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The Rise and Demise of Radar Radio

At the beginning of 2018, Radar was arguably the most exciting digital radio station in the UK. Now, following allegations of assault and appropriation, it's all falling apart.

by Poppy Noor
11 May 2018, 10:42am

Photo: Supplied

In 2016, owner Ollie Ashley said of Radar Radio, "What we do is a kind of organised chaos."

Two years later, this April, resident DJs Pxssy Palace released a statement accusing Radar of stealing ideas from people of colour and tokenising marginalised groups for "capitalist purposes".

Radar responded by promising to take "immediate action to review and assess any shortcomings", which was followed by a blog post on Mixed Spices by former producer Ashtart Al-Hurra, who criticised Radar's response to Pxssy Palace and alleged that she was sexually harassed "fucking tonnes" while working at the station. A number of employees and DJs have since left Radar, while the station itself suspended broadcasting on the 16th of April and has remained silent ever since.

Since these allegations emerged, many commentators have accused the station of appropriation, or of adopting an inauthentic, less privileged image for personal gain – and Radar's company accounts do betray a disconnect between the image of the station as a pioneering, pirate-style radio station, and the reality. In fact, its finances reflect the backing that only its owner, Ollie Ashley, could attract as the son of the Sports Direct and Newcastle football club billionaire, Mike Ashley.

Born in the internet era, Radar Radio is not a pirate radio station, but Ashley was proud to point out that it isn't regulated by Ofcom, and cited stations like Rinse and Kiss in their early pirate days as influences: "What was so amazing about them was it was 100 percent completely illegal," he told Resident Advisor in January of 2018. "A devil-may-care attitude of, 'We're going to say what we want, and play what we want."

This influence was reflected in Radar's branding; its promo videos, showcasing grime MCs free-styling against a backdrop of concrete, recorded on shaky, low-resolution camera phones; and their oft-mentioned slogan: "Tune in or fuck off." But while its influences were tiny stations that started from nothing, whose staff broadcasted from boats in international waters, or climbed onto roofs to erect aerials in the dead of night, Radar was quite the opposite.

The station didn't broadcast out of someone's grandma's front room; their four-storey studio by the Barbican was rented on a £250,000-a-year leasehold. Despite making a loss of more than £800,000 in 2016, the company spent almost half a million pounds the same year on "tangible fixed assets" – financial jargon for stuff that isn't wages or rent (normally a company's highest costs).

Despite all of its non-establishment veneer, it was an operation bankrolled by MASH holdings, which is also where Ollie's father Mike Ashley holds his stakes in Sports Direct and Newcastle FC.

Al-Hurra made it clear in her blogpost why the disconnect between the way that Radar Radio presented itself, and the reality, mattered: "I'm an angry brown woman who grew up in the ends. I heard voices like mine on there, chatting shit about colonialism... How was it that, down the line, it turns out the place is owned by a rich white dude (Ollie Ashley) whose dad (Mike Ashley, owner of Sports Direct) exploits people like me and my family every day on a huge scale?"

Radar Radio's "Tune in or fuck off" slogan. Photo: Supplied

Al-Hurra believes her experiences are reflective of an industry-wide issue. However, the financial connection between Mike Ashley – who ran Sports Direct like a "Victorian workhouse", according to a 2016 inquiry into its working practises – and Radar Radio made it all the more perverse. Did Mike Ashley know he was supporting the station that was lauded for being the mouthpiece of the young, racially diverse capital?

Like most people I interviewed, Al-Hurra said Radar's front-facing image – with its many young, non-white DJs and presenters with inner-city London accents – was not reflected in management or paid positions. This is hard to verify, and Radar Radio did not respond to multiple requests for comment over a number of weeks. What we can say is that Radar Radio paid only £89,092 in salaries in 2016.

For Al-Hurra, this speaks to a culture of exploitation where young people of colour were packaged as commodities – used to sell the station, but never given proper roles: "If you came in you would mainly see people of colour working at the station. That made it seem like it was this marginalised group making it," she told me. "Actually, it was a rich white guy at the top... and all of us, people of colour, fighting for opportunities underneath."

Ten Dixon performing at Radar Radio. Photo by Jun Yokoyama

Some argue Radar was helping disenfranchised young people. One Radar presenter who wanted to remain anonymous said: "There were a lot of conversations there, about people feeling used – being commoditised, using street culture to earn a quick buck. But, at Radar, anyone with music knowledge could use the facilities and network... People travelling from housing estates in Lewisham and Croydon to get these opportunities. That was amazing."

Radar, so the story goes, had an open door policy on talent: so long as people cared about music, there was no need for prior experience. For many, opportunities included free workshops, mentoring from people within the industry, and even a graphic designer who would design logos and help people build a brand.

