I’m outside a red lit prostitutes window waving to a guy inside who is enthusiastically waving back at me. It’s a surreal moment as I’m in the heart of the Red Light district in Amsterdam surrounded by a small crowd of young men binge drinking. Instead of finding a scantily woman at number 22 Oudekerksplein its an internet radio station called Red Light Radio that is broadcasting in full view of the street.
After a little while Joris aka Reggie opens the door and invites me in. I’ve arrived at a good time as the Brain Fried show is on air and resident Father Futureback is playing his mix of punk, metal, noise, weirdo-records and sound bites recorded from Dutch television.
He plays all his music exclusively on vinyl which made me a little envious as I’ve moved over to digital for convenience. As I’ve got older its more difficult for me to spend time in record shops but for these guys they put in the hours to find the best music and for Reggie he has the benefit of actually working in one. Both Reggie and Futureback are great characters who have some amusing stories to tell and an expansive taste in music that they share with whoever cares to listen.
Eventually I catch up with Hugo van Heijningen the co-founder of the station. Currently he’s preparing for his first trip to SXSW where they’ve decided to invite some special guests such as Traumahelikopter to play in a clone of Red Light Radio at Fader Fort in Austin. Theres a good chance the Red Light concept will work quite well as its a similar kind of dazed crowd that you get on the streets of Austin during the festival as you do in De Wallen most nights of the week.
Hugo describes the early days in 2010 as being a communal effort with friends lending their equipment and their talents to help set up the station. What started out as a 3 month experiment has now grown into something of an institution for both the local music scene and international artists visiting the area on tour. Although he’s understated about the 10,000 plays the station gets a week via the website he asserts that there are enough loyal fans to make it worth putting in the time and the effort.
The programming of the station is taken care of by Hugo and his fellow co-founder Orpheu de Jong and its a varied mix of content and music that gets played out on the station. It’s not really down to a specific strategy but more about getting diverse and passionate people into the studio and letting them do their thing, as Hugo says ‘from hip hop to heavy metal everyone comes together in this building and everyone goes to each others gigs’.
The attitude, edginess and credibility of the output is getting noticed commercially which the 6 month old partnership with Converse highlights. With little money to be made by internet radio Hugo was pretty happy that the company showed an interest in them as its led to their trip to SXSW and they know do the live sessions together. Its clear that this partnership can help him realise some of the more ambitious ideas he might have for the station as well as attracting a larger audience.
Unlike London where dubstep, grime and indie has defined the sound of the city in recent times, Amsterdam doesn’t really have a style of music that it can call its own, but its probably only a matter of time before it does. What is coming out of the city is a lot of innovation, particularly in the start up scene with names like 22tracks and Shuffler.fm (Hugo happens to be their landlord) who are making a name for themselves internationally. The close proximity of all these people helps to fuel the creativity in the city, “everybody knows each other and really respects what each other is doing and we don’t see each other as competitors. Everyone really enjoys seeing people putting a lot of love and effort into something new in music”.
Hugo passionately tells me that Red Light Radio ‘fills the gap of all the bullshit stations in the air who have a lot of money but play the same music’. Although I’m not an expert on Dutch radio I’m not really that surprised, mainstream radio anywhere in the world generally plays the usual chart music on heavy rotation. Its interesting to note how Veronica, one of the biggest mainstream stations in the Netherlands, started life as an alternative radio station being broadcast offshore from a boat. But it wasn’t a group of passionate music lovers who set it up. It was a group electrical retailers instead who wanted to encourage people to buy radio sets!
What makes RLR compelling is that its not just a station but a concept that you want to be part of. It’s different and exciting and much like that cool upcoming band that only you and your friends know about, you want everyone to know about them but at the same time you never want them to get too mainstream just in case they lose their edge.
The other aspect of RLR is that it reflects both the character of Dutch culture and Amsterdam itself. There is an openness and passion to try something different and an attitude to embrace the diversity of their city and the many influences within it. At the same time this isn’t just a niche station that only locals are going to know about. With international artists making the effort to stop by, and SXSW around the corner both Hugo and Orpheu are looking to take Red Light Radio further afield to make its mark.