From One Island to Another: Radio in the Context of Social Isolation

Art & Culture

The effect of the Coronavirus lockdown on radio stations has been somewhat overshadowed by closed venues and event cancellations. Unlike those parts of the music industry, it’s easy to assume radio would be impervious to social distancing and isolation because of its non-physical format. I spoke to some radio stations and hosts to find out whether that’s been true for them, while also wondering what new significance radio might have had for listeners over these past four months. 

It’s the second week of lockdown in the UK, and I’m sitting on the floor listening to Cashmere radio and doing a puzzle. I’m not usually one to spend my evenings this way: when I’m not working at my day job, freelancing tends to fill up all the nooks and crannies of my spare time. But this is 2020. The work has slowed right down; my bedtime is the earliest it’s been since primary school—and now here I am, leisurely rotating puzzle pieces around each other. I’ve stuck on a one-time comeback episode of “Listen to the Whales”, a deep ambient show hosted by Matty Martinez: along with his close, meditative voice, it’s the perfect soundtrack to my semi-focused headspace. I’m used to hearing Matteo’s voice in person: we work together at Cashmere Radio in Berlin. But it’s not the first time I’ve heard him on air. So why do I find myself feeling so moved by the sound of his voice? 

It would be easy to chalk my reaction down to our friendship, or to the fact that Matteo often plays moving music on this show. But I found myself reacting in a similar way to other radio shows: ones showcasing more upbeat music; or hosted by strangers. So I began to think about radio stations in lockdown, and wondered whether things felt a little different for other listeners and show hosts now compelled to speak across a gulf of pandemic isolation. Of course, side by side with club closures and tour cancellations, it’s plain to see why radio hasn’t received much attention at this peculiar time. For lots of people, radio is nothing more than a disembodied voice floating out of a car speaker or a neighbour’s garden: physical absence is an inherent part of speaking “on air.” For the more regular listener, however, there can be a kind of intimacy to the format that traces an outline of in-person closeness. Many listeners will be familiar with the sense of comfort which can accompany having someone speak in your ear, and experienced hosts know that addressing the audience in ways that feels personal (whether through ad libbing, vocal timbre or direct shout outs) is an art that needs to be honed and crafted. 

Matty Martinez is one such host, appreciating both the wider implications of radio broadcasting and the effects it has on people—the need to tune into your audience just as they tune into you. And this is partly why, eighteen months ago, he made the decision to put “Listen to the Whales” to bed: as he explains at the beginning of this comeback episode, it had no longer felt right to play “music that would soothe, rather than energise.” On this side of Covid-19, however, “we are obviously in a bit of a different situation… sort of stranded on a deserted island, as I am now,” he admits. “This is going to be a little two hours that we spend together listening to some music.” And sure enough, even as I know that the show is pre-recorded and that he’s definitely not sitting in the room with me, I feel like we are spending time together. 

Cashmere Radio in Lichtenberg doubles up as an intimate live performance venue.

I asked another radio station, Bristol-based Noods, about their experience of lockdown. At first, it seems like the transition to socially distanced radio was fairly straightforward: in its infancy the station only broadcast remotely anyway, so this was familiar territory. Nonetheless, Noods organiser Leon Pattrick acknowledges that “it’s hard to emulate that feeling you get when you have a hub—catching up with residents and producers; meeting guests and anyone else who’s rolled through… I miss that energy.” While practical adjustments to remote streaming (such as going without communal limiters and mics that are set up just as they should be) might be do-able, it seems that the real sacrifice is a shift in energy. “There’s a je ne sais quoi that the studio provides,” Leon adds. “Shows from home still bang, but there’s definitely a certain magic to shows when they are broadcast live from the studio.” 

KMAH radio in Leeds is another station that found the lockdown surprisingly disorienting. “We’d just gone through the process of building the new studio inside Released Records at the Corn Exchange, and having just had our launch weekend social distancing came as a bit of a shock.” KMAH organiser Stanley Ricketts remembers. “It’s such a shame to have to bring some of the cogs in the operation to a halt, as we were so energised by the new studio.” Stanley echoes Leon’s thoughts on the importance of a physical hub: “having a space that’s the beating heart of it is such an essential element to us—there’s life in the studio. Our old space had a special magic to it; we’d just got the feel of the new one, and it’s a different thing altogether operating without it. We can’t wait for there to be people in the shop buying records, hosts in the studio, and a buzz in the Corn Exchange.”

Bristol-based NOODS is another radio that’s had to leave the studio behind.

These observations resonate with me as a radio show host on Cashmere. Normally, I broadcast from the station, inevitably arriving to each show day a bit flustered, but always happy to see Cashmere volunteers and regulars. There’s a degree of spontaneity at play, not just because I’m recording live, but also because the number of people hanging out at the station can vary from a few quiet bystanders to crowds of visitors with voices amplified by late night, ‘after work’ energy. In the past this has produced interesting results—like the day I recorded a particularly tender show in the knowledge that my voiceovers would be heard refracted through a chorus of loud background conversation.

