What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?

Radio is a media which penetrates our lives, often without our particular awareness or consent. When we choose music on an iPod, or pick up a magazine or newspaper, we do so consciously. Yet radio is a medium relegated, all too often, to the background hum of taxi journeys or department stores. The commercial radio we imbibe is characterised by static repetition through successive shows of the same songs, the frequent interruptions of vacuous DJ chat, and advertising jingles. You accept the crass commercialism or turn off.

Free radio stations exist out of the necessity to provide something different, and are often viewed as the only option when trying to serve a specific music scene. Referred to as free because of their operation outside of licensing and government imposed limits on access to radio spectrums, FM stations blossomed in the late 1960s as a popular rebellion against BBC radio which played music on the basis of lyrics and length (political content was out, and songs lasted no longer than three minutes.) The 70s and 80s heralded a new generation of station, for the first time focused on specific musical genres.

Skip forward and the interest in free radio has only exploded further. The last report on free radio from Ofcom, the independent regulator and competition authority for UK communications industries, stated that: ‘despite the advent of new radio platforms such as DAB and the internet’ free broadcasting audiences were ‘unlikely to diminish in the short or medium term’. Although a controversial issue, for the producers and listeners, free radio is regarded as the place to hear new music, and the best place to hear urban music, DJ’ing and MC’ing in general.

If you are into UK bass music, getting locked into free radio stations and streams local to you in York, such as radio Equinox and Cranky radio, is something you won’t turn back from. Unique music content presented with commitment and without compromise, presented by DJs from the York underground music scene, where the shout-outs relate to nights you don’t want to miss. We spoke to a long-serving organiser for York’s Radio Equinox, a free underground station broadcasting a range of UK bass and electronic music every Sunday, to get a picture of how free radio stations operate, starting from its roots:

First things first, where did it all begin?

It all started way back in summer 2004, we inherited a load of radio equipment off an older York station that was no longer broadcasting called Rush FM. We initially ran for a good 2 years, then due to studio moves, which never quite happened, we were off air for another 2 years, except for a few test broadcasts. We came back in 2008 with a new studio and a lot of fresh faced DJs, as well as some old faces. Since then despite a couple of studio moves and technical issues we have been fairly consistent with steady interest in the station, we also ran a short-lived but really successful series of DJ nights and a few one off parties.

What’s the aim in running a project like this?

The only aim is to provide the music we love, to listeners who want to listen! I suppose each DJ brings their own aims to the station, we have some DJs who are keen on pushing local talent, or a certain music style, and some who just want to have a laugh. We bring in a variety of styles, too. Whereas a lot of stations stick to a few similar genres we have different DJs from different backgrounds, so there’s always something for everyone, and if you’re open minded you will find something new.

How does a local station serve the community?

I’ve never really thought about how we serve the community to be honest, there was a time when radio was the only way you could hear certain kinds music, apart from going to clubs and raves, but nowadays it’s so easy to hear all sorts of music via the internet. I suppose what we provide is the feeling of community, which commercial stations just can’t, at least not for young people into underground music.

It must require a lot of motivation to run a station like this, what keeps you at it?

Not to sound cheesy, but the music! The fact that you are playing records you love to a potentially large audience. Radio feels open, whereas in a club you’re playing to the select crowd on the dance-floor. When playing on the radio your music is out there, free for the taking and anyone could tune in at anytime, hear one of your favourite tracks and think: ‘Whats that!? This sounds great, I need more’. The other major factor we couldn’t do without is the feedback from the listeners; it really just takes one message from someone loving it to get you buzzing and think, ‘this is all worth it’.

Speaking to the DJs, listeners and volunteers from independent radio stations always results in a familiar response: that it’s all about the dedication to putting out good music.  Local radio stations also present good opportunities for getting involved in the underground scene; it’s in their nature. The very existence of free radio challenges radio as a one-way transmission. We spoke to Harkirit Boparai, chair of Breakz, the student society for electronic music, who DJs under the name Sikh and Destroy, about his experience of free radio

How big an influence does free radio have for you?

All I listen to is pirate radio, podcasts, things like that. The internet and the ability to podcast is really good for gaining a following. I’ll find that now I just go back to the same stations and websites to hear music because what they’ll play will be constantly good and varied. Good music, but in that radio station format that’s fluid and loose. These are shows which have something you really couldn’t get with commercial radio.

So it’s the format that’s special?

There is a big community feel to these radio stations and you can always find different DJs from different nights and different crews getting together. I think that what’s important to a station is to have that level of interaction that you don’t get with a commercial radio station. Even listening to a local radio station, if it’s a commercial radio station, won’t have that same feel because I don’t think the same level of passion is there behind it.

Aside from your passion, what else keeps you involved?

It’s a great way to meet other people that love the music that you love, in the same area as you. For me its presented opportunities as well, when I first came to York, that was the way I got to know DJs, what was going on in York. Playing on Cranky Radio is where I started.

Whatever you want out of it, these broadcasts have something to offer. Sitting in whilst Cranky radio puts out its live stream, every Tuesday and Wednesday night, is quite an experience. The room is packed with equipment, paraphernalia and people who are sat back, relaxed and enjoying the show. It’s a far cry from the static, polished commercialism of large radio stations: the voiceovers may occasionally be stumbling or mumbling, but this should be your only port of call for fantastic vibes and music. The decks are manned by a succession of foot steppers with extensive vinyl collections, which are, they say, never quite extensive enough. Each new tune played blends so effortlessly into the next that you find yourself lost in a head-bobbing continuum, punctuated only by the hooks or lines which really strike your interest. If you thought radio had gone stale, think again. These independent broadcasts are the life-force and heartbeat of underground scenes. Musical genres which operate outside mainstream culture get promoted first by free radio, and in this arena free radio dominates the airwaves. Beyond background music, tuning in is a conscious decision to catch it while it’s still there.

Frances Hemsley