Refuge Worldwide are doing radio for a reason
This is Friendly Society, an editorial series by Crack Magazine and Patreon. Meeting the independent creators building active relationships with their audience and getting paid for it.
When crisis strikes, some people spring into action. Refuge Worldwide co-founder George Patrick is one of those people. The Glasgow-born DJ and community organiser was living in Berlin at the time of the refugee crisis in 2014. As emergency shelters sprung up in the city to house displaced Syrians, he wanted to help, and quickly. He was working as a club promoter – so he did what was within his reach and leveraged his contacts for the fundraising club night, Refuge. With a line-up including Objekt and a crowd also eager to play their part, the venue was packed.
Asking how he could help was his first move. Figuring out exactly what to do with the money came next. Patrick ended up handing over an envelope of cash to an emergency shelter. “Afterwards, I was thinking, ‘What’s it going to get spent on?’ These shelters were funded by the government anyway,” he recalls. Patrick wanted to find the best use for the funds, so with the help of Give Something Back to Berlin and a network of friends doing community work, he formed relationships with localised neighbourhood action groups in need of relief. Over the next five years, Refuge supported not just refugee groups but homeless associations, youth centres, shelters for women fleeing domestic violence and more, raising over €50,000 through events in Berlin, Bristol and Glasgow.
© Kurt Heiter
Around this time, co-founder Richard Akingbehin was looking for a mission of his own. He’d been doing a bit of everything since university – starting a record label, radio, writing, working for booking agencies, running parties. Akingbehin was driven to share music but disheartened by the less rewarding side of “business techno” – his words. “Booking private jets for DJs was something I didn’t want to be doing,” he sighs. So when the pandemic hit, he quit his job.
In January 2021, the pair launched Refuge Worldwide, the Berlin-based radio station and fundraising platform that’s grown a hungry community of residents and supporters since its doors opened. This too started with a bang. “That first month of radio was pretty wild,” Akingbehin remembers. It was them, a spreadsheet, some basic radio software and a Google form. The darkest days of Berlin lockdown were spent eyes glued to these tools to organise the shows and residencies pouring in. “Everyone was just fucking down and needed a new thing to interact with,” Patrick says. They stayed up all night searching for interesting people to work with. Akingbehin sent countless messages mentoring the new contributors – Refuge Worldwide has an open doors policy – to build confidence and “make sure they’re feeling the love”. They built a crew of residents in Berlin but also from Australia, Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines. That group is largely the same now as it was in the beginning.
© Kurt Heiter
“We had this core ethos of who should be platformed, who should get space to talk, what music deserves to be amplified,” Patrick asserts. “In January the world was crumbling and no one knew what would happen next week. I thought, ‘Let’s just see where we get to.’” But real-life interaction was lacking. In the back of his mind, Patrick knew they needed a physical space. He found it by chance one afternoon, walking past an empty salad joint on Berlin’s usually buzzing Weserstrasse. To secure the space, they had to move in by March. Things were happening quickly, but they had a community forged through the parties, and now the radio station, behind them. They launched a crowdfunder and reached their €10,000 target in a month.
By July 2021 they’d turned the snug space into a bar – named Oona, after their six-year-old neighbour who would light up their days – and were constructing the studio in the back. At the opening party, the crowd spilled out down the street late into the summer evening. “The whole street was full of people before the place was even ready,” Akingbehin grins. “People felt part of it from day one. They’re part of the furniture.” Indeed, donors who helped make the space a reality can find their names on a large bronze plaque in the bathroom, and a cocktail of the day for Patreon members is written up on a mirror behind the bar.
Today the street outside is caked in snow, there’s glühwein heating up and a DJ in the now-completed studio. At the end of a busy year, we’re reflecting on what Refuge Worldwide has allowed them to do for the community. “It’s more than just giving money now. We are embedded in the work,” Patrick says. The team raise money however they can; through events at the space, industry partners, Patreon members, and initiatives like selling records donated by the community. At one point during our conversation, an energetic resident comes in to add one to the rack for sale. They thank him for last week’s show. It’s a good vibe.
© Kurt Heiter
At Refuge, this is how it all flows – an ecosystem of support and giving back. “It’s a circular economy,” Patrick says. “People spend money at the bar, then we put that money back into the radio and keep it going.” The space is also somewhere for people to connect; it hosts workshops, the studio is free to book each Monday, and radio slots are given to local organisations to talk about their work. “We want to give opportunities not just to showcase, but also to train people up and leave the station to be bigger than [us],” Akingbehin says.
It’s a tough time for nightlife, and a period of reckoning for the industry at large. Whatever happens next, Refuge Worldwide is a long way from the private jet scene. “I don’t think that much has changed [there] since 2020,” Akingbehin shrugs. “The line-ups don’t look that different to me. People said they’re going to start booking local artists, I don’t see that either. There’s still a lot of work to be done from everyone, ourselves included.”
© Kurt Heiter
Their first charity partner was the Queer Black Therapy Fund founded by resident Kemoy Jemmott (donating funds raised day-to-day as well as 50 percent of the revenue from Patreon for six months). The project funded 15 sessions with private therapists for each of its ten recipients in 2021. The last six months it’s been Zaatari Radio, a refugee-run radio station in Jordan.
© Kurt Heiter
“They were an inspiring project for us when we were planning,” Patrick says. “They set up a studio in Zaatari village for Syrian refugees. They also have this skate park, we’re going there in May to build a pop-up studio in a shipping container.” Once built, they’ll run four weeks of workshops as part of a mentorship programme. Local youths will produce shows to be broadcast on the station and after that, “the studio will be available to use whenever they want”. As Patrick says, “solidarity is so much more than giving money”.
They’re serious about the work and its potential, if a little frazzled at everything that’s happened since that bleak January last year. “At the time a lot of people were checking their energy and what they’re putting their time into,” Akingbehin reflects. “From then on this has been an amazing opportunity. People are learning new skills. Everyone is down to have something to focus on. We have fun with it. I’d like to think it’s helped people through some difficult times – it’s definitely helped us.”