Radio in the Time of Corona

By Charlotte Algar

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In a world where some elements of the mainstream media have become an oppressive and omnipresent force, underground music is the core of so many communities that celebrate music as a mode of expression, communication and change. Whether it be a secret venue, an after hours lock-in or a beat-up record store you didn’t know was there before, so many of us rely on underground music to foster community, friendship and hope in the face of increasingly ridiculous political developments.

COVID-19, enter stage left. What happens when the communities we rely upon are no longer accessible? When our offline existence is suddenly in turmoil? When we can no longer connect with artists, DJs and fellow music lovers IRL? Well, now we know how it feels.

The contrast between spending our working weeks in a busy studio (with different faces every day, the prospect of exciting live sessions and that one day our Sea Monkeys might hatch*) to working from home has been a difficult adjustment for all of us here at Worldwide FM. We miss our Brownswood friends and monthly catch-ups with our DJs. On occasional visits to the studio to take advantage of the internet speed it’s felt really weird to not walk in to a babble of chat and the smell of coffee that’s likely already gone. I walked home listening to that Luther Vandross tune: ‘A House Is Not A Home’ and felt a bit ridiculous, but I needed the moment, okay?!

In the absence of real-life hustle and bustle, it’s been a moment of realisation as to how incredibly important our online community is. There have been countless examples of websites that have provided a space for democratic communities over the years, but with the ever-increasing prominence of large companies, ‘personalised’ algorithmic music selection puts the role of radio, record shops and indeed word-of-mouth sharing, at threat. Even the role of the DJ. Before DJs there were live bands, all night, in every club. What used to be seven jobs is now one, and who’s to say that an AI crowd-reading software won’t become a viable option for club-owners who don’t appreciate the artistry of mixing? Perhaps we can send out our avatars to tropical islands (Animal Crossing-style) to dance for us, wearing some digital garms that we’ve come to feel are expressive of our personality. It’s safe to say I’ve gone a bit existential over lockdown, please take no notice. But seriously, it’s been a blink of an eye since the usual way of procuring music online was to splurge £0.79 per track on iTunes (RIP Limewire), and a couple more blinks since HMV was relevant, so there’s no telling where we’ll go next.

But what we do know for sure is that in the current musical climate, when money comes from tours and music sale profits are a bit of a myth unless you’re really famous, independent artists are already up against it. Coronavirus lockdowns have meant that the financial insecurity faced by independent musicians and creative freelancers has been throw into sharp relief, and we can only hope that this makes a difference. I’ve seen a lot of artists posting things along the lines of “When you’re recording an album without a tens-of-thousands-of-pounds advance, sharing my work or telling me you like it isn’t enough — and I can’t play gigs any more so you need to buy some stuff.” Platforms like Bandcamp introducing fee-waiving days and grant opportunities from the MU and Help Musicians UK have been flooding my timelines and have been a great opportunity to check out creatives that I might not have had time to before (back when we had to socialise), and hopefully this culture of support continues.

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I, at least, have been at times inconsolable over the missing parts of my life: performing music with my friends, jamming at house parties, going to gigs and club nights around London and working day-to-day in a busy studio. But sitting in my pyjamas watching live streams and listening to the radio has been a surprisingly effective source of comfort. The presence of online spaces have brought exciting collaborations (like this one, this one, and this one) to fruition, and it makes you feel like, despite the world being on pause, that things are still happening and we’re all still moving forward, just in a different way. I’ve moved away from focusing on my local music scene (which at the moment doesn’t exist), to appreciating and researching scenes around the globe. Now, I am experiencing music from different places in a similar way to how the locals are, because they can’t see it either. Since the start of lockdown this expansion of horizons has been a main focus for the programming team, with new series like WW Palestine, WW New Delhi (pictured), WW Mumbai and WW Paris taking to the airwaves.

It’s evident that many of our DJs have refused to twiddle their thumbs, and an enforced break from gigs has led to people like Gilles Peterson and Louie Vega granting us multiple shows a week, new shows from Laani, Marina and so many others. A Worldwide FM care-package with bells on for listeners suffering musical withdrawal. This leads not so smoothly on to an explanation of the title of this article. In Love In The Time Of Cholera, cholera is used as a metaphor for lovesickness, and I think that’s a similar feeling to the collective mourning of social contact, live music and general normality at the moment. It’s a good book for the times.

At the beginning of the various lockdowns around the world, Worldwide FM listenership soared. All of us here are incredibly thankful to have been able to give people who may be feeling lonely and anxious a source of company over the airwaves, with friendly voices and banging tunes available at any time of the day or night. We will continue to work our hardest to share stories, voices and music from everywhere, for everyone. Big up yourselves and see you soon.

*they never did.

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