The charming, one hundred-something square foot No Fun Radio recording studio in Gastown is imbued with a kind of soft, neon, cocktail-lounge-cool lighting, managing to make the room feel hip and inviting while belying it’s humble origins. Only a few years removed from its existence as a beloved grilled cheese window, the space was elegantly redesigned and professionally equipped for live DJ sets and streaming radio. Inspired by similar independent radio stations in cities like London and New York, NFR was conceived to be a hub for the city’s burgeoning music community and a beacon to show Vancouver, along with the rest of the world, that Canada’s No Fun City might be having some fun after all.
Javan Avent, one of No Fun Radio’s founders and station managers, shared his surprise at the breadth and depth of interest in what has become a largely volunteer-driven initiative: “It’s like you shoot out a beacon in the sky and you don’t know if you’re going to get anything back.”
A year-and-a-half after opening its doors, the response has been emphatic. No Fun Radio now streams over 100 original shows featuring more than 130 DJs, seven hours a day, seven days a week, to listeners from more than six dozen countries around the world. At last count, there were over 2,350 recorded shows playing a multitude of musical genres archived on NFR’s constantly-updated website.
“We wanted to lead with diversity for sure,” says Avent, “and we didn’t want to exclude anybody from being involved. Of course we only have so many hours in the day for programming, so there’s a ceiling on that. But honestly, when we started it was this idea of either you have a good idea or you have a really extensive music collection you might share, and although you may not have the skills to DJ already, we didn’t hold that as a barrier to entry.”
“I really liked the idea of opening the space up and giving people basic training, but also learning on the fly, and people just kinda came out of the woodwork in a way that we didn’t expect and wanted to be involved in what we’re doing. And then to see them go through this whole process and now see some of them have confidence to start their own DJ night; It’s really been an interesting process to see Vancouver kind of step up…I think what these satellite stations are offering is a glimpse into each city’s community, which is really inspiring.”
Interdisciplinary artist and musician KC Wei is a fine example of this. KC runs Agony Klub, a music and printed matter label focused on works of a “#popularesoteric” nature, and hosts a monthly show on NFR of the same name. Her show plays music and sounds from the local artist-musician community, interwoven with music, poetry, film clips, and texts from elsewhere. “NFR is a place of convergence, and a place to test things out and learn about what we are all doing, what we’re influenced by,” says Wei, “It’s also been a learning experience and is continually so—when we started I’d never DJ’d anything before.”
When speaking with some of the local talent involved with NFR, it becomes clear that public spaces and platforms for people with an interest and passion for music are an invaluable community resource. One of the major supporters of this idea is Rico Uno, a popular, homegrown DJ with several nightclub residencies across downtown Vancouver. Rico began his career at UBC community radio station CITR and contributed to one of the first hip hop shows on No Fun Radio.
“What I got from (CITR) radio, I think No Fun is providing that for another generation. Spaces like the record store where I met (current DJ partner) Eric, aren’t really necessary to visit anymore because you don’t need to go to physical spaces to buy music—it’s problematic because you can’t meet people online (and) that human interaction is so important.”
“As artists you show up at the radio station, you meet other DJs that are doing things, and build those relationships that you need for a community. I think No Fun Radio serves (that) need—for community and for building the culture of the city.”
While offering a hub for Vancouver’s musical community, No Fun Radio also serves as a platform for those same community members to develop their skills, refine their tastes, and find avenues for success within the music industry itself. Nick Wisdom, a local producer and DJ who hosts the Polar Radio Show on NFR and whose group Potatohead People does over a hundred thousand streams per month on Spotify, speaks to the importance of community in finding success in music:
“The most success I ever had was through working with other people and community-based events like the DJ Nights, my label, events like Loop Sessions that bring lots of people together, for whatever reason, those types of things are just way more powerful. You can really get recognized for something like that—people are more down for that. I think that power in numbers is a real thing in the creative world.”
Such events taking place live, on video and broadcast over streaming services, and from different cities is, perhaps, the most likely evolution of the NFR experience according to KC: “We’d really like to take No Fun Radio on the road in some format… It’s like, let’s go and share music and let’s go and explore music that’s happening outside of the city as well. Again, it’s all down to financial things.”
Regardless of the financial needs such ventures might require, the team at NFR seem determined to remain mostly publicly funded. which makes public donations and government funding extremely important to keeping the lights on and the music streaming. “We don’t want to dilute what we’re doing with the wrong things.” says Avent. “There’s ways to dilute something to the point of extinction. And the model for these online stations is undoubtedly independent.”
While it may be ironic that such an independently-minded venture is so heavily rooted in building community—the devotion that community has to the project hasn’t been lost on the people who run it: “People who do shows here really take pride and ownership of the space” says Avent. “It’s the lighting” says KC.