Mapping the Rise of London’s Online Broadcasting to Refugee Radio

Tom Critchley

For over a decade now, traditional forms of radio broadcasting have faced a grim outlook. This decline in listeners is attributed to a number of factors: a failure in engaging with a young generation more accustomed to an “on-demand digital environment”, ever-growing and all encompassing streaming platforms, and the increasing presence of in-home ‘Smart Speakers’ without an AM/FM antenna. Perhaps more could be said about the quality in mainstream radio services in representing music and content that speaks to a young generation, but the fact remains there is an uncertain future surrounding traditional forms of FM/AM radio. However, the space created by diminishing numbers of traditional Radio listeners has made room for a more contemporary approach to radio transmission: online radio. The flourishing scene of online radio in London is testament to this. Radio giants NTS boast over 300,000 regular listeners, and alongside other stations such as Balamii, Radar Radio and Worldwide FM, truly stake a legitimate claim to being the voice of the Capital. Interesting parallels can be drawing between the rise of online radios, and the development of radio as a medium to represent refugees. Perhaps not the first similarity one would think of, but a closer examination reveals a number of trends between the two. This article assesses the similarities between online broadcasting in London and refugee radio, and asks if the latter can follow the example of online radio and become a more prominent fixture worldwide. 


Stations such as NTS, Balamii and Radar share their foundations in providing a platform for underground music. Similarly, refugee radios provide a voice for marginalised communities affected by war. Resemblances between this empowering nature of online radio and refugee radio for underrepresented artists cannot be underestimated. One thinks particularly of Radar Radio in London who are committed to offering opportunities within the music industry to unfound talent, be it through show slots or DJ, production and hosting workshops. A reoccurring theme between successful touring artists in the UK and abroad is their ability to have held down a radio slot on one of these online radio stations. Struggling to find traditional radio stations that support underground music and artists, the rise of online radio has facilitated the growth in support for many DJs who hold down regular shows. With a consistent audience of near half a million, it is no surprise that Bradley Zero has gone from his bi-weekly NTS slot to hosting a BBC Radio One Residency. The few examples of refugee run radio stations paint a similar picture. In South Africa, refugee Mxolisi runs a radio station designed to support emerging arts and literature for the Zimbabwean war-affected community. Recognising that there were few avenues for migrant musicians in South Africa, Mxolisi created a radio station and Production Company that has seen refugee radio facilitating marginalised musicians to penetrate local markets. Speaking to the Refugees Study Centre, Mxolisi highlighted the potential for Zimbabwean refugees within South Africa but their lack of chances to showcase this: “we realised we are scattered all over Johannesburg doing nothing, but that we had potential… but this pushes me to work extra hard. It’s all about adapting.”


This sentiment of adapting to facilitate the representation of marginalised musicians is no doubt mirrored by the innovation behind online radio stations within London. As mentioned earlier, they adapted out of recognising the under representation of the music they love in mainstream radio. More specifically, these stations take a ‘Pirate Radio’ mantra, but within a legal framework. Tougher crackdowns and penalties towards pirate stations saw stations such as Rinse FM and Kiss apply for official licensing. For the smaller stations the costs involved did not make this a viable option, and since the 1990s Pirate Radio has increasingly been declining. However, entrepreneurial figures such as Femi Adeyemi and James Browing recognised the low-cost and low-risk opportunities of online radio, and broadcast with the DIY ethos of pirate radio within the legal realm. This innovation and willingness to adapt has underpinned the creation of what few refugee radios exist. In Uganda, a Congolese refugee Demou-Kay created a refugee run radio station as a means to earn an income in his host country. After struggling to find work as an electrician, Demou-Kay applied his pre-existing skill set to create a radio transmitter out of recycled material, which now earns him a modest income through song requests. When speaking to Refugees Studies Centre about his refugee radio, Demou-Kay displays this ‘DIY nature’ in many forms. There is a strong echo of the Pirate Radio mentality when Demou-Kay turned round to his lack of opportunities and said “fuck it, I’ll just build a radio station myself.” (When the Refugee Studies Centre last touched base with Demou-Kay he was in the process of applying for a formal license). Beyond this, the recycle material used to build the station speaks wonders of the ability to adapt in a challenging environment and make most of the materials and space available to you. Reflective of this, in response to the architectural and social demands of bulging London, these online-radio stations begin to appear in recycled shipping containers (Netil), community squares (NTS) and micro business units (Balamii). One questions the viability of success for online radio if the founders had to pay high costs of rent and licensing. 


It seems what has underpinned the success of online radio in London, and the establishment of refugee run stations, is the sense of community that they provide. My own attention averted to online stations due to my inability to connect with the utter shite present on mainstream radio. This disconnection with pop culture has been fulfilled with the sense of community provided by supporting stations such as NTS, Balamii, Radar, and beyond. The very core of Balamii ethos is their commitment to voicing the Peckham community where they are present. Broadcasting out the historic Peckham Holdrons Arcade, the vast majority of their scheduling is made up of South London based artists. This is reflected in their annual celebrations in the neighbouring Bussey Building (also supported alongside South London Chicken monopolies Morley’s), consisting of a line up dominated by emerging Peckham Talent. Likewise, NTS is situated at Gillet Square, Dalston; a public space designed to serve the local community that truly encompasses the spirit and heart of Hackney. Tribute to this sense of community within the patrons of Gillet Square where NTS resides is the universal condemnation of plans to sell the community square to private developers. When I moved nearby, not only did I have a communal space to skate, but I could also stick my head into the NTS booth for a track ID. For those unable to be physically present, chat rooms on the websites provide a running connection between the listeners and the show host. What makes community such a powerful force is the sense flat hierarchy; the stations need your support as much as you need their music, which gives way to a free flowing exchange of ideas between the station and the listener (often through the chart room) which facilitates the longevity of online radio. Despite viewership pushing hundreds of thousands, with these stations you feel as much part of their running as the DJ playing. Similarly, what makes refugee radio stations so effective is their community-based approach to humanitarian work. Refugees Studies Centre highlights their ability to create social networks between war-affected people that empower refugees to overcome the issues they face as a community. Through radio, Mxolisi created a community of marginalised Zimbabwean musicians, whilst Demou-Kay works with other refugee businesses to support the stations upkeep through renting Wi-Fi, electricity and space. The stations themselves, much like London’s online radio stations, have become institutions within the community where they are present, and are as much as a place to hang out as to broadcast radio. The result of this community-based humanitarian work is refugee innovation that is transforming how NGOs approach bottom-up versus top-down debates within Refugee Studies. Through empowering communities, these stations are used to broadcast health campaigns that save lives, transmit important camp information such as reuniting families, and provide a platform for marginalised musicians.


If refugee radios share the same foundations of their online radio counterparts, their future looks bright. Online radio in London sees no signs of halting as stations are opting for opening branches in other parts of the UK as well as across the Atlantic. As for the few isolated examples of refugee radio stations, they are serving to empower war-affected communities in the most innovative of ways. One only hopes that the support online radio received is also mirrored by refugee radio. Stations such as NTS, Balamii, Radar, and Worldwide FM are testaments to the power of a providing a platform for marginalised groups, a DIY attitude, and a strong sense of community. Nonetheless, the power of refugee radio remains noticeably under recognised. NGOs and large aid organisations still favour archaic humanitarian approaches that funnel funds from the top, rather than investing in war affected people to overcome the challenges they face themselves. From a community that can recognise its own development in the story of refugee radio, perhaps online radio stations can act on this sense of community to support populations affected by war through the medium of radio.