VergeFM offers a new, needed platform for marginalized voices

Andy Downing

While the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has shuttered countless businesses and operations, and significantly stunted the growth of others, there are new ventures that have begun to form amid the shutdowns. This includes the streaming radio station VergeFM, based out of Columbus, which makes its online debut this Friday, Jan. 15.

Station cofounders Nadia Ayad, Lu Bird and Reg Zehner met briefly at a Skylab Gallery event prior to the shutdown, developing a friendship via Zoom hangouts, texts and group chats during the stay-at-home months that followed. Initially, the three bonded over DJing (an interest each had developed independently within the last year), which led to talks about access within the field, and which, over time, started to shape deeper discussions about creating a new streaming station that could better provide a platform for oft-marginalized artists. 

“I think one way we also bonded is because of how weirdly exclusionary the DJ world still is, or even the dance scene in general,” said Zehner, who joined Ayad on a recent Zoom call. “Nonbinary DJs and women DJs, we all have to come together … because it’s still very male dominated.”

VergeFM, which is housed within 934 Gallery in Milo-Grogan but has a national reach (DJs are based throughout the Midwest and the East Coast, including contributors from cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia), aims to help correct this imbalance, offering airtime to DJs and performers from a range of overlooked communities. 

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While the three quickly agreed on the station’s broader mission statement, everything else has been up for discussion. The trio cycled through myriad names before landing on VergeFM, taken from an overdue library book Zehner checked out prior to the pandemic, and its programming focus is still in flux. At the moment, just a small percentage of its airtime will be dedicated to DJ mixes, with the rest drawing from a broad array of genres and performers. Podcasts, which did well during a successful December sneak peak, will also make up a portion of the programming.

“Starting out, I think we knew what we wanted it to be, but we were also being broad and thinking about a million different components that could be included, and which I still think we want to do,” Ayad said. “Those could include featuring visual artists, or having a blog written by different contributors.”

“I think we knew who we wanted to put on, which was marginalized and emerging artists, since we have those intersecting identities,” Zehner said, “but outside of that, we’d meet every week, and everything else has developed over time.”

Both Zehner and Bird also have past college radio experience, which has helped shape VergeFM’s approach, with Zehner noting that the experience kept them accountable in terms of seeking out new music. The three envision the station’s roster of contributing DJs to maintain a similarly exploratory mindset. 

Along with the creative aspects of founding a station, which is modeled in part on London-based NTS Radio, the three have also learned to navigate technical hurdles (a website is set to launch when the station goes on air Friday) and business demands, including applying for grants and raising capital via crowdfunding. (VergeFM currently hasan active Patreon account, in addition toan ongoing GoFundMe campaign.)

“Figuring out the website, what platform we were going to use to stream… there was so much,” Ayad said. “Thankfully Reg is a coder, or learning how to code, but at least knew enough of the basics to get us started.”

“There have definitely been times when we had mistakes, like the Sunday of our sneak peak, which was frustrating, but good for our learning curve,” said Zehner, who remained optimistic listeners will be more forgiving about technical hurdles as the station begins to find its feet in these early weeks (a virtual certainty, with many used to navigating the various technical pitfalls of the current work-from-home environment). “Even with our technical advances, Wi-Fi does cut out … and the website might crash. We’re not from money, and we are doing this by hand and with the help of others, so I hope people are empathetic and remain patient with us.”

Nadia Ayad, Reg Zehner and Lu Bird of Verge.FM