iPods, weblogs and an online-savvy were what the Guardian said in 2004 would secure the ‘audible revolution’ that was the arrival of online radio to the mainstream. By that time there were already a good few stations, mostly in the US, who had seen the benefit, and early-millennium excitement, of being able to ‘broadcast out, and have the internet talk back to them’, as the article reported.
Commercial stations this side of the pond were later to the game, and by the time that article appeared, not even the BBC had embraced live streams, downloads, or podcasts, aside from one slightly sad and lonely Radio 4 page listing the last week’s programmes. Limited bandwidth and the joys of dial-up were the constraints facing most of us. However, those who did listen to digital radio or live streams were in small, but committed numbers.
Jump 14 years ahead, and digital and online radio are still staking their claim on the broadcast landscape. Radio is still popular, with up to 90 per cent of adults in both the UK and Ireland listening on a daily basis. Among the teenage market, three out of four listen to the radio, and of them, 60 per cent listen over the internet, via their phones, TV, or catch-up. Most major cities, and those on the up, now have a recognisable online radio station: from Subcity in Glasgow, Berlin Community Radio, and New York’s East Village Radio, to NTS in London, Amsterdam’s Red Light Radio and Dublin Digital Radio.
It probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise that online radio now has a solid listenership, especially among younger people. But there’s more to it than a simple case of millennials’ much-bemoaned alleged reliance on smartphones. It comes down, in many cases, to the types of music being played by online radio streams, in comparison to what analogue radio has to offer. Both Sean Finnan at Dublin Digital Radio (ddr.) and Orpheu de Jong at Red Light Radio in Amsterdam say one of the main reasons they each founded their stations was because traditional radio was simply not playing the music they wanted to hear. Or giving air time to the artists they felt were deserving.
In Sean’s case, the idea for ddr. sprang on the way home from an electronic music festival in the west of Ireland: he and a friend were driving home, and after searching the FM and AM options, found nothing similar to the music they’d just enjoyed at the festival. Frustrated by this lack of representation for talented Irish musicians, as well as the lack of good music they liked listening to, they decided to set up their own online stream.
For Orpheu at Red Light Radio, setting up an internationally successful online stream was almost accidental.
“It started really small, as just a temporary initiative to invite nice people to play on the radio and share some music, and over the years it’s grown and now it’s a station with a solid national and international following.”
To that end, a crew from Red Light Radio will broadcast live from Hen’s Teeth on Fade Street this month with a diverse line-up of some of Ireland’s most exciting electronic music talent in association with Smirnoff.
Introducing listeners to new or unknown artists is something which everyone I spoke with said was a key part of being a good DJ and radio station. But they also all criticised current attempts, or more accurately, the lack thereof, by analogue radio stations.
“We’re not anti-traditional or mainstream radio,” says Sean. “The point is, in one way, it’s really, really bad. It could be run way better… [Because] at the end of the day, they have access to everyone in the country, and we don’t.”
As their listenership has grown, ddr. has begun to embrace other types of music aside from electronic, to broaden their listeners’ musical horizons and audience base.
Éna Brennan is one of the newer DJs at ddr., bringing a new kind of music with her. A classical violinist by trade, Éna’s show, All Things String, does exactly what it says on the tin, playing only music which features string instruments. Some pieces are, as you might expect, more classical, or traditional-Irish in genre, but others are more contemporary.
“It’s genre-unspecific, and about the interesting relationship between that music and the string instrument,” says Éna. “In one episode, I had a song by Maria Kelly which 55 had a lovely string arrangement, and an original composition for quartet that was written by Bryce Dessner from The National.”
Eager to introduce people to new music, and guide them from one artist and sound to another, she curates a playlist linked only by instrument.
“It’s about looking at how there are lots of connections between them all, and what having string instruments add to their texture.”
Despite her knowledge of her field and instrument, Éna says she didn’t pitch the idea to any analogue stations, because she felt ddr. would be more receptive to the concept.
But why go digital? Why not go pirate, and tap into that ready-made audience of 83 per cent of Irish adults that own and listen to the radio? It’s illegal for a start, so if you don’t want to get into that kind of mess, it’s not a good option.
For ddr., their main reason was the expense involved.
