Former sound-of- the-underground, this year, NTS turned five.
Not many nights out begin with a walk down the hard shoulder of the A12. Hidden in the inky shadows of the warehouses that populate the fringes of this city — Shell, Screwfix, Self Storage — Hackney Wick nightclub Bloc is a late-night refuge for the kind of people who would wander to the end of the night in search of utopia. Tonight, the mass pilgrimage to London’s outer edges marks the fifth birthday of internet radio station NTS.
At another crossroads 30 minutes down the road, in a liminal space of its own, beats the station’s HQ in Gillett Square, constructed from the rubble of decades of Dalston development. The square was dreamed up over 20 years ago by Hackney Co-Operative Developments and built by the borough’s council with the financial aid of Hackney’s most prominent developers. But unlike the identikit luxury flats built by those same companies, Gillett Square has become a space that welcomes everyone, from crack addicts shuffling to soul and funk, to world famous pro-skaters and their followers clutching cups of steaming hot Ethiopian coffee.Weaving through this chaos, DJs, bands, musicians, presenters and comedians from London and around the world navigate their way to the NTS HQ, an unassuming shack on the square’s far side. The more recognisable faces draw the gaze of the square’s inhabitants. Others cross unwatched. It’s a scene best summed up by the radio stations’s tagline,“Don’t Assume”.
THE RISE OF INTERNET RADIO
The way we collectively consume culture has been reshaped by on-demand services from iPlayer to Netflix, Spotify to Mixcloud, and internet radio has never been more popular. Every city has its own stations and scenes, from Know Wave in New York to Principe in Lisbon to Berlin Community Radio. In London, stations exist in every corner of every borough, from Haggerston Radio in the east to Balamii and Reprezent in Peckham to Great Windmill Street’s Soho Radio. It’s hard to recall a time when non-mainstream radio stations weren’t pushing forward London culture, but five years ago, the scene looked very different. There was “a gap in the market”, as NTS’ Managing Director, Sean McAuliffe puts it. NTS Radio started life as now the defunct Nuts To Soup, a mixtape blog run by Femi Adeyemi, which McAuliffe describes as an internet iteration of Adeyemi’s night at the iconic Shoreditch club Plastic People. “He was fed up with what you would hear on the terrestrial radio, standard radio stations and how pirate radio stations in general were very, very linear and singular music based,” McAuliffe explains of Adeyemi. “He wanted to hear the music that we all were really passionate about and turn it in a one-stop shop.”
That one-stop shop, to begin with, was housed next to a jerk shack and a Ethiopian coffee stand in Gillett Square, Dalston. Hackney five years ago was a different, cheaper place, many of the borough’s rising “luxury” towerblocks then little more than greedy glints in property developers’ pupils. “The whole idea of setting up a station was economically really viable because the technology, equipment and rent at that point were really cheap. Everybody, in particular Adeyemi, knew a lot of people with great record collections, it just seemed like a no-brainer. So he started literally sticking up a few posters around Hackney saying: ‘If you like playing records, hit us up.’” Out of those friendships and posters grew a rudimentary radio station which played tunes all the way from Dean Blunt’s brand of avant-garde dance music to straight-up house and techno, Cape Verdean carnival sounds to Mauritian “soul rock”, jazz to drone and everything in between. Broadcasting for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, through word of mouth amongst friends and local residents, NTS swiftly grew. As in the old pirate radio style business model, DJs paid subs ranging from £20 to £50 in order to play on the station. Just two or three months after the station launched, there were over 150 regular shows. Within six months, the site had thousands of listeners from across the world. “At that point we realised that it was much bigger than we initially anticipated.” McAuliffe recalls. “It wasn’t set up in the first place to be this big thing that we are now. The intention was to create something quite localised for all of our mates.”
