Amsterdam Calling: Inside Red Light Radio

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This article was originally featured in tmrw magazine #21.

When you visit Amsterdam you get a sense of a city that is truly alive. With cultural hotspots at every turning, the Netherlands capital is a creative hub where anything seems possible no matter the time of a day. It never sleeps and is never shocked, forever taking everything in its stride with a laid-back and undoubtedly cool swagger. This is no more epitomised by the city’s beating heart: the infamous Red Light District. Filled with a myriad of eye-catching shop fronts offering coffee, food, marijuana and (for the right price) an unlimited number of sexual activities, the RLD is a tourist hotspot renowned for being the land of endless possibilities. Although thanks to Red Light Radio, the area is starting to put together a new identity; the land of airwave excellence.

Born from the local government’s attempt to gentrify the area known for raucous behaviour, Red Light Radio is based in a refurbished (and no longer in use) brothel. The brainchild of Hugo van Heijningen and Orpheu de Jong, the station has called the RLD its home since the stations inception in 2010. With thousands of visitors flocking to this stretch of the city each year, the sight of a fully clothed DJ working the decks at all hours, squashed amongst one of the many streets of infamous windows could be a cause for concern for anyone that’s spent the day in one of the city’s coffee shops.  

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Although to some its existence is a little known secret, Red Light Radio has truly blown up in recent years, becoming not only Amsterdam’s best radio station, but one of the premier stations in the whole of Europe. Showcasing local and international DJ’s as well as hosting live performances from some of the biggest names across genres as diverse as House and Disco to Afro Beat, Black Metal and Punk, the station has streamed its artists worldwide and in the process attracted an international audience and the critical acclaim that comes with it. In 2015 their meteoric rise from a single listener station to continental airwave behemoth was recognised when they beat the best stations from around Europe to be crowned Mixcloud’s Best Online Radio Station.  This success has been beneficial for the group, allowing the team to take their eclectic brand of artists on the road. They've performed at prestigious festivals like SXSW and even spun their signature sounds in far off and distant lands like Russia and China. Not exactly the typical destinations for a DJ but that in itself highlights the pragmatism of the whole endeavour.

The idea to start a radio station had been rattling around in Hugo’s brain for some time, with the city being renowned for its eclectic musicality, the concept was there it just needed some physical inspiration to help it come to fruition. It was on a trip to New York where Hugo found what was needed. Witnessing Manhattan’s famous East Village Radio which broadcasts from a street level studio on 21 First Avenue at East 1st Street, Hugo knew what he had to do. With drastic changes announced for his homeland’s most famous series of streets everything fell into place and Red Light Radio was born. Now they had a venue, it was time to make it truly theirs. The station’s now iconic studio space is bathed in a dim red glow and adorned with hundreds of stickers and posters. Broadcasted over the internet via a live webcam, this somewhat cramped area has become the visual identity of the musical movement the station is promoting, that great music can be found anywhere and nothing should distract from it. That’s why if you check out a list of their alumni they’ve been able to attract big international artists, with everyone from Seth Troxler to The Gaslamp Killer and Mac de Marco spending some time there, but they’ve also supported smaller names as well as artists and DJs from the surrounding area. For the Red Light Radio team it has always been about the music. This has paid off dramatically as eschewing mainstream appeal and instead going for musical variety has set them apart from their fellow musical peers from the beginning, helping them stand out in the crowded world of online radio and build a cult following of listeners.

This ever increasing non-mainstream fan group has been especially appealing to like-minded brands, such as Converse, meaning the team can keep the red light glowing a little bit longer. In late 2012, they held their first Converse Red Light Session, which saw a whole army of musicians play a number of intimate sessions in their little studio to a small audience plus anyone who chose that opportune moment to peer through the window. Their success has even allowed them to expand. Teaming up with Tako Reyenga and Abel Nagengast they were able to turn a recently vacant window next door into Red Light Records. From this base they’re able to promote their favourite artists that little bit more by selling records as well as merchandise bearing the stations instantly recognisable logo. With every shirt, badge and tote sold they’re increasing a word of mouth following that will only ever grow as tourists from far and wide swarm on the RLD.

When they finally return home they’ll miss those famous streets. Reminiscing about their time there they’ll plan their next adventure. That is when they’ll tune in to Red Light Radio, keen to get a glimpse at that Amsterdam aesthetic coupled with a beautiful soundtrack. The array of artists on show will expand the listeners’ mind as much as what they bought in the coffee shops. Until they take their headphones off they’re back there amongst the city of red light. In an internet awash with different sounds, Red Light Radio is the little slice of Amsterdam available online.

You can listen to Red Light Radio anytime by visiting www.redlightradio.net/

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Daniel Eggleston