On The Wireless: a year in radio

We don’t do lists here at IO, but in the reflective spirit of the season Joseph Francis has penned down some thoughts on standout radio shows he enjoyed over the past 12 months, from independent online stations including Noods, NTS and Palanga Street Radio.

We all like our comforts – the familiar things, the routines. And to help us maximise our enjoyment of these we have the latest tech, apps and podcasts, perfectly tailored to our tastes. So putting your trust in a not-so-polished, hour-long radio show that you may or may not like sounds like a risk not worth taking – heaven forbid we waste any of our precious time.

It took a while to wean myself off Apple Music so that I could devote more time listening to radio. I’d enjoy months of radio’s random stream only to then fall back into the comfort of a streaming platform’s rigid structure where I knew I would get what I wanted. But over the years I’ve realised that for every album I don’t listen to or every mix that I miss, independent radio will always offer something that trumps it, something truly unique and human.

In this list you’ll find mini-documentaries on outspoken icons, life-affirming speeches and freestyle rapping, all curated by DJs, producers and ordinary people who love music. It might not be your cup of tea every time and it might not always keep you in-the-know, but I can guarantee you’ll hear something unexpected each time and, who knows? Maybe you’ll end up craving the unfamiliar, too.

Wild plant names and Arthur Russell are an excellent match in this episode hosted by Alice for the Cube Radio Hour. “Here’s another Arthur Russell song, because he’s so good,” she plainly states before playing Russell’s ‘I Like You!’. Later, she goes on to ruminate over the health benefits of dandelions, daisies and nettle stings with dry wit, recommending a stinging lasagne recipe over a full-body nettle thrashing. It’s loose, unpretentious and funny – as well as informative!

On Women Of British Reggae, Ranking Ann (real name Ann Swinton) speaks about her upbringing and career as a reggae toaster in the 80s. Growing up in a strict Black Pentecostal family, Swinton became renowned in dancehall circles for her lyrics which tackled the misogyny she witnessed on a daily basis. Her words were so forthright in fact that she later faced death threats and verbal abuse from men who saw her as a danger to the strictly male-dominated industry. NTS Radio’s Chantal Adams, Estelle Birch and Tabitha Thorlu Bangura capture this story with great care, choosing to omit the interviewer’s voice and to soundtrack each section with the relevant music (rather than pause and announce it), allowing it to unravel fluidly.

Marina Herlop has produced one of the year’s most stunning albums in Pripyat, which married her expert piano-playing with abrasive electronics as well as an ancient Indian singing style called konnakol. For Noods Radio’s pop-up sessions in Barcelona in May, she shared choral music, folk, film scores, indie pop and afrobeat, showcasing her insatiable curiosity for music and sounds from all corners of the world.

Rap freestyles have come to be expected from South East London radio stations like Balamii, but there are some exceptional vocalists living over in the South West of England, too, and this episode from Jabu’s Music 4 Lovers proves it. Franco Franco, Birthmark, D-Ham and Bogues (who are all based in Bristol) share verses over Amos Childs’ selections and Intel Mercenary’s beats with other noticeable highlights including Franco Franco free styling over Madlib’s ‘Raid’ and an unreleased Manonmars song with some of his wittiest lines to date.

“I didn’t realise how much joy it would give me to play songs about boys singing of their love for other boys,” beams Evadney on this LGBTQ+ special for his own monthly radio slot. From the uplifting intro (borrowed from My Neighbour Totoro) to his sincere praising of a song, Evadney’s shows are a joy to listen to. On this one he goes a step further, weaving speeches by queer icons and human rights activists like James Baldwin, Audre Lorde and Marsha P. Johnson between evocative music by serpentwithfeet, Sylvester and Frank Ocean. Evadney sums it up perfectly at the the end of the show, “If you have your freedom and you value your freedom, it’s worth going back to look at those that gave it to you.”

There aren’t enough documentaries to cover all of the important figures in music, which is why An Hour For… is a great show. It’s a space where passionate fans pull together homages to historical careers in music, and this one hosted by Deirdre Canavan is one dedicated to Delia Derbyshire. She opens with some of Derbyshire’s more famous songs like ‘Dance from ‘Noah’’ (sampled in that Bruce tune) and, of course, the Doctor Who theme song, before then moving into her more experimental back catalogue. Canavan also includes songs from artists who were similarly as influential and overlooked as Derbyshire like Wendy Carlos, to name just one example.

k means’ recent FACT mix has been rightly adored by many but did anyone stop to think why on earth there’s a sudden cry of “Mama!” in the middle of it? If you’d listened to this game special on her Instant Yum show you’d understand, since it comes in alongside a heap of others all taken from Banjo Kazooie. Video games have had a huge influence on k means’ music taste who as a child would play video game scores at piano concerts instead of traditional classical pieces. Nobuo Uematsu’s piano version of Final Fantasy’s battle theme, for example, comes on towards the middle of this show and you can imagine a young k means playing it before a chin-stroking audience, wondering which Debussy piece this was they’d slept on.

“If you think it’s nice, buy a slice,” laughs Dan Davies as he flips over Dubkasm’s ‘Enter The Gates’ to finish playing the entirety of the record. It’s the opening show for RWDFWD’s All Day Takeover and Davies picks favourites from his shop which he runs with Alex Digard, giving each one its time to shine. As well as playing tunes all the way through, he gives short intros and stories that bring context to the music. Just like the blurbs on their website, it connects listener with music in a way that’s genuine and down-to-earth.

Have you ever heard the verb, to chunt? I hadn’t either. It means to ramble or mutter nonsensically. Embracing this wholeheartedly are the people of Chunt FM and Palanga Street Radio who put community at the forefront of their radio and showcase a rugged and punk approach to the medium. Mavros Skylos’ Smokes Let’s Go show is a fine display of this, rattling through country music, dub, miami bass and hip hop while coughing and singing along over the occasional squeal of microphone feedback.