Industry Insider: OpenLab's Quentin Chambers On Radio In The Digital Era

We also chat about living up to Robert Miles' legacy with the station he founded.
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Quentin Chambers

Radio in the internet and streaming age has been tough. With large corporations (often heavy in debt) streamlining programming around the current hits, there is little room for forward thinking and innovative shows. That, combined with the challenges posed by internet listening and on-demand streaming has let many radio stations struggling financially. This has opened up the space for niche radio stations that have a strong focus on digital distribution. Opening yourself up to the entire internet allows for billions of more customers, but finding them and getting them to tune in consistently is a challenge. OpenLab is a radio station attempting just that.

Founded by Robert Miles in 2013, the station went offline after Miles’ death in 2017. It re-launched last month, sticking to his vision and bringing in some big name residents like DJ Seinfeld, B-Traits and Fink, plus labels such as Ninja Tune, BBE and Stones Throw. It runs 24 hours a day, matching the time of the day to various moods in electronic music. The morning features Indie Electronica, Nu Soul, the afternoon: Ambient House, Broken Beats, Sunset: Chill-Tech, Balearic Electric Evening: Experimental House, Electro, night: Deep Electronic, Future Techno, late night: IDM, Experimental and dawn: Ambient, Healing Frequencies.

To find out how this revival came to be and their vision with the future, we chatted with managing director Quentin Chambers who founded both the UK’s legendary ‘Energy’ raves in the late 80’s, and the online-radio station Groovetech.com in the late 90’s. We go over how Miles’ vision remains in the station, the challenges of being in radio today, how to operate in Ibiza in the off-season and more.

The station is live on FM radio in Ibiza, while also plotting an LA station later this year. They have a large studio in Barcelona as well. Find out more information on the station and their upcoming events in Ibiza this summer here. Don't forget to tune in now online.

Why are you reviving the radio station now?

I was personally very close to OpenLab over many years, having been working with Robert Miles on the stations strategy since 2013. After Robert’s sad passing, and the subsequent closure of the station, myself and other members of the team decided that we wanted to take the platform forward. We all believe in Robert’s vision, and had been working on the project passionately for years, so it felt natural to revive OpenLab.

How did you pick your residents? Was it tough to get some of the bigger names?

Whilst OpenLab is an eclectically programmed station, it’s also esoteric. We want to support the most creative and independent minded talent, in both the future pioneers and the trailblazers, but we also look for artists that share our eclecticism, yet have real identity. We started to reach out to artists we love earlier this year to tell them about our plans, and it was humbling how much support we started to receive. We are building relationships with artists that share our vision, and so no it's not been too tough to bring in some established names.

How will the spirit of Robert Miles live on in Open Lab?

Robert gave so much of himself to OpenLab. It was his passion and he worked incredibly hard to create and maintain it. His vision for OpenLab was to recapture the avant-garde eclecticism that first made Ibiza famous, and to build a platform for a like minded community offering something unique to those that wish to discover, not just music, but visual art, design and architecture too. Whilst we of course need to operate the business now under our own guidance, Robert’s vision for OpenLab remains firmly in tact and lives on through what we are delivering now.

What is the biggest economic challenge of being an independent radio station in 2019?

There are huge challenges for any radio station in a market that’s been highly disrupted over the last decade from the adoption of streaming and satellite. Whilst OpenLab does not do traditional pre roll advertising, those advertising dollars and listening time are being sucked away from the radio format and into the on-demand and large platform based services. Investing in the technology and potentially the extra licensing costs to try and compete with internet and streaming giants is not only costly, but in many cases, unless you have a really strong connection with your audience, extremely risky. This is why OpenLab’s focus is being both a local and international platform beyond radio, and into arts and events.

What is a challenge that may be under the radar of the general public?

The cost of being in the radio business, especially owning and operating a legal FM frequency such as OpenLab’s, is incredibly high. So high in fact that if we were to operate on FM alone, I do not believe the business would be sustainable without heavy advertising. This is why we ask our community to support the station online by way of donations, and why we are launching a number of initiatives across our business plan to generate revenue for the company.

Why are you sticking to the Ibiza airwaves and how do you anticipate listening patterns to be in the off-season?

Ibiza is our home and we are actually expanding our presence here, with an amazing new hub space where we will be recording live sessions, and hosting intimate events around music, art and community, and these will run through the whole year. Out of season the station will continue to broadcast, unlike some. Of course we will have less listeners, but those we do have will be extremely pleased to have us on air.

How will the expansion to LA impact your reach on air and off?

We are really excited about launching in the US and building a home in LA. The US is already OpenLab’s third biggest audience online, and we are hopeful that the community there will really embrace us. Certainly when you look at market opportunities, the US is by far the largest, and for a radio station the US brings extra opportunity via Satellite (something not rolled out in Europe).

Why did you assign moods to various parts of the day as a way to create your daily airing schedule? How was this sorted out?

We want OpenLab to be a station you just don’t want to turn off. Because we are not focused on a single genre, but instead have a singular approach to our sound over all (accessible yet innovative), we want to take our listeners on a journey through the day and night, creating a constantly changing musical story from sunset to sunrise, one that resonates with your mood.

Our approach to curation is incredibly involved. We have number of specialists across different genres in our team and as a team we collaborate on building out this musical experience, by programming the right track for the right time of day. We use the same approach with our shows. These are always being programmed at the time of day we feel is absolutely appropriate. We are going further than this even, and developing our own technology that will deliver very unique features to our global audience. More on that soon.

How did you get into the industry?

I have been involved in music, and especially electronic music and culture, since I was very young. In 1988, aged 18 I was a member of the fledgling acid house community in London, and started to organize raves. In 1989 I founded and ran ‘Energy,’ which were quite seminal raves and have been widely reported on (the big ones around the M25 in fields, hangars and warehouses). I stopped promoting in 1992, when it became un-manageable, and instead carried on as a DJ (TinTin) for the next decade, playing all over the world, during which time I helped develop some event brands with friends in both the US and Japan. In 1997 I had the opportunity to switch careers when I set up one of the first ever online radio stations, Groovetech (.com), which as well as being the first real online electronic music brand, we took onto the stock market via an IPO in 2001. We were too early though, and sadly folded in the crash that followed. I have worked within digital music companies ever since, and was a consultant and team member with OpenLab since 2013, which is what lead me to want to take the platform on.

What drew you to radio?

I've always loved radio. It’s just an amazing medium for communicating, and when its right it's just so much more enjoyable that the stress from the tyranny of choice we all deal with on “lean forward” services such as Spotify and Youtube. With radio, you lean back, enjoy and often learn and discover. I’m especially drawn to the junction between radio, new technology and community.

What do you look for in potential employees?

The most important quality we look for in employees is passion. Of course in certain areas of the business key experience and knowledge is vital, as well as relationships, but in general someone’s energy is what’s going to make a difference. In a tough business, with the company very much in start up mode, we rely on a lot of good will from those working with us, with many of the team giving their time unpaid. It’s only a passionate person who’s going to be motivated in these situations.

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