No expense was spared on the equipment, either: "Walk into one of the most well-established new stations now, NTS, and invariably they will have two CDJs, a mixer and two turntables. Radar easily had five or six times that," says Sean Huges, who produced shows for Radar. By comparison, one interviewee tells me that, at Radar, if a pair of CDJs got broken, Ashley would send employees out with a company credit card instead of attempting to repair them (Ashley did respond to multiple requests for comment).

Even the fresh talent coming through to Radar didn't have to deal with the money worries commonplace in DIY radio. While other stations without financial backing still require DJs to pay a fee to host shows unless they have hundreds of thousands of listeners, Radar was able to waive that charge.

Former Radar host, DJ anu – who now has a regular slot on rival NTS, which many claim Ashley tried to buy (NTS did not respond to request for comment) – believes this was just another way that Ashley used his money to distort the market: "It just shows that money has that ridiculous power where you can literally be no one and come into a space and start your own radio station."

For others, Radar's ability to establish its brand so quickly, seemingly out of nowhere, put them on unsteady ground: "I think it's a shaky platform to build something like that, so quickly and to such a big position, solely through cash," says former radio producer Hughes. Hughes was drawn in by the informal environment at Radar, which he describes as being like a youth club, but he says this brought problems: "There would be 40 or 50 people there on any given day, and you wouldn’t know who was staff and who was just hanging about... inevitably, with that many people around, things happen, and you need procedures to be able to deal with it."

In the music industry, the blurring between professional life and nightlife made problems even more likely: "It was absolutely normal for people to be drunk at work. DJs would bring in drink and drugs," says Al-Hurra. She felt scared after being asked for sex by DJs on nights out, knowing that she would be sharing a booth alone with them at Radar the following Saturday. If something did happen: "No one was there watching out for bad behaviour... You would have no one to turn to."

Another DJ, who wanted to remain anonymous, claimed that there was no sense of structure or management while she was working there. She said: "I had situations where producers would turn up to my show drunk... I got that it's the nature of the station – 'Tune in or fuck off' – but I was reduced to tears so many times out of sheer frustration, from the unprofessionalism."

While Ashley was praised for building Radar like a family rather than a corporation, one vital part of corporate culture – procedure – was sorely missed. Many felt that a company that could put up the cash for flashy equipment might do better investing in an employee's most important safeguard: decent, transparent reporting procedures that don't require investigative nouse to get your head around (VICE still doesn't know whether such procedures were ever in place, as Radar Radio did not respond to our many queries about this).

Following a New York Times exposé alleging incidents of sexual harassment at the company, VICE was criticised for its internal reporting procedures – something the company says it has taken steps to correct.

For Al-Hurra, the reality of Radar's corporate muscle came to light when she finally brought sexual assault allegations to the company. She says Sports Direct's HR company Eacotts was brought in to silence her – making her sign a non-disclosure agreement seen by VICE, preventing her from posting on social media about the Ashley family. She says she leaked details of the signed agreement, after leaving Radar, for the sake of her mental health, because she "wanted people to know exactly what it was".

Claims of exploitation based on gender and race within the music industry have always been rife. From the time that Ed Sheeran convinced a bunch of grime artists to make an album with him, only to walk away crowned the most important act in black and urban music by Radio 1Xtra, to the countless white artists winning awards for making the same rap music for which their black counterparts rarely receive such recognition.

These incidents didn't lead to a mass walk-out, but somehow Al-Hurra's blog galvanised a host of DJs and employees to leave Radar, in what Al-Hurra calls "an amazing act of solidarity". Why Radar Radio was the station to fall is unclear – perhaps Ashley’s money was too sick of a plot twist in an all too familiar story which made it stand out. But the fact that all this has happened is important. Cultural appropriation is not illegal: if some white guy at the top benefitting from people of colour while paying them a pittance was against the law, many companies in Britain would be out of business. However, the fact that Ashley is being held to account over it in itself is a turning point.

Radar, however, is yet to release a statement updating listeners of its plans. Media gossip newsletter Popbitch has reported that Ollie Ashley recently told key staff that Radar will be closing at the end of May, but gossip is just that: gossip; I was unable to corroborate this claim with any of the people I spoke to for this piece.

Either way, following the very public events at Radar, Al-Hurra hopes that young people of colour will now be more empowered to see their worth in a music industry that cannot exist without them: "This whole thing shows promise for resistance in media; we can finally feel justified in saying that we want something that is for us, by us," she says. "Ollie Ashley might ignore that, but without us his station will just be boring."

@PoppyNoor

UPDATE 11/05/18: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Mike Ashley was a Brexiteer and UKIP donor. This has now been corrected.

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Ashtart Al-Hurra