Radio has always been at the heart of Melbourne’s arts world, with terrestrial community stations including Triple R, PBS, 3CR, SYN and 3MBS helping to build the grassroots creative community the city is known for.
But over the past few years there has been a change in the landscape, as less-mainstream, online-only, ultra-DIY stations have begun popping up in the underground – including Skylab Radio, Hope St Radio, Area 3000, Lossless and Pretend.
And as the city passes another sombre milestone – more than 200 days in lockdown since the pandemic began – these online stations, which broadcast sporadically, have become a vital hub, keeping hosts, musicians and listeners connected in isolation, and keeping their communities alive.
A Melbourne musician and hairdresser Maquarie Fletcher, who plays in the band The Faculty, has long been a fan of online radio. “Allowing someone to curate my listening has been how I’ve found [music] since I was a teenager,” she says. With her listening habits “regressing” in lockdown (“I’ve been obsessed with Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavoured Water,” she admits), she has appreciated the peculiarities of Pretend Radio in particular, whose broadcasts began in 2020’s lockdown.
“Online radio means that you can escape and experience new things – because someone is taking you with them,” she says. “It’s respite, it’s relief, it’s also really special to feel like you’re in on someone’s secret when you’re listening – something I find really special about regular radio as well.”
The stations that began as lockdown projects have blossomed in the real world, too. Earlier this year Lossless Radio collaborated with the curator and radio presenter Samira Farah on 13 Years: an exhibition at the gallery West Space centred on independent radio and the Black African diaspora. In a programming highlight, Lossless’s Ornella Mutoni interviewed Lady Erica, a legend of UK pirate radio and longtime Triple R host, connecting the dots between independent radio’s storied past and present.
For Pete Baxter, the founder of Hope St Radio, the appeal of online radio lies in its inherently freeform nature. Where terrestrial stations require some level of resourcing to run – a licence, a studio and so on – pretty much anyone with an internet connection and a computer can start an internet station, which can be as niche as they like.
In 2017 Baxter started broadcasting online from Melbourne’s Rooftop Bar on Monday afternoons. Inspired by Brooklyn’s not-for-profit shipping container radio station The Lot Radio, he wanted Hope St to be a platform for Melbourne’s musicians and artists to curate music with more freedom than traditional radio allows, but with more focus – around a theme or sound – than a usual venue’s DJ set. “It’s not just, ‘We need a high-tempo beat to keep people drinking,’” Baxter explains. “It’s people that love all different kinds of music sharing it with each other.”
Early seasons of Hope St included shows by longtime community radio broadcasters including Woody McDonald, host of The Cave on Triple R, and Chapter Music’s Guy Blackman and Ben O’Connor, as well as inspired, unusual choices – including Ben Shewry, the chef and owner of Attica restaurant, and the designers of the Melbourne fashion label Sister Studios.
The demand was there; over the next few years, Hope St was hosted at a variety of Melbourne bars and restaurants, with the programming remaining inspiringly weird. This year Baxter opened Hope St Radio’s permanent location: a wine bar and restaurant nestled in the inner north’s new arts precinct, Collingwood Yards. It already feels like a staple – some 2,000 people put their names on the waiting list to get a table in July – and the music is as eclectic as ever: highlights include an Australian rap special by DJ Lizzynice; a foreboding, spectral grab-bag from the artist Gian Manik; and a thrilling, high-energy mix featuring everything from dembow to South Asian pop by the musician Kalyani Mumtaz.
Skylab Radio, which broadcasts out of a studio in Brunswick East, has a different programming mission, tied more to Melbourne’s dance music scene than Hope St’s anything-goes approach. It was founded by DJs Gus Carmichael and Simon Tarrant in 2018 and hosts one-off shows as well as longer-running segments, including the modern classical show Skywriting, hosted by a pianist and sound designer, Grace Ferguson, and one of their most popular programs Brekstacy, a Friday morning show hosted by Nick Saw. During last year’s lockdown, Skylab’s broadcasting equipment was shipped to Saw’s house so he could continue with his show, which, according to Carmichael, became a staple of many peoples’ lockdown weekends.
“Internet radio itself is not original – it kind of did stem from pirate radio and dub frequencies in the UK, and obviously the UK and Europe really led a lot of the stations that inspired us,” Carmichael says.
The British sound system broadcasts of the 70s and 80s provided a hyperlocal alternative to establishment radio for Jamaican immigrants; and 90s pirate radio stations including Kool FM and Rinse FM served underground dance music to London’s inner-city youth. “Internet radio offers a more focused level of programming,” Carmichael says, “and something that was knocked up or mastered in someone’s bedroom a week ago can get a play.”
Baxter of Hope St sees the IRL manifestations of online radio as an antidote to streaming fatigue. “The space here [at Collingwood Yards] is trying to always pull it back to more of a physical thing – to try and have that sense of people being able to congregate together,” he says. “[Hope St] started as a social thing and it’s nice to go back to that.”
But that was before Melbourne entered its latest lockdown. Inside and under curfew, the online stations continue to offer listeners solace they can’t get elsewhere: in music, in company and in community.