"People know they can trust us and that our events will be cool either way. Therefore we can try out more adventurous things."

Hugo van Heijningen and Orpheu de Jong are running an online radio station in Amsterdam since the 30th of November 2010. Through this radio station they are enabling people to become acquainted with an array of different musical genres. The show has a weekly following that comprises approximately 150 countries. Nevertheless, Red Light Radio is broadcasting from a former window in the famous Red Light district of Amsterdam. What kind of role does Amsterdam play for this radio station and how does it maintain its local identity?

What do you do exactly?
Hugo: We run an online radio show since 2010 and we have actually had listeners since the moment we started. It is a predominantly music-based radio station, with content that is not necessarily bound to the Netherlands, but music that has more of a global focus. In the mean time, it has grown into something much bigger than a music platform alone, as we organize concerts, parties and we have collaborations with partners, varying from cultural institutes to festivals in Amsterdam, Brazil or even China. It has rapidly evolved from a small and local ‘community thing’ into a worldwide platform. It however, is undoubtedly linked to Amsterdam: Red Light Radio, Red Light District, Amsterdam, the connection is quickly established. Our location has been here for the last six years already, in the middle of the Red Light District and hence surrounded by prostitutes. This environment is definitely part of the identity of our radio station. Although most of the content produced here does not find its origins necessarily in Amsterdam, most of the Dj’s and radio makers are from here, so in that manner it remains a sort of local radio station.

‘In the mean time it has evolved into something much bigger than a music platform’

What is your background?

Orpheu: My background is more DJ related, as I did a weekly radio show for Studio 80 (a former night club in Amsterdam) before Red Light Radio existed. I had experimented with a small kind of online radio station, but except for Studio 80 there were almost no people in Amsterdam that were doing that at the time. Hugo and I have taken the experience that we individually developed over time, and got in contact with each other for Red Light Radio.

Hugo: Musically speaking, I have never been a radio maker. Well actually now still, I am not. I did program some parties and I have always played in bands. I did communication studies at the University of Amsterdam, but all in all this (Red Light Radio) was just a fun project. I do not Dj myself, or well, preferably not. I am mostly just working behind the scenes, programming dj’s, and well, sometimes I am active as a radio host.

© Jordi Huisman

How did you come up with the idea for Red Light Radio?

Hugo: We did not know ‘how’ and ‘into what’ Red Light (Radio) would develop, but here we are, over six years later and you see radio stations such as RLR popping up in countries around the world almost on a yearly basis. I was in New York last month where the people from LOT Radio told me that they have based their whole radio station upon what we are doing here in Amsterdam. Which is quite funny because it kind of completes the circle, as I got the idea more or less from New York where I used to live and listened to a lot of radio. But anyways, we just started the station with the thought that we just wanted to do it, no matter where we would end up. Orpheu knows many people through his experience in music, I have my own experience, so we aimed at making as much good content as we could in a short period. We said we would look at the results later, and as of yet, it seems as if it is coming pretty while.

‘We didn’t know where it would take us, this was just a fun project’

In what direction is Red Light Radio heading?
Orpheu: The first five or six years we have mostly focused on growing, which we did in an intuitive manner, with the stuff we thought was cool for the station. Of course, there were certain steps that we thought of beforehand, such as buying the building that we are in and to make some valuable additions to the station when time would come. Now we have reached the point that we have established the station as we wanted it to be, and it is now time to look at what kind of fun things we can do with it. So the growth as an objective in itself is not as relevant any more. Rather, the focus is on what we are going to do with the platform.

Hugo: It is growing still, exponentially in a matter of fact, so that is a clear sign that we have to keep on doing what we are doing. Red Light (Radio) is an online platform, and it seems to attract people from all places in the world, so now it is time to start ‘cherry picking’. Therefore we are looking at the platform from a more strategic point of view: it started as a platform with which we wanted to do everything but over time we became more experienced and internationally focused. This is a trend that we are definitely continuing in the next couple of years. We can obviously grow even further, but it is fair to speak of a peak. The whole world is looking at Amsterdam and the music that is present here, hence people are also looking at us. We are a kind of a porthole to the city for a lot of people, and it is obviously a great pleasure fulfilling that role.

