A chapter from the Amsterdam radio cook book
STARTING a radio stations completely different from running one. Where do you begin? Well, first of all, it's best done by a group of friends of a manageable size. The initial impulse to start a radio station rarely comes out of a wider context or movement collectively 'deciding' there should be one. It's actually better to form the original small group in secret and only let others in on it once you're well on your way. The plan can be sabotaged if, for instance, someone demands a constitution be drawn up before the first broadcast, or you try to start up an editorial board.
Doing a magazine is fun too, and its content can be subversive for all sorts of reasons, but radio piracy is more sensitive, since the medium itself is illegal. Everyone likes to holler about freedom of the press, but freedom of the airwaves is nowhere near as taken for granted. If legal circumstances are unclear or just plain oppressive, then it's best for the sake of the founders' peace of mind if the group is well acquainted. This is not to keep the station in the hands of a clique or scene, but to set up a workable structure whose goal is broadcasting. We think every free radio station should aim for CONTINUITY. You have to take over a space on the radio band that won't be snatched away just like that. Short-term, one-time or irregular broadcasts reach very few people and give you little broadcast experience. Your station won't be able to develop, and the activity will be nothing more than an (intended) provocation, or maybe not even noticed. If the legal situation is such that you absolutely can't broadcast and would be immediately arrested, you can better forget it, or start a ghost station. Make propaganda for a fake station and see what happens. Or start circulating cassettes of 'programs' to get experience and hear the reactions of your potential audience.
Every radio adventure must begin with a realistic assessment of the RISK. We in Amsterdam are optimistic by nature and therefore believe in attack. If you feel forced onto the defensive, you can wave goodbye to the fun. But either way, the police can come get you anytime. You must see that you create an aura around the station which will make the authorities think thrice before interfering. You'll have to concoct this aura yourself, and we believe you should consider it while assessing the risks. If you have nothing political or cultural to say, then a. no one will listen and b. you have no virtual support network (which the cops will think you can mobilize if they pull you off the air).
If you've made the big decision, this book is for you. So let's go. The first question is: who are these friends I want to share the joys and sorrows with? We'll assume you know enough people. But radio stations don't just happen. First of all there must be a good technician in the club. This is easier said than done. The technicians we know are very scarce, and very sketchy types. But without a technician you're just a discussion group, with good intentions but no hands or feet. Finding these people is at the top of the list. Technicians will also often know more about the practical aspects of broadcasting in your home country and where to get that hard-to-find broadcasting equipment. Forming the group on the basis of friendship means you don't have to worry about establishing PROGRAMMING content or political stance. They must be OK as far as political/cultural attitudes go or they wouldn't be starting a station with you. As far as we're concerned it's fruitless to try to establish the station's political line ahead of time. If you do bring this up, things are very likely to fall apart before they start, or you'll get stuck in endless meetings about nonexistent issues. People who have radically different views from the rest of the group about what should happen, or sit and bitch early on, are counterproductive and frustrate everyone else's efforts. Be resolute! Throw them out - given time these whiners will be old guard and harder to get rid of. They can kill an incipient station in the bud or wreck the fun of those exciting first broadcasts. This has nothing to do with being multirational. People with aberrent attitudes can always be given a place later once the station is up and running. So in the beginning don't look too far beyond your circle of acquaintances. Invite strangers later.
LocationIn FM band broadcasting the height of the antenna is crucial. Every ten meters of height doubles your power. You can't get around this rule. There are no alternative or subversive other possibilities. This is problematic but true. So if you want to broadcast you'll have to find a high place. Keep in mind the principles of fortress-building: make sure you'll be able to see your enemies coming, put up a few obstacles, and make sure you can make a fast, clean getaway (preferably with the transmitter). The transmitter does not have to be in the same place as the studio. It's quite common to broadcast pre-taped programs in the beginning. Make sure everyone who lives in the building you're using is well aware of the risks, and if necessary, get an attorney involved beforehand who knows the situation and can come to the scene of the crime in case of arrests.
