Interview / Dean Sunshine Smith / The Isolation Station

You’ll be well aware that there’s no shortage of folks offering to help with your lockdown by providing livestreams, mixes and Spotify playlists – to help make the pain of not partying more bearable. If you’re of a Balearic bent then you’d be doing yourself a favour by checking Test Pressing`s Stay In & Chill series – daily updates posted in by a pool of modern dance`s great and good. Not celebrity-studded but no less essential – if you need something soothing – are Francesco Fuca`s Controra selections. Berlin`s only truly balearic bash, Buena Onda, continues with weekly bulletins – host Gallo doing it live, plus exclusive archival sets, recorded at the event, by the likes of Phil Mison and Moonboots. Sean Johnston is still rocking the no-nonsense, cosmic boogie in his A Love From Outer Space Emergency Broadcasts. Check his Twitter @HardwayBros for news on when and where to tune-in. A personal favourite is Mark Seven`s WPKY podcast. A positive masterclass in house and proto-house that keeps the legacy of those 80s Kiss FM Mastermixes – by the likes of Tony Humphries – alive. 

One piece of pandemic programming in particular that got my attention  though was Dean “Sunshine” Smith`s Isolation Station. Paul Whiffin, from Family Tree Radio, sent me an invite, and within that first week I watched it quickly grow. Putting down roots, sending out branches. Initially driven by Dean`s Birmingham pals – people such as Al Mackenzie, Robert Johnston, Stuart Robinson – who populate the bill at Dean`s long-running The Great Outdoors. Then rapidly extending to  include DJs from further afield, who Dean`s had over as guests. It was the sense of community that really struck me. The last time I looked there were 4, 000 subscribers, so while Dean still – just about – had a free minute, I thought I`d ask him a few questions. 

Dean, can you explain, what is the Isolation Station?

I guess the name explains a fair bit about what the station is and its concept. It`s a simple online station and site I set up in order to spread a bit of sunshine to like minded folk at this confusing time.

When and why did you set it up?

I set the station up around mid-March. I found myself, having returned from a dear friend`s funeral on the 12th, with a slight cough and symptoms relating to the dreaded beast! So being a separated dad, with two young children, I knew I`d be self Isolating, and decided I needed a little project to help keep my mind active and alive. The name came first – and not surprisingly there`s a few of them out there – and then it was only really a little Icecast set up from home – a coded site I built in a day or two, to be honest. I invited local friends and DJs from Birmingham to send me some mixes. A good friend of mine who loves music and does the graphics asked if I wanted any logo design doing as it would help occupy him too. 

Then, just as I was due to have the kids, my eldest son who is 6 got a few symptoms, so it was going to be another 2 weeks before I saw them. This would have been the longest time that I`d not seen them for since both of them were born! So that kind of got me a little more motivated, and I started the Facebook group – and started reaching out to more DJs and friends from across the scene. It kind of escalated from there, as more and more friends got on board and started sharing and sending me mixes, and that in turn attracted more and more listeners. I`m now at a point where both the site and the stream are being hosted on a dedicated server and different technology has been deployed to handle the stream.

Who else is involved? 

As I just mentioned there are a lot of DJs to thank to be honest. Without them and their wonderful musical selections and friendship and support I fear it would just be a yam yam on a mic with a Tom Hanks beard talking to 10 friends online. All of whom feel sorry for him `cos he`s painted a face on one of his kids old footballs for company! I do have to give a huge thanks to Marcus Galley for the artwork – without his artistic touch I`m not sure it would have had the reach-out it has. The rest is just me. It is a challenge but one I’m enjoying, as I like the puzzles coding and technology invites. Apart from the odd time my kids are grabbing at my feet, then running off just as the server looks down and I keep the mic on…Oops!

When do you broadcast?

I stream the station 24 / 7 but the guest mixes I curate each day and they start at midday till Midnight. I`ve recently started looping them to run again through the night as there have been a requests from many time-zones and front-line heroes coming back from shifts. It makes me happy to know it`s still being enjoyed and explored through the night.

isolation station main logo

How can people sign up and listen?

