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An oral history of NTS Radio

Michael Lawson traces the roots of NTS to celebrate 10 years of the gamechanging station

  • Michael Lawson
  • 28 April 2021

When Femi Adeyemi was made redundant in early 2011 he decided to try his hand at radio, using the little savings he had to turn his nascent Nuts To Soup music blog into an online station. “Honestly, there was nothing out there that highlighted the diversity of my music taste at that time,” he reflects. “So I did my best to set up a station that I wanted to listen to myself.” It’s hard to imagine the North Londoner was anticipating the decade that followed.

Channelling the DIY energy of pirate radio while prioritising total musical freedom for show hosts and a desire to cover every genre imaginable across its sprawling, wildly diverse programme, NTS has revolutionised online radio - setting a blueprint that countless others have followed. 

Read this next: 13 of the best dance music sets on NTS Radio

Epitomising the station’s ethos is Charlie Bones and his flagship Do!! You!!! show, taking place every weekday morning from 9:AM until midday. The show’s combination of interesting-yet-unpretentious musical selections, unscripted, often chaotic guest interviews and off-the-cuff banter with the ever-lively chat room has proved a welcome antidote to the sterility of mainstream radio. 

Like most NTS shows, the freedom afforded to Do!! You!!! allows its presenter’s personality to take centre stage - a trait that listeners have come to rely on during 12 month period devoid of meaningful social interaction.

10 years on, Adeyemi, now finds himself at the helm of a global tastemaker platform, boasting upwards of 500 residents, 2.6 million monthly listeners, regular broadcasts from Shanghai, and studios in Manchester and LA alongside the spiritual home of Gillett Square in East London.

To mark the occasion, we reflect on the last ten years of NTS broadcasting, with the help of the founders, programmers, show hosts and chat room diehards who have helped shape this cultural powerhouse.

FEMI ADEYEMI (FOUNDER)

I’d been trying to get onto the radio myself but couldn’t quite make that leap happen. I decided to set up something on my own instead. I was obsessed with archival radio shows from American college stations like WFMU and KEXP, there was nothing like it at the time in London so I knew there was a gap to fill. I was already surrounded by amazing musicians and artists so I just asked people I knew to get involved and took it from there.

MARSHMELLO (SHOW HOST - MIDNIGHT MARAUDERS)

It was at a time where I felt like a lot of my girl friends were settling down and having babies. I was the last girl standing and NTS, Boiler Room and Plastic People helped me stay connected with the scene - they were safe spaces for me to go on my own. I’d known Femi and Benny Blanco and all that crew from Plastic. I think I got them to play at my night and then Femi told me about this radio station that he was starting and asked if I’d like a show.

Read this next: Lock down your aerial

CHARLIE BONES (SHOW HOST - DO!! YOU!!!)

The biggest draw of NTS was the freedom. I’ve been on and off radio since I was at college and was on a soul pirate at the time. If I veered off and played rare groove I was getting called up and getting in trouble - it’s so restrictive on pirate. So when Femi asked me [to come to NTS] I said ‘of course’. It was total freedom and what I’d been looking for the whole time - the freedom you have to go in any different way.

MARSHMELLO

There was a test run a few days before but I was the first DJ to officially broadcast on NTS. I would cycle from Brixton up to Dalston with loads of records and a computer on my back. My first show was basically me playing all my 7 inches, which consisted of everything from Azymuth to my mum’s reggae collection. I even played a Cliff Richard track and everyone was in the chat room like ‘noo!’. 

FEMI

I can’t talk about the early days of NTS without mentioning Plastic People. It was a lot more common back then for people to have one thing that they were into and not much else. In contrast, Plastic People was somewhere you could hear everything. It was a real family. We all had the same outlook on life and when it came to starting NTS I could call on the community I found there. I was building a new platform for us to share our passion.

Read this next: 10 venues where genres were invented

TABITHA THORLU-BANGURA (CREATIVE DIRECTOR)

The reason I first fell in love with NTS is that it reflected my own tastes - which probably weren’t the tastes people expected of me as a young, Black woman. I’ve always felt that it’s a place for people who don’t fit into labels or boxes, and a place for DJs and musicians to completely be themselves. 

