Streaming Won’t Kill the Radio Star
The rise in popularity of Beats 1 and independent stations like Rinse, NTS, and Radar shows just how much we still desire a human touch over algorithm-curated playlists.
"Radio is a thing of the past," said Spotify's Head of Dance and Electronic music, Austin Kramer, during Paris Electronic Week 2016, "it's not relevant." Now, it's easy to get that impression if your point of reference is BBC Radio 1's sinking listenership, or identikit figurines on Capital FM who speak in excited yelps about Olly Murs. Or maybe Kramer was at the Student Radio Awards I attended the other week, an occasion so lacklustre and dead-behind-the-eyes that I was forced to forgo the free booze in favour of a Nando's midway through.
But away from those mainstream touch points, there is a huge revolution happening in radio, and it's taking place far from Norwich University's Student Union, Paris Electronic Week, and the anaemic realm of post-X Factor stardom. The launch of Apple's Beats 1 station last year revived radio with its programming, exclusives and artist led shows, but the station didn't spring fully formed from Tim Cook's meticulously coiffured head. In fact, it's not a stretch to say that a crop of British radio visionaries are at least partly responsible for inspiring the biggest tech giant in the world to make a million dollar investment in an internet radio station.
Beats 1 shares DNA with independent broadcasters like NTS and veteran tastemakers like Rinse FM, who resurrected the unpolished and uncensored thrill of 1960s pirate radio. The London station is the unstructured and loosely governed home of grime and dubstep, and essentially the Abbey Road of independent radio. If you'd tuned in during the early 00s, you would have caught a bar-for-bar face off between Wiley and Dizzee in someone's smokey kitchen, and in later years, the sound of Oneman or Skream shaping a new genre from mashed up 2-step and garage tracks. The station is built on anarchic spirit and a diverse taste in music. Ultimately though, there is one important element that always marked Rinse FM out, and continues to be a strong motif of contemporary stations like NTS and Radar Radio: real, human people.
The cogs in a station like Rinse were never oiled by career presenters with dictated playlists, scripted comedy segments and TV aspirations. They were oiled by people who talk shit like you and your mates. They are music lovers more than anything, offering something more deeply personable than the tailored listening experiences of a streaming service. This is something Beats 1 clearly clocked when they hired former Rinse FM lynchpin Julie Adenuga. Despite having a lower profile than fellow hosts Ebro Darden (previously Hot 97) and Zane Lowe (Radio 1), Adenuga was selected as one of the three faces of Beats because she understands the importance of personality.
"Everyone likes to listen to conversations they're not supposed to be in. It's about being able to hear people freely explore music. No guilty pleasures," she tells me. "Presenting has changed so much. I remember sitting down with Geeneus (Head at Rinse) and looking for people who actually wanted to present a show, not just DJ. It was so hard."
Things have now changed a lot. If you tune into NTS – five years old this April and described by Dummy Mag as "joining the dots between Rinse, Resonance and 6Music" – you can hear over 130 shows now being presented by young people (although there's a fair few veterans too). These stations favour presenters with a desire to share new music, with the rigid technical know-how coming later.
The approach fostered by the likes of Rinse and NTS has since formed the vision for Radar Radio, arguably the most exciting and dynamic new station to emerge from Britain's radio revolution. In the two years since its launch, the station has hosted performances by the likes of Skepta and Novelist, and interviews with iLoveMakonnen and MIA. On any given day, its studio is jam-packed with an assortment of up-and-coming MCs, young presenters and DJs, broadcasting live from East London to the infinite ears of the internet.
"The idea that not being able to know your way around CDJs can stop you from playing on radio seems so backwards," says station founder Ollie Ashley, ushering me into their newly renovated basement studio, dimly illuminated by blue light. "We've got practice rooms here and book them out to people who can come and get to grips with the most boring part of DJing, which is the technical aspect. All you need is one USB; you can do a show off that. [This approach has] taken away so many barriers. You're getting a whole new generation of people doing radio who wouldn't have been doing it beforehand."
