As the London-based internet station celebrates one year on air, we speak to its founders about the fresh vibe they've brought to radio.
Lock in! is the familiar shout on Facebook, Twitter and through laptop speakers. Locked! is the reply, the confirmation that the signal is being received, loud and clear. Of course, the language of radio has always been call and response, from requests to phone-ins and shout-outs, and the growth of internet radio over the last two decades (yep, the first internet station broadcast in the mid-90s) has increasingly meant multi-platform response, but it’s what listeners of London-based NTS Radio are locking into that sets it apart.
With over 130 different shows and growing since its launch in April 2011, NTS has at its heart the radically simple idea to bring together the most diverse music and speech-based programming out there. It joins the dots between Rinse, Resonance and 6Music to provide a service that reflects the wide-ranging passions of its many, many presenters – and listeners. That’s the crucial thing about NTS – it is not a niche station, it’s a multi-niche station that it gives voice to a dizzying array of passions and pressing issues – from weekly show 72 Nations that delves into the history of dub to music specials like Adam Harper’s spotlight on Estonia, and Scattershot’s powerful one-off radio docs exploring sensitive subjects like the discrimination gay refugees face.
“Musically, radio was really repetitive; there wasn’t anything really new happening.” Femi Edmund Adeyemi, NTS
As a community radio station, NTS reaches far beyond the physical community of its Dalston surrounds – across seas, genres, cultures, sub-cultures and times. The term “community radio” is a funny one because the prefix feels redundant – that’s inherently what radio is, what its history is. Long before we were drawn to the glowing box in the corner – or rather, today’s screen on the wall – families huddled round the wireless, connecting to the wider world beyond their living rooms via the power of radio waves.
That said, the community part of NTS’s identity is a nod to its set up. Anyone can involved, as long as you’ve got a good idea for a show. Show hosts play a small monthly fee for their place in the schedule to cover running costs, so the station effectively pays for itself without the need – or crucially, the desire – for on-air advertising. And best of all, there’s no repetitive playlist – so every show is the product of the DJ-presenter’s passion and imagination.
While the waves might be digital rather than radio these days, there’s an undeniable feeling of resurgence in the air, not least because of a reinvigorated awareness of the energy and intimacy that radio can offer. I met up with NTS’s Femi Edmund Adeyemi and Clair Urbahn outside their studio in Gillet Square back in March to talk about the revitalised interest in radio, look back on a year of broadcasting and look forward to the next 50.
So how did NTS all start? You were doing Boiler Room before, right?
Femi: I was working on NTS before I started Boiler Room. Boiler Room is amazing. It was an excuse to play amazing records, pretend to be a TV host, get drunk and get stoned at the same time. It was four or five of us – Blaise was always there, Thristian was always there, and it became a lot more popular over time, everyone started talking about it. Blaise was really smart because there were a lot of people doing it before us, with bigger names than Thristian and myself but I think what we did was open it up to a lot more people. The other ones were a bit more clique. I think that’s what made Boiler Room so special, and why it is so special still. But I was working on NTS before that.
Your blog [the now defunct Nuts To Soup, from which NTS takes its name]?
Femi: No, the setting up of the station too – I was writing up plans for the station. It was taking up a lot of time. I was living off a monthly night I did at Plastic People, and this crazy cleaning company that I set up.
Clair: It had a good name.
Femi: Sweet Boy. I only used Fair Trade cleaning products. I was living just off Church Street, and I was like, everyone round here would want Fair Trade. It lasted about two months until I was asked to clean this really high window. I’m shit scared of heights so I didn’t go in for the job. I was also doing Boiler Room on a Tuesday and I couldn’t keep doing everything. As amazing as Boiler Room was I felt that is important that I focused on the reason why I dropped everything, why I dropped a well-paid career, to focus on something I was passionate about.
And what was the drive to do that?
Femi: There were three main reasons – the first being I decided I wasn’t going to work for anyone else apart from myself anymore. The second reason was that I had always wanted to set up a radio station, it’s one of those things I’ve always wanted. The last was that I felt that musically, radio was really repetitive; there wasn’t anything really new happening. Everything was so, if you aren’t a part of this group you don’t know.