ZAKIA (SHOW HOST - QUESTING)

NTS very cleverly embraced a deeper eclecticness. Listen in and you’ll be bounced from South African gqom to Taiwanese folk to heavy dread. That seems very in-tune with the tastemaker DJ of our time who likes to jump from one sound to the next and takes an exploratory approach to sourcing and playing music. I think NTS is very much a symbol of that approach.

TABITHA

A chaotic reflection of the world of music, past and present, is how I’d define NTS programming. It makes me smile when I see people in the chat room responding just as well to the really intense hardstyle on Channel 1 as they are to the jazz on Channel 2. NTS curation is about understanding that people are open-minded, not as tribal as they were 10 to 15 years ago. 

Read this next: No more 4x4: How sounds from the Global South stopped club culture stagnating

MARSHMELLO

When people ask about NTS I usually say to them ‘whatever music you’re into, go search for it on NTS and there’ll be a show there for you’. Nuts to the soup innit! 

TABITHA

NTS looks at the art and the artist’s work in the context of their community, rather than looking at genres in this computational way. It's anti-algorithmic - we’re giving you a story rather than an equation.  

FEMI

Sean joined a couple of years in. He was a very close friend and, honestly, I looked up to him - both as a record collector and just one of the smartest people I knew. At that time I saw that NTS was becoming more of a thing and I knew he could help me steer things in the right direction. Have to also shout out Fergus McDonald, Shane Connolly who built the first website and created the visual direction, Adam Tickle who did the logo, Clair Urbahn who helped me put up posters around London - wish I could mention everyone but there have been hundreds who have poured their hearts into this.

Read this next: The 22 artists who shaped the decade

SEAN MCAULIFFE (CEO)

Maintaining creative integrity is a difficult thing to do when you’re not getting paid. We didn’t make it easy for ourselves either. Very early on we decided that we wouldn’t ever have traditional on-air advertising like commercial radio stations and we also decided to make NTS free, forever. This was really important to us and is an integral part of our ethos. 

ZAKIA

They could’ve found so many ways to monetise people - like putting NTS behind a paywall or something - but that’s just not their motive or their concern. Their concern is finding ways to pay everyone. That’s what makes me proud to be part of this network of people who are not in that game of seeking to corporatise and monetise everything.

Read this next: No Signal is the future of radio

SEAN

It has been a constant grind to make sure we have a diverse range of revenue streams: from our merchandise to our live events, direct funding, whether from individuals or bodies like the Arts Council England, as well as some very selective brand partnerships and most recently NTS Supporters. But yeah making the station commercially viable has been a total headfuck. 

TABITHA

We’re lucky that a lot of people want to work with us, so it tends to come down to who to say yes to. We did some great projects with the ICA. The Tate Lates also felt like they had a real community vibe. These kinds of projects where we can give emerging artists a platform are the ones I tend to enjoy the most. Also [online festival] Remote Utopias last year which really felt like NTS in a nutshell.

FINN (SHOW HOST & NTS MANCHESTER CO-FOUNDER)

There are loads of great stations in Manchester but they all felt quite local. I thought that it was a shame that if you wanted to do radio with national listenership you’d have to travel down to London to do so. I emailed Femi saying that I wanted to start my own station in Manchester. I wasn’t specifically asking to launch NTS Manchester, I was more asking how I could recreate what he’d done in London. I kept pecking his head and eventually asked him straight-up ‘can we do an NTS Manchester that broadcasts via NTS but up here?’. After some convincing he said yes and we set about putting a team together. 

TABITHA

With the Manchester studio we’re conscious of ensuring it doesn’t become a London view of Manchester. It’s more about the Manchester scene being reflected through itself. 

