A decade ago, pirate radio's glory days were still casting a long shadow over internet radio. The very term “internet radio” felt like a disclaimer, as if the new form would never quite live up to its spiritual successor. Radio without an aerial transmitter was akin to stripping radio of the potential for the random encounter—turning the dial on your radio set, you never knew what you might tune into, or who might be tuning in with you. It was the buzz of being locked in, with countless other listeners, to a station repping their scene and sound, always one step ahead of the police.
Fast forward ten years and internet radio has found its rightful place in our hyper-connected online world. New stations have popped up in cities on almost every continent, dedicated to platforming a diverse array of sounds from places big and small, bringing local micro-scenes to the entire world. The influence of pirate radio runs deep in internet radio's desire to create new space for dance and electronic music, both autonomous from broadcasting requirements and editorially independent from financial interests.
The popularity of internet radio stations has surged as the infrastructure that supports art and music scenes continues its long decline. The Covid-19 pandemic closed creative spaces and nightclubs around the globe, while property speculation and rising rents has made physical spaces for communities to gather even harder to sustain. Streaming is turning the screw on record stores who have a knowledge of music that would short-circuit any algorithm. These developments have consequences for networks of underground music communities. A shortage of dance floors means less space and time for young DJs to hone their craft, while scenes begin to skew towards more international DJs, eroding what little space there is for cities or regions to establish their own sounds.
Internet radio stations can thrive in this precarious situation, like plants sprouting through cracks in concrete. Requiring little more than a laptop and internet connection, the format has created vital new terra incognita for collaboration and community. People in local scenes have new opportunities to amplify their voices, music, and ideas, all while reorienting electronic music's relationship with its listeners. I spoke to internet radio organizers from four stations around the world to discuss the impact radio has had on their respective scenes, their cities and how it has helped each link in with new audiences both locally and internationally.
Istanbul’s Root Radio popped up in the early days of worldwide lockdowns, first broadcasting on May Day 2020. That founding date underlines the station's radical objective—to create a space for conversation on the multiple refugee crises affecting the region—showcasing emerging music from Turkey and the Middle East and linking it with the politics of solidarity. These efforts have included fundraising events for the large number of refugees in Istanbul and awareness-raising broadcasts about the conditions facing Palestinians in Gaza.
“We wanted to create a safe space for these [migrant] communities to talk and to play music,” says Ahmed Abdulatef Shiekh, a Syrian national in Istanbul and one of the co-founders of Root Radio, along with Merve Öngen.
On the day I spoke to Shiekh and Öngen, both are reeling from the news that a Turkish court had convicted Osman Kavala to life in prison for trumped-up charges in relation to 2013's Taksim Gezi Park protests (initially a small protest against the development of the park that turned into a widespread anti-government demonstration). They've had other friends locked up due to protests, and this latest news is just another step in the repression of free expression in the country, they say.
The closure of Taksim Gezi Park and the crackdown against protesters is a window into the battle for public space ongoing in Istanbul. Many of the Turkish capital’s venues have closed in the past few years, says Öngen, including two of the most important, Pixies and Anahit Sahne. Arts spaces are closing, too.
“There is a community and there are people, but these spaces are barely surviving,” says Shiekh, who blames a combination of political repression and soaring rents.
Before Root Radio, Öngen and Shiekh threw parties to benefit the refugee crisis in the Middle East, fusing contemporary music from the Arab world with conversations around politics and human rights. Once lockdown hit they tried doing a one-off broadcast, inviting friends, DJs, producers, artists from around the region to contribute.
“It was a huge mess but it was amazing,” he says. “We were jumping up and down in our houses. It was crazy.” They succeeded in pulling off ten hours of radio for a week, laying the foundations for what would become Root Radio.
The station now plays host to local labels like Table Records and Carnalist, and artists such as Mx. Sür and Eylül Deniz, as well as a handful of others from other countries and regions.
“I think our biggest goal is to have a physical space. We have a solid community and they all need a place but in terms of financial issues, I don't think we are able to afford it at least in 2022,” says Öngen. This partly comes down to the after-midnight ban on music in Turkey, which was introduced as part of Covid-19 public health measures and has never been lifted. It is the only remaining Covid-19 restriction, and one that only puts further pressure on nightclub owners and event organizers.
