Tim Sweeney: "It hurt when I heard WNYU didn't value me being on the station" - Features - Mixmag
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Tim Sweeney: "It hurt when I heard WNYU didn't value me being on the station"

Beats in Space founder and host Tim Sweeney talks calls from Rikers Island, being able to play swear words again and moving to Apple Music

  • Words: Megan Townsend | Photography: Apple Music
  • 6 December 2021

A collective sigh of relief rang out across the music world upon news that the future of beloved dance music radio show, Beats in Space, had been secured with its debut on Apple Music 1. Earlier in 2021 WNYU-FM - the official station of the New York University’s (NYU) student body - had attempted to cut down the show, created and hosted by Tim Sweeney, from two-and-a-half hours to one and a half. Considering the show's incredible 21-year run, it was incomprehensible to fans and students alike that it could be under threat.

Beats in Space began in 1999 while Sweeney was attending NYU as a student studying music, originally an AM show broadcast only within the NYU dorms. Through promotion on local dance music forums and a dedicated website, listeners increased leading to WNYU giving Beats in Space its very own prime time FM slot - on a Tuesday night between 10:PM and 1:AM. Tim describes his love of dance music as coming from early curiosity, sneaking into illegal raves when he was still in his early teens: “I loved going out dancing,” he says, “but dance music wasn’t something I could be around all the time. I was all about practising my DJing and practising at home, I was so focused.”

Read this next: Tim Sweeney's Beats in Space is moving to Apple Music

Running for 1,000 episodes, Beats in Space grew steadily over time from a staple of the student body and local dance music heads to having a worldwide fanbase. Alongside pushing a diverse range of local and international artists, Beats in Space hosted huge names in electronic such as Todd Terje, Ben UFO, Awesome Tapes From Africa, Andrew Weatherall, The Orb, Avalon Emerson, Erol Alkan, Four Tet, DJ Harvey, Peggy Gou, Skream, Shy One, Ivan Smagghe and many, many more.

Now Tim Sweeney and Beats in Space have moved to Apple Music 1 it looks like the only way is up for the former student radio show. So far guests have included Danny Daze, Planningtorock, Anthony Naples and Aroma Pitch. Beats in Space is available to listen to live on Apple Music 1 and the DJ Mixes are available anytime for Apple Music subscribers.

We caught up with Tim to talk about the big move to Apple, making radio during COVID and being inspired by NYC.

How is it going now your show is on Apple Music 1? how are you enjoying it?

I'm loving it, I love being back. It's exciting now the show is on Mondays too — Tuesday used to be the day for the show so usually I'd hate Mondays... but now I love Mondays [laughs]. I'm having a great time, it feels good to be doing the radio again. I like promoting people's music and getting DJs out there. It feels great.

What has been the key difference so far with broadcasting from Apple Music 1 and WNYU? what has changed the most?

I've gone from [broadcasting from] this room behind the cafeteria in the freshman dormitory at NYU - to 5th Avenue. There are engineers to help, it's this professional environment. That's a big difference - there's a lot more help. On WNYU it would be just me doing everything, but now I have the option of getting a team to help me out if I need it. I want to take things further with the radio - I'd been doing it the same way pretty much for 21 years on WYNU. But [Apple] has been great, no one is telling me what I can and can't do. Also, another really fun thing is I can play curse words on the radio now - before I had to play radio edits. I checked out the first episode and it said "explicit" on the app and I was so into it. A big draw of coming over to Apple too, for me, has been that it has studios all over the world. Whenever I'd go touring I always had to be back in New York on Tuesday nights in time for [my show]. Now I can do it from Apple's studios in London or Berlin.

So right now it's pretty ad-lib, you can kinda just decide how you'll record once you've got your guest in?

I'm kind of open to anything right now, and that helps. [Before the pandemic] I had a rule where I would ask all the guests to come into the studio and record in person. Yeah OK, that rule is pretty out the door due to COVID and stuff - so with Planningtorock, they weren't in the same country as me, but the second with Anthony Naples we did it together in the studio. It felt like the radio again. It feels really good.

