Tune into NTS radio and you get a good glimpse into London’s hip independent music scene. Situated in the heart of Dalston, NTS radio asks of its listeners, ‘Don’t assume’ giving free reign to its DJs to play whatever they fancy. And with that freedom NTS has grown organically and exponentially – along with it, its audience.
NTS is the radio home to DJs, record labels and record shops at the forefront of London’s sound scape, including the likes of Trevor Jackson, Floating Points, Kutmah and Young Turks. It has a wide range of shows, around 140 of them, from the cultural showcase of Let’s Be Brief, tracks in-the-making played on CDR, metal thrashings of Maniac Monday and several programmes playing music across the board: jazz, soul, hip-hop, world music and various dance music genres including house, techno, garage, grime, drum ‘n’ bass, jungle and so on.
Known also by his DJ name, Mr Wonderful, Femi Adeyemi started NTS with a tiny budget, a mere £3,000 ($5,000) and tonnes of determination. Just three years into its existence, they now reach a global audience of around 50,000, nearly half of them outside the UK – in countries like Germany, USA, France, Poland, Russia and Australia.
While the numbers may still pale in comparison to the millions listening to commercial radio, big brands like Nike and Red Bull have been knocking on NTS’ door for collaborations.
This is because of their interest in NTS’ audience. NTS is simultaneously the broadcaster, community base, platform and voice championing people in the internet age who value independence, freedom, global reach, diversity, pioneering creativity, innovation, action, in-depth music knowledge and passion. And NTS Radio is uncompromising when it comes to diverse programming, a ban on on-air advertisements and passion breeding passion.
To illustrate, as I write this article Lil Louis is live on NTS discussing the history of House music, opening up a question to his listeners: what was the first House track? A flurry of tweets and emails pour in, especially after he describes how he went into the studio to record his own sexual encounter with a friend to produce ‘French Kiss’.
Equally determined, the Couch Sessions managed to pin down the NTS founder to find out how he’s feeling about what he’s accomplished so far.
What was your initial vision when you started NTS?
To me it seemed like an obvious thing and other people have done online radio, but there wasn’t the full schedule of programming. There are stations that have done it like EVR (East Village Radio) in the States and Red Light Radio in Amsterdam that we were getting inspiration from. They had a live radio studio, but they broadcast for only two hours and then maybe another three to five hours of repeats. What we wanted to do was have a whole day of live radio, just like a regular radio station but on the internet.
One other question I kept asking myself was, “Why isn’t there any other radio station with diverse programming.”
You’ve mentioned before that American college radio stations were big inspirations to you. Which stations in particular and why?
I listened to KCRW quite a lot. I was at university and didn’t have a TV so I used to listen to BBC Radio 4 and go to the internet to try to find something else. KCRW had a Madlib show that I was really into. And I liked the diversity of their programming. It’s not just about music, it’s about art, about everything. Another one was WFMU is New Jersey. College radio isn’t a big thing in the UK in the same way that it is in America.
And why is diverse programming so important to you?
There’s so much music in this world that you would miss out if you focused on one specific thing. A lot of commercial stations stick to what they know because they don’t want to lose their sponsors and backers. We don’t have that sort of pressure. We can take as many risks in any way we want.
And to me it’s important because there’s too much out there. You can’t limit yourself to just one thing. And it may be a risk to spread yourself so wide as well, but I think it’s about finding that balance.
You probably get a lot of requests from DJs to do shows on NTS. What do you look for in a new programme?
There are a lot of people who tend to jump on something because of hype. For me it doesn’t really matter what they play, as long as they’re passionate and they know a lot about whatever it is they want to do. That’s the main thing we look for: how into their stuff they are. Just from listening you can tell if they love what they’re doing, and that reflects on the listener because they’re putting a lot of energy into it. And we also look to see if we already have someone similar who is doing it well to make sure we don’t have too many similar shows. Their programme would need to have something unique.
I’ve heard that you don’t tell the DJs how many people are listening to their individual shows. Why is that?
If you start worrying about figures then it takes them away from what they’re meant to be doing. If they feel like their numbers are too little, they might lose heart in what they do. But if they get too many numbers they might focus on doing stuff just to get the numbers.
There are a lot of things we could do that we know could take our numbers to the next level to what they are now, but we try not to focus on stats too much. We focus more on our programming. We’ll let the programming do the talking.
It’s quality not quantity. Just do what you do. And if you’re happy doing it, you’ll be fine.
What kind of brand guidelines do you have in place when collaborating with big players like Nike?
We have total control over things like artwork to the programming to even the number of Facebook posts. Our listeners can tell from the language when it’s a different brand. We know how to talk to them. If you try to come in and try to talk to them your way, they will switch off. And we’ve seen how they react when another brand tries to do it their way; our listeners don’t respond as well. They know when it’s not from us, so we have strict guidelines and take control. If another brand wants to do something with us, they have to be on board.
It’s a new way of radio in a sense, a new way of advertising. They associate themselves with a certain programme we’ve put together for them but without any on-air ads. It’s a joint project where their brand is visible but not disruptive to the listener.
What are your top three tips for setting up an online radio station?
- Good internet connection that never drops out. You have to broadcast at a certain quality so you need a decent internet connection.
- Programming-wise you need to be adventurous. Go ahead and take risks.
- Believe in what it is you’re doing. Believe in the programming.
What’s in store for the future?
We’re at the point now where we’re thinking about opening up a second studio in a different city. And whenever I think about it, there’s no other city like London. There are places that come to mind like New York and LA, but I feel like London is so diverse. I don’t know if we had started NTS in another city, whether it would’ve taken off as it has.
Since we already do broadcasts from New York and LA, I’m thinking to set up the second studio further afield like Melbourne. The main reason is the time lapse when the studio is closed from 2am to 9am and we play repeats, so I want to be in a different time zone to have the live programming then.
Three years on, do you feel you’ve met your own expectations? Are you where you wanted to be?
When I started I thought it was a risk – it could go either way. But I felt really strongly about it. I’ve been DJing around London a few years and know many people in the scene pretty well, and I knew if I got the right people on board, people would catch up to it.
I was at a weird point of my life where I lost my Dad, my job and my flat – so I felt I had nothing to lose, and I just decided to do it and we’ll see what happens. I got a part-time job so I could start up the business at the same time. But it took off so early, like in about 3 or 4 months that I had to do it full-time.
I’d like it to be here even after I’m long gone, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen. Three years on – it was expected, but I didn’t think we would be this size in just three years.
NTS is celebrating its third birthday this Saturday, 5th April 2014 with a killer line up at Corsica Studios in London.