Visible Women

Meet the women behind the UK’s first female-led underground radio station

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Moya Lothian-McLean
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The UK’s first female-led radio station is here to shake up the airwaves.

Millennials have killed a lot of things, according to the media. Diamonds. Potatoes. Fabric softener. But despite being a generation renowned for our commitment to convenience above all else, people born between the early Eighties and late Nineties are still reluctant to completely cast off analogue. We like receiving handwritten notes over multiple staccato WhatsApp messages. We’d prefer to ditch our impersonal dating apps altogether. And as it turns out, we really love radio. 

Earlier this year, a Nielsen study found that millennials spend more time listening to radio than they do using social media. And we’re particular fans of specialist music shows. A recent report by RAJAR (the official body in charge of measuring radio audiences in the UK) shows that the hip-hop, grime and R&B-focused BBC Radio 1xtra and Capital 1xtra have enjoyed record listening figures this year. 

Classic FM has also seen an unprecedented 30% jump in younger listeners: over one million people under the age of 35 now tune in every week. Meanwhile, BBC Radio 1 saw its largest ever audience on digital platforms in 2018. 

Away from the big radio stations we all grew up with, new audio media is thriving. As anyone who’s ever eaten brunch will know, podcast listening is one the rise. Over 40% of millennials listen to at least one podcast a week, and it’s estimated that there are about 5 million regular podcast listeners in the UK overall.

Throw streaming music platforms into the mix, and you’ve got three unique audio mediums with a gap that’s begging to be bridged. Enter Becky Richardson, Frankie Wells and Ami Bennett, aka the co-founders of the UK’s first female-led internet radio station, Foundation FM. The idea behind it is to put women at the top while simultaneously championing and nurturing UK underground music and broadcasting talent from marginalised communities.

The first clue that Foundation FM is creating a brand new lane is in the wry reworking of the titles of traditional radio slots. Gone are familiar terms like The Breakfast Show and Drivetime, jettisoned in favour of the sprightlier Brunch with Kamilla [Rose, who cut her teeth producing for Boiler Room and 1xtra] and Happy Hour.

The second piece of evidence that this project might actually offer something fresh are Richardson, Wells and Bennett themselves. They’re the Powerpuff Girls of radio, if the Powerpuff Girls’ Chemical X was a fervent drive to put women front and centre for once. 

Each bring a distinct area of expertise to the endeavour. Wells is a producer, while Bennett oversees talent and schedules. And Richardson, whose background in gaining radio play for musicians (known as ‘radio plugging’) has already seen her co-found two successful music enterprises, is in charge of the business side of things. 

“There’s elements of crossover,” says Bennett, who has produced shows across the BBC’s roster of radio stations.

“But it’s very clear what each person does. It’s just worked out really well.”

The way the trio tell it, the creation of Foundation FM has been remarkably smooth since Wells first floated the idea of an all-female radio station to Richardson in April 2017. At the time, Wells was on the precipice of unemployment and at the end of her tether. 

Her tenure as night producer for broadcasting start-up Radar Radio had come to an abrupt end after a storm of allegations – including claims of sexual harassment, homophobia and exploitative working practices – caused the station to shutter its doors. The experience left Wells despairing that there could be a space in radio where women could truly thrive.

Recalling that fateful conversation with Richardson, Wells says: “I was just like, ‘I don’t feel there’s a space for me, I don’t want to go to these places anymore. Maybe I should do my own thing. Maybe it should just be [women-led].’ And she said, ‘Yes, we’re doing this.’

“I thought it was just a conversation we were having but she ran with it and pushed it. Now we’re here.”

‘Here’ is a studio in Peckham Levels, a former multi-storey car park transformed into seven levels of buzzy creative hubs (including the rooftop bar Frank’s Café, south London’s original millennial mecca). The site houses local enterprises – 65% of the businesses based there are originally from Peckham – and it was this community spirit that Foundation FM’s founders wanted to harness when they set up shop.

“It was quite tricky to get in here,” says Richardson. “But when they found out what we were doing, they said OK, we’ve got space for you.” 

