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Spaces Between the Beats is a series spotlighting music and cultural communities around the world, exploring their stories as they build resilience and find meaning and hope in connection.
“Before I started the project, I thought for a long time about what I wanted to give to Ukrainian culture,” Oleksii Makarenko tells me as he leans forward over Zoom, the Kyiv skyline visible through a window behind him. “And the answer came unexpectedly: fuel.”
Makarenko, who was previously the editor-in-chief of the culture magazine, Katakult, is recollecting the idea he and his friend/fellow cultural gatekeeper Valentin Bobylev came up with during the summer of 2021. Fuel, he explains, became the metaphor for what would become their online community station, Gasoline Radio.
Broadcasting throughout the war from a small rented studio next door to Kultura Zvuku, the music school Bobylev co-runs in the city’s downtown district of Podil, Gasoline Radio connects listeners across Kyiv’s cultural community and beyond. Since it was launched in the middle of Russia's full-scape invasion, its programming has provided a consistent NTS-rivalling schedule of curators from Kyiv’s underground electronic scene and beyond. Gasoline plays music that has a foot in the city’s club culture but whose roots go deeper into Ukrainian heritage, shared memory and a desire to re-establish a sense of homegrown visibility that the two felt was missing from the landscape, even before the war.
“There was no specialised media that could represent Ukraine for Ukrainians,” Makarenko explains, “because for a long time we were looking for something outside Ukraine.” The duo found this reflected in nightlife, where arts venues like Closer and club nights like Cxema were helping spread a vitality towards underground culture, particularly amongst the younger generation who’d come of age in and around the decade following the Maidan revolution. The ability for western Europeans to get to the city on budget flights also helped boost the city’s reputation internationally. Yet, within this vibrant cultural landscape, certain sounds – predominantly techno, electro and its splintering sub-genres – were given prime visibility.
“In every club lineup you could find only ten names, only popular names. There was no place for young artists.” Makarenko says. “It was super hard because the scene was focused on one direction in music. We don’t have a big pool of selectors in Ukraine that are playing a different kind of music because there was not a wide range of venues, and for lots of artists, playing dancefloor-oriented music was the only way to get closer to being in the community.”
With the idea developing for a community radio station that would allow curators to go deep and explore sounds beyond dancefloor expectations, the pair got to work, but then world events happened. “We made the first announcement that we’d be launching in February ’22,” Makarenko says, looking back with a shrug.
It’s now just over a year since the station’s launch and, at the time of writing, their daily operation’s biggest worries aren’t those associated with the most immediate consequences of war, but of a subsequent lack of resources. There hasn't been heavy shelling or power shortages for several months now. Life in Kyiv goes on: people go to work and do sports, cafés, bars and restaurants are open, the print edition of Vogue Ukraine resumed in mid-April and, within the constraints of a daily midnight curfew, the club scene has adjusted to hosting day parties. “Now we all watch the news, read news and donate money,” says Maya Baklanova, writer, party organiser and co-founder of the much missed cultural platform Tight. “And in daily life there’s a lot of sad news of someone you knew or donated money to, but in general life is still going on thanks to our armed forces.”
In a city where a big part of resistance comes from carrying on, culture has two clear roles to play. On a financial level, everything from exhibitions to parties have become focussed on collecting money for different initiatives, such as the Zelenskyy-launched UNITED24, designed to allocate donations across defence and de-mining, medical aid and redevelopment efforts. On another level, culture’s role as an amplifier of the spirit has become heightened.
“Gasoline’s role is extremely important,” Baklanova says, “I don’t think they (at the station) understand how big their role is.”
Now, over a year into broadcasting, Gasoline Radio’s closest comparisons are international – like the aforementioned London-based NTS, whose mission to feed curious minds echoes Makarenko and Bobylev’s aim to dig into Ukrainian culture, or newer enterprises like Berlin’s Refuge Worldwide, which grew out of a fundraising platform set to help the influx of refugees within Germany. Then there's Munich’s Radio8000 and Poland’s Radio Kapital – all streaming platforms that represent different communities without the regulations of commercial broadcasters, allowing curators the freedom to experiment and expand regional sonic dialogue.
“We have a lot of cases when techno DJs have come to us to play guest mixes and have decided to play instead some classical music from Ukrainian composers,” Makarenko says, feeling a change in the air, “which is super nice because after that we had a lot of feedback from people saying ‘oh, my grandpa is listening to Gasoline Radio!’”
“Gasoline doesn’t earn money,” Baklanova clarifies, “they do it just because they want to promote Ukrainian culture during the war and act as a platform for people who stay in Ukraine.” But providing a cultural platform on a voluntary basis, with limited resources is exhausting. “This situation also has an impact on the team,” Makarenko adds, “as there are not many people involved in the project and we’re all balancing full-time work with radio tasks.”
The term “Westsplaining” comes up multiple times in conversations I have with cultural representatives in Kyiv. Westsplaining refers to attitudes the West has towards Ukraine and the war – about not supplying arms, instead broadly proclaiming a desire for peace, and how this comes without an understanding of the long history of Russian dominance over Ukraine. Westsplaining also filters into European conversations that question the importance of cultural activities, such as launching a radio station, during wartime.
“It may seem weird for people abroad that we still have restaurants open, parties, concerts, that we dance and smile,” says Andrew Bez, who switches from his day job as a foreign media correspondent to hosting on Gasoline. “Probably they can’t really understand this. And I hope they never can. For us it’s a way to show each other that we’re not going to die, we have our life and this is what we’re defending. So it’s the same with Gasoline: they work for musical community to exist, they keep the fire burning.”
“Community is an exchange of attention, ideas and support,” Bez goes on to say, “And then cultural projects appear. At the very beginning of the invasion fear, panic and confusion almost stopped and destroyed everything in our lives, but then very quickly people started to get back to manage things. Because we understood that this is an important part of resistance – to keep alive, love, create and work. It’s about the economy of course, but also it’s about a state of mind. We would never survive if we were just sitting and crying desperately.”
“It’s important to have a possibility to express yourself during the full-scale war,” Sasha Potrox, the host of one of Gasoline Radio’s most regular shows, REJOICED, tells me. “Our radio helps DJs, musicians and authors with the equipment and studio in case you lost yours or you’re not well-off [enough] to buy something.” Although Sasha has been mixing since the age of 13, performing at school parties in his family home region of Luhansk, he’d trained as a banker and felt he’d never have the possibility to play records on radio until he saw the news about Gasoline. Potrox began planning his weekly show under regular missile attacks, working remotely, with the show’s designer creating the artwork from a shelter and their engineer struggling through electricity blackouts to master the podcast.
“The most difficult episode we prepared was with Ninasupsa (a Georgian DJ & Mutant Radio’s co-founder),” Potrox goes on to say. “Last November we were facing Russian missile attacks constantly, and in the few days before the release date my phone broke, we were without electricity and water for 2.5 days and received the artwork from our designer in the last minute before the drop. Against all the odds, we did it.”
Gasoline’s presence as a 24/7, globally available platform offers a bridge of international visibility. Despite the uncertainties of broadcasting during an ongoing war and stretched resources, Makarenko sounds tired but positive on the day we speak: “I really enjoy the feeling that everything for the scene is changing,” he says. “That it’s forming in some new ways with a new vision, that we are not these victims but we are strong, and that this is a brighter vision of the future.”
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Images in collage courtesy of Gasoline Radio and WikiCommons.