Doing Radio without a TransmitterIf you don't have a transmitter yet, can't find a suitable location, haven't met the engineer of your life, or it's simply too dangerous, don't despair. Anyone can make a radio program. Put together an instant studio and get busy. Sit in the kitchen and broadcast into the living room if you have to, and invite some friends to come listen. You can also make tapes and send them to other free radio stations and request that they broadcast your pioneer work. And you can put out these programs on cassette and sell them in book and record stores, bars, boutiques, etc. and present them at benefit concerts for your foetal radio station. Don't underestimate the importance of this 'dry radio'. The fact that your group has taken this step is in itself news which is not disseminated through the regular media, but can inspire others. The advantage of simulated radio is you can get a lot of sound-engineering experience (without being illegal) and become familiar with the various modes of expression the medium of radio has to offer.
Doing Radio without IdeasIt is impossible to make radio without ideas. If there are no wild fantasies in the beginning, you should probably forget the whole thing. Don't think you'll be able to attract creative radiomakers from outside to fill the chasm. They will feel out of place with you. Craziness attracts craziness, and a dearth of ideas repels craziness, and that's that.
Lack of ideas leads to (or is caused by) thoughtlessly adopting established radio conventions without studying them first. You will automatically treat your listeners as mentally impaired, play disc jockey, assume the arrogant journalist stance, put together a news team, exhort listeners to keep listening, and other painful things. This often befalls groups who set out to use radio as an instrument in their political fight or people who like "good pop music". They don't choose to address the specific traits that belong to the medium, and so they often become frustrated ("because nobody's listening"). Honour your chosen medium!
Doing Radio without MusicMore and more, radio is seen as a muzak machine serving up small, light McInfo nuggets between songs. Or even worse, just music, with a station call now and then. This should not be allowed. The opportunities radio can offer us are greater than the record and info industries would have us believe. It can be exciting to hear what people have to say and even sheer nonsense can offer pure listening pleasure. The news doesn't have to be up to the minute to be interesting, either. There is plenty of information that's been around a long time but never shows up in the regular media. You can read a good obscure novel from 1800, broadcast poetry readings, speeches and lectures (the Americans have created a great tape culture, perfect for listening on long road trips), or tape some good film audio from a video recorder and broadcast that. The TV is also an interesting source of sound which can become very subversive with a little intervention. You can also look for archives of tapes from the distant past. Don't be afraid to make your own radio plays. You can record street music, church bells, cafe conversations, traffic noises. Mixed up in an elegant recipe, sounds can evoke an even more awesome atmosphere. Playing records is assumed to be such an inextricable part of radio that we don't think you should ever do it straight. Does this mean we think listeners should sit and listen to us preach? No. Radio is wallpaper. You can't get around it, you have to go through it (as they say at DFM). Use your imagination to see how many things you can do with music.
The Uniqueness of RadioYou can suggest so much with sound - visually, atmospherically, artificially - with so few resources. Once you're on the air, the listener won't hear the difference between official stations fitted out with costly equipment and your low-tech setup. People have a certain image of a radio studio, and they can't tell what your surroundings look like. Even cheap consumer electronics are good enough for you to achieve the same sound quality as state networks or commercial stations. The official media use their technology in a one-sided way. The limitations of the medium are only ever explored in commercials, in efforts to attract attention in the shortest possible time. Another unique thing about listening to radio is that people can combine it with other activities. They can consume a lot of information without exertion or be swept up in an atmosphere and inspired. Free radio creates this kind of atmosphere but also breaks into it. This shocks listeners, but it can also be the appeal. There is a human need for subculturality. You can easily exploit this. So don't be afraid of bad, obscure underground shows. Brilliant dillettantes are valued and praised for their irresistable amateurism. Imitating "Professional Radio" has never done any good: it always falls just short enough of the mark to sound awful, but it's not funny. Practice makes art! The longer you broadcast, the more tricks you pick up. You can fake anything. The more primitive the better. Deregulating listeners is child's play. "Did I hear what I thought I heard?" Don't believe high-tech can enhance your sound experiments. It's the idea that counts, not the technique. If someone enjoys putting together a program, there's no way it can go wrong or sound "bad". The ruling media use so-called formats, recognizable formulas supposed to distinguish one program from the others. So news shows always sound like news shows (although it could be done lots of other ways). There are game shows, the top 20, journalists' panels, documentaries, lite news magazines, call-in shows, etc. You can use these formats. The listeners will instantly recognize the formula. Be aware that you are making use of bourgeois conventions; only then does the fun truly begin. You can then imitate and warp them to your heart's content. By changing format, you assume another persona for the listener. You go from anchorwoman to squawking DJ and five minutes later the drooly hostess of an E-Z classics block. No need to hunt down a bunch of different specialists or radio personalities for this. YOU can invent and test them on the spot. Sometimes it won't work, but shows often come out of this and successfully fill a demand for months or years.