Rinse is incredible but it can sometimes feel closed, and it also seems to be 98% male…
Femi: Yeah, that’s true. As much as Rinse is an inspiration, and Resonance – they’re both sides of the spectrum – they’re very focused on what they do and that’s it. They know what works for them and they stick to it.
Clair: That’s their niche.
Femi: That’s their niche, they know they’ve got their target market. Something I questioned before we started, something I talked about with Clair, was how come no one else has tried to play as much variety? WFMU do something similar in the states, and maybe East Village. College radio in America was an inspiration for us – they have that really mixed programming.
How did you know about those stations – what’s your listening experience of them?
Femi: I’ve always been interested in radio but with the internet you find out so much more. We’re really limited over here with radio, I don’t think there’s much happening in the UK.
Clair: Yeah, the BBC has taken a lot of limelight in terms of radio, and filled a lot of the voids so people kind of think that’s covered, and that’s what it is – the BBC – when you look for radio. There are not as many independents.
Femi: I can’t really think of that many.
Clair: Since doing NTS I’ve become aware of other new online radio stations that are sort of doing what we’re doing, but nowhere near on the same scale as us.
I listened to radio a lot when I was growing up, specifically dance music – stuff like the Essential Mix when I was getting ready to go out – but there was definitely a period of time when I stopped. It’s actually since the start of NTS that I’ve listened to a lot more. Maybe it’s that thing of it being back in your frame of reference again?
Femi: There has been a resurgence of radio, definitely. I definitely feel like there has, even before NTS. Just with the internet – there are so many online radio stations, it’s hard to pick.
Clair: There are so many niche ones as well. I was thinking about doing a radio show about animals and so I googled ‘animal radio’ and in the states there is a radio station just on animals. It’s crazy.
Femi: I wouldn’t say it’s easy to set up – but it’s easier than a traditional AM/FM radio station. But anyone can put some wires together if they have a decent connection at home and broadcast from their laptop – set up a radio station for themselves. It’s not a station like ours where we have 130 different shows, with 130 different people producing them.
Listen back to Paddy’s show from last August, with special guest Joy Orbison
So you always wanted a radio station, you always loved radio, what was in your proposal – what was your vision for NTS?
Femi: Having a radio station with as much varied programming as we do and also making it commercially viable at the same time – and making it a thing that I can make a living from. I was turning 30, I had to sort myself out.
Clair: You can’t invest all that time into something…
Femi: As much as I’d love to…
It’s got to be a sustainable thing.
Femi: Yeah. I wouldn’t say we took a risk with the programming because the vision we have for it is what we have now – a mix of different stuff. But we were also trying to work out ways how to make money on the side – we could have dating pages on the site, do parties – but then London has become so saturated with all that stuff. I’m not prepared to do another run of the mill thing. I’d rather work on something and build on that than rush into anything.
What’s your background, Clair?
Clair: My background is all in radio in New Zealand. Moved here in 2008, after working in radio for 10 years doing various things.
What kind of radio?
Clair: The first thing was really terrible – cheesy, breezy hits of the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and today kind of station.
Is that the jingle?
“Listening to radio I get to use my imagination a bit more – there’s not that visual distraction.” Femi Edmund Adeyemi, NTS
Clair: Er, probably yeah [laughs]. I was producing the breakfast show there, and then for another cheesy station I was doing a radio show and stuff. But for the last five years before I came here I was working for an independently owned station, which was originally a college station but went independently owned when the college decided it was no longer viable and it was bought out by a group of people. It’s was sort of like NTS where the hosts, most of them are specialist DJs – which means they specialise in a genre and they can come in and do their thing for a couple of hours – and we only playlisted for 7 hours a day during weekdays and the rest of it was DJs doing their own thing. So when I moved here I thought I had enough experience to get a job but didn’t manage to get into the market – my experience in New Zealand wasn’t recognised here – they don’t know any of the stations etc. So I started making my own radio programmes and did some internships. I was really surprised to discover when I moved here that there weren’t any radio stations of my ilk that I actually listened to. I was really into Resonance FM but it felt sort of a bit too talk, a bit too soundscape-y, I wanted more music.
And passion – I feel like NTS has a lot of people who are really excited about what they’re doing.
