Pirate Radio

NTS: Live and Direct and Online

Text by Angus Finlayson

Illustrations by Nikki Thanh Hang Diep

In his eloquent meditation on recorded music, The Recording Angel, Evan Eisenberg muses on the power of radio in a totalitarian regime: 

"Radio puts its dispersed listeners under the spell of a shared event. The ritual aura of live performance - rhetorical, musical, what have you - is broadcast. This has nothing to do with radio waves or brain waves; it is a simple matter of simultaneity. The consciousness that at this very moment the band is playing, the Leader is ascending the platform, the crowd is bristling with jackknife salutes, and millions of your compatriots are poised as you are before the radio - this consciousness is enough to make the whole nation an arena... you have an architecture of time, or rather a cynical engineering of it."

For Eisenberg, the increasing availability and portability of recorded music - from phonograph to the iPod - has atomised the collective, ritualistic qualities which used to be inherent in any musical performance. Music is now at the beck and call of the individual - you choose the time, the place, background or foreground. But in radio the ritual re-emerges, albeit diffused over far greater distances. Eisenberg notes that, during the Great Depression, radio rose to prominence in the US as record sales went into decline. After the Wall Street crash, "poor and rich alike felt shattered, splintered, isolated. What they found in radio... was the solace of solidarity and of predictable, structured time." The affirming, positive qualities of radio can be as powerful as their more insidious counterparts.

In any case, it has been a good few decades since radio has held the privileged position in domestic and public life it once enjoyed. Long gone is the image of the family, crowded around the wireless during an evening, plugged into the national cultural mainframe. A shared "architecture of time" - that peculiarly abstract comfort found in a simultaneous, real-time broadcast - is now far more likely to be supplied by TV.

But in the intervening years the potency of radio hasn't gone unrecognised. In the 1990s and early 2000s, London saw an explosion of illicit, small-scale broadcasting as pirate radio became an integral part of a new, hyper-local infrastructure. From UK hardcore in the early 90's through jungle, UK garage, grime and dubstep, the capital's unique hybrid strains of dance music needed a means to spread their polemic to willing listeners - and the FM bandwidth was ideal. Setting up DIY transmitters on the top of inner city council blocks, beaming signals from makeshift studios in unoccupied bedsits and flats, London's pirates found a foothold for unregulated broadcast in an otherwise tightly regulated system. For the culture's disciples, pirate radio became the ubiquitous soundtrack to daily life, a seamless extension of the multifarious intensities of the rave experience, accessible 24/7. It was a new architecture of time operating under the noses of the authorities, spilling out into the airwaves of the metropolis, threatening to invade the sonic environment of any unwitting listener who happened to stray into the radius of a transmitter.

In 2012, the future of London pirate radio is undefined. Along with other aspects of the culture's infrastructure - specialist record shops and clubs around which scenes coalesce and construct identity - the landscape of radio is in a period of, if not decline, then radical change. A quick scan through the airwaves now is unlikely to elicit the sense of a raucous, barely contained explosion of underground activity, as might have been the case at the zenith of garage or jungle. London's biggest pirate, Rinse FM - whose gradual but inexorable rise from humble beginnings in the mid-90s has been tied up with the global success of both grime and dubstep - recently went legit, bagging a community licence from Ofcom. It is par for the course now for all pirates to run an online stream as a supplement to the tightly geographically restricted FM broadcast.

As with any debate about the changing cultural landscape these days, you can't get very far without mentioning the web. For cultural critic Simon Reynolds, there's "an almost ontological difference between terrestrial radio and net radio... tuning in from another time zone, at the wrong time of day for the show… it's just too displacing. To tune into net radio you have to be pre-converted to an extent. It's... narrowcast by nature. For those who know. It's a new kind of post-geographical parochialism, where a narrowcast audience is scattered all across the globe." It's not just to do with modes of transmission, either. For the naysayers, the diluting effects of the internet are to blame for a certain lack of dynamism in the current scene. These days, grassroots pirates such as Deja Vu FM and Live FM specialise in UK funky, a compound of house's steady kickdrum pulse with the trickier syncopations of soca and broken beat. It is a uniquely London form with its own merits, but the past few years have seen it struggle to avoid being sucked into the far larger - and, arguably, blander - orbit of international house.

Not everyone buys into the narrative of decline, though. April 2011 saw the inaugural broadcast of NTS radio, an internet-only station born out of the Nuts To Soup blog, based in Dalston's multicultural, bohemian milieu of east London. Where pirate radio is "urban", NTS is urbane. Where pirates thrive on a tight stylistic focus, fiercely championing their chosen sound, NTS revels in its pluralism. Tuning in, you're likely to find yourself in a world where the "cutting edge" comes to feel like an increasingly redundant concept: chronology is refracted through a multifaceted prism, and the resultant play of colours is beauty personified. Shows such as The Hot Selection and Jon Rust's No  Boring Intros trace lines from contemporary dance music back to hip hop, disco, soul, jazz and reggae, each record selected with an archivist's care and attention. Ttiksar's Assorted Meats pushes things further out on a Friday evening, drawing transversal connections between far-flung outposts of pop music. It is a compelling new form of independent radio, deeply informed and passionate, but unconcerned with achieving the professionalised sheen of a commercial broadcast. And what is more, entirely legit.

