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If you’re into quality, local, and independent music, enjoy being treated to an aural smorgasbord of global sounds, and don’t give a flying flip about those tunes being interspersed with witty repartee about Kylie Jenner’s latest foray into unnecessarily trendy makeup — you’ve likely been blasting Radioactive, or community-based stations like it, into your earholes for decades. If you’d like to endow yourself with a little history about this bastion of Wellington musical culture, then hot damn, you’re in luck! I recently sat down with Miles Buckingham, the station’s long-time music manager, to get the lowdown on all things Active.
Salient: At what point in the life of the station did you join, and what made you interested in it?
Miles Buckingham: The station started in 1977, but I joined in late February 1986, which makes me feel so old! Before I even enrolled at Victoria, I went into Active and told them I wanted to be involved, and they said “Come back once you’re enrolled!” So I came back three hours later, they trained me up, and that was that.
S: What was your role at Active during that time?
MB: I ended up doing the Friday night shows, which was a lot of playing records and blathering on air, and just hung around a lot! That eventually wound up with me running their mobile disco, which was a lot of fun. It involved driving around with a fairly substantial amount of sound equipment in a really crappy car, and getting some money on the side for Active, DJing these university parties. I actually managed to recruit a number of Active DJs playing The Jesus and Mary Chain and bands like that at those events.
S: How did Active undergo the transition from university radio station to where it is now?
MB: That all happened around 1989. By that time I was just doing shows, as my academic career had well and truly gone down the toilet [chuckles]. The students’ association at Victoria had decided that Active was costing too much money and that it could stand on its own two feet. That involved them putting a security guard on the door and changing the locks to the station, although I think Liam Luff managed to break back in and run “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy on a loop.
It then resulted in around 25 Active DJs and fans getting together, each chipping in $2000, and setting it up as a limited liability company; suddenly it was financially viable again. We stayed at the Students’ Association building for a while, then moved the station down into Ghuznee Street, just across from where we are now.
S: What kind of contribution do you think Radioactive has made to Wellington and New Zealand’s musical communities?
MB: Well, I don’t think something like Fat Freddy’s Drop would’ve existed without Radioactive, because Mu (Chris Faiumu, the group’s founding member) was such a huge part. The station was the meeting point between a lot of musical cultures that allowed him to formulate his style.
We are more often than not the first station to play a lot of New Zealand artists, which can be quite a big thing. If you want to talk to Matt from Universal Music, he will maintain that we were the first radio station in Aotearoa to play Lorde’s “Royals”.
S: Can you think of any particular moments that strike you as really emblematic of your time at Active?
MB: One time, we were doing a chocolate delivery promotion, and so I had to cart around this chocolate, riding around Wellington on a completely illegal motor scooter. We dubbed it something like “the burgundy putt-putt”. I was doing these live reports back to the station on a field telephone and having to pull over whenever I had to talk, as the phone obviously didn’t fit under the helmet!
Another one was getting kicked out of the Newtown Bowling Club at our 30th birthday party as a station, because Beastwars were playing on the lawn, and they were a little bit loud! That was pretty momentous.
S: I assume, as music manager, that a significant part of your job is trawling through platforms like Bandcamp and Soundcloud to find new music. Does it get difficult at times to divorce yourself from your own subjective taste, so that you can provide a wide sonic variety to the listeners?
MB: Yeah, I get to sit around looking for stuff that people would otherwise be wasting their time looking for, in a “normal” workplace. When I got the job, the joke was that the station was going to be just nonstop Congolese rumba, as that would’ve reflected the music that I was actually listening to at the time. But I think my job requires you to go outside of yourself and think, is this a good song, is this going to work for our listeners, is it filling a part of the jigsaw puzzle that our on-air sound is?
S: Coming back to your own tastes, are there any local acts that have been really exciting you recently?
MB: Lake South! Really looking forward to his album, which is out mid-March. Also this morning I discovered a Kiwi two-piece called Coyote. It’s possibly ever so slightly unlistenable, but really good! They’re one of the guys from Rackets and his 13-year-old brother, and they make this wild, lo-fi, clunky electronica, but with singing, and what they’re singing about is awesome.
S: Finally, are you able to discuss what you think the ethos of the station is, possibly what has made you stick around so long?
MB: I would definitely say diversity, and supporting local music. Active’s relevance to the community has changed as Wellington has changed, but its ability to be a thriving part of the multiple cultures and subcultures of Wellington has been a constant, and has become even more important now.
Throughout the ‘90s there was this real groundswell, suddenly there were all these New Zealand bands. We were the only station that was supporting them, so we got to be the centre of this super cool thing. I really hope that’s something that we continue to do.
You can find Radioactive on the airwaves at 88.6FM, and wherever good WiFi exists at www.radioactive.fm.