From a group of friends broadcasting tunes from the dusty depths of their record collections to Hackney locals, NTS has gone global. This year they opened a studio in Manchester, and there are plans to open a studio in LA. Regular shows take place all over the world in America, Japan and Mexico. McAuliffe estimates that NTS have around 300,000 regular listeners through the site — and that’s not taking into account listeners on DAB digital radio across greater London. Accordingly, the station has shifted its focus from the local community to a global one. Of the 300 or so regular contributors making shows, only about half are from London. Alongside day one regulars such as much loved Do!! You!!! Breakfast show host Charlie Bones and local record label Young Turks, NTS has welcomed world-famous artists from Theo Parrish and the late Frankie Knuckles to Mos Def, Thurston Moore and Waka Flocka Flame. Even the Guardian recently sought the help of NTS, hosting a 10-week long residency show on the station featuring musicians such as Neneh Cherry, comedian Stewart Lee and music commentators including Tim Jonze and Alexis Petridis.
When I visit them, NTS have a new studio in Gillett Square. The smell of fresh paint lingers, and McAuliffe is in the process of deciding on a wallpaper for the toilet. Next up, the website is due a revamp, set to become what McAuliffe describes as“a far more all-encompassing media platform”. He pulls a face and clarifies, “we’re not doing this because we felt like we needed to expand or grow. We’re just doing it because we really fucking want to.” It’s an offhand remark which unwittingly lays bare the entire mentality which underpins NTS. Whether they’re putting on a block party in Gillett Square or manning a stage at Notting Hill Carnival, the founding principles are still visible: the station remains a passion project built from ground level up. In a world which is increasingly #filtered and fake, NTS is an authentic voice trusted by not only listeners, but by music industry tastemakers. “The thing that makes us most excited, that makes us the happiest and proudest, are the artists that get involved,” McAuliffe tells me. “Particularly when we find or are approached by young kids no one has ever heard of before who just have fucking amazing record collections, or are making amazing music, we get them on the radio and give them a regular show and within a year they’re touring across the world.” Producer Bradley “Zero” Phillip exemplifies what may as well be termed the “NTS effect”: with a sound which is impossible to define, but which can be described as dance music in the loosest sense, Phillip has moved up the ranks at NTS and Boiler Room to renown in London and around the world as a DJ, producer and owner of record label Rhythm Section INTL. “The power of the [NTS] scene helps to elevate us all individually”, Phillip tells me, before adding: “My DJ sets revolve around the music I select for the radio every fortnight. I don’t know where I’d be without NTS”.
Just as there is no “typical” DJ or show on NTS, there is no typical listener either. Don’t Assume. Like the audience at Dean Blunt’s show, they’re faceless, nameless, a 300,000-strong worldwide army of ghosts. Still, the station’s fans can be identified by their uniform: t-shirts splashed with the stations’ logo. Adeyemi’s influence isn’t limited to NTS merch however. It can be seen, and heard, in the rise of newer internet radio stations, most notably perhaps in Radar Radio and Balamii.
Founded by former club promoter James Browning, Balamii was born out of the flashing lights of clubland. Browning describes Adeyemi as one of his “heroes”. It shows: the Balamii studio, just off Peckham’s Rye Lane, has all the makeshift charm of the station that started it all, even borrowing from NTS’ original financial model (now long gone and replaced by well-considered brand partnerships). If Balamii echoes NTS’ origins, Radar Radio represents a slicker side to internet radio. Radar is housed in an impressive looking four-storey building in Clerkenwell. Money is of no concern to the station’s 25-year-old founder Ollie Ashley, and as a result he is able to borrow much of NTS’ experimental mentality without having to consider the financial consequences. “If I was a businessman we would be a purely EDM station because that’s where the numbers are,” Ashley tells me. “But I wanted to do this for the music I love and that’s what I’m passionate about. I think as we progress, we can work out more ways to bring more money to the station, but that’s not the focus at the moment.” Radar, Ashley feels, is “almost like an experiment”, but the professionalism of both the station’s studio and website echoes a general movement from internet radio’s pirate style DIY roots into something more commercially-minded.
For NTS, that sense of unrestrained financial freedom is still a long way off, but somehow, it doesn’t really matter. So long as listeners continue to find their way through the mists of the digital ether and lock into Do!! You!!! Breakfast with Charlie Bones, there will always be NTS.
Photography: David Imms
Words: Bryony Stone