Images| Cam Campbell

To put it simply, we love RTRFM.

The community radio station has been a staple of the WA music scene for more than 40 years, championing local tunes and diverse sounds since day one.

As a proud sponsor of RTRFM, ALBY decided to sit down for a yarn with the station’s general manager Karen Lee.  

What do you see as the role of RTR within the WA music community?

RTRFM provides a unique platform for people to hear Western Australian music. Radio is a powerful medium not only for connecting people and art, creating soundtracks which embed themselves in people’s memories, but it’s the single best way for artists to build audiences.  We have around 300,000 listeners each month on FM and digital radio, plus a significant audience for restreamed content.  30% of the music we play during peak programming is Western Australian, and we live broadcast, record and film a local band playing in our studio weekly during out Slightly Odway segment, which 100,000 people have watched over the last two years.  We feature around 350 interviews with local bands every year, across a variety of different shows. There are daily gig guides which are researched and relevant. Many of the artists we play do not get played anywhere else. Our role in connecting music to audiences is critical, and our local music culture would be completely different without it.

Despite rapid technological change, people are still listening to the radio, and if the radio is turning them on to high quality local music, they will connect with it, share it with their friends, and invest in it by buying tickets and records (or downloads!).

Have you always been an RTR listener… do you have any special memories of the station as a listener?

Yes! I’ve been listening to RTRFM for more than 20 years.  As a teenager in the suburbs, I can remember hearing half a song from Blur’s Modern Life Is Rubbish, buying the album and entering an entire world of alternative music through that particular selection by an RTR presenter.  Like lots of young people, I had only heard what was being played on commercial radio before that, so it was like a door opening to a secret place.  While I was still at school my friends and I would wait for the local music program Homegrown to come on every Saturday; it revealed to me a local music scene which has filled my life with joy and led me to a fulfilling creative career connecting artists and audiences through music and good times.  It’s funny to say that Brit Pop led me to a rich cultural life which now includes neo-soul from New York, contemporary jazz from Norway, dub from New Zealand, 70’s highlife from Nigeria and more, but it did, thanks to the eclectic programming on RTR!  I would never have found the music, people and work I have without RTR.

What appealed to you about taking on the RTRFM GM role?

The station is a crucial part of my life in Perth, and I care deeply about its prosperity, its culture, and its place in my community, so I was excited by the idea of playing a role in making sure it thrives.  With my background in music business and creative and community projects, it seemed like a good match for my skill set and that’s proving to be true. I think I’m using every single thing I’ve ever learnt in work, and possibly in life at RTR! Plus about a million people said it was the perfect job for me. Maybe they were right.

You’ve been in the job for nearly a year – what’s surprised you?

How a community of people ranging in age from 15 to 80 who like everything from doom metal to show tunes make a cohesive station which listeners love, and turn up, just for the love of it, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.  It is an astonishing community enterprise.  How people are open to being challenged, to finding out about new music that they would never otherwise encounter. How people treasure the shows they love, and their loyalty to RTR, how they realise this is something special which we need to care for. How supported RTRFM is by so many people, including artists, in WA.

Your work history has been diverse, how do you reflect on your career and what jobs/moments have stood out to you?

I think the lovely thing is that I’ve been able to integrate the things I care about in life: art, music, people, place, stories, community, the environment, into my working life and make a contribution. I’m particularly happy that I’ve been part of the creation of experiences where people come together and make meaningful connections with each other and with local culture like the Wave Rock Weekender and the Hidden Treasures series in Fremantle.  Working for a previous State Labor Government which led the country in government support for creative industries, investing five million dollars in WA contemporary music, was memorable and important too.

What’s special about WA music?

We have a collaborative and mutually supportive local scene and some space from the rest of the country and the world which allows musicians to experiment and find different paths.  We have to make our own fun. That is a fertile environment for beautiful art and creative success.

What are the challenges for RTR moving forward?

Funding is a consistent challenge of community radio. Stations like RTRFM are usually funded by people and businesses who care about local music, local stories, and local voices, and all our presenters are volunteers who are passionate about the music they play and the issues they cover.  Our operating costs are around $20,000 per week, and governments don’t fund the essential infrastructure required to support our radio-making and audio storytelling, and allow us to manage and develop the talented, creative volunteers who produce and present our eclectic mix of programs.  We need more of our listeners to become subscribers and more local businesses to support us through sponsorship to sustainably fund the station. Independent media is critical to a well-functioning society and media consolidation and corporate control make it harder for the stories and work of local people, small organisations and independent artists to be heard. RTRFM therefore fulfils an essential function in our cultural landscape.

Social and technological trends present ongoing challenges and opportunities for us and other community radio stations. There are many new ways to find and listen to music, and we’re keeping pace by making sure we’re available on digital radio, for restreaming, via apps and smart speakers, and by turning some of our broadcast content into podcasts available on various platforms. To do that we need to navigate a technological and legal landscape, and support our presenters to produce contemporary content. That takes resources which are sometimes in short supply, and puts pressure on us as we’re drawn in lots of different directions by the swift pace of change and the exciting opportunities on offer. 

I think though that, particularly in terms of finding music which really blows your skirt up, nothing beats hearing an unfamiliar track individually selected by a person who is a passionate expert in their genre of choice, played in the context of a beautifully curated selection of songs, linked by knowledge. Someone who has spent thousands of hours hunting for music which they love, which deeply affects them, can convey that enthusiasm to listeners with conviction.  We know that makes people feel something. And we observe that people do want to connect with each other through music. They call us, email us, send shout-outs, come to our live music events, and many of them do subscribe. We continue to foster community in traditional and modern ways. The human social drive and desire to share things still exists, even when algorithms are supplying much of our information and entertainment.

What do you want to achieve in your time at RTR?

I’d like to lead innovation in the way we tell the stories of our city and our people. I’d like to continue the work of making space for and amplifying diverse voices, women’s voices. I’d like to improve opportunities for creative collaboration and professional development for our 350 volunteer presenters. I’d like to build a more sustainable revenue base to fund our operations with the help of the station’s many supporters. I’d like to make sure our community, listeners, and subscribers feel connected to each other, their city, and its culture. Stuff like that.

What are you listening to right now?

Tropical Fuck Storm’s Braindrops. It’s incredible. Also our local feature this week, a compilation from Perth label Hidden Shoal and whatever RTRFM’s Music Director, Will, tells me to listen to, via our excellent entry point to new music, the weekly Sound Selection.