Why the Red Light District?

Hugo: To be located in the city centre was of great importance to us, as we have new guests almost every hour. Therefore it is necessary to be well located and easily accessible. Now still, but especially when we were looking for a place for the radio station, the Red Light District was a place in transition. Due to municipal efforts to ‘reclaim’ the area many houses were available to new uses and could therefore be developed into various kinds of initiatives. We were lucky that the municipality liked our idea and that we were allowed to be move into this venue. Originally, it was only for a short period of time but due to its success we could stay. We have grown as not only a radio station, but also in the form of two record stores, four recording studios and soon we are going to open a shop. We now have three buildings in the area.

© Jordi Huisman

Is RLR a local or a more international station?
Orpheu: It is as international as it is local, I would say. They are just different levels. It is still a very local radio station for the Amsterdam scene, let’s call it that for now, with the physical place here in the Red Light District. In that sense it important to be here for the local dimension of the station, but also internationally speaking, it is almost a community, between stations and listeners.

Hugo: If you check the chat box underneath the live show, you will find people from all over the world discussing the specific radio show that is at play in that very moment. So in that sense, we are much more than just a local radio station. In the mean time however, it is a platform that is inherently from Amsterdam.

What role has the city of Amsterdam played in the life of RLR?
Orpheu: Hmm, well I think it went hand in hand, as we helped Amsterdam and Amsterdam has helped us. Amsterdam has grown significantly, musically speaking, due to initiatives such as ours, but definitely also due to other musical projects active in the city. Internationally, Amsterdam has become the city for music and going out. And that has definitely been a shared effort.

Hugo: I completely agree. We develop talent here, and that is definitely something that we have given back to the city. We also act as a platform, as Orpheu just mentioned, and I think that is important for Amsterdam. If you just look at for instance the neighbourhood that we are in, we are creating diversity as most of the people here come for sex and drugs. With us here in the Red Light District, there are now people coming to this area for the music, which is something entirely different. I think that is what Amsterdam has given us, the allure. It is a city with barely 1 million inhabitants, but yet the allure that the city has will always help because people have very positive ideas of Amsterdam. People are quite easily impressed if you are from Amsterdam I think. But why Amsterdam, …. well… Rome for instance is much bigger, Barcelona also has its advantages, but Amsterdam turns out to be, together with Berlin, the electronic music capital of the world and I think we are also part of that.

It is just as international as it is local; they are just different levels

© Jordi Huisman

What role does the municipality play?
Hugo (laughing): The municipality is nice enough to not send us away, that is already much appreciated. It seems as if everything in the Red light is for tourists rather than the people from Amsterdam. Yet, we are a spot made by and for the people of Amsterdam. The only bikes that aren’t from a bike rental stop right in front of the door here. Therefore it is really nice to feel supported by the municipality.

Orpheu: The municipality has definitely helped and supported us in the first years, when we started. First, with the temporary use of this building, and later on with the opportunity to buy the building and own it ourselves. Nowadays we have less contact with the municipality, as we are doing our own thing and so does the municipality.

What kind of collaborations do you do?
Hugo: We collaborate with record stores, record labels, with museums etc. We have done a lot, like with  art academies and so forth. For example Dekmantel, are friends of ours that organise a festival. At Dekmantel Festival, we host a radio studio for three days. At Lentekabinet, another festival, we host a stage, but also collaborate with Music From Memory, a local record label. We have worked with the Rietveld radioshow and I can continue with some other examples, as we have been active since 2010 so there are quite a lot of collaborations.

Hugo: We have done a lot of events throughout the city, at the Waag, at Eddie the Eagle museum, Vriend van Bavink, galleries, the Oedipus brewery; all in all many different collaborations.

Is there something missing at RLR?
Orpheu: Music wise, I think Red Light (Radio) is quite complete, on the radio especially.