“You need a lot of different equipment if you’re setting up a pirate radio station, which we would not have been able to afford at the time,” says Sean. “We’d no financial backing and to set up something like that would have been unrealistic. An online radio station was a much cheaper alternative.”
Given this initial barrier, it’s easy to see why some online stations wait until they’ve built an audience and raised funds before making any moves towards FM licensing.
Another benefit for online radio stations, at least in Britain and Ireland, is that they are not subject to broadcasting regulations. One such rule, which ddr. have previously gladly declared does not apply to them, is the idea of balance, where both sides of a debate must be fairly represented in discussions which are broadcast.
“Balance is such a load of bullshit. It doesn’t make sense,” says Sean. “Like for the abortion referendum, you get the most radical, extreme voices, that are alienated from the majority of Catholic people in Ireland, taken on as a representation of the wider Catholic view. I think we’re way more balanced than anyone else, at least we’re up front – our bias is on our sleeve.”
Beyond the constraints of regulations, because of the way online radio is usually financed, the restrictions which sometimes face traditional radio don’t apply to them. Running adverts during programmes can sometimes mean AM/FM stations take fewer risks in terms of the music played. As a working musician in Ireland, Éna says the representation of the Irish scene on national radio is skewed.
“There’s an overall discussion to be had about the music industry in Dublin. A lot of the big acts that are on the radio aren’t the main representation of Irish music,” she says. “The Coronas, The Script, Kodaline, all those boy bands are very commercial and on the radio all the time. It’s a shame there aren’t more people in our national radio that are putting out the music really made here.”
Orpheu at Red Light echoes this, and says the same applies in The Netherlands.
“A big part of the FM system is commercial – play music that appeals to more people so more people listen and you can play more ads… There should be more youth culture, more underground culture, more representation.”
But if online stations dislike ads and the culture that comes with them, how do streams keep going financially?
“It’s one big hustle,” says Orpheu. “Red Light mostly exists through things we do outside the station – collaborations with festivals, our own events, or partnerships with brands… And we sell merchandise.”
Red Light’s DJs do not have to structure shows around regular breaks, nor do they have to adhere to what sponsors want to hear played, as no advertising runs on the stream.
ddr. do not run ads and are mostly funded by donations, subscriptions and events, an approach which Sean feels aligns with the core beliefs of the station.
“There are so many problems in the media at the moment,” says Sean. “You have the media being subservient to sponsorship, or being owned by a super wealthy owner… The other way to have it, in my view, is to be funded by the people that use it.”
This, he argues, means they only feel answerable to the listeners and donors.
“These people, they have an investment in the direction we go. We interact with the subscribers a lot, ask them for different things, or give them free stuff. It’s feedback – it’s everyone’s platform.”
Operating a non-profit media organisation has its limitations though. The station is run entirely by volunteers, even the founders have regular ‘day jobs’, and DJs must pay a fee to run a show. In an industry where getting paid work can be difficult, Sean recognises that it would not be in-line with ddr.’s ethos to ask someone to work on a longer-term project, such as a radio documentary, or similar, for no pay.
“It’s great to try to be non-profit, to get enough subscriptions to cover people’s basic work. But that’s probably never going to happen.”
Without reliable funding, there will always be a cap on the type of programming a volunteer- and donation-run online station can do.
But in some cities, government funding is available for online radio. Liverpool’s online station, Melodic Distraction, receives funding from the local authority. They are based in a deprived neighbourhood, and because of the service they provide the community, the authority pays the station’s rent and supplies a small grant.
“There’s a recognition that they’re doing a good thing, that they need support to keep going,” says Sean. “I don’t see Dublin City Council even contemplating that idea, that we’re providing a good service to the local community.”
So, what does the future hold for radio and online streaming? Listenership of analogue radio remains high, and some British newspapers have even dubbed this ‘the golden age of radio’, because, as a medium, it’s managed to preserve its place in most homes. Younger listeners are turning to online streams in greater numbers than their parents or grandparents, so it probably will follow that more stations will go online in some form or other. Industry analysts believe that radio’s future is not binary, analogue vs digital, but instead lies in embracing multiple platforms, including online and television streams, podcasting and traditional analogue radio. And just as pirate stations sprang to fill a gap in the market when analogue was the only option, so too will online streams now.
Red Light Radio will broadcast live from Hen’s Teeth on November 30. Click here for more.