Clair: And prior to NTS there wasn’t that platform. So yeah, I was working at Cafe Oto and Femi was a regular – and I asked him if he wanted to voice a radio thing I was doing. And he said, oh you’re into radio and I was like, yeah. And he said he was thinking of starting an online radio station.
It feels like it’s snowballed pretty quickly. I remember thinking what’s NTS? And then suddenly everyone wanted a show.
Femi: I don’t think either of us expected it. I do this full time – it’s has to be full time because they’re so much happening.
I do wonder why we’ve started to get excited about radio again. Why are we all doing this at this point in time, at this age?
Femi: I think it’s one of those mediums that is a lot more accessible…
Clair: Is it because the platform has been presented to you?
A little bit…yes, because you suddenly realise that this is a possibility. There’s TV, video games, the internet – all these things vying for your attention – but once you remember how intimate that listening to radio can be – it’s a forgotten pleasure in a way.
Clair: If you think about, the BBC is pretty distant. It’s accessible but it’s not instantly relatable. It’s enjoyable to listen to – I listen to Radio 4 and stuff like that. But it’s not community – hey, that’s my friend or my show’s coming up next week. You haven’t got that to vibe with it.
Femi: Listening to radio I get to use my imagination a bit more – there’s not that visual distraction. Honestly, I prefer it. I don’t watch TV. I watch DVDs now and again but I can’t watch anything for longer than 20 minutes without getting distracted and feeling like my life has been sucked away.
Clair: I think a lot of people our age aren’t watching TV.
Yeah, I’d agree with that.
“I’d like to think that most people don’t necessarily enjoy what they hear on commercial radio.” Femi Edmund Adeyemi, NTS
Femi: The amount of exciting radio stations out there has definitely brought back an interest in radio. And that’s because of the internet. You can do what you want, you can say what you want, you can play what you want. I’d like to think that most people don’t necessarily enjoy what they hear on commercial radio.
Clair: I’d like to think that too.
Femi: Because a lot of it is repeated, it’s just the same stuff.
Clair: They’re force fed it.
It’s almost one of the reasons music’s been devalued – when something is heavily playlisted and syndicated, it becomes background, it’s supposed to be background. It isn’t played for a specific reason – because the host wants to share this track with you. There’s not a human passion behind it.
Femi: It’s obvious in the drop in listening to radio. But a lot of people are listening to radio on the internet or pirate radio.
“When you think about the commercial stations we’re talking about, I feel like it’s a completely different medium to what we’re doing with NTS.” Clair Urbahn, NTS
Clair: Someone asked me a question about using the word ‘radio’. And whether what we’re doing with NTS is even actually even radio. Which I find quite interesting. When you think about the commercial stations we’re talking about, I feel like it’s a completely different medium to what we’re doing with NTS. It is, isn’t it? It’s a different beast.
Do you see it as a broadcast then, maybe?
Femi: The only difference between traditional radio and online radio is there aren’t radio waves. It is a broadcast. But is TV on a TV screen only television – what about when you’re watching it on the internet? You’re watching it through a screen with your eyes. But it’s the same with radio online, you’re listening to it with your ears and it’s streaming constantly, broadcasting live.
Clair: Being an avid fan of radio all my life I wouldn’t want to lose the word ‘radio’ from NTS. I have a nostalgic feeling for the word radio.
It is a radio station – formats change but the spirit remains. What have been your big highlights over the past year?
Femi: I was really stoked when The Wire magazine said they were going to get involved. That was amazing. To have the love and respect from The Wire that they’ve been showing us all year – that makes it worthwhile.
Clair: Before NTS if I had ever dreamed of starting an online radio station that The Wire had a show on – no way!
Femi: Cherrystones and The New Jerusalem has worked out really well – they’re consistent. I’ve been a fan of Bullion and Cherrystones for years. Alex Chase, Beatnik as well. Those guys work together – it’s a really good show. The breakfast show with Marsha has been amazing too.
Clair: For me, because my aim is to get as much speech and interest-based stuff on air, I was really happy to see Kiss My Arts and Scattershot come to fruition. Both Debi [Ghose, NTS’s new programme director] and I really worked really hard to find the right shows and they are consistently good every week. I think they bring something totally different to the roster. The Wire Salon recordings are great too.
