16th March 2021 marks the grim one-year anniversary of Matt Hancock’s statement to the House Of Commons that all “unnecessary social contact” across the UK should cease, a week before Boris Johnson’s formal introduction of a nationwide lockdown brought COVID-19 crashing violently into our lives.
With venues still shuttered, communal experiences of music and dancing have been all but eradicated, except perhaps for the small number of DJs and dancers brave or foolish enough to attend illegal “plague raves”. The full extent of this cultural loss is hard to quantify, but impossible to ignore: what’s the point of dancing if we can’t dance with each other?
Deprived of the dancefloor, increasing numbers of music fans have been turning to radio. Research undertaken in the spring of 2020 by Radiocentre, the industry body for commercial radio stations across the UK, revealed record listening numbers: 40% of people are tuning in for longer than they used to, and 90% say that radio has kept them company. These trends can be seen not only across mainstream commercial stations, but in underground dance music ones, too. While the pandemic has created new challenges and uncertainty for independent stations and DJs, it’s also forced them to rethink their output, explore new approaches, and build deeper emotional connections with their audiences.
Will Dickson is Communications Manager at East London’s much-loved independent station NTS. “We shut down our studio two weeks before the national lockdown, but we managed to do a surprisingly good job of adapting,” he says. “You lose the social aspect of having a studio; the spontaneous, organic interaction of one host finishing their show and meeting the person who’s on after them. But it means we’ve developed ways to broadcast live from the homes of our residents and open up our international broadcasting.”
In mid-July, music fans of all stripes tuned in to hear Sopranos actor Michael Imperioli present an hour of music inspired by A Streetcar Named Desire. “For some reason, it seemed like half of Twitter was re-watching The Sopranos during lockdown, it was just a perfect storm,” laughs Dickson. “But it wasn’t like some manufactured radio moment: one of our programming team happened to see Michael post a shoegaze record on his Instagram, thought it’d be funny to contact him, and it turned out he wanted to do it.” Like all the other stations interviewed for this piece, NTS’ listener numbers have grown substantially during the pandemic: from 1.5 million monthly listeners in 2019 to 2.5 million a year later. Back when lockdown started, though, thinking about positive outcomes felt churlish. As it became clear that COVID-19 was going to fundamentally alter our lives, the main question facing stations was how to cope, never mind thrive.