Read this next: Manchester is the beating heart of new music in the UK

FINN

Me, Ben [Hughes] and, up until recently, Leon [Riley] and Seb [Mariner] all ran the Manchester station. We’ve been given lots of freedom with regards to programming and, on a personal level, it’s impossible to understate the importance of sitting in the NTS Manchester studio for 10 to 20 hours every weekend listening to the DJs play.

ASH LAURYN (SHOW HOST - UNDERGROUND & BLACK)

I started my show on NTS station in 2018. It was one of the first big platforms that embraced me and I’m forever grateful for that. I’ve dedicated my career as a DJ to celebrating the Black roots of underground dance music and NTS seemed like a good fit for this. The station’s still somewhat niche in the States but it’s definitely growing all the time - obviously helped by the fact there’s a studio in LA. A lot of my friends who never used to know about it are definitely into it now.

FEMI

Charlie used to work the bar at Plastic People. We first bonded when we both ended up DJing at this random pub in Clerkenwell around 2005. When NTS got off the ground, he was one of the very few people that jumped into it without any hesitation and I’m forever grateful for that. 

Read this next: The 10 best Andrew Weatherall DJ mixes

ZAKIA

Charlie Bones could only become a radio messiah on NTS. Can you imagine him on Radio 1? They wouldn’t be able to control him! That’s what’s great about him: you get his moods, you get his rants and you get his lovey-dovey moments. You connect so much to hosts and you feel like you’ve known them for years - in a way you have. There’s a real authenticity to the whole thing that perhaps is missing on mainstream radio.

NEONDAMSEL (CHAT ROOM REGULAR)

Charlie’s is the only midweek breakfast show worth listening to! His selections are always on point - even if some of his opinions aren't! Seriously though, he's a really special guy and he has done so much for people over the past twelve months. I love how he isn't afraid to be vulnerable on air, there's no fake radio persona, it's all real.

CHARLIE

That chat room is mad. It’s like Buddhism or something - you’ve got to learn to be present but not present because if you start taking on what they’re saying it really starts getting under your skin. I talk to the other DJs about it, it’s so funny. It can be like 99% positive but you only remember the one mean comment. It’s hard not to do that even though you’re getting 99% approval. 

CINNARON (CHAT ROOM REGULAR)

Honestly, I don't know what else I would've been doing during lockdown without NTS and the chat room. I've been lucky enough to work from home throughout, and on the days where I can't be bothered to get out of bed, I'll stick on NTS and the music ends up giving me enough energy to start my day. The chat room has also been a lifesaver given that hanging out has mainly been online these days. I'd much rather stick on NTS and hang out with a solid crew than be on another Zoom quiz night. 

NEONDAMSEL

I lost my job very early on in the pandemic and the industry I worked in completely shut down. I had this ‘oh fuck, what am I going to do with myself?’ moment and, on a whim, opened the chat room. It's fair to say I haven't looked back. I've put in quite a lot of hours over the past year and made loads of new friends. I've laughed, I've cried and NTS has soundtracked it all.

Read this next: The year of no gigs

ZAKIA

Knowing that I’m going to be connected to all these people every Saturday morning has been so important to me at a time when all social interactions have been stripped back. Being able to connect through music has been really powerful.

SEAN

The growth of the station over the past twelve months has been crazy. Last May, about two months into global lockdown, we’d already doubled our listenership from the following year - and we’ve carried on growing since then. A figure I’m really excited about is our session time. Last year it was just over an hour at 62 minutes. Now it’s at 80! This is up three times on most traditional radio stations.

TABITHA

Looking ahead, we wanna give a lot more people the opportunity to come on NTS, but also make sure that it’s quite refined in terms of the residents that we have and the people who are there long-term. Balancing careful curation with being open to new artists is the continual challenge. 

FEMI

Honestly, there is no real ‘music policy’. NTS was made by music lovers for music lovers. As long as hosts know their shit and are passionate about the music, we want to make a space for them. Our tagline is ‘Don’t Assume’ - you have to stay pretty flexible if you wanna live by that.

Listen to NTS Radio here and become a supporter here

Michael Lawson is a freelance writer, check out his Clippings

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