NTS: Beyond Community Radio

Interview by Callum McLean
Photos shot by Trent McMinn in London, UK

If YouTube killed the radio star, then NTS Frankensteined it back into the new millenium with fresh sneakers and a tripped out record collection

If it’s interesting and the host has good taste, we’re into it

Turning six years old this month, the forward-thinking London station is showing no signs of defeat, now spreading its already dizzying array of programming to over 30 cities worldwide on two digital channels. Nowhere else will you find specialists in obscure field recordings, Turkish psych and sludge metal vying for airspace with a regular roster of heavyweight selectors and labels. And diversity is no mere buzzword in NTS — more international than ‘community radio’ would define, their networked global village recruits from as wide a pool as their musical universe is broad and uncompromising. The clue’s in their slogan: ‘Don’t assume’.

In this Internet age of automated content and taste-making algorithms, what heathen magic keeps the waviest spread on the waves emanating from this tiny room in Dalston? We go behind the NTS curtain to find out.

NTS © Trent Mcminn_05

To an outsider it would seem that NTS runs on goodwill and miracles — how do you keep afloat?

Goodwill and miracles sounds about right — a miracle a day keeps the bailiff away. We sell a lot of T-shirts. We also just got a coffee machine in the office, that helps.

Eclecticism in your programming is off the charts — has there ever been a pitch for a show that’s stepped too far beyond the pale? Is there anything deemed unlistenable at NTS HQ?

Not really. We used to broadcast a show called TNS, hosted by DJ Meta. The show consisted of the sounds of every NTS show ever (up to that point), playing at the same time. If it’s interesting and the host has good taste, we’re into it. It’s all about balance, from weird to accessible.

The flip side of your diversity focus means focusing the spotlight on as wide a variety of people as possible in terms of your DJs and staff — how do you keep NTS so colourful on a day-to-day-basis, and how does it feel to reap the rewards?

On a day-to-day-basis, we’re always triple-checking that the programming or lineups are as diverse as possible. The rewards are obvious; the more diverse a platform is, the better the quality of its output. Without diversity, life lacks surprises – without surprises, we would all be bored. It’s more fun to have as many different kinds of people involved as possible.

Our identity is defined by the hosts and all the people working at NTS.

How do you make this happen?

Starting from the ground up — making sure our interns and volunteers come from a diverse range of backgrounds, and nurturing them right up to becoming senior members of staff. This means being conscious of the workplace being a welcoming place to be, every single day.

In terms of inspiration for programming talent, we dig deep into the internet abyss — there’s never-ending quality out there from all walks of life, not just the people that had the resources and contacts to make themselves stand out. It’s only possible to champion talent from all corners of life if you widen the pool and look outside your comfort zone.

More generally, how do you negotiate being both a distinctly London station and also an international platform with feelers streaming all across the world?

It’s a balancing act, but in general the programming leads the way — there are hosts in over 30 cities who give their shows particular kind of voice, either literally or musically. We will always have London programming at our core, but if there’s good music happening in another city across the globe that we wanna shine a light on, then we give that just as much attention as any London show.

…we could honestly go on all day, a fact we’re very grateful for.

And also as an internet station, how do you keep things grounded and special to NTS these days, to retain an identity and a local network?

The 500+ regular hosts keep things grounded, each unearthing new and old music for our listeners. Our identity is defined by the hosts and all the people working at NTS. Radio show ideas, live video streams, flyers, T-shirts, social media posts, live event programming, who we choose to work with and not to work with — they all define our identity with one common goal: to make Good Shit.

Locally we try to maintain and grow relationships that make an actual difference to people’s lives. Whether that’s working with large organisations like the Tate Modern in London and MOCA in Los Angeles to bring new young audiences to free art and music events, or working with local prisons and colleges to teach people about radio and music, we try to spread our local involvement in different cities across sectors, audiences and initiatives.

What are your favourite shows on air right now — both longstanding and newcomers?

We love them all equally. But if you’ve got a gun to our heads, the themed soundscape show Time Is Away has remained consistently mind-blowing through its years on the station. New show Death Is Not The End, which plays gospel, blues, folk and more amazing old shit, is really amazing too. Lil Mofo and Donna Leake are two new additions with excellent taste. LA show Post-Geography is brilliant — but we could honestly go on all day, a fact we’re very grateful for.

On Friday, 19 May, NTS takes part in celebrating independent radio culture at Online Radio Festival in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ‘, Amsterdam, with a radio show by Tabitha Thorlu-Bangura during the day, and live performances by Klein and NTS resident Sega Bodega during the night.