiosk Radio team. Examples include the likes of NYC’s The Lot Radio, Amsterdam’s Red Light Radio and Dekmantel Festival, Lyon’s LYL Radio and others. “These exchanges and collabs have helped the dissemination of ideas, the meeting of new like-minded people and the further development of our network,” they say. Along with Milan’s Radio Raheem, Kiosk is taking active steps towards creating an international radio network of sorts. Their collaborative audiovisual series 25 A/V is a monthly showcase of “local talent from Belgium’s and Italy’s music and visual arts scenes”, simultaneously broadcast on both radio stations.
Athens’s Movement Radio aims to spark a dialog that transcends borders and chronologies through political and critical thought. International connections are at the core of their vision to “create an ever-expanding network between the cities of the Mediterranean; an effort to expand ideas beyond Europe’s natural borders.” They are looking to North Africa, the Middle East and southern Europe to form “new cultural alliances, […] which could prove enriching for European culture.”
As a medium that easily transgresses borders and language barriers, music often makes the central focus of most of the independent online radio stations. But that doesn’t mean that for a lot of them, other types of content aren’t just as important.
Music and non-music
For obvious reasons, independent radio stations usually prefer to focus on various types of underrepresented, outsider music. Self-described as the “antithesis of commercial radio”, Copenhagen’s The Lake Radio streams music 24/7. “A collectively curated pool of sounds and music,” their regularly updated repertoire is made up of over 2500 tracks, explains The Lake’s Kasper Vang. The only catch? The playlist is randomized. This decision was, in part, a reaction to the “strictly controlled genre-specific playlists in commercial radio.”It was also a matter of coming up with a way to set up a radio station that one can listen to on a regular basis and still get surprised,” as well as a result of a perspective which treats all sound as equal. Making random connections between sounds “sometimes works extremely well and the next track feels just right. At other times, the shifts in genre, mood or tempo can be very abrupt and ‘non-musical’ in a traditional sense, but it might sharpen your attention towards listening,” says Vang.
Kiosk Radio is focused almost exclusively on music, covering a wide range of genres and styles. With local DJs often playing an important role in setting up or participating in the programs of community radios, a focus on electronic music is perhaps expected. IDA Radio encourages eclecticism when it comes to genres, but they admit, “obviously there are a lot of dance music DJs out there.” Their radio also features a lot of talk shows, on topics such as “art, architecture, politics, mental health, literature etc.” Mutant Radio defies genre categorization, insisting on giving the radio hosts complete freedom in creating their shows, and facilitates talks and panel discussions that cover various socio-political topics. “We also cover cultural and educational topics through our partnership with The Folklore State Center of Georgia,” adds Mutant’s Tata Janashia.
Leipzig’s Sphere Radio is not at all focused exclusively on music shows. “We want to paint a broader picture of our network’s intellectual horizon,” says Simon Clement. Obviously, for most community radio stations, the whole point is to provide the members of the community in question an opportunity to express themselves. Although its main focus is on electronic music, Ola Radio covers many different music styles and topics. Alice La Terreur emphasizes the importance of playfulness. “We want to give everyone an opportunity to use this media as a tool for experimentation,” she says, continuing, “We’ll air, for example, a cooking show, shows about queer cultures or sexuality, about skateboarding… Basically any passion can be turned into a show on Ola!”
For many stations, giving voice to underrepresented social groups is essential. The team behind Radio Kapitał explains that although about a third of their shows revolve around electronic music, shows on culture, human rights and activist issues such as ecology and LGBTQ+ community make for a crucial part of their program. “We believe that our main task is to raise topics that cannot be raised in censored state media and mass media,” they say. Kapitał’s hosts are free to choose the approach and topics of their shows, however, there’s absolutely no room for “any homophobic, xenophobic, racist or any other [type of] exclusionary content, […] behaviour and hate speech”. To them, running a community radio means being open to different people who might want to come aboard. Giving a voice to marginalized communities seems to be an integral part of many stations’ vision of the independent radio’s future.
The future of online radio in Europe: Cooperation is key
For Movement Radio, one of the strategies in laying “groundwork for building a collaborative creative Europe of the future” is attracting young audiences and working towards sparking a dialogue not only between different types of communities but also between different regions. This provides marginalized groups with an opportunity to “become a part of a larger community, under the principles of solidarity, [and to] activate their creative and artistic forces.” Radio can play a major role in that. As Movement’s Voltnoi and Quetempo conclude, “We believe that the independent (online) radio stations can aid the emergence of new collaborative opportunities between populations as a counteraction against the marginalization of vulnerable social groups.”
Sphere Radio’s Simon Clement highlights the role of technological progress, also trusting online radio stations to “help create tolerance, inspire, and allow people to transport knowledge, experience, and stories” from different places. Since it relies on a broad range of creatives and intellectuals, online radio has the potential to take the cultural exchange to an international level and build an extensive network of collaborators. According to Clement, this will also have positive effects on the participants of local scenes.
The Kiosk Radio crew are optimistic: “Indie radio stations will continue to grow in the coming years and [come to form an] even bigger scene, hopefully challenging the dominance of big commercial radio stations.” Ola Radio’s Alice La Terreur warns about the dangers of atomization of the scene and the lack of institutional support for independent radio. The solution lies in organizing – “ultimately there’s a need to get together.” She adds, “there’s an interesting development going on in the online radio scene in France right now with the so-called Union des Webradios Françaises (UWF). Radio stations are starting to fight back and unite to get more support and recognition from public institutions for their role in society.” Apart from the importance of grassroots initiatives and independent platforms in providing an alternative to commercial media, the Radio Kapitał team also stresses the need for organizing and connecting with similar initiatives instead of following the market’s competitive patterns. “We will not break out of our internet bubble alone,” they say. “We get similar signals from other European social and internet radio stations with which we’ve cooperated.” Some of their recent collaborators include Budapest’s Lahmacun Radio, IDA and Cashmere Radio. “Cooperation is the key to every independent, non-commercial activity,” they conclude.
Taking things beyond cyberspace seems to be another important step in building a sustainable future. The Kapitał team says that although it may sound counter-intuitive – considering that the whole community radio project is based around, well, broadcasting online – the radio is still very much a product of real-life collaborations and projects by artists, promoters, and various cultural workers. Activities such as concerts and events series, talks, meetings, and festivals use both offline and online tools, and thus ultimately expanding and using the community’s potentials. As the Kapitał folks believe, “all these multidimensional, comprehensive activities based on online action are key to the development and future of independent radio stations.” Most independent radio stations would probably agree.
About the Author
Ivna Franić is a cultural journalist and music critic from Zagreb. She has contributed to a number of independent culture media outlets in Croatia and edited blogs in Croatian and English. She has also lived in Copenhagen and currently contributes to the Danish independent music magazine Passive/Aggressive.
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