How has it been to return back to the club since things reopened in New York post-pandemic?

So I actually had my first gig back in November, it was the 7th anniversary of Good Room. I suddenly got nervous because I've been seeing so many DJs who have been playing out and then on Monday they've tested positive. I was definitely nervous, but it felt so good to be back in the club, and DJing again. Also, I like to feel a connection between the radio show and the club again, I'd been holding on to all this music to get a crowd to go crazy and I got to do it on the weekend so that was super fun.

Read this next: Powder kicks off a new mix series from Beats in Space

How do you think COVID changed the role of a radio host?

You know honestly when everything went into lockdown and I was still doing the radio show - I didn't think of it as an outlet for people. It didn't really occur to me, I just still wanted to do the radio. I was in the mindset of: "I want to do something cool this week." Sure, I was thinking about how to adapt the show for lockdown, but not really the effect it was having on listeners. Everyone started doing online broadcasts during lockdown - even I did, but with Beats In Space the only thing I felt changed for me was having to record from home. [The pandemic] has inspired me to get back in the mix myself though. I was having two guests on each show and I didn't DJ at all for six months. I obviously love hosting - it's so great to hang out with people and listen to what they are playing. But I really like DJing, so I've taken this opportunity to give myself back an hour in my shows.

So you've reclaimed your DJ hour now?

Yeah, I'm going through music I want to play each week again. It's nice to have a way to present it, I'm excited to still do these mixes, when you have a nice set up it's fun. It's hard when you're doing it at home and you have to be quiet because of neighbours or roommates or whatever - but [at Apple HQ] I can be super loud and feel it and that's so fun. When I mess up, I can keep trying - I can keep using the studio till I get it.

Let's go all the way back, could you tell us about when Beats in Space first started?

Well, the show officially launched in September of 1999. I'd already had a guest slot [on WYNU] while I was in high school and I really liked the radio vibe because you're at home doing your own thing. I was too young to go to clubs then - sure, I was going to raves and sneaking in - but dance music wasn't something I could really be around all the time. The radio felt pretty natural to move to. When I headed to NYU to study music, the first thing I did was contact the radio station and they sort of fast-tracked me because I'd already been on the radio. I still had to come up with a radio show name and put together a little essay on what I was going to do, which I wish I still had as it would be a fun little read. I started out on their AM station - which is only broadcast in the dormitories, but I put a lot of effort into promoting the show, creating a website, posting on message boards, recruiting guests. I think they realised how much effort I was putting into it and they decided to give me an FM show.

How did things change when you moved to FM?

Everyone wanted FM shows because you'd get crazy callers, I got a lot of random people - my show at the time was being broadcast between 10:30PM - 1:AM. I'd have people from Rikers Island [prison] calling up, phone calls from older ravers, like DJ Electric Buddha, and they'd tell me their stories about going to Paradise Garage and that kind of thing, and I'd love their stories. But sometimes people called up because they were lonely and they really wanted to talk to you for a long time and it became too much for me - I was doing the whole radio show myself, and I'd have five minutes until I had to mix in the next song, and they just don't want to get off the phone. That's why I started a hotline number for people to call and leave messages. I love stories, it's just fun to listen to people. I wanted to capture that with the hotline. Now on Apple, I won't get the FM thing happening - but there's still gonna be crazy people, I don't think that will go away. Especially when you have more and more listeners, and now I have more listeners than I ever did and they are from around the world.

What has been your biggest 'pinch me' moment in the 20 years of having this show?

