Radio Panik, or how radio saved the Belgian underground

Bringing the unheard and oft forgotten to the airwaves, Brussels’ Radio Panik began as a pirate radio over 30 years ago with the stated aim of giving the city’s underground fringes a platform from which to run loose. Having since grown into a full-blown FM dial, the radio today is home to a multitude of wide-ranging shows, its daily schedule reading like a potpourri of niche interests, from slots manned by people suffering from mental illnesses to others dedicated to furthering feminist causes as well as the straight-up music ones. All in all, the radio fulfils a necessary function within the community, similar to that of a neighbourhood paper, one which eschews the mainstream’s take on playlists for more human, down-to-earth content produced from the ground on up. We speak to the radio’s programmer and long-time hosts to find out what, exactly, it is that keeps them from chugging on, day in day out.

All photography by Joke De Wilde (c).

Going up five flights of stairs in a stately black-gated mansion bang in the centre of Saint-Josse / Sint-Joost, Radio Panik’s makeshift living room is the first thing that greets visitors. With walls covered top to bottom with stickers, posters and flyers – reminiscent of your local youth centre – you’d be forgiven for forgetting the militant ideals that Radio Panik’s founding members imbued their antenna with. Home to over 250 volunteers that contribute towards managing the station’s daily going ons, the space has evolved into something of a second home to most, evident in the near 24/7 presence of some. And while the radio’s organisation has something of a reputation for being a tad messy and chaotic, it is precisely this freedom – I distantly overheard a duo discussing if the weather will allow for them to host their show from up on the roof – that appeals to so many Radio Panik die-hards.

Unapologetically non-commercial, Radio Panik first came to life under the hospice of Carlos Damata, replacing independent local magazine Le Courrier 1030 in 1983, with the aim of reaching a bigger crowd. Setting up its first studios in Schaerbeek’s Rue Gallait / Gallaitstraat, it was founded on left-wing and anti-fascist ideals, with the antenna operating under the mainstream radar, by-passing sponsored content and conspicuous merchandising. Instead, a deep-rooted love for anything leftfield as well as a strong local engagement underpinned its overall ethos.

Today, 34 years on, Radio Panik’s original founders have moved on, and while the radio is less blatantly militant today – extreme-right politics aren’t as prevalent in Brussels as they used to be – it’s still a place where citizens are free and welcome to address public issues ranging from homelessness and gender (Chroniques Mutantes’ weekly show on anything and everything feminist, anarchist and trans-pedagogical being one example) to mental health (Psylence Radio gives the microphone to people suffering from mental health issues once a week), immigration, diversity and equality. Deeply involved in activism, one of Radio Panik’s goals is to give a platform to marginalised groups. Indeed, for the past six years now, the radio has for the most part been funded by the French community as an institution of permanent education. “The idea is to give people the possibility to speak their minds, to defend ideas that have a hard time finding their place elsewhere. And these ideas and opinions can vary greatly, depending on who you hand the microphone to,” says Pierre De Jaeger, Radio Panik’s programmer.  “We don’t pretend to be objective when in reality we aren’t,” he clarifies. “It allows for a direct discourse, with a strong position, one that we assume completely. We’re not at all claiming to have more merit than everyday discourse. It’s about allowing people to share what’s on their mind.”

While the message used to be more of a collective one, nowadays it’s more the personal vision of the host that’s brought forward.

“The militancy is still there, although in a different way than before. While the message used to be more of a collective one, nowadays it’s more the personal vision of the host that’s brought forward,” says Nico Bogaerts, who’s been hosting his weekly and quasi-unpronounceable Moacrealsloa radio show for a quarter of a century, aptly celebrating the show’s 24th birthday last year with an airwave marathon that ran for 24-hours straight. Getting his start at Radio Panik as a maths student at the city’s VUB University, all it took for him to start his own show with a group of friends was a crash-course in broadcasting and he was good to go. “Radio Panik is all about giving a platform to beginning bands and musicians that don’t fit in the mainstream music industry. We often bring bands up to the fifth floor with their drums and all, and they’re well aware of the fact that the sound isn’t going to be amazing quality, but they know that the energy will always be there. It’s really about the DIY-ethos,” Nico goes on, his voice upping a notch or two in enthusiasm. A purist at heart, he and many of his fellow hosts still strongly believe in the added value of curated radio stations and shows. “Nowadays it’s the big internet platforms that tell people what to listen to. Bandcamp, Soundcloud, Mixcloud and the likes are all based on precise algorithms that will make exact suggestions, and in that way these companies are partly responsible for people’s tastes in music,” Nico states fiercely.

Admittedly, defining Radio Panik’s underlying thread doesn’t come easy – the sheer amount of shows on offer can prove daunting for some – but according to Pierre it’s as simple as just turning on the radio and letting yourself be engulfed by the waves: “Listening to a self-constructed radio, where people compose their listening schedule based on podcasts, has its limits. It’s not something you always want to do, to be your own curator. It’s nice at times to just turn on the radio and let yourself be surprised by what comes out of it. I’m convinced that it still plays an important role in people’s lives. Even if it’s just to hear what’s happening at one place at a certain moment in time. Connecting to a radio is connecting to the people who are creating radio, just as well as connecting with an entire community of people that’s listening at that specific moment.”