Founder and station boss Femi Adeyemi, who presents his own weekly show as Mr. Wonderful, had previously dabbled inpirate radio, as he reveals when we meet in the friendly, bustling square outside the NTS studio one afternoon. "I had a little stint when Rinse first set up years ago... it was a very long time ago. Then I tried to set up [a pirate station] when I was about 18 with a couple of friends. That didn't work out, it lasted about a week."

Was he tempted to go down the illegal route then? "When I first set [the station] up, a lot of people did say to me 'just get a mast and go for it,'" Adeyemi explains. "I just don't like stress or trouble. I didn't want to have to worry about somebody chasing us down and giving us some stupid fine." In a recent analysis of the state of pirate radio, blogger Martin Clark made the observation that artists will tend to take "the path of least resistance" in promoting their music. For many today, that means low-quality YouTube uploads and mixes traded via Mediafire. But for those still invested in the shared architecture of radio, internet-only broadcasting  is an appealing prospect.

It is possible to operate online illegally. But when licences are, relatively speaking, easy to acquire, and regulation is almost non-existent compared to the draconian constraints on content imposed on terrestrial stations, why risk it? The elaborate game of cat and mouse between station owners and the authorities which imbues pirate culture with much of its drama - equipment seizures, arrests, fines - becomes an irrelevance.

Since the station's launch, more established entities have begun to show an interest, with the likes of Joy Orbison, Ghostpoet and Kyle Hall making guest appearances. Wire magazine runs a monthly show, supplementing its regular spot on the more overtly esoteric Resonance FM. More direct appeals to the dancefloor are supplied by the likes of Moxie and Brainfeeder expat Kutmah. In fact, much of the programming on NTS could be said to fall between the twin poles of Resonance's laudably uncompromising output and the more club-ready fare of Rinse. Adeyemi cites both as an influence on the station's format, as well as long-standing US independent, WFMU. He also namechecks The Young Turks, an online news show whose massive popularity in the States is giving traditional TV networks a run for their money - another example of the internet's low-cost, high-exposure media formats making an unexpected impact.

But when it's relocated in a legal framework, does independent radio lose its tension, its edge? It's certainly true that NTS intersects, at points, with the hipper elements of the east London population in a way that might make advocates of dance music culture uncomfortable. Part of pirate radio's innate value is a platform for the articulation of marginal perspectives - particularly the privation experienced by London's poor, inner city youth. By comparison, NTS can often feel a little comfortable in its own skin, its presenters turned inwards, thoroughly absorbed in the musical worlds they construct. But, though it may express it in different ways, Adeyemi is keen to emphasise the station's commitment to lending a voice to the local community. "A lot of what we're about is based on what Hackney is about. I feel like the diversity we have, just in this square alone, we try and reflect that in the station. We have people doing shows in different languages even, Turkish, Japanese, French. We try and highlight issues in the people here, support a lot of stuff in the area."

And what about Reynolds' criticism that internet radio's reach is essentially narrow, neo-parochial? Rather than wallow in their "niche" status, Adeyemi explains how NTS actively exploit their post-geographical capabilities. "We have Yumi - she does a show at 1-2pm, so she can reach an audience in Japan. It's a prime-time evening show for them. Another guy from Argentina does a show on a Sunday. You check the stats and there are a lot of people listening out there. Kutmah selected a time to reach out to his people in the States. In the near future we're going to be doing syndicated shows from around the world too - Washington, LA and Tokyo so far. That'll be after midnight UK time, so more targeted to their listeners." Rather than dwelling on what's lost in the new format, NTS wholeheartedly embraces the potential it offers.
The optimism of it is infectious.

Adeyemi's global ambitions call to mind another recently emerged London institution, the Boiler Room, whose live streaming club sessions have expanded from a strictly London affair to regular nights in Berlin and pending activity in LA. Unsurprisingly, Adeyemi was involved with the project earlier on. "Boiler Room was actually my original project. I started it with Thristian [BPM] and Blaise [Belleville], but pulled out to focus on NTS. So Boiler Room and us, we're brothers and sisters, family." As families go, it is one that shows an extraordinary amount of promise. Both formats are bound to face teething problems along the way, as they continue to grow and venture into relatively uncharted territory. But, for Adeyemi, there is no looking back. "One of the questions people tend to ask with our growing popularity is whether we intend on ever moving into traditional FM status. Which is something I don't see as a priority at all. What makes the whole thing exciting, gives us that unique feel as a station, is that we just do what we do - there are no regulations." §