Getting this job is pretty up there [laughs]. I've been doing college radio for 21 years and I wanted to get that phone call, you know: "Hey Tim, we really like what you're doing we wanna take it to the next level." Lo and behold here it is. Obviously, the guests I've had have been pretty amazing - but then it all blends together. You can list names, but it's the individual moments that are really great. I guess the achievement of getting big names on college radio is up there, but I never saw Beats in Space like that. Yeah sure I had to bring people into the basement of a freshman dormitory, but I was also broadcasting from New York City - with all its esteem and history in dance music. It was only difficult to get bigger names when they didn't really "get" the show, the ones I did get always got it. I think club-related things to the radio show were fun because then you got to meet people, otherwise, radio is just me in the studio. It's really about when you're out at the club, like since restrictions lifted, and people are saying to you that they are really happy the show is back.

Do you think Beats in Space is tied to New York at its heart? or is it more of an international endeavour?

I mean, I think it's tied to New York in the sense that I live here. So now, for example - I'm looking out at the skyline and that is part of Beats in Space. On my walk over to the studio, I see the buildings and it influences me. Also, I DJ at the clubs here and of course, that has an effect on how I play. But I also know that the way I play in London is different to how I play here, it's different reference points. There is a New York mentality to Beats in Space, but I do still think of it as international because I travel all the time. I love seeing different places, I love having different kinds of people on the radio show - I'm not so focused on just having New York DJs on or New York music. I want to go check what's happening in Tokyo sometimes, also it keeps the show interesting every week when you go check out different things - otherwise, you keep things really specific and it works out for a while but then it gets boring. For me, I think New York but I'm also thinking international. I know my listeners are all over the world - especially more in Europe than here. My DJ gigs are about me going to Europe and then coming back.

Read this next: Beats in Space, Tim Sweeneys WNYU radio show, is under pressure

So it's more of a mirror on dance music as a whole and your interests than onto New York?

I think both. I wanna feature the New York acts, these smaller names that European audiences might not have really heard of yet - but also I've got international guests travelling in that I want to check out, it's both for sure.

How was it to leave WYNU? was it bittersweet or are you feeling pretty liberated to be in your new digs?

I guess it's complicated. When WNYU tried to cut my time in half there was a big uproar, with a huge response from listeners and students saying: "hey don't do this." They ended up not cutting my time in the end, but it had changed my relationship with the station. I heard from some of the students that the administration wasn't crazy about having me there; that they weren't on my side and didn't really see my value. At that point, it bummed me out — that was my solitary tear running down my eye moment. I had a lot of students who were for Beats in Space, that wanted me there, but also the radio station isn't just a dance music radio station it's a college station there are lots of different kinds of shows, there are people doing news shows, sports, different types of music. When I heard that the administration didn't see the value of me being there, considering I was doing this week-after-week without pay, it hurt. You want to at least feel slightly valued for something that you've given up so much to do for 21 years, that was really my turning point. I knew I needed to find what's next for me and Beats in Space - because this home isn't gonna last. Even when the show was saved I didn't feel comfortable. That feeling sucks. I was looking for the next steps and then Apple happened, I was so happy - it felt so perfect.

I'm at a point right now where I'm bummed out it's just once a week [laughs]. I want more. Yeah, it was hard at the start, because there's a lot more to learn here and there's a lot of things to figure out. I'm so used to working on my own, so now I'm just figuring out the dynamics and seeing how things work. Also, it went from Beats in Space being one of WYNU's top shows and now I'm on Apple Music and it's a different vibe, I have to shake things up a little. It's cool though, I love that they are giving me a chance to push this music.

What can listeners expect from your show on Apple Music 1?

Well, I can't give too much away [laughs], Apple loves a secret. Look... it's gonna be good. It's still going to be a dance music radio show that's pushing things, it's still gonna have that fun atmosphere and it's still gonna be this thing where a guest DJ can play whatever they want - sometimes its a club mix, sometimes it's what they are listening to at home. But I think for me, I want people to be ready for anything and just to come open-minded and we're just gonna keep bringing music from all over the world, play stuff you might not have heard before and have a party.

Listen to Beats In Space live for free every Tuesday at 3:AM GMT on Apple Music 1 or listen back to the DJ mixes on-demand via Apple.co/BeatsInSpace.

Megan Townsend is Mixmag's Deputy Digital Editor, follow her on Twitter

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