Rising from the ashes of the global FM stations, independent radio is delivering the depth and knowledge its mainstream predecessors could rarely conjure. And with the medium mainly on digital, the movement is truly worldwide, from Seoul to Hong Kong; Vilnius to Rio.
Finally satisfying the cravings of the underground scene, this new wave of pioneers are setting up stations that forge their own culture and create world-class content, championing local artists and revolutionising the age-old format.
As a revitalised medium emerges, how can labels take advantage of independent radio’s loyal and keenly targeted audiences?
It’s 7pm on a Tuesday evening in East Berlin and Cashmere Radio HQ is buzzing. Johanna Knutsson is finishing her weekly radio show, Low Power, (usually accompanied by Kate Miller) and her warm, ambient selection fills the room. The lights are dim, the floor covered in mismatched Persian rugs. Food is laid out on a table in the corner to celebrate a birthday, and friends and Cashmere Radio family sit munching on a low, modular sofa facing the decks, soaking up Knutsson’s music. It feels more like someone’s living room than the HQ of a pioneering independent radio station—but that casual vibe is exactly the essence of Cashmere.
Community over capitalism
The station was launched by friends in 2015 to champion and support experimental radio. According to the station’s website, its ambition is to “preserve and further radio and broadcasting practices by playing with the plasticity and malleability of the medium.” Cashmere is not-for-profit, run by a community of artists, DJs and creators, all of whom have a say in the direction of the station. The focus is squarely on community and passion for music over profit.
Born in Sweden, Knutsson has been DJing since 2007 and runs two labels, Zodiac 44 andUFO Station Recordings. We sit down after her set to talk about how radio has positively influenced her career and her vast musical taste. She has a full-fringe, labret piercing and tattoos that peek out from under the sleeves of an oversized shirt. “In 2012 I had an underground dance music show on Swedish National Radio,” Knutsson says. “It helped boost my career in Sweden for sure. Friends who weren’t necessarily into music would call me and tell me they’d heard me on the radio. So it gave me access to a whole different audience.”
Swedish public radio stations rotate their contracts every two years. To have a constant turnover of new artists and programmes keeps their shows fresh and gives more DJs space to experiment with their sound.
The radio show is basically a business card for the label.
“Independent radio is where I play music that I wouldn’t play at clubs,” Johanna explains. “It’s still electronic music but it’s not stuff that I’d play at 3am to a packed dance floor. If I didn’t have this ambient show, then I don’t know where I’d play it. Ambient is such a big part of my musical taste. I buy a lot of records — it’s nice that I’m playing them here rather than for myself in my house.”
A new promo opportunity
At the same time, Knutsson’s radio show becomes free advertising for her labels. “When Cashmere promote the show they promote my name and my label — so people can check out the label on Facebook and look at the back releases. It’s basically like a business card on the radio show.”
Independent radio provides a platform for a label to showcase their content and catalogue, and build a space in a community to represent themselves.
“People have started viewing the BBC as not all that,” he says. “There’s definitely been a shift towards independent radio. People are finding their own voice in their communities rather than going to mainstream providers to push their content.”
And this shift towards independent formats has benefitted underground artists and labels. “Radio provides a platform for a label to showcase their content and catalogue. It can also help labels build an identity and build a space in a community to represent themselves in the right way. Ninja Tune’s Solid Steel radio show on NTS for example. The diversity is pretty unique.”
It makes sense for A&R, too. “If you’re the head of a label and you’re sifting through 300 tracks to find the best content, you’ll naturally find the artists that want to represent your label as well. By collaborating with these artists and promoting their content you naturally garner attention to your brand. And that just gives increased opportunity for collaboration and growth. You can move into other platforms as well, such as an updated Spotify playlist which runs alongside your radio show.”
How to bag a radio show
It can be competitive to secure a radio show, but for most stations nepotism doesn’t cut it. “Names aren’t all that as long as you have a good idea of what you want to do with a show and have the means to execute it well,” says Nicholson. “As a programmer I was looking for passion rather than names.”
“A lot of the stations are super oversubscribed and there are long waiting lists. To stand out you need to think in detail about what you can bring to a station. Netil are one of the smaller stations and they have about 70 or 80 people waiting for a slot — DJs, artists, promoters. There’s quite a back catalogue.”
Hone your pitch
However, Nicholson is confident that if a label, artist or promoter comes along with an amazing idea for a programme they’ll get to the front of that list. “It’s about an effective pitch. They’re looking for well-executed, unique ideas. Amazing content is popping up everywhere. On Netil Radio, Childs Play have made a super unique brand around being fun and flirtatious — you can see on their lives streams that they’re having a good time and their music selections are pretty key. I think that’s a really well thought-out radio show.”
Even if you have limited experience or no background in radio, there are still plenty of opportunities to get involved. Reprezent, for example, offers workshops to people who are passionate about radio.
Add indie radio DJs to your promo list
Getting your own show is an incredible achievement, but for some labels it’s more efficient and beneficial to build relationships with resident DJs. By sending your pre-release promos to radio shows that align with your music, you’ll reach a wider audience of music fans who are already keen on your style. “You’re entering a community of music lovers, which can help you build an identity in the community that you want to create,” says Nicholson.
Choose your collaborators carefully
Ultimately this format still has a long way to go. With Berlin Community Radio about to close down due to a full withdrawal of their funding, there isn’t a huge amount of space to capitalise and much of the work is on a voluntary basis. The topic is widely debated. Pirate radio has always operated under the ethos of being ad-free and anti-capitalist. But when an industry is supported almost entirely by free labour where do we draw the line between noble and exploitative?
And with stations resorting to brand partnerships to fund their shows (NTS’s Uniqlo Tate Lates, for example), Nicholson recommends caution and careful research when it comes to choosing which stations to work with. “Don’t collaborate with a brand with questionable morals,” he concludes.
Despite these challenges, the new wave of independent radio is undoubtedly gathering momentum— and with it, influence. For some labels, the moment represents an exciting opportunity to connect with passionate, relevant, ready-made communities.