Hugo: Outside of the studio, I would like to have some more mixed nights. I for instance also like electro and metal, so I think it would be fun to experience a wider variety of music outside the studio. Put these different artists in the same room, and you have an interesting level of suspense. But considering the rest, here we miss nothing.

You predominantly have music in the shows. How come there are almost no talk shows?
Orpheu (sighing): Well, we only have a few, and that is mainly because talk shows are more difficult to organize than playing records. Playing records requires good music and an understanding of the order in which they have to be played. For a talk show, that is A. interesting, B. fun, and C. fits the identity of Red Light. It has been proven to be very difficult to get this off the ground. We have tried a bunch of times, yet every time it just didn’t work out the way we wanted. It is just very difficult to keep something like that exciting, without ending up with all the clichés.

Hugo: In addition, we want English as the main language, and for many Dutch hosts that would be another step to take. I would really like to have some more talk shows, as they would give more personality to the music. However, we just have to take it as it is, and what we do with the station is giving people the space to share what they feel like sharing. If for the majority that is just playing records, than that is also fine. If they want to invite some people to talk with for an hour, that is also possible. Throughout the years we have gathered a big group of people around us that we blindly trust and therefore the content is always quite strong.

© Jordi Huisman

How do you maintain the quality of the content?
Orpheu: We get mix tapes sent to us on a daily basis, and back in the day we listened to 99% of all the things that people sent to us. Now it is more like 90%.

Hugo: Moreover, it is about the balance. If someone has a good house music set, that is nice, but we already have quite a lot of that. If someone has a punk set, it is much more likely to have it featured, as we have less of those at the moment. We seek a balance within the station as a whole and we try to maintain the diverse character, with different music every hour. However, I do want to point out that anyone with a nerdy music taste is welcome at our station. Delve deep into something and we will be happy to use our platform to help you spread it to the world, which is what we aimed at from the beginning. Nowadays we are basically filled from 10-22 so there is not that much space for new things any more but the exceptional cases will still be featured.

What is your business model?
Orpheu: We get our money through collaborations with partners, and I think it is important to underline that we are much more than just a radio station. The radio station we finance with money that we make through other means such as a festival, for instance Strange Sounds From Beyond (SSFB), but also through other projects that we do outside of the Red Light District.

What is Strange Sounds From Beyond (SSFB)?
Orpheu: SSFB is an initiative of Quentin (van der Spek) who has organized the Outsiders Festival before. He had invited us once to host a party, and that was quite a success. He proceeded with the organization of a festival, originating from Outsiders, where both the music organization The Rest Is Noise and Red Light Radio would host a stage. We were three different organizations, and it turned out to be a good trinity. After the first collaboration at Strange Sounds, we decided to be involved again this year. We are all providing the content, but Quentin is the driving force behind it all. He does the overall picture and we just think about the music, we promote and host, but it is not our own festival.

What is special about SSFB?
Hugo: One month before, we said to each other that we would never do a festival, as the Netherlands is pretty saturated with festivals. However, at the SSFB Festival there is a mix of alternative acts, such as live performances or Dj sets. After the first edition, we heard back from many people that we managed to delve a bit deeper in the music scene than other festivals, and therefore we are doing it all again this year. Overall, it is a festival set as an expedition to discover new music. It remains comfortable though, so a way to describe it would be ‘weird but danceable music’.

Orpheu: What I like about the festival is that we can really program in the way that we listen to music ourselves. It is much more adventurous and we can try out more daring things. People know that they can trust us, even if they don’t know half of the acts on the line up. They know that no matter what, it will be really cool and that is a really nice thing to have. Then you do not have to worry about how famous an artist is and how many tickets you will sell with one specific name. Of course, it has to be reasonable and Quentin is really good at that. Luckily for us, we just focus on the music.

Hugo: You should just come to one of our events and see for yourself: the events make sense! We have too many shows to go all the time, but there is always one of us, either Orpheu or me, present!

This publication was written for Nieuw Nederland/Steden in Transitie. You can access the original publication (in Dutch) here

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