“Hopefully by the end of the year we’ll be set up enough to make our own programmes and sell them.” Femi Edmund Adeyemi, NTS
Femi: It’s something we want to spend more time doing – documenting stuff. We want to do our own NTS programmes – most of it will be talk based stuff. In a few weeks we’re going to do a talk with Jah Wobble, so we’re going to broadcast that. That we’ve got Band Practice coming up, which is a live event broadcast that we’re going to start in May.
How are you going to make NTS commercially viable?
Femi: The radio itself doesn’t bring any money in – the station pays for itself.
Clair: You kind of don’t want it to because that would involve adverts.
Femi: We don’t want advertising on air – maybe on the website – but on air we’re keeping it to absolutely zero. It’s the side projects, the events, the external broadcasting.
Clair: Recording stuff and re-broadcasting…
Femi: Going into production work…
Clair: People approaching us to bring DJs down to something that they’re doing…
Femi: Hopefully by the end of the year we’ll be set up enough to make our own programmes and sell them. That’s the next step.
That feels very achievable. I can see that happening.
Femi: Yeah it is.
Clair: We’ve set ourselves up for that to happen.
So what have been the big challenges in year one?
“People have started to hang out [in Gillet Square]. When we first started NTS it was just bums drinking beer, and now people come and sit.” Clair Urbahn, NTS
Clair: Equipment. Internet. BT [laughs]. The biggest challenges have been the equipment. In the first six months the podcasting was a nightmare – to record and then upload everyone’s shows – to deal with that much audio was a nightmare. Especially when it was just Femi and I. Then we started to get people involved.
Femi: Podcasting was horrible – it felt like we were never going to solve this problem. We didn’t have the money to do it any other way. But we’ve become so efficient at it now thanks to James, Clair’s boyfriend, who is a genius.
Clair: Yeah, he’s a genius [laughs].
Femi: He figured out this thing called Airtime for us – the podcast is ready within an hour of broadcast. It’s nuts. We’re doing it quicker than some of these big radio stations.
Did he build that then?
Clair: No, I think the creators are based in Berlin and it’s open source – so it’s a free programme.
I like it that a community station is using open source software.
Femi: We must be their biggest customer – us and Resonance. So that’s not really a problem anymore, apart from when someone pulls out a cable or when the internet goes down. The internet was a huge problem at one point. BT are the worst people to deal with.
Clair: So many problems, so slow to respond. There was one point we were broadcasting at 16kpbs.
Femi: So we stopped streaming. It couldn’t handle the stream. So we invested in this monster internet that is built for us – it’s bloody expensive but it’s worth it.
Clair: Our own cable. We haven’t had any problems since.
What’s your dream with NTS now you’re celebrating birthday number one? What about birthday number five or number ten? Are you thinking that far ahead?
Clair: So we’ve got all of these pods then [gesturing to the neighbouring pods next to the studio], filled with different studios.
Femi: That would be amazing. I don’t know, man. It would be amazing if it was here in 50 years. If the world still exists. Just longevity, that’s all. To keep doing the same shit. The freedoms on the internet are so important – it’s the last sort of free land on earth. As long as that still remains I think we’re good.
What are you proudest of with NTS?
Femi: I think just the fact that’s we’ve formed this amazing team – Shane, Clair, Debi, Fergus, Sam, Tom, Alec, Shanice and everyone.
Clair: As the station gets stronger the community vibe gets stronger, and that feels really nice.
It definitely makes me proud of London – people aren’t just letting stuff wash over them, they’re doing things. That gets me excited – you guys doing this is good for all of us.
Clair: Also what makes me proud is the line-up for the first birthday – to think we can get all of those people locked and coming.
Femi: Everyone’s been so supportive. We’re going to do a daytime thing as well – in Gillet Square, with a soundsystem over here. Like a block party type of thing. It’s going to be a fun day.
Clair: Femi was just saying the other day how nice it is that this square has started to get a vibe of its own. People have started to hang out here. When we first started NTS it was just bums drinking beer, and now people come and sit.
Femi: It’s got a really good vibe.