Music

Listening to student radio reconnects audiences with the power of niche obsessions. By Shaad D’Souza.

How student radio offers an alternative to the familiar

A broadcasting team in the SYN Radio studios.
Credit: SYN Radio

Australian radio is a machine with familiar rhythms. To switch to the FM band is to be greeted by Fifi, Fitzy, Woody, Hughesy, Jonesy, Carrie, Tommy, Jackie, Jamie, Chrissie, Browny, Smallzy, all of whom seem to host basically the same show, the only show that’s ever been prevalent on hit radio: one to four hours of amiable, forgettable conversation, spread between intermittent blasts of frantic pop and even more frantic advertisements, a kind of building site where nothing is made and everyone’s name is a half rhyme. Even the songs have remained the same: tracks currently in high rotation at pop radio include uncanny electronic dance remixes of hits from the ’70s (Elton John’s “Rocket Man”), ’80s (Fleetwood Mac’s “Everywhere”, Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know”) and 2000s (Powderfinger’s “On My Mind”, redone by a duo called Mashd N Kutcher).

Pop radio, of course, has its place – sometimes I actually do want to hear the same Dua Lipa song three times before breakfast. At other times, though, it seems that in radio vowellessness is next to godliness: community stations such as Melbourne’s 3RRR and PBS, Brisbane’s 4ZZZ and Perth’s RTR remain outposts of insightful, idiosyncratic programming, largely un-playlisted stations that promote hyperlocal content and serve grassroots interests.

My favourite among the community stations, though, is the Student Youth Network, or SYN Media. An anarchic and deeply strange younger cousin to the nation’s more established community stations, SYN is a non-profit station operated entirely by staff, presenters and producers between the ages of 12 and 25. The station recently came of age – it turned 18 last year, and will be 19 later this month – but still embodies the fitful verve of adolescence. If pop radio is a mesh of familiar tropes, and community radio is a bright, unusually patterned alternative, SYN is something else entirely: a home tie-dye job, outlandish but chic, all the better for its patchy irregularity.

SYN first received its community broadcasting licence in December 2001, and began broadcasting in January 2003, after a year of fundraising to establish the necessary infrastructure for the station to operate. Unlike most radio stations, it has few regular shows and fewer regular presenters; the station’s programming grid updates on a seasonal cadence with new shows premiering every 12 weeks, a model that maximises the amount of training and broadcasting experience the station can provide in any given year.

This structure means that shows tend to zero in on extraordinarily niche styles, microgenres, or social issues, the likes of which are rarely given real airtime even on community radio. SYN’s archive is a treasure-trove of bizarrely specific radio shows: a 2019 seasonal show, Written In The Stars, follows three hosts who keep a weekly scorecard of whether their horoscopes align with the events in their lives; the 2017 show Life’s A Gas promoted itself as “Melbourne’s only music show dedicated to the work of Marc Bolan [and] T. Rex”.

Other seasonal shows of the past few years have included a survey of 1960s-’80s Middle Eastern psych music; a history of student radio in Australia; and, for a few chaotic weeks in 2020, a Covid-19 relationship advice show hosted by the drag king Silvio Di Baci, the creation of performer Maria Dunne. The latter show was quintessential SYN – a totally bizarre hour-long program in which Di Baci, affecting a thick, deeply questionable pan-Mediterranean accent, offered relationship help to seemingly fake listeners who had written in asking for advice, and interviewed other drag performers from around Melbourne and Australia. The show oscillated between earnestness and awkward comedy, with Di Baci maintaining his accent, even as his interviewees responded totally earnestly. On the SYN grid, a show such as Wooing People In Isolation makes perfect sense, its destabilising style and tone a perfect fit for a station whose content often bears a mildly experimental veneer.

SYN is currently airing fewer hosted shows than usual, due to restrictions on how many people can be in the studio. The current seasonal shows, though, still carry the station’s usual mix of the populist and the wildly personal. The sweet and remarkably reflexive Cold Hands, Warm Heart, which started last week, finds host Lily Anna trawling through her own childhood diaries, lyrics and art projects as she enters her 20s. The show’s playlist reflects its nostalgic mood: the first episode features warm, sunset-tinged dance music by Parcels, Faye Webster’s syrupy “Right Side Of My Neck”, Hiatus Kaiyote and Bon Iver’s 2008 track “For Emma”.

Other new shows, such as the three-week house music show Fervescence, airing Saturday nights, or the weekly mixed-bag show Sunset Eclectic, are seemingly designed to soundtrack hot summer evenings, offering welcome relief at a time of year that can be bereft of new music.

The fluidity of SYN’s programming is its greatest asset: it is an outlet for shows that are dynamic and strange and, because of their limited lifespan, kind of urgent. There is something inherently precious about this. SYN’s shows are rarely designed to make a commute easier or help kill time: they tend to seek inquisitive, engaged listeners, and, because the station has no direct competition and each show serves only itself, there is no drive towards palatability. Everyone has their own obsessions, and listening to SYN, whether it’s airing a show about Gilmore Girls or Melbourne’s food trucks, can often feel like second-hand wish fulfilment – a utopian transmission given pride of place on the FM band. 

SYN broadcasts on 90.7 FM in Melbourne and at its website.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 8, 2022 as "Love the sinner".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Shaad D’Souza is The Saturday Paper’s music critic.