ProgrammingOnce you've survived the initial phase and have broadcast more than once, you will have to determine your hours of operation. We advise you to start out on a weekly basis so the listeners can tune in without being notified in advance.
Here are some tips from the Amsterdam experience. Begin with one or two days a week. Switch over as quickly as possible from one "total program" and divide it up into one-hour programs. The advantage of this is that people can do their own programs and leave after their hour or bring their show on tape. You can gradually build up your programming this way. As the number of days increases we have found it practical to have so-called day managers. These "concierges" stay in touch with the various programmers on their appointed day and ensure continuity. They play some music if the programmers show up too late or not at all, open the door when they do, and keep an eye on security. This is a responsible but thankless task whose influence on the final broadcast should not be underestimated. Any big shot who figures they have a say in what happens has to at least have been a concierge. Now maybe it seems that dividing up the days among the concierges is a race to power. Au contraire: there is a structural lack of these people. By definition, any potential concierge you meet will already be filling their days with Good Works. You should be happy every time you manage to dredge one up out of the activist pool. Training newcomers to be concierges has about a 25% success rate. After a while you will be able to recognize potential concierges blindfolded.
The advantage of such an "association" of radio colleagues is that there is no editorial board or central committee to demand control of content or political positions. So the question is, who does control the programming? It can be done in a general meeting, though our experience has indicated that too many cooks spoil the broth. Discussion among the concierges is better. These are the few people who hear all the programs and are around much more than one hour a week. The sum of their experiences should give a complete overview of the station's state of affairs. They can best determine which shows are going poorly, where a slot is opening up and what could best fill it, who's going out of town, where any conflicts are and to what extent the station has achieved its organizational optimum (can another day be added?). We will assume these situations take care of themselves, and demand little energy.
Three Radio TypesWhen you join the station, you're nobody: that is, you aren't a "type" yet. Even on free radio, everyone who gets in front of the microphone becomes someone else. You are not "yourself" when you're doing a show (not that this is a problem). You will quickly find the style that suits you best. Don't exaggerate or force it, but do project yourself as much as you can. Listeners can take a lot. Some people are into the newest releases, and like to catch up on relevant news with each other by talking shop in hip jargon. We call these people "DJs". They are always dissatisfied with the rickety studio equipment (although they manage to work with it) and incessantly complain about the sound quality. They are a dime a dozen, but you don't need them, except for their unique record collections. So what should you select for? First of all, make sure they have hard-to-find material. Second, how original is their presentation? They need to keep pushing the limits or it will get boring. Never ask them to prepare their programs in advance. They must be natural talents who slip into the groove immediately after a short introduction. And beware of the one with the buttery-slick "radio voice", if it's not meant as a joke. Others want to imitate journalists like in Big People's World. They may want to say something, but don't know what and hope someone else will do it for them. They work with information, not sound, and preferably on paper. What they like best is secretly rewriting others' news (instead of just reading from the paper and pretending they did the research themselves). Most of these "journalists" haven't a clue to the nature of the technology and material they're working with. A course in studio and recording techniques is essential for them! Radio's power of suggestion is naturally at odds with the (justified) desire to report the truth and cause scandal. Journalists need to become painfully aware of the qualities of the medium they're working with and how they want to use it. More than for the DJ, for the budding journalist free radio is a stepping stone to the "regular" media. Should you sabotage this career planning? That seems pointless. But it's better to experiment: never imitate other media. You can't compete with big media with lots of money. There is enough to say outside of the latest news. Never start a "news" program or department; but do see to it that, for example, some "news" suddenly turns up in a specialized music program. And if you do want to provide information, do it as thoroughly as possible. This can be boring and tiring, but do justice to your subject, from an angle that's unavailable anywhere else. One of the biggest faults of late 20th century news channels is that because of the overload of information to choose from, the time limit given each subject has become so slight that it produces lies and distortion by definition. It helps to make journalists explain things without external sources or even paper. This will soon make it obvious what they have to say. Work to rehabilitate oral history! This is the task of the true journalist.
