"London does radio the best in the world. Hands down. No questions asked." That's what Ollie Ashley, proprietor of Radar Radio, tells me when we sit down for a chat about the revolution that Radar and similar projects are at the forefront of. Beaming out of a studio on Timber Street, a few minutes from the coffee shops and spoiled sadness of Shoreditch, it's emblematic of the way FM's former stronghold on the market has been irrevocably altered by the internet.
London's relationship with radio—from rooftop renegades of the pirate heydays through to Rinse and NTS—has constantly and consistently altered the face of youth and musical culture. Grime, dubstep, jungle would probably have existed without radio, but it's doubtless that they'd have been as central to the cultural narrative had it not been for the anarchic excitement that comes with hearing a scene grow before your very ears over the airwaves. It was that sense of inherent excitement, that freewheeling feeling of, "fuck, anything can happen," that comes with listening to live radio that got Ashley hooked in the first place.
Radar started broadcasting at exactly 8pm on the 31st of October 2014. Since then, the station's been going from strength to strength, broadcasting daily from 8am to the early hours, each show a snapshot of where music — electronic or otherwise — is today, which is partially why it's attracting bigger names while retaining a close, familial feel. It's a space for experimentation and unbridled creativity, a radio station that has total freedom and isn't afraid to explore exactly what means. There is no average day on Radar, and, crucially, there are no policies other than making sure you play good music and you're not a dickhead. It's hard to argue with that, isn't it?
This feature was the first time Ashley's spoken at length about Radar and it's aims, so it made sense to get him to talk me through his entry to the world of radio. "The whole 'story' behind starting the station began in 2009, when I didn't get the grades I needed for University—so I went to a music college called Point Blank to do a radio production course, and was lucky enough to meet Lucy Monkman, aka Monki, and we became good friends," he tells me. "She got the opportunity to do an internship with Rinse and I was so jealous. I was an avid Rinse listener, almost to the point of obsession at the time. I definitely think listening to Rinse as much as I did attributed to why I did so badly in my exams. I'd start revising and I'd put on Rinse—this was back in the MSN days—and I'd jump in the chat room, get really involved and eventually I'd end up on Virtual DJ instead of doing my work."
Ashley eventually ended up at Rinse, working his way up from an initial two-week work experience period, to helping out on nights a few times a week, to becoming the station's first full-time evening producer. His time at the station ended amicably, with Ashley relinquishing his position because he couldn't face another winter of night shifts. After Rinse, he went back to college; through Floating Points, he met NTS founder Femi Adeyemi, and ended up becoming their studio manager for around nine months.
Ashley's full of praise for both stations, keen to stress that while he's made the move into doing his own thing, the radio landscape is healthier than ever because of them, even if they do have issues that he's looking to resolve at Radar. "[NTS] was a vibrant, fresh way of doing radio," he says. "I produced shows for Jeff Mills, Evian Christ, and even got to do a show with Skepta. Everyone at NTS is so passionate and genuinely get what radio's meant to be about. It was a real privilege to work with them. But I felt like it was hard for younger guys to get involved. They might get a guest mix slot, but there wasn't space in the schedules for the younger guys and girls to get their own shows. That's what made me want to start Radar."
The Radar story isn't the Ollie Ashley story though, and he's insistent that the team he's built around him—the production assistants and studio managers, the designers and artists—are what makes Radar tick. Oh, and the DJs of course. "We started broadcasting on Halloween 2014," he says. "Fast forward a year, and we've now got a team of amazing people involved. Some of them didn't know how to DJ when they first joined us, and now those same DJs are getting booked abroad. It's amazing! It doesn't matter how much experience you have, it's about having fun. The best shows will always be the ones where the DJs are genuinely having fun." It's that fun, that freedom, that sense of being able to expect the unexpected day after day, show after show, that's got people hooked.
With established names like Ikonika, Akito, Rushmore, and Amy Becker rolling through on the regular, and a daily influx of emerging talent being given a chance to demonstrate their abilities in a place that encourages a freedom of expression, Radar can be seen to represent the possibilities and potentials of radio in the early 21st century. With clubs closing round the country at an alarming rate, the idea that club music—from instrumental grime to deep house, Jersey remixes to bassline—will even have a home in clubs is less and less of a given as days go by. With spaces devoted to hedonism becoming rarer and rarer, the radio—and possibly more importantly, the radio station— takes on more importance than ever. It offers the clubless a chance to experience that excitement, that energy, that sense of communality that we're all tacitly seeking every time we get our wrist stamped and walk down the stairs on a Saturday night.
For Ashley, the current club crisis that's seen London shed venues on a seemingly weekly basis is something the councils are to be blamed for. "They don't want new clubs and make life difficult for established ones," he says. "Clubs should be a place for hedonism; you should be able to have a drink and a smoke with people and chill together. There aren't many places to meet up with your mates to do that anymore. That's what Radar is. I don't think we're reinventing the wheel, but that's what we're about."
Having been to Radar on a number of occasions, and having played there myself, I can attest to the kind of communal spirit that Ashley talks of. It's easy to sit with a writer and tell them that the space you run is a place where, as Ollie tells me, "you can play what you want! Of course you can bring your mates down! Of course you can have a drink! If you wanna go out for a smoke, then yeah, that's cool. Just make sure you're not too high to mix!' It's harder to make that a reality but that seems to be what Ashley and his team have spent the last year working on. They've recognized that while no station of their kind can operate successfully without having the right DJs, it'd also fold it the people involved weren't right, if the atmosphere wasn't right. Going to Radar is like going to a mate's house—except that it's Rudewhy or Scratcha DVA or DJ Sagepay playing records, not your mate who's got five pints inside him and a cracked copy of Ableton. There's sofas and magazines lying about, roaches and rizlas.
This Saturday coming marks a year to the minute since Radar was first transmitted, and they've got Tim & Barry down for a special edition of their long running livestreamed show Just Jam, featuring some of the Radar family—Jack Dat, Riz La Teef, Mungo, Jetsss and the BBC AZN Network—on deck. Given that Tim and Barry have consistently kept a sense of the DIY about their multimedia operation even as the client's and the budgets have got bigger, it's unsurprising that Ashley's a fan: "I've been a massive fan for years," he says. "I was 18 when the video for Tempa T's 'Next Hype' came out, and I've been a big fan ever since. Just Jam is great, they're all friends and it's fun. Everything from the graphics, to the guests, to the hosting, it's all legit. They do it because they love it."
Their original birthday celebration was set to be a warehouse party that would have been "a true representation of the variety of stuff that we play… but, as soon as you mention grime, the venue owners don't want to listen. So we said fuck that, if we can't find the right venue then we'll just do it ourselves in our office. That way we can do what we want."
Long may they do that.