In early June, as Black Lives Matter marches filled the streets outside, Adrian Younge was airing in Los Angeles to play a thrilling show filled with protest music on the Worldwide FM Internet radio station. Half a world away, in London, listener Andrew Pendleton tweeted: “Pierced by @AdrianYounge on @worldwidefm bringing us words and sounds of peace and solidarity in very dark times.” Another Londoner, Roberta Cutolo, called the show “absolutely crucial”.
This combination of live radio’s ability to respond to the world in real time and the power of the internet to reach audiences across the planet somehow explains why online radio is experiencing a renaissance. It might seem counterintuitive in the age of unlimited streaming and endless podcasts, but the format – with its lower barriers to entry than traditional radio – is entering a golden age. During the lockdown, a number of new projects emerged that garnered cult followers. Some are hyper local. Former Warner Music president Miles Leonard broadcasts twice a week from his village pub in Somerset – most listeners live nearby. Others are global. Take No Signal, for example, which started in March with just over a hundred listeners and now attracts more than a million globally. Spotify called it Britain’s “hottest new urban music platform”.
A number of trendy new devices, such as the Roberts Stream 94i Smart Radio and Ruark Audio R7 Mk3 High Fidelity Radiogram have made online stations more accessible, but Jamie McGowan Stuart of media researcher Enders Analysis says the driving force is choice. : “Traditionally, radio was mass media, playing the hits of a limited playlist. It’s not good for people with more specific tastes, so you’re seeing the rise of niche stations.”
But it’s not just about genres. The radio captures the spirit of a venue and there is a mind-boggling quality to tune into Lisbon’s Rádio Quântica or Los Angeles’s Dublab. It’s something algorithm-curated playlists can’t compete with. “What online radio really does is amazingly create a sense of community,” says Worldwide FM presenter Kate Hutchinson, who extends this philosophy to interacting with her listeners in the station’s chat room. “It’s like going to a concert surrounded by people who are excited about the same things that you are.” And sometimes, an echo chamber is exactly what you need.
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