Musically, Radio Panik has become synonymous with a sanctuary for anyone and everyone fond of the eccentric and experimental. An invaluable talent pool in its own right, the station has seen the entire experimental, avant-garde and underground music scene of Brussels and beyond come through its doors, with a schedule that can start off with gospel on a Sunday morning, ethno-ambient cyber jazz at midday and end with a late-nighter of psytrance. Tommy De Nys, programmer at Brussels’ Les Ateliers Claus, hosts his famed treasure hunt show on Radio Panik (which also airs on Los Angeles’ Dublab station), US-born Zen Jefferson – better known to locals as Dove Cake – also has his own slot and even the Baudoux brothers (Lawrence Le Doux and DJ Elephant Power) once graced the studios with their weekly Electrosoldes show over a decade ago, scheduled right before Front de Cadeaux producer and DJ Maurizio Ferrara’s beloved Brussels Alternative Show.

Radio Panik has become synonymous with a sanctuary for anyone and everyone fond of the eccentric and experimental.

Maurizio, who collaborated with everyone from Felix Kubin to Lexi Disques’ Catherine Pleneveaux, has been hosting the Brussels Alternative Show for 20 years now. Initially starting out at Radio Campus, he failed the obligatory technical exam. “They kicked me out because I was using their ReVox (tape recorders). Not that I didn’t know how to handle them. Nevertheless, Radio Campus’ security kicked me out – by force.” And while there’s definitely no lack of longstanding shows on the platform, one can notice, little by little, more of a blend between the old-timers and today’s younger generation of music fiends: Maurizio widened his show’s scope to include other DJs and producers, with both Handless DJ, Lawrence Le Doux, Dimitri Runkkari and Maurizio managing the show. “After 20 years, I did tell myself that it was high time to include others on the show. I’ve always had guests, though. But co-hosts are a different story. Younger people look for things that I don’t necessarily look for. And they’re fast learners. It’s interesting to work with different generations at once,” he says. A firm believer in the energy and power that comes along with recording together in a studio, Maurizo is quite sceptical towards pre-recorded podcasts. “Interacting with your public is one of the first priorities. It’s all well and fine to announce your show on social media two days in advance. But it doesn’t compare to posting a photo, for example, when you’re in the studio. It shows engagement and people will automatically be more inclined to tune in.”

As for the Brussels Alternative Show itself, it’s all about discoveries: “We’re just as likely to play electro, punk, dub and experimental music as well as a Gregorian chant. You get the point. The idea behind it being to break the idea of mono-style clubbing, where over the course of a night it’s either techno or house.” Of course BAS has nothing to do with clubbing per se, but more with creating 90-minutes of music where at times you’ll want to dance and at other times dream and meditate.

It’s nice at times to just turn on the radio and let yourself be surprised by what comes out of it.

For a while in the early aughts though, it looked as though old school radio was done with. A somewhat antiquated medium, FM radio was well on its way to be made obsolete by the rise of digital technologies. Today, online and community-based radios are on the rise again, although heavily adapted to digital demands. Not one to be outdone, Panik has adapted to the times, albeit by taking baby-steps rather than a 180-degree shift. “It’s a bit of a paradox really. Radio Panik is underground. Underground is becoming hyped. But when you’re really underground, there’s an entire space between the two. There’s a whole mass of people that you need to contact through the airwaves, and by maintaining more ancient ways of communication – it’s to say: one where you have to listen to the radio to know what’s going to be on tomorrow, one where you have to absolutely visit the website… It’s good to be up-to-date with current technologies. It’s only been a couple of months that our shows have been made available online for online re-listening. There was a whole issue with Sabam, who charged an impossible price for it, but it’s crucial. We’re in 2017, and re-listening to a show afterwards just has to be made possible,” says Maurizio, with Pierre offering a more nuanced point of view. “I can imagine that the purely digital crowd will always be there, those who won’t perceive the interest of coming, or listening to the radio. But at the same time I’m noticing more and more demand from people, contacting us with their ideas. It’s all in the combination of both antenna and online. Doing solely online content doesn’t necessarily give you the strong foundation you need. Luckily though, radio is very compatible with the internet.”

Bottom line, the aim isn’t to reach gigantic crowds but, rather, the right ones. “We’d of course like to communicate better, and be more visible. People often don’t even know we exist, and we’re the kind of organism in which communication is always a bit of a third wheel,” Pierre mentions. One could say that Radio Panik’s legacy is there not in spite of, but because of its size. The small-scale allowing for the creating of something that’s truly inclusive, and one that’s all about community. Day and night. “Radio Panik will always have its characteristic nocturnal side. There are a lot of DJs on our roster, most of which voluntarily start a party in the studio, often reflected on air as well. Things get late more than once in a while,” Pierre grins.