No wonder. The ethos behind Foundation FM is simple. It’s a female-led, online community radio station. There’s a roster of fresh talent, ranging from collectives with previous broadcasting experience like Born n Bread (a south London collective with a monthly slot on NTS radio) to women making waves in other industries, like multimedia artist Lotte Andersen

The fact that women are in charge at Foundation FM makes the station a first in its field – and a long-overdue one. An Ofcom report earlier this year found that women occupy only 37% of senior management roles in radio. Ealier this year, an investigation by stylist.co.uk found that only two of 2018’s most popular radio stations had a 50/50 equal gender split when it came to presenters.

“We’ve all had experiences of working in big old-school music industry corporations and a lot of those are male-heavy at the top,” says Richardson. “It makes it difficult to feel our voices are heard.”

“Or that there’s a role model for you,” agrees Bennett. “When I first started in radio, it was a very small, local commercial station and there was one other woman there. I’m embarrassed to say this but I don’t think I noticed it at the time. It was just like, ‘this is just the way it is.’”

Not anymore. Shake-ups at the UK’s biggest radio stations, including the announcement of Zoe Ball as the new host of the BBC Radio 2 Breakfast Show (the nation’s most popular radio programme), suggest that the higher-ups are taking note of the severe gender imbalance in the broadcasting world. 

But the changes have been incremental. Richardson, Wells and Bennett want Foundation FM to usher in a new standard of female representation – at a much quicker pace.

They’re adamant, though, that this is not an ‘anti-boys club’. “We’ve been asked so many questions about this,” Richardson sighs. “‘Is it only songs by women? Are you only going to have interviews with girls?’ No, not at all.” 

According to Bennett, the women behind Foundation FM are perfectly willing to support male artists – as long as those artists support women. “There are [men] on the schedule,” she says.

“This is about putting women at the forefront and if you support that message, come on in. The door’s open.” In keeping with that message, the first song played on Foundation FM’s inaugural show on 5 November was Ladies, by the (male) Northampton rapper Slowthai.

“We’re creating a safe space for anyone who wants it,” says Wells. “We want to be a community that has great representation, [including] the LGBTQ community.” Stipulating that the station only plays music by women would exclude non-binary artists, she points out. 

Zoe Ball is one of the few female presenters in radio tasked with a primetime slot.

With shows like Zooey Gleaves’ Queer Island Discs (think Desert Island Discs with an LBGTQ spin) and a radio iteration of the award-winning The Receipts Podcast (an unfiltered talk show hosted by Tolani Shoneye, Audrey Indome, and Milena Sanchez), Foundation FM already seems committed to making sure a range of voices – and perspectives – are given proper airtime.

“No more middle-aged white men,” Wells affirms. “There’s a much broader spectrum of people in the world. It’s getting the journey started. I feel we’re on the cusp of a big shift.”

“I watched a film the other day that worded it perfectly,” says Richardson. “We think we’re further along than we actually are [in terms of equality]. The way we’re coming at it is by making changes from the ground up.”

As for long-term plans, they’ve got their eye on the live music scene, where female artists frequently lose out on big gigs like festival slots. Last year, women made up just 20% of festival headliners in the UK.

“We really want to see what other things we can do in the bigger music industry,” Richardson says.

“The gender balance in live music has always been a problem. The year after next, maybe we can have a small stage at a festival and just book cool new DJs who are female – try to counteract some of the issues they’re having.”

But for now, the trio just want to make good on their initial pledge: to create a female-led space in broadcasting for those whose voices are usually sidelined. And they plan to make seriously engaging radio in the process.

“I just don’t want to let anyone down,” Wells says, when asked if they feel any pressure. 

“We’ve promised a platform that’s going to break boundaries. There’s that expectation now. Letting someone down is the worst feeling ever.”

“Don’t worry, mate,” says Richardson reassuringly. 

“It’s not going to happen. I can’t see it,” Bennett agrees. 

Us neither. 

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising the profiles of women making strides in male-dominated industries, and empowering future generations to follow their lead. See more from Visible Women here.  

Tune into Foundation FM from 10am – 6pm, Monday – Wednesday and 10am – 10pm, Thursday – Friday. 

Images: Wired PR 

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Moya Lothian-McLean

Moya Lothian-McLean is Stylist’s editorial assistant where she spends her time inventing ways to shoehorn Robbie Williams into pieces. A reoffending dancefloor menace, a weekend finds her taking up too much space at disco nights around the city and subsequently recovering with dark sunglasses and late brunch the next day. 

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