So the site can be accessed via https://isolationstation.site/. I recently set up a subscription / donation deal of £2  per month for people. They will be able to access offers and rewards, but more importantly they help keep the station growing and developing. The subscription also gets you access to exclusive content, and past shows / mixes in higher audio quality. There’s also Alexa / Sonos integration for subscribers only. But the radio remains free to listen to via the site and always will.

Are there regular shows / time slots? Or are the contributions more spontaneous?

I have pretty regular guys who`ve supported from the start but more and more mixes are coming through so it`s nice to be able to hear things from new found friends and music lovers.

Who has contributed so far? Who is lined up for the future?

Oh a load of top folk and friends. Some truly amazing DJs and selectors. It`s a bit of a cowards way out but I don’t want to miss anyone off so I`m gonna have to swerve answering that with names! As for future stuff theres all sorts of people getting in touch. What I will say is I hope to get a few more brands on board doing whole day takeovers – like the Easter weekend with the Eclectic Circus Virtual boat party and the Desert Island Discs event on the Sunday – which worked really, really well! Thats definitely an avenue I`m going to explore. So yes I’m chatting to a good few events and venues who are looking to reignite a bit of virtual life into some of their cancelled summer events! With a little planning they really unite people on the group I find, which is a lovely and rewarding thing to watch and be a part of!

Are these all pre-recorded mixes, or are folks going out live?

Yes at present they`re all pre-recorded shows. A few are old mixes, but more and more people are reaching out as passions have been reignited for wanting to do something exclusively for the station and the moment. Which makes for some wonderful selections.

Are they music only – or are folks getting on the mike – introducing tracks, giving shout-outs, etc?

One or two have talked and made it more like a radio show guys like Tom Belte -who was the first lad to do an exclusive show for the station. That was a nice thing to hear, but most are just mixes which of course, is fine. I don’t mind either way. I tend to just drop on with my mic, very rarely, but just to connect and let folk know there is a little cog there looking after things and to help them still feel connected and part of something. I think a voice can do that a bit. Although what they hear and understand from my Walsall accent is anyones guess?

Are the selections all chilled – or is it anything goes?

Well they have kind of gone that way but I do try to be eclectic and turn the music a little more upbeat in the evening. I think the sunny weather has been partly to blame too. The next time it`s dark grey and raining maybe the Gabba will be out!

Are the slots of a given time length – for example are they limited to 1 hour, or can someone take you on a 6 hour “journey”?

No, the slots come however they come. I put them in order as I feel fit mate, I don’t look at time limits to be honest. I may skip through quickly or see a set list but I try to listen to the mixes fresh myself  – as it`s as much a joy and discover for me then in my isolation time. But no I don’t look at the time – only when thinking how they fit into the actual days time cycle.

Are the shows archived anywhere?

I`m in the process of archiving the shows and mixes and putting them up for access to those that choose to help the station via the subscription process. In return for helping out, the DJs that share their mixes will have access to marketing channels aimed at the database of subscribers via station-led mail outs.

I saw you mention on Facebook a possible hook-up with Amazon – can you explain more about that?

Yes, I`ve always had an interest in the whole world of online technology and coding. I’m self-taught, so as I`m obviously at home more – and DJing is not an option – I`ve challenged myself to take on new aspects of tech and coding. So again as part of the subscription I`ve built an Amazon Alexa skill and hopefully early next week this skill will be live. I could have probably gone with one of the zillions of radio hosting packages that offer the skill as an add-on, but the challenge has kept me both annoyed and entertained at the same time,  and I will continue, as long as the support is there, to bring a bit of sunshine to people`s lives. The support and kind words have been really rewarding and heart-warming. 

Lastly, thanks for your mix Rob – hopefully this can go out the same time as I air your musical magic! You be safe brother, and to all reading this be safe, turn on, tune in, stay home. and as I say the main message of the station…Keep it together x

isolation station screen shot

Dean Sunshine Smith`s Isolation Station broadcasts 24 / 7. Have a listen, join the Facebook group, and then subscribe here. 

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