Nuns smoke outside an industrial club. A dog wears a pair of sunglasses. A young woman takes a self-portrait by the window on a misty morning. This is but a sample of the endless stream of Instagram posts that try to encapsulate the vibe of each show, posted every hour. Some are introspective, others are humorous – but what ties them together is a wide variety, connected only by the umbrella of the radio station under which they broadcast together.
As lockdown began, online radio stations began popping up with a slick, if not entirely DIY presence on Instagram. Many people who have never before had their own shows on radio have, since March this year, been presenting weekly hours of their favourite or own music, readings, podcasts, and sound art projects to get them through the solitude of lockdown.
The result has been a highly communal experience built upon solidarity. Communities that have arisen from this operation have converged to create a harmonious group of lockdown musicians and self-starting broadcasters. It was through this very community that I began listening to and eventually co-running No Bounds, a radio station focused on sound art and literature. Three other people I had (and still have!) never met in person and myself collected listener submissions and were permanently on Instagram looking out for people who would make a good fit with our programming. The result has been a steadily growing community that has formed around experimental sounds framed by utopic ideals that have emerged from the pandemic.
Whereas the outside world was bleak and empty, in the shared consciousness of these shows there has been a levity and a lightness. As an apt counterpoint to the extroverted relentlessness of dance music radio that has gone on through the first few weekends of lockdown – energising people in spite of reality – the longer and more frequent curation of radio has reflected the introspective side of being inside.
Jared Davis of experimental arts compendium aqnb observed that, deep into 2020, ambient music has become a form of art that meets the vast open-endedness of the multiple crises we are simultaneously facing: a pandemic, homebound isolation, and climate anxiety. “We seek comfort in the aesthetic of ambience, but we are also daunted by it,” he writes. “Ambience is a perfect aesthetic metaphor for living in the age of problems too big to scale.”
His reflection certainly holds true for the realm of new radio stations as well. Across multiple online stations, a collective emphasis on sound art and ambient music has emerged. At the heart of this ambient mood is the unintentionally lo-fi sonic aesthetic that has come out of recording jam sessions, readings, and thoughts spontaneously in one take, through any smartphone’s sound recording app. Results were grainy, with feedback and wind being noticeably present in some of the recordings. This DIY grain has produced an earnestness that has come from raw, unpolished setups, and created an element of presence and place in such shows.
This interiority and reflection have also translated into the format of shows, with experimental formats that might have been more common in a live setting now making frequent appearances in daily programming. Online stations have hosted hybrid hours fusing the likes of local history, witchcraft spell-casting, radio theatre, and sound art. Thamesmead broadcaster RTM.FM has been at the forefront of this trend, having broadcast an invigorating variety of shows blending the more ethereal concepts of magick with the grounding of local history, snippets of industrial sounds, and a more traditional radio mix of music. Kate Carr, in her show Interiorities, focused on ‘sonic experiments, works in progress and field recordings taken during lockdown’. The resulting hours have been deeply introspective, almost journalistic snapshots of what may be the strangest period of most of our lives thus far: sounds such as claps for the NHS and yogic reminders to breathe form key anchors of these soundscapes.
The RTM.FM initiative established by the arts collective Tracey Ain’t Coming Out (TACO!) was set up in 2018 as a homage to the now-defunct broadcaster whose name it shares, and its intriguing history has attracted presenters with similar history-based niche interests. This is something many presenters have found they could not have done on more established radio stations with brands predicated on certain music styles and listener bases. In this regard, online radio set up during lockdown has taken the role of community forums and transmitted radio where there did not use to be.
For broadcasters themselves, running a DIY station has been a way to keep a community dependent on human presence going in light of venue closures and cancelled tours. For many musicians who were meant to tour, it has been a good way of maintaining exposure, staying relevant, and building a base. Slow Dance, an independent record label and party based in East London, pivoted to establishing a radio station to showcase not only their roster of artists, but to people in the independent music community as well, whether you had an interest in curating or developing an on-air personality (notably, the station’s regular shows included a DJ PPE and Radio Sex Music with Mary Anne Corn on the Cobs, a riff on BBC 6 Music’s Mary Anne Hobbs.)
Jace*, who has been classed as vulnerable and has not left the house since March, has seen online radio as a good way of finding a community. “It’s been quite an escape from worries about the day; not just something to keep in the background while working, but also the place you’d go after work, as you would have a pub, gig, or poetry night,” she says. Jace also points to the outdoors nature of the shows as a comforting respite from not being able to experience it in real life. And indeed, the turn to nature for solace has also been a key theme running through shows. Birdsong flows beneath readings, as have atmospheric sounds collected in forests, by the coast, even in places we have taken for granted, like public transport.
As with anything born of a passionate moment, these stations have had very different progressions. Some have ceased regular programming, whilst others have discovered a niche, and some are simply changing their directions or broadcast formats. But that in itself has been a positive and true snapshot of a means of escape from what has been a troubling year for most.
And in the midst of the country’s second lockdown, the online radio community has many reasons to be cheerful. Exciting new iterations of online radio on the horizon prove the format is adapting and evolving, and provide some clues as to how online radio may morph in the era of the lockdown purgatory, where we may or may not be on the cusp of going back to the era of small venue shows.
This year’s Radiophrenia Glasgow, beginning transmission on 9 November, bills itself as a “temporary art radio station – a two-week exploration into current trends in sound and transmission arts”. Its offerings are diverse, amongst others, promising “live events, produced commissions, live studio performances, compilations of short works, long-form works, documentaries, field recordings, experimental music, sound art, drama, poetry and (perhaps mostly) lots of material that lies in between or beyond.”
@radiophreniaglasgow At 12pm today and 3pm tomorrow The Healer by Cucina Povera, a new commission in association with WORM Studios Rotterdam.
Most importantly, the project probes the potential of radio as a continuous work, with the writer Anna McLaughlan observing that “At times recordings blend together, at others they are punctuated by an announcer’s voice. Ongoing and literally refreshing, becoming anew with each work, each space of reception.”
No Bounds is shifting from a weekly schedule to a bi-weekly specials broadcast, where listeners submit responses to a theme. At the end of October, we aired a Samhain special that served as an introduction to witchcraft and its links to feminism, and our next broadcast will be a tribute to the anarchist David Graeber.
As the DIY community has shown continued resilience, so it will find ways of release. In the wake of physical radio studios being turfed out of their longtime studio sites, such as NTS from East London’s Gillett Square earlier this month, online communities are hopeful that their presences online will remain much more permanent. For many stations established over lockdown, that is the only home they have known.
Ashley Tan is a freelance journalist and broadcaster whose interests include experimental media, East Asian diaspora, and their convergence. She co-runs No Bounds, an online radio station focusing on sound art, performance, and readings. She is also an electronic producer who performs as ahyt.