February 26, 2021

Had enough of Radio 2? 10 of the best online radio stations

Whether broadcasting from a Soho shopfront to a New York shipping container, online radio has opened up the airwaves

These weeks of locked-down working and living at home mean, for many, immersion in our housemates’ Zoom meetings through the walls, neighbours’ workouts shaking our ceilings, children’s cries for homework help, or – if you are lucky – the eerie silence of living alone. Whatever the scenario, our lives demand a soundtrack: something to drown out the surrounding noise or to fill the gaps usually punctuated by office murmurations and casual conversation.

Over the past decade, online radio has seen huge growth. No longer restricted by the need for an FM transmitter or a DAB licence, a host of global music and chatter is now available through our laptop speakers. If you have found yourself at the end of your tether with Spotify playlists and the usual BBC or Global Radio fare, here is a selection of some of the best alternative music radio stations to turn on and tune in to.

Founded in 2011 by Femi Adeyemi and based at a shopfront studio in Hackney, east London, NTS Radio has grown to become perhaps the best-known British online radio presence, reportedly boasting 1.5 million unique monthly listeners in 2020. Eclecticism is the watchword for NTS’s 24-hour schedule, now spanning from London to Los Angeles, Shanghai and beyond. Highlights have included the late Andrew Weatherall’s residency, available to listen via the archive, as well as Charlie Bones’s reliably uplifting breakfast show Do!! You!!! and regular crate-digging DJ slots from the likes of Anz, Moxie and Éclair Fifi.

A BBC Radio 6 stalwart, a veteran of the labels Acid Jazz and Talking Loud and the founder of the London-based label Brownswood, Gilles Peterson started his own station in 2016 as an expansion of his genre-breaking DJing style, promoting new artists and lesser-known greats. Based in London but also broadcasting specials from New York, Tokyo and Johannesburg, Worldwide’s roster gives ample space for its hosts’ tastes to breathe. Regular favourites include Peterson’s The 20 shows – selecting the finest tracks from a single genre each week – WW Daily with Erica McKoy and Papaoul, and Toshio Matsuura’s weekly jazz-inflected missive from Tokyo.

Born out of the cultural no man’s land of the first lockdown in 2020, self-defined #blackradio station No Signal has amassed a wildly loyal following with its celebratory selections from the black diaspora and its flagship show NS10v10, where two rival DJs or artists go head to head with the back catalogue of two musicians over 10 rounds. Standouts so far have included the clash between Skepta and Giggs, as well as nimble lyricists Missy Elliot and Busta Rhymes and R&B icons Beyoncé and Mariah Carey.

Online radio has also proven an effective magnifying glass for local scenes and sounds, with highlights including Palestine’s community-based Radio Alhara and India’s Boxout FM. In Bristol, a city known for its trip-hop, dubstep and dance music, Noods Radio has been promoting some of its finest talent since 2015. Listen out for residencies from the Bahraini collective Dar Disku, the techno luminary Regis and Hessle Audio’s Bruce.

With one foot in London and another in New York, this station has been providing community-based, street-side radio since 2014, with its shows blending musical explorations with informative debate. The sound system stalwart Norman Jay hosts a weekly slot, while a hefty jazz contingent comes from the likes of the trumpeter Jaimie Branch and the saxophonist Tamar Collocutor. Chat is provided by the actor Harry Shearer’s monthly Le Show.

Probably the longest-standing example of city-based community radio in Britain, Rinse started out life as a pirate station in 1994 before gaining a commercial licence in 2010. But unlike commercial contemporaries such as Kiss, it has yet to lose the raw-edged excitement of its pirate days. The station hosts standout residencies from the formative dance music label Hessle Audio and the I Am Grime show, plus slots from the DJs Marcus Nasty, Jyoty and A Guy Called Gerald.

A nondescript shipping container in Brooklyn, New York, is the home of the independent station The Lot Radio, providing a welcome snapshot of the city’s vast cultural offerings. The producer and DJ Jessy Lanza hosts an essential semi-regular show, along with the drummer Shigeto, as well as featuring the down-tempo selections of Japanese composer Takuya Nakamura and passing showcases from touring talent such as Four Tet and the band Ezra Collective.

If The Lot seems small, the luminescent tiled bathroom aesthetic of single-room Hör is about as spare as radio can get. Yet the nightclub minimalism is the perfect setting for this showcase of Berlin’s finest hard-hitting techno and dancefloor selections. Primarily streamed through YouTube, Hör functions as a refreshing, non-commercial counterpart to dance music streaming platforms such as Boiler Room, hosting recent shows from heavyweight labels such as Tresor and the Trilogy Tapes.

Not a radio station, but an app promising the potential to time-travel from 1900 to the present day via an interactive global map, listening to a curated selection of music from different user-selected decades along the way. There is almost every possible type of music contained in this glorious wormhole of a platform – enough to see anyone through at least one more lockdown, with a special recommendation for the crooning of 60s Kazakhstan and 50s Bollywood melodrama.

Seattle-based community station KEXP isn’t all grunge and hipsterism; in fact, the nonprofit organisation has long been home to a rich archive of stunning recorded live sets and interviews. Recent highlights have included the National frontman Matt Berninger flexing his baritone, plus performances from the rapper Oddisee, Phoebe Bridgers and the bluesman Lonnie Holley. With online sessions dating back to 1993, there is masses to explore.