“It's a direct message against nightlife,” says Öngen, who says that the existence of the radio station itself is a form of resistance.
The tough cultural climate, where expressing new ideas or even playing music in Turkey is so suppressed, gives Root an even stronger impetus to platform new sounds and artists. They've been doing this with gusto since the very beginning, linking up with other like-minded fledgling radio stations in the region including Bethlehem’s Radio AlHara and Athens’ Movement Radio, creating a vital space for cultural exchange, solidarity and ideas in the Middle East and Western Asia.
Hong Kong Community Radio was started to give Hong Kong a local node in what its founders saw as a global network of DIY community radio stations. “I wasn't really trying to be only presenting 'local' music or 'international’ music,” says cofounder Gavin Wong over email.
Instead, it was built with the objective of creating an East Asian station that controlled the means by which its music and residents were represented. It’s an attempt at defying the gravitational pull of a Western media that usually presents artists from the region through an outside or exoticized perspective.
“The visibility of artists from here was, in many ways, determined by how much you are recognized in the Western press,” he told me. “I think it's important to build an infrastructure (outside of the music industry) that can make the flow of information be controlled by ourselves.” It's an attempt at democratizing cultural exchange, he says.
Wong considers HKCR a space for connections, focused increasingly on building international connections but still maintaining a strong local Hong Kong presence, with over a quarter of its residents based in the city.
The radio station has a fascinating mixture of broadcasts from labels, artists and collectives from all over. There are shows from Bangkok’s Bedouin Records—purveyors of dark atmospheric noise and techno—while the Philippines-based New Work City Records host a slot of dizzying experimental club music. There are gentler affairs from Danish-based Indonesian artist ricebaby, and regular shows from Wong's own Absurd Trax label.
“Artists working with experimental music or other niche music genres always struggle to have outlets, and we are glad that we provided the platform for them to reach a new audience,” he says. “It's ok that the radio shows or physical gigs only have ten people to listen to or attend—we will [always] provide the space for it, indiscriminately.”
The result is a vibrant, resolutely DIY platform. Listening to HKCR you get a feel for the contemporary and the experimental finding refuge in the station's archive. On top of this there's the insightful “Why Radio” interview series—part of the station's editorial section—a series of interviews with HKCR's residents on the meaning of making radio today and its importance to them.
So, has HKCR brought more awareness to the music coming out of Hong Kong?
It at least helps, says Wong. “For example, online radio DJs love to tag the artist of the music they play on air, and it [creates] a very organic interaction between the artists.” Then local artists invite international guests on their shows, bringing more followers to the station from outside its usual listenership.
“These [relationships] all bypass the traditional music institutions that are heavily skewed towards the practices of the developed regions of the music industry,” Wong says.
Before Radio Kapital began broadcasting in Warsaw in 2019, the music scene in the Polish capital was fragmented, says Adam Jankowski, one of the station's organizers. “There was no communication platform between all of these artists. That was the problem,” he says.
The station was launched as part of a project for an avant-garde theatre group called Komuna Warszawa. They had a residency in Warsaw's Museum Of Modern Art, creating live radio installations in the museum. “It was fascinating—that was a time when a lot of people, a lot of artists, DJs, bookers, journalists were coming there live and meeting there,” says Jankowski.
The residency provided a momentary hub for like-minded people to meet each other, and for new ideas to seed and take shape. Out of this emerged the current iteration of Radio Kapital, dedicated to creating a more independent space for cultural and social expression in Poland, outside the strictures of institutions and commercial entities.
“We are definitely focusing on having shows that are interesting in a way that other commercial radio stations wouldn't necessarily have,” Julia Antczak, the station's schedule coordinator, told me. “They wouldn't create the space for them, like experimental music, like arts, like environmental protections. These are not the subjects or genres of music that are necessarily monetizable and this is the [purpose] of community radio stations—where we can actually focus on that.”
Radio Kapital also seeks to foster a queer-friendly environment within a hostile political environment in Poland that has become antagonistic towards queer people’s very existence (with many areas of the country declaring themselves “LGBT-free zones”). It's part of the remit of Radio Kapital, says Antczak, to ensure energy, time and air is being given to people whose voices are being eroded elsewhere.