Like a rabbit out of a hat, the "radio personality" suddenly appears. He or she is the answer to all your problems. This jack-of-all-trades comes bearing valuable information, comfort, and encouragement, spluttering indignation, boringly long-winded anecdotes; this person is the original village idiot. When one formula wears out he/she reappears next season in a flashy new form, complete with new name and freshly painted sets. He or she is a born entertainer, a nonpartisan cabaretier who projects an independent personality. Organization-wise these people are hopeless, so take account of this and use these unique finds sparingly. The personality can not only present shows, but do radio plays, make a station jingle, invite on-air guests, improvise and use the equipment to its fullest potential (which others neglect to do). The key question: how to track down these Uebermenschen? Look in the theatre world, outrageous local bands, your own mirror - maybe you are one. If so, have faith in yourself and don't construct hypothetical expectations you think you need to live up to.
The Colleague ProfileIf you don't want to work in a structure with an editorial board overseeing the politics, and an egalitarian association seems like a good libertarian idea, you should be aware of the pros and cons. An association of independents doesn't add up. They are not part of a larger whole, no matter how you wish they were. Radio people are without exception socially inept. This is their essence and their motivation. This is why it's good to deal with friends and not total strangers. Mutual trust is necessary, or people don't feel at home in the studio and will be unable go crazy without inhibition. Yet there are always personal frictions, even in this quasi-loose model. You just have to deal with them. Try to solve these problems as quickly as possible without letting them damage the radio as an imaginary collective. In this association model, irresponsible behavior is the rule and not the exception. It's great when it is aimed at the outside world and not at the station itself. It becomes dangerous if destructiveness is turned on the station. Never permit colleagues to mention internal squabbles, give away your location, or complain about technical shortcomings or bad reception on the air. This information does nothing for listeners and gives them a bad impression (and the authorities are listening in too). (A bad reputation is something else. That you can only achieve with good programming!) What about drunkenness in the studio? It can be fun, but the equipment regularly gets destroyed. The concierge should be the judge. The same goes for absenteeism. Hard drug use cannot be tolerated; if this is discovered the person concerned must be immediately removed. These people bring in so much social negativity that the effects are measurable far beyond the broadcasts.
MeetingsMeeting culture depends heavily on local rituals. In some places and on certain occasions it can be passionate. This is often not the case. At a radio station a small group usually does most of the work while a big group of regular colleagues and vague types hangs around. Is this bad? If information must be exchanged on a specific occasion, a meeting can be useful. On the other hand, regular general meetings, in our experience, turn into an exhausting mess where little gets done. Practical (weekly) business needs to be taken care of, and casual onlookers (colleagues or not) will always intervene and bring everything onto a "higher" ideological level. Personal issues are formalized, feuds are fought out at the cost of the station, frustrations are spewed out without sight of a medium-term solution. Our advice: create a meeting-free atmosphere, and take care of business among yourselves. Is this democratic? Yes. In principle every colleague has the right to call a meeting. You can also have an "official" meeting once or twice a year and give it a special character (make it a happy hour, a dinner, a company bowling tournament). This will keep the meetings attractive and people will keep coming (you hope). If meetings are held more often than they need to be and people are not given anything specific to do or discuss they'll stop coming. However you do it, don't let the meetings get the reputation of being a drag, because this is impossible to remedy. Nota Bene: If there's really something the matter, like a police raid, the people will appear en masse of their own accord. A smaller group can meet weekly to discuss the state of affairs: changes in programming, finances, the state of the equipment, public relations, an upcoming benefit concert, gossip and slander. It can be great with a glass of beer.
