To most, radio is the shiny pop that Uber drivers play rather than making awkward chit-chat. It is hate-listening to the Today programme; the signal cutting out in a tunnel just as the football scores are announced. But outside of radio’s mainstream is a whole world of UK independent stations, with London often its chief focus.
Reprezent Radio offers media training alongside its usual broadcast of everything from hip-hop to jungle, allowing for opportunities for education and growth. Then there’s the hip, esoteric NTS, which has studios in London, Los Angeles and Manchester, and Rinse FM, originally a pirate station founded in 1994 in east London, which now has a base in Paris. But while these stations produce brilliant shows, the bright lights of London often distract from the equally exciting work being done just a couple of hours up the M1.
Kristan J Caryl, founder of Leeds radio station KMAH. Photograph: Fiona Finchett
Creativity in the north of England often goes unnoticed by the media, so the region is a haven for everything DIY, and it is this spirit that has produced a vibrant independent radio scene – from Newcastle’s Asian station Spice FM to UK Mondo in Sheffield. In Leeds, Kristan J Caryl runs KMAH Radio, a radio station that is non-profit and entirely community-run from a cosy studio in the bustling town centre. It was started as a way to keep Caryl’s musician friends from going off to London and Berlin, and has continued to help DJs and music producers build a reputation. “That is genuinely what gives me joy: seeing these people have the opportunities that maybe they wouldn’t have done without having a bit of a leg up from us,” Caryl says.
One of the joys of running a radio station serving a local community is the reciprocal learning process. Caryl, who wrote about dance music before starting KMAH, thought he knew everything there was to know about the Leeds music scene. “As soon as we started the station, I realised I hadn’t even scratched the surface. There were so many scenes and micro-scenes, and people playing all sorts of weird and wonderful music … I like to think we were at least one part of that breeding ground, helping people develop their own ideas and chat and parties and whatever else.”
Many independent radio stations, such as KMAH and Liverpool’s Melodic Distraction, funded by a pirate radio-esque subscription model, where the DJs pay the station to host a show. This helps to cover running costs and equipment maintenance. Melodic Distraction co-founder Josh Aitman says: “It doesn’t really touch the sides, but it really helps us get there.” The station has become more collaborative as a result, with more than 100 hosts broadcasting shows throughout the week. Caryl, meanwhile, admits that KMAH is a “hobbyist radio station … I don’t take any money out of it, nor do the other [four] founders.” All of them have full-time jobs elsewhere.
The team from Melodic Distraction, an independent Liverpool radio station. Photograph: Melodic Distraction
The hyperlocal grassroots nature of northern radio culture that has been its strength is also its potential downfall. MCR Live was one of the north’s more commercially facing independent stations, and focused on balancing its scheduling between well-known and local DJs. This worked, to an extent: the station had a podcast with DJ Shadow that went to No 1 in the Apple Music podcast charts. However, it was recently announced that MCR Live would cease broadcasting and change to a different format. Rhys Hancock, who worked as the executive producer and head of content for MCR Live, says the station could not meet its budget requirements because of brands’ unwillingness to invest money in stations outside of London. It is these brand partnerships that support stations including NTS, which has collaborated with Adidas, Carhartt, Johnnie Walker and Uniqlo.
“It’s quite hard to sell these radio stations to brands, because they don’t want to work with radio,” Hancock says, saying that companies want to work with “subcultural brands”, some of which just happen to be radio stations like NTS. “A lot of that kind of money that Jӓgermeister and Heineken will spend will be spent in London.” As he puts it: “Manchester is not quite there yet in terms of having that kind of brand power.”
Nonetheless, the founders of Melodic Distraction are optimistic about the future of independent radio in northern England, citing the spirit of collaboration between the stations that keeps the scene alive. James McElhone, the station’s co-founder, says: “When you’re talking about elements of competition, I think the fact that we’re geographically specific removes that. We’re all really happy to push each other forwards.”
Sable Radio, an independent radio station in Leeds. Photograph: Sable Radio
This collective spirit was demonstrated after KMAH was broken into in 2016 and had all of its broadcasting equipment stolen. “We thought that was going to be the end of everything,” Caryl admits. A JustGiving page was set up to help the team raise the money to replace the stolen gear, and within 30 days, the people of Leeds had donated double the required amount. Caryl and his co-founders donated the excess to a local homeless charity.
Because of the sheer enthusiasm around these stations, new ones are still popping up. Leeds’s Sable Radio is taking its first baby steps, having only started broadcasting in December last year. Broadcasting only a few days a week for a couple of hours at a time, founder Baile says: “I guess with anything in the arts, the difficulty is funding, but we’re kind of happy for it to just be slow and organic.”
While London stations have more investment and larger platforms, their northern counterparts have not been deterred from putting down their roots. It is that inimitable northern soul that keeps independent radio alive outside London, and will continue to do so for as long as there are people willing to commit time, energy and love – qualities that will outlast any brand partnership.