The plan for Radio Kapital was apparently on the cards for quite a while, part of an endless conversation in Warsaw’s creative circles, from artists who were tired of watching their local music scene being pulled into the Berlin orbit, says Jankowski.
The station was cofounded by Avtomat, the composer, producer and DJ who made headlines in 2020 for waving a rainbow flag in Warsaw, protesting against the political repression of queer people in the country. While he has since moved on, his colleagues in Oramics still broadcast monthly mixes from women, non-binary and queer people. You'll also find Easterndaze, a show platforming experimental electronic music from Poland, and a slot from the experimental electronic producer FOQL.
The station plays another pivotal role in nurturing the country's local scene through live events and other programs, such as their Radio Academy, which kicks off this summer. The Academy will teach its pupils everything from technical radio skills to how to use decks to lessons on the radical history of community radio in Europe.
“I think we can be the middleman in doing the Radio Academy by opening up the closed doors of the music scene to people who are brilliant and would do amazing things if someone would let them,” says Antczak.
The events that Radio Kapital put on follow a similar curatorial philosophy to their programming choices on the station, pairing more established producers of the scene with emerging artists. But in spite of all this good work Radio Kapital is doing, funding radio that prides itself on editorial independence can be a struggle.
“We don't want ads. We don't want to make products of our listeners,” says Antczak. “We don't have monthly fees so everyone can come and create what they want without any requirements.”
Currently the collective are knocking heads on the best means for continuing to create independent radio that is advertising free and accessible for their residents.
The Other Radio
“Before Covid-19, there was a sense of competitiveness in Cape Town,” says Aaron Peters, co-founder of The Other Radio, a station that operates out of South Africa’s legislative capital and was launched during the pandemic. “People liked to do their own thing and they wouldn't necessarily share resources and knowledge.” This situation led to stale lineups that lacked diversity, Peters claims, and the scene became territorial, ruled by gatekeepers.
Lockdown changed that. Promoters who traditionally ran events in the city became quiet over the extended hiatus and the shift towards streaming highlighted a richer local music scene in Cape Town than the one traditionally presented.
Particularly important in highlighting this was Radio AlHara's Sonic Liberation Front, a stream aimed at highlighting Israel's ongoing persecution of the Palestinian population both within and outside its borders. In May 2021, Radio AlHara—broadcasting out of Western Asia with headquarters in Ramallah and Amman—created the communal broadcast which was streamed on dozens of internet radio stations and incorporated hundreds of sets from DJs, collectors, and producers across the globe. It also became a space of recognition for music heads in Cape Town.
“Sonic Liberation Front actually brought a lot of us on the same page for the first time,” says Peters. “When we saw each other on that page, we were like ‘wow, here we all are.’”
The Radio AlHara broadcast became the catalyst for creating this new radio station in Cape Town, which moved from a purely online platform to a physical space on Loop Street, where they also host a record store.
Shows on The Other Radio serve up house and techno staples along with a number of shows highlighting the richness of South African dance music, including styles like gqom and amapiano. Shows such as Beats, Bants ^ Bars from DJ Ras Bee profile South African hip-hop, dub and reggae, while Nen x Nen explores unknown producers hailing from the country.
“There's a lot of music that gets overlooked just because it's not African sounding enough,” says Peters. “It's those artists that we really champion and push,” he says.
Another station called Hamshack Radio also appeared in Cape Town during the pandemic, but in the city’s apparent new spirit of teamwork, its existence is one of friendly collaboration rather than competition—the stations share numerous residents, including noted live act and industrial producer Rose Bonica.
As internet radio matures, perhaps its biggest accomplishment so far has been once again creating viable online spaces that are steered by actual communities, and responsive to these communities' cultural and social needs. There is something alluring about a form that—with its popping mics and clipping streams—can foster a relationship that isn’t reliant on hoovering up vast swathes of personal data, is curated by individuals rather than algorithms, and also exists outside of the for-profit social media swamp that pits users against each other.
Where internet radio goes next is as exciting and uncertain, though it will likely happen in hybrid spaces and events, through studios, parties, festivals, workshops, training and meetings, forging accessible and vital new space for the sharing and showcasing of electronic music both online and IRL. This might not be the antidote to all the challenges facing the electronic music and other cultural scenes in cities across the globe, but it’s a start, allowing for independent, non-corporate sharing, connection and solidarity nonetheless.