Balance of EnergyRunning a radio station puts immense pressure on the group of insiders. There are 1001 practical things to take care of, often with no solution in sight. The eternal recurrence of problems can be exhausting. Our underlying idea about radio is that there must be progress. You have to watch out for symptoms of exhaustion and stress. When you're doing something you really believe in and get absorbed in it, you derive energy and inspiration from it. You also learn a lot: this is progress. This is a delicate process, and if some whiner says something tactless it can be instantly smashed. So be nice to your colleagues, especially when everything is going wrong. This is how superhuman Works are brought into being. Potential programmers are by definition insecure about what they're about to do. You must hear their plans out. Give them a few trial broadcasts, after which "the directors" give a definitive verdict on whether they can be accepted aboard. Well then, can't you say anything if something's just plain bad or someone is totally misbehaving? Well, here at our station we usually put it like this: "You're an asshole and your show sucks!" (after the show is over, of course). This is where the philosophy reaches its limit. Tact is always best, we think (unless you're looking for a riot). We assume internal criticism is none of outsiders' business. Once differences of opinion about content or politics are involved it's fine to bring them out (they'll come out anyway). As long as they don't endanger the existence of the station. Kill conflicts before they start by discussing them in a temporary committee, or they'll do you in; and you'll stay ahead of gossip that way. Act faster than the rumour can spread itself! And if it all gets to be too much for you - need we say it? - get out of town for a while.
Do-It-Yourself Studio Engineering, Especially for BeginnersAt mainstream stations someone sits behind glass and does the sound engineering for you (opening/closing mics, playing music, mixing sound, controlling strength of individual channels and final signal, and possibly audio effects, EQ, etc.). Some free radio stations think they have to copy this way of working. Nonsense. As long as there is a separate engineer the radiomakers will never discover and be able to exploit radio's specific properties. Our experience has taught that everyone is perfectly well (or not so well) capable of doing his/her own engineering.
The most important thing is to listen to the FINAL signal during the broadcast: in other words, what the listeners hear, thus on a tuner or radio and not just the mixing board. If a relay is not installed, turn this radio's volume way low when using the mic to avoid feedback. Tape your shows, especially at first, and listen to them afterwards, to get a real idea of how they sound. Listen for different things: content, engineering, presentation, and recurring problems.
In practice doing your own engineering means having music, taped interviews and jingles cued (precisely) and ready for play ahead of time, and opening the faders on the mixing board at the right moment and to the right degree. To cue records and tapes to the part you want to broadcast you use the "pre-fade listening" or "cue" switches on the mixing board. There are different kinds - in general each individual channel fader can usually be set into cue mode via its own switch or (if you have "pots" or round knobs instead of faders) by turning the pot all the way down and clicking it into cue position). You will then hear the tape deck, turntable or mic through the board without it going on the air.
Throughout the broadcast, the VU meter on the board should stay as close to 0 dB as possible, only occasionally going into the red zone and otherwise staying below it. Above 0 dB you get distortion (overmodulation) and under it you get more noise. 0 dB on the board must coincide with 0 dB on the transmitter! Microphone technique is in a class all its own. Every microphone has its own properties - there are omnidirectional, directional (or cardioid), stereo, lapel-size, and lots of other kinds. Some sound more bassy, some more shrill, some work best at a distance of a meter and some when you speak directly into them. Depending what kind you have you have a few possibilities for getting different sounds out of them. Experiment with this.
When purchasing studio equipment you can look at the performance you get for the price, at how long it will last (especially with cassette decks) and at ease of use. Sound quality is about the same with all modern equipment since the internal electronics all come from the same (Japanese) manufacturer, regardless of price category. Remember that the studio signal still has to go through the transmitter. Every transmitter, no matter how good, gives a signal its own particular sound colouration. You can overcome this with an equalizer, which is built into lots of mixing boards. The range between 3 and 4.5 kHz (the consonants Sss, Ttt, Rrr) needs special attention. Human hearing is the most sensitive in this area. You can make speech easier to understand by turning up this range on the equalizer. Low tones hide high ones; filtering out bothersome bass tones also makes things easier to understand. In general let your ears decide what sounds the best.
USING THE TELEPHONEAchtung! Feind hort mit. Loose lips sink ships. One of the few starting points the cops have to collect evidence against you is tapping your phone. They will not fail to use it. This evidence can be used if there is a trial, or to get a picture of the radio scene. Just assume you are being listened in on if you're involved in broadcasting, certainly on the station's own line. A healthy dose of paranoia is an essential component in the daily free radio consciousness. NEVER give out inside information on the phone and don't try using code words. This won't work. People always make mistakes, so it's too transparent anyway, and even if the other side doesn't understand it it gives them room for speculation. If you ever really do have to give information over the phone then make it sound like everything is fine: the security is always operating at full power, support from "the scene" is booming and the mood in the studio is optimal. Acting talent is needed, but for the radio personality under stress this is no problem. Really important things have to be discussed between two people (and unplug the phone, please, because the telephone can also be tapped while it's on the hook!).
