At first, it doesn't look like much. In a corner tucked behind south London's Brixton tube and train station, three shipping containers house Reprezent Radio, a youth-run station that's set to be there until 2019. At that point, the space – in the rapidly gentrifying area's POP Brixton project – will inevitably, much like everywhere else in London, be turned into flats. Originally started as a one-month youth radio broadcast in partnership with Choice FM in 2009 in Peckham, the underdog of London's thriving independent radio scene has come a long way.
"Our soul, our passion, the creative side of what we do is all great," station manager Adrian Newman tells me. "I'm a huge fan of Washington skate punk: Fugazi, Crass, Guttermouth. Just do your thing and don't worry about it, and there's definitely a big part of us that is inspired by that and thinks, 'fuck everyone and just do your thing as well as you can'." This DIY attitude has been at the heart of Reprezent from the start. Off the back of the temporary project's success, an online station was set up, eventually securing a community broadcast FM license in 2011 – now, Reprezent Radio is on FM, DAB and online.
The tiny team of three say they work with over 400 young people a year to give them a platform they wouldn't normally be able to access, making Reprezent London's only radio station produced and presented by 13- to 25-year-olds. Right now, Adrian says, there are 90 shows and around 140 volunteers across the station – with about another 100 people passing through every week as guests – broadcasting 24 hours a day. The station has come to symbolise a sort of fame academy for DJ talent – like a cooler version of The BRIT School – but it has historically balanced on the edge of somewhat precarious finances. And while the concept of pirate radio's bag being filled by online stations isn't anything new, the stakes feel particularly high for Reprezent. At a time when "youth" radio is meant to be on the decline, they're making their own lane for those willing to reach beyond the BBC, Capital and the like.
With no multi-millionaire investors or cover fee for shows, the station has drawn from a diverse pot of money to support itself: Southwark Council, charities Children in Need, Comic Relief and others. You may have seen stories of Reprezent's funding crisis in 2015, resolved by a successful crowdfunding campaign, as a number of major sources of public money that it had relied on since its conception were threatened. Cuts to council initiatives and youth services have been substantial during the last few years. Now, Reprezent is having to align itself with labels and brands such as Super Malt and Converse to secure a more sustainable model for the financial future of the station.
Are they worried about what impact brand involvement could have on their fiercely self-made reputation? "The way that the creativity of the station works is really democratic", says Adrian. "Our daytime playlist is chosen by young people, so when brands are looking to reach into the youth market and understand and engage with people, they have no reason to change the way we do our business because that's what they want". In short: the station don't see themselves losing authenticity by partnering with major brands who they deem fit their market. It's the sort of open pro-capitalism you don't often hear from groups of this size, but one that fits a generation that doesn't sneer at "selling out" the way older ones have. They understand the power of their own brand and "don't work with people that don't get it", Kate Jaggers, head of content, clarifies.
Reprezent is the self-proclaimed sound of young London, and listening to the station for just a day makes it easy to see why. With an average host age of 19 and a playlist of music that contains two-thirds unsigned artists, the station has a pretty solid claim to the title. In contrast to a mainstream radio industry that may rely on social media followings and already-established national buzz, the hosts here find the music for their shows organically by trawling the Internet and through word of mouth. "When we playlist artists for the first time, it's generally the first time they've ever been played", Adrian says. This week's playlist includes newer UK artists such as Winter Rose, Argz Aliko and Sona, alongside more established acts such as Giggs, Charli XCX and Jacques Greene.
I pop in to meet Dobby, 20, who hosts weekly show 'Witchez Brew'. "I wanted to have the biggest radio show in the world as soon as I found out about radio when I was 14," she says while casually multi-tasking both lining up tracks and hosting. "I wanna be the next Zane Lowe, the next Annie Mac. That's always been the dream, but now that I'm here I feel it's achievable." She joined Reprezent two years ago as a sort of understudy to Jamz Supernova, a former star of the station who has now gone on to host at BBC 1Xtra. Jamz helped in training Dobby, and Dobby in turn helps Jamz out at Radio 1 and 1Xtra. Elsewhere, 20-year-old Mollie Collins was brought in because Jamz called up Adrian and pegged her as the 'next big thing'. Mollie's now a Drum & Bass Arena Awards newcomer nominee and pegged as a breakthrough DJ of 2016 by Mixmag.
All the presenters I speak to can't sing the praises of the station loudly enough – and obviously, you'd expect as much. But it feels genuine. Drivetime with Munya – a Tuesday early evening show hosted by presenter (who, you may remember, got Channel 4 broadcaster Jon Snow to buss gun-fingers and rap along when played Stormzy's Gang Signs & Prayer in March), his broadcast assistant Scott, and guest booker Gabz – is a perfect example of what gives Reprezent its youth credentials. Case in point: as I sit in on the show they chat about running out on restaurant bills, leaving a smell in a public bathroom and blaming it on someone else, and the struggle of being broke and having to buy Morrison's Savers sausages. The vibe is friendly, casual and familiar: listening to the show is like sitting in a mate's living room and chatting shit over a beer.
I ask Munya, 23, about the station's appeal. In an increasingly crowded digital radio market, what makes it worth the time? "They're the people who Drake would've mentioned in 'Started from the Bottom'", he says. "I feel they really are interested in pioneering young voices and young talent, which means that if you're good at what you do, even if you're not ready at the time, they will invest in you. They champion talent regardless of experience or networks, from the bottom up."
To get an understanding of what makes the station tick outside the confines of the studio, I head to east London bar The Alibi on a Saturday night to check out their bi-monthly club night, CTRL. As I walk in, Shemzy, one of the station's presenters and an artist in his own right, is spinning Dizzee Rascal "Stop Dat" and the dancefloor is beginning to fill up. Within half an hour, it's heaving, and despite the abundance of Instagram aesthetic Thrasher hoodies & fishnet tights, everyone is absolutely going for it. There's no posing, no head nodding – just young people excited about dancing to new tunes and supporting their mates. I spot Dobby jumping up and down at the bar, losing her shit at every track being played. A teenager standing next to me notices me watching Dobby and tells me who she is, then compliments me on my Supreme bag and offers me some of his drink. I can't remember the last time I had such a genuine interaction in a club.
Back in the light of day, I consider the station's next moves. If everything goes well, carefully selected partnership programmes – an NHS-funded expansion into Essex launched last August, future plans for a training initiative in east London's Tower Hamlets – will hopefully ensure that Reprezent has a bright future ahead. They'll need it, with relentless government cuts and the looming prospect of a lifetime of Conservative rule.
In fact, if June's snap election results in another five years (minimum) of Tory government, the work done at Reprezent Radio will be more crucial than ever – both to ensure platforms and opportunities for young adults in London, and to continue discovering, nurturing and elevating the fresh talent that makes this city world-famous for music. Their moves away from reliance on government funding and towards organisations that provide a better fit for their POP Brixton home may seem like a far cry from the station with its early days in an unmarked building in Peckham, but it could be the only viable option in a political climate that cares less and less for disadvantaged youth.
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(All photos provided courtesy of Reprezent Radio)