Getting in these fresh faces, who add that much needed human element, is vital for allowing the new models of radio to pull ahead of streaming services, now their direct competitors for audience share. Spotify and TIDAL may have tightly-wound algorithms, but these broadcasters have the weapon of personal interaction – they can marry a slick mix or playlist with the charisma and warmth of a great host. "Radio will always be more exciting to me than streaming platforms because it is personality infused within a selection as well," explains Ashley. "When the DJ's on point, and the MC's on point, you get something golden that can't be created with just a standard playlist."
This experience of hearing something golden and unique being created live on air has also been behind the resurgence in pirate-style grime stations across London. On any given night, an inquisitive Londoner can tune into stations like Mode FM, Flex FM, or Déjà Vu FM and hear hosts like DJ Spooky or DJ Tiatsim blast out sets for a revolving door of young MCs.
On a larger scale, in a world dominated by portable smartphones and the need for flexibility, radio's ability to adapt to changing listening habits has proved crucial. "I felt the change occur at Radio 1," Zane Lowe recounts, whose Beats 1 station offers a personalised listening experience, with the likes of Pharrell, Ezra Koenig and Elton John hosting their own shows. "People were moving into an On Demand experience. We try to move as fast as the artist does and give the audience what they want as it happens. We said right at the beginning of Beats 1 that we felt like we had more in common with Netflix than local radio."
For proof of how this youth and voice-led approach to modern day curating has worked for broadcasters, you can always cite traditional measures – the listenership on NTS has rocketed by 300% last year. In comparison, BBC Radio 1 lost a million listeners over the same period. Ultimately though, stations like NTS and Rinse and Radar have become brands – as synonymous with youth culture as a Palace clothing drop or a pair of Reebok Classics. Radar's signature monochrome tee has become a staple at the coolest club nights around the country, the kind you hear about from a friend of a friend and pray the bouncer can't sense your innate lack of chill as you line up for the door. Ashley says Radar have had to get more printed, because "they've become an in demand item. But we only give them out to people here."
In some places, the line between radio and music labels are also now blurring, with stations taking on the role of A&R. Peckham's Reprezent was the hothouse that helped launch Stormzy into the stratosphere, whereas Radar is currently watching several of its headline acts catch the attention of the mainstream. BBC AZN Network, who have a show on Radar, are now cueing up Bollywood bangers next to bashment on Saturday nights at The Nest. And Those That Know – a band popularised via Radar appearances and live events – have been described by Julie Adenuga as a "UK version of Soulection. Like a boyband, but on radio."
These stations, with their constantly revolving doors of young experts and specialists from all corners of the music spectrum, can feel light years ahead of even the savviest bloggers. "I always said it's not the cutting edge, it's the bleeding edge of what's going on. That's how far out we are," Ashley tells me of Radar Radio. With platforms like Mixcloud enabling young broadcasters to share their ideas across oceans and continents, young hot talent can form alliances and swap music intel at a frantic rate.
In the end though, the success of these new stations comes back to the one grounding element that makes them stand tall: personality. There's been a conscious rejection of the twee, toothless banter that has rotted mainstream FM shows previously lauded for their bite. Instead, it's about freeform, no-fucks-given rules. "If you look at the way we do things, it just makes sense," says Ashley. "Why does it need to be a sterile, boring process? Of course you should be able to play and say what you want, of course you should bring your friends, of course you should have a smoke, have a drink and enjoy yourself when you're doing a radio show."
Zane Lowe, now a radio veteran, agrees with this sentiment, and sees the artist-led shows at Beats 1 adopting this spirit: "We were all getting tired of going through the motions. All the fun happens in the studio, then when it's time to promote the record, it's a pain in the ass. Who needs another 100 standard promotional interviews a week? Why don't we just do a few, and let the artists talk amongst themselves and see whether promotion could be creative and mean something different than just 'do I have to?'" The result is a show like Drake's OVO, which spawns a million news stories the morning after every broadcast, or Stormzy's #MERKY, on which he explored both new and old British music as well as previewing his own.
All in all, streaming hasn't killed the radio star just yet – in many ways, it's actually kicked it up the arse. Those at streaming giants may hope that it's fading out, but until technology has been invented that allows computers to resemble humans (and, likely, signalling the end of humanity) they're going to have to put up a hard battle to compete against the romantic essence of good radio. As Annie Mac retorted recently: "You can have the best playlists and algorithms in the world, but there's nothing better than a person you like talking to you about music."
You can find Moya on Twitter.