Since the pirate stations shipped out, the FM radio spectrum is being repopulated by the people
“Going to church is now exciting,” purrs a woman’s voice in my headphones as I roll through Shoreditch, East London. In recent months I've taken to carrying a pocket FM radio everywhere, and bus rides have become journeys of discovery. There’s none of the buffering delays, 3G deadspots and dead batteries you get with smartphones. Instead, it connects you continuously to the sounds of the city. The dial on the transistor radio offers freedom – if you don't like what you hear, you give it a spin, and get dozens of stations right away.
I'd chanced upon an advert for Built On The Rock International Ministries in Bethnal Green, whose evangelical message was hammered home with uptempo dance rhythms and frisky keyboard licks. The broadcaster, Naija FM (101.1 FM), is a ramshackle Nigerian station, seemingly based in South London, and a large selection of its programming is given over to religious shows and phone-ins. It's very rough and ready, which makes the music all the more gripping – chance upon the station during the day and you might hear extended drum circle recordings, Nyabinghi-style devotional percussion, possessed preachers and lengthy Bible readings in two parallel languages to hypnotic effect. Naiji FM has music shows, too, which include the odd impromptu interview with Nigerian pop stars down the line from Lagos. But the religious shows have the most mind blowing music. The fast, furious and ecstatic gospel styles underline how electronic instruments are key equipment for rocking a congregation these days; in turn some fast-paced African dance musics are fuelled by evangelical fervour.
In London, FM is a fertile zone for grassroots start-ups, local broadcasters, oddball operations and altered states of listening. As many broadcasters concentrate their efforts online, there’s space for more stations like Naija FM on the dial. Broadcasting innovation is now coming, not from the pirate dance stations that the capital was once lauded for, but low profile, grassroots community or semi-legal stations taking advantage of flexible or lax licensing to bring new sounds to the airwaves.
An old school radio opens you up to these stations, as well as the wider sounds of the city. When you get on a bus with a pocket radio set to Long Wave, you enter a dense thicket of noise and electromagnetic interference generated by the smartphones of the passengers onboard. Switch to FM and you'll find dozens of local pirate, legal and semi-legal broadcasters. I take a pocket radio to bed, tune in to the world outside, and fall asleep with the headphones on. This listening experience presents a stark contrast with digital and internet radio, which by plugging you into different time zones and pre-recorded schedules, cut you off from your immediate environment and insulate you from the world outside. The internet supplying music on demand is a model of consumption, not a model of community. Online radio also requires some kind of input from the listener – a search term, a folder of favourite stations, or a selection of a genre or a region. But often I prefer to have my environment shaped by someone else, leaving myself open to the coincidences and deviations that live radio can bring.
The first time I turned my portable radio on, I chanced upon Voice Of Africa Radio (94 FM), a Newham station that’s been broadcasting on and off since at least the mid-2000s – like many community radio stations, its website is haphazardly maintained, and vague on dates and details. The station is pan-African in outlook, but gravitates towards West Africa, particularly Nigeria and Ghana. Music is the lingua franca which unites all the communities it caters for. Most of its schedule is dedicated to fresh music, and it has programmes repping Afrobeats, African house, hiphop and R&B of all stripes. You hear lo-fi and homemade innovation round the clock – one recent Saturday morning I caught a moody slice of homemade house overlaid with a jagged cut-up vocal of Bob Marley’s “Iron Lion Zion”, juxtaposing Marley, the venerable pan-African figurehead, on top of cutting edge African club music. Voice Of Africa speaks for the first and second generation African immigrants to London who are habitually ignored by the mainstream media, and their music is packed with fast collisions, quickfire hybrids and brazen bling.
One quirk of the current broadcasting landscape is that some broadcasters, paradoxically, sound narrower than ever. Longrunning London station Rinse FM (106.8 FM), whose website description boasts of having “dominated London's radio airwaves for over a decade”, has in recent years added star DJs such as Surgeon and Hessle Audio, and ditched several veterans such as Scratcha DVA. The music is as exciting as ever, but Rinse has become a narrower platform of niche broadcasters. Back in The Wire 307, Rinse FM’s Geeneus described the station’s music policy as local music; now, shows such as Hessle Audio and Surgeon’s reach out to a diffuse field of geographically separated headz around the globe. As Rinse has become more professional, it has become less open. Even its style of presenting has changed – it shies away from the traditional idea of broadcasting, keeping information and context about records to the minimum, while the announcements are sober, clinical and to the point. These shows don't reach out to casual listeners so much as assume you're already on their wavelength.
During Rinse’s early days, its young DJs were short on connections but strong on knowledge and enthusiasm. It's hard to see them getting the same opportunities on the station now. It's refreshing, then, that the first couple of times I stumbled across Reprezent FM (107.3 FM), I heard young female London MCs and DJs – the kind of voices you don't hear much elsewhere. Like Rinse, Reprezent takes its social responsibilities seriously, providing volunteering and mentoring opportunities for disadvantaged young kids, but its door is more open to unproven DJs – the station’s website boasts that most of them are under 20. The music is hit and miss, but the openness is invigorating.
However, many of the old pirate stations have become insular to the point of parody. There’s something charming about stations like House FM (lurking somewhere around 100 FM) where 30- and 40-something family men roll into the studio late each week to broadcast to their mates rolling around the capital in a van. Football chat, dubious travel information and talk of weekend plans fade abruptly in and out over a selection of 12"s that, judging from the muffled fidelity, have been played 100s of times before. It's warm and nostalgic, for sure, with a strong sense of multicultural community, but age and music-wise the demographic is narrow.
Much of the sassy, insidery London slang that made the old pirate stations so distinctive has now passed down to the younger kids cropping up on community stations. NuSound Radio (94 FM, and formerly known as Star Sound) is a Pakistani and Indian community station based in Forest Gate, East London. Its music spans the latest in desi bangers to the most venerable of Indian film soundtracks, with a range of voices and attitudes to match. A track I heard wandering around the area on a sunny midweek morning was a typical example of its breadth: a Bollywood-style song interspersed with the kind of gunshots you'd usually expect in a grime track. NuSound has a historical depth that’s simply unheard on current UK FM radio. It dedicates entire shows to film music from the 1950s through to the 80s, often late in the evening, with its older hosts speaking softly in Hindi. No show in the multichannel, consumer orientated, focus grouped world of English language UK radio matches that timespan. NuSound also pumps out high energy dance tracks and all kinds of crossfertilised UK urban styles, playlists interspersed with ads for wedding organisers and blinged-up jewellers delivered in quick-fire inner city pitter-patter.
Stations like NuSound and Voice Of Africa are often run by entrepreneurs rather than volunteers – the Voice Of Africa website is plastered with adverts for money senders and religious books, and NuSound's mission statement talks of giving businesses a way of communicating with their local community. In an era of reactionary political rhetoric and veiled racism regarding immigration, these stations, business like but always community centred, offer a powerful corrective.
By contrast to FM, the trend toward internet and digital radio becomes troubling. Like gated housing communities, it seems the response to the multicultural buzz of the city is to avoid contact with what's on your doorstep. You only have to turn on your radio to hear what's happening outside.