Now I’m putting together pre-records from London, angsting over mic levels in Ableton and actually planning my sets, which is a first. Yet, rather than growing detached, I feel like my sense of audience is stronger. I’ve become more invested in the conversational aspect of radio, talking to people on the receiving end rather than speaking into thin air. To borrow Matty Martinez’s analogy, the sensation of being stranded on a desert island makes me more aware of other people’s desert islands. I feel like I’m reaching across a gap, rather than just outward, and think of where the radio waves might land as well as how they’re leaving my home set-up. I deliberate over the idea that the show I’m putting together might hold weight in a slower, socially distanced world, an idea that would never occur to me otherwise.

KMAH have noticed similar changes in their contributors: “I think shows have turned a bit more experimental in general,” Stanley reflects. “People have a lot of time on their hands to try new things. Musically-speaking, this can make shows more engaging and allows hosts to really explore the sound they are pushing.” However, Stanley indicates the potential for social distancing to have a stifling, rather than freeing effect on radio. “While some hosts remain as chatty and gregarious as ever, I feel like it is difficult for other hosts—myself included—to speak over a pre-recorded mix. There is something hard about talking in a room by yourself when you’re not live, which is strange because not much has actually changed.”

KMAH launched their new studio a week before lockdown began

I was curious to find out how radio lockdown was affecting more seasoned radio hosts than myself. Bradley Zero has been broadcasting monthly shows on London’s NTS radio since 2012, and is just one of many radio DJs streaming live from home. “Nothing matches the comfort and immediacy of broadcasting live radio,” he says. “I knew it was my thing since the first show I did over 10 years ago.” On one level, Bradley is nonchalant about bringing his show home from the station. “The first couple of times seemed really odd—a dislocation of a fortnightly ritual—but once that feeling wore off, it became business as usual,” he assures me. “I’ve really settled into the home broadcasting situation. I spent a lot of time tinkering with the microphone set up and broadcast feed, and seem to have nailed it.” 

When I ask him about the feeling of that transition, as opposed to the logistics, he recognises things aren’t quite the same without the ritual of place. “Setting off on time; grabbing a coffee; bringing in guests and taking booth pics; saying hi to the team and thanks to Charlie after broadcasting from the holiest of online radio holies…” Bradley lists. “As I said, I can now broadcast from home comfortably and get it sounding good, but outside the connection with listeners, that family feeling is missing. Imagine if everyone always submitted pre-recorded shows to NTS! On paper it might seem the same, but NTS wouldn’t have become the cultural movement it is today without having this epicentre of activity.”

Bradley Zero has been broadcasting at NTS since 2012

What about the listeners in all of this? I wasn’t sure whether my emotional response to Matty Martinez’ comeback show was purely incidental, but Noods organiser Leon thinks it might apply more generally to other listeners, too. “There’s a reason radio listenership has gone up globally since the pandemic,” he explains. “Radio feels human and people want to feel connected to something real. All these people you’re listening to are in this thing together, cut from a similar cloth and representative of something you identify with. They’re providing entertainment for their audience, but also unifying them. Now more than ever, people want that communal experience. Radio can make you feel a part of something.”

Bradley Zero has also noticed a heightened sense of communion between host and listener. “Radio has become a lifeline to connect me with the outside world,” he says. “The chat room is the closest we’ll get to a party now, and going on air and speaking to an avid audience is the closest we’ll get to performing for a long time. It’s kept me sane. It gives me something to both look forward to and work for.” Communion between host and listener arguably extends beyond the visible parameters of chat room commentary: the time and consideration invested in playing to regular listeners (or listening to regular shows) can weave important threads between a known past and an uncertain present. For some, the perseverance of these shows may create a sense of stability and continuation that contrasts with the frantic buzz of news headlines and online events. 

That aspect of deliberation and slowness (it takes more time to listen to a radio show than it does to read a Tweet) became particularly apparent in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests. Radio became a medium through which people could inform listeners, but also express solidarity. Many radio show hosts dedicated their following shows to platforming Black artists exclusively, with Non-PoC hosts often taking a step back with their voiceovers in order to give more room to the music being shared. Surrounded by powerful currents of information, resources, news stories, and Twitter trends, music radio offered a non-verbal channel of expression for people’s shock and despair.

For all its ephemeral qualities, it’s possible that radio was best placed to express ideas of community and communality during this pandemic in ways that other media formats were not. Underscored by sustained care and attention, the relationship between long-time show hosts and long-time listeners became an antidote to our choppy, stop-start engagement with Corona virus news updates. Radio allowed people to ‘be’ with someone, and be spoken to without worrying about having the perfect catch-up conversation or becoming heavy with phone fatigue. Shows offered up new music to ears that regained sensitivity in a slower and less bustling time—or provided reference points to calibrate a collective understanding of recent events without getting into arguments online. 

For some of us, the steadfastness of radio broadcasting gave shelter against the whirlwinds of uncertainty surrounding the music industry. As a format that has tended to linger in the background—with hosts often preparing and playing for free despite highly active tour schedules—lockdown has been radio’s time to shine; a labour of love and loyalty; a sonic ‘message in a bottle’ from isolated DJs to isolated listeners. And though the point is not to remain insular, it’s heartening to witness the constancy and resilience of radio in a time when the events industry is clutching at straws. Perhaps it’s a format whose values of community and residency we can learn from as we step into a new chapter of deglobalised dance music.