Music

Tokyo Community Radio: The spirit of pirate radio is reignited in Japan

by Chris Russell

Staff Writer

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From The Electrifying Mojo in Detroit, who played a crucial role in the development of what would become the city’s eponymous techno sound, to Slimzee mapping out the early sonic terrain of grime in London, radio has loomed large in the progression of electronic music, arguably more so than other sounds owing to the centrality of the DJ mix as a musical form within the genre.

Around the world, the sheer volume of online stations dedicated to niche and not-so-niche electronic music, broadly defined, is staggering — from New York’s The Lot to Amsterdam’s Red Light Radio and beyond, there is no shortage of listening options. Japan has its fair share, too, with Block FM, Dublab, Wrep and AbemaMix, among others, offering varying degrees of specialism, professionalism and commercial intent.

Meanwhile, local institution Dommune, although not strictly a radio station, did much to pioneer the use of video broadcasts in this area (although many stations identify as radio, the extent to which they conform to traditional notions of the format varies).

But despite the plethora of stations and platforms in Tokyo, the city still lacks a unifying force that brings together and gives expression to its underground scene in the manner of London’s NTS or Rinse FM. Those stations enjoy a strong degree of familiarity with electronic music fans in not just the U.K. capital but worldwide. The absence of such a setup in Tokyo is manifested in the fact that many of Japan’s rising stars in the electronic music scene either have no consistent outlet or, for various reasons, are forced to turn to stations overseas.

Stepping into the apparent gap is Tokyo Community Radio (TCR), which joins a host of other East Asian online stations that have sprung up in the past few years, all adopting the “community” moniker. Such is the need for that kind of platform, at least two similar stations are being mooted, although no concrete plans have been announced yet.

“I started TCR because in Japan there isn’t a place for local and international talent to communicate and show their skills, like I saw in Europe and Asia,” says Rika Hirota, aka Licaxxx, TCR’s founder. “I wanted to create a place for this to happen.”

Launched on Feb. 7, TCR explicitly espouses an independent, DIY pirate radio ethos, even if it has shied away from the illegal broadcasts that define that medium. But although Japan does have a small history of pirate radio stations and so-called mini FMs — stations that use a purposefully weak signal to avoid requiring a license — it’s a culture that lacks the same kind of presence it has had elsewhere in the world. Hirota, for example, says she grew up listening to J-Wave, but came to be influenced by the concept through listening to the DJ Gilles Peterson.

“I like the spirit of pirate radio, which is different from all of the commercial music (stations) in Japan,” she says.

In line with most of its Asian counterparts, TCR broadcasts through Facebook Live, albeit without the green-screen background favored by many others, with shows almost every Thursday rotating between local crews CYK, N.O.S. and Kaitai Shinsho, as well as the odd special guest mix. It’s a simple, no-frills set-up, but one that chimes with the station’s values. Currently the music skews heavily toward house and techno, although Hirota says there are plans to expand the remit in the future — the station described itself as “genre agnostic” in its opening statement.

This approach has the virtue of simplicity — streaming is easy to set up, no website is needed, there’s a built-in audience on the platform and no legal broadcasting license is required. It also enables the station to operate in something of a gray area when it comes to copyright — appropriate licenses are costly and complicated — with enforcement comparatively weaker than traditional radio, although it’s by no means something the music industry is unaware of.

In turn, such setups bring an element of freedom.

“If I host a program on AM or FM, we will have more pressure to play something, or not to play something,” says Shintaro Yonezawa, aka DJ Sinta, one half of the grime DJ-producer duo Double Clapperz, which has done the occasional show on Block FM and also appeared on U.K. platforms such as NTS, Keep Hush and the now-defunct Radar Radio. “We have more freedom on the internet stations.”

That international experience has given Yonezawa a window into what is possible with these platforms, and he laments the dearth of regular slots for most DJs — many shows are based around a visiting international guest — as well as the lack of archives in almost all cases, inhibiting the music’s reach.

“What I’ve experienced with these (U.K.) platforms, when I’ve played on these radio stations, is they’re international, they’re well curated and also they provide many opportunities other than just to broadcast,” he says, pointing to how some also run record labels or manage artists, increasing their impact. “And then they work with brands better than Japanese radio stations.”

Despite the comparatively low overheads, running a station, especially one with ambitious programming, isn’t a cheap endeavor. At the extreme end, Radar Radio posted a loss of over £1.3 million (¥190 million) in a single year — it was essentially bankrolled by Mike Ashley, one of the U.K.’s richest people — while Berlin Community Radio was forced to close in February after it failed to secure further state-backed cultural funding Shanghai Community Radio, meanwhile, has secured some outside investment and has also turned to soliciting donations from listeners.

Working with brands represents another form of financing — NTS has previously teamed up with Uniqlo, for example — but the tenuousness of that kind of corporate patronage of underground music was underlined on April 3 when Red Bull announced it would be shuttering two of its major music operations, including its online radio station, at the end of October.

“Currently we have a low-budget production which is made possible by many people (such as friends) who contribute their time and energy to make it all happen,” explains Hirota, saying she hopes to raise more money in the future by hosting streams from clubs and other events. “We are not looking to make a big profit but we do need a certain amount of income to make it all possible. I think this follows the spirit of pirate radio.”

To listen to Tokyo Community Radio, visit www.facebook.com/Tokyo-Community-Radio-407604730046277.