If someone does call up and babble out important information, hang up instantly. Every word is one too many, and use this method consistently or else it will keep happening. Be sure of that! If you're established enough to have a telephone in or near the studio hooked up to the mixing board, it's a wonderful toy. You can call people up live or people can call you, but you can also record conversations off the air for use and/or further processing later. The most radical and risky, but also the most commonly used, method is giving out your number during a program so listeners can call. This can be fun for a while; it can give you an idea who's listening. But this is usually pure illusion. You will find that it's often the same assholes who want to monopolize the line. This asshole is the type that calls up the instant you give out the number. Their goal, sometimes intentional, often unconscious, is to fuck up your show. So why let listeners call in? Your virtual support network is given form through a medium, and it gratifies your soul? You finally get that "this is what I'm doing it for" feeling? No way, Jose. If you're lucky enough to have a studio phone, you can use it selectively and creatively. You could, for example, give the number to people who are likely to have something to report and can break into the program if necessary. You can also use the telephone line to carry a live audio signal from a remote studio (see below), or from a phone booth at a riot or demonstration. You can also ask radio friends to participate in your show. They can send a signal through the phone line which you put into the show using the mixing board. You can also combine the telephone with a computer and modem, obtain information from networks and read the reports off the screen.
Broadcasting on LocationIt's proof of your power if you have the guts to do a live broadcast with a real audience from a place open to the public. You are daring the authorities to act, in the awareness that they probably won't show up. You're surrounding yourself with human mass, which is a lot of hassle for the cops if they want to try anything. Police like to roll up radio stations in secret operations and can't deal with a crowd of rubberneckers. You are sacrificing the anonymity of the studio (and you can be photographed, including from a zoom lens in a car across the street) but you get a lot in return. On-location broadcasts are highlights of pirate existence, and break up the repetition of the weekly programs. It gives programmers the chance to meet face to face and work together. It's also a good opportunity to exchange ideas and put them into practice. It's a kick to have an audience around you at last and/or to be part of a larger whole such as an action, demonstration, concert, performance, party, etc. Planning and doing the broadcast you also meet new people who you can get involved with the radio. If you dig doing it, and security is not at risk, you can also decide to do a show one, two or seven days a week from a public space. You do need a lot of things for remote broadcasting. You actually have to build a small second studio with a mixing board, microphones, tape decks, turntables, tuner, and speakers so you can hear your program (essential). A connection has to be made with the main studio. This can be done in several ways: by telephone, with a short-range transmitter, or even having someone rush back and forth with tapes. But you can always just create the whole thing out of background sound effects; it saves trouble and is just as much fun.
Doing radio costs nothing. No one thinks about it, but it's true. It's still the cheapest and most environment-friendly medium. If you have one rich uncle you can skip this section. But money has to come from somewhere. Contributions from the programmers are a steady source of income. It sounds a bit outrageous to tell volunteers they have to pay to work. But they will do it, and should consider it an honour. Not that they will come up to you and do it voluntarily. In these circles the position of treasurer is a thankless task. The other source of revenue is benefit concerts. This is a safe way to manifest yourselves publicly and give a vital boost to your notoriety. It also gives the bands, poets, filmmakers, etc., you know a chance to perform. You can also ask friendly cafes or other venues for a one-time contribution, and discreetly yet urgently request acquaintances and rich fellow citizens to pitch in for the cause. Some idiot or other may come up with the bright idea of selling advertising time. This may seem like a professional touch, but it will ultimately strangle your irresistible amateur-genius image. This isn't something you want to sacrifice or defile. And non-com offers the most concentrated listening pleasure.
PUBLIC DOMAIN VERSUS SECRECYSo. We wish you all the necessary luck and strength in setting up your free radio station. With the information provided here, you should at the very least arrive on the scene well prepared. Read it good one more time and get to it!
"Oh shit, am I on the air?"
Radio Patapoe, pobox 3369, 1001 AD Amsterdam Contactperson: Geert Lovink tel/fax +31 20 6203297 e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org