Kenny Phillips reimagines Wack Radio, streams shows online

Kenny Phillips, founder and CEO of Wack Radio 90.1FM. Phillips began the move from radio station programming to a streaming business after live audience performances were banned because of covid19 lockdown restrictions.  - Mark Lyndersay
Kenny Phillips, founder and CEO of Wack Radio 90.1FM. Phillips began the move from radio station programming to a streaming business after live audience performances were banned because of covid19 lockdown restrictions. - Mark Lyndersay

Typher was walking back and forth backstage. The veteran calypsonian, born Cuthbert Blackett, was thinking through his delivery of True Dignity, his calypso response to the late Singing Sandra's Sexy Employers.

The show was supposed to be a livestream of the 2021 Klassic Ruso tent experience, but had quickly evolved into a vibrant and sometimes emotional tribute to the oeuvre of Sandra Millington-Des Vignes.

Much of Blackett's walking was happening along a narrow corridor that connected offices at Wack Radio 90.1FM, a space that became a mecca for calypsonians and other performers over the long covid19 lockdown and had become a new stage for online performance.

In many shows, there's a fog in the performance space that gives it a dreamy feel, but it isn't for style. During the event, Wack's founder and CEO Kenny Phillips will walk around with a device like a fog machine that puffs clouds of a disinfectant spray into the space.

"During Parang History Month we had to shut down for two weeks, after two of my cameramen were exposed and tested positive (for covid19)."

A parang performer at a show went to hospital for an unrelated ailment and was found to be infected. The crew found out after contact trace testing.

While cramped, retrofitted backstage spaces have long been a part of the calypso experience, they have rarely been the springboard to a potentially global audience.

It's been a long road for the station, which began as a community radio station in San Fernando in 2004. It wasn't the first effort. Iwer George was broadcasting and streaming before Wack was established.

After Phillips set up the station, he quickly realised that even as a limited venture, it couldn't work. The station's signal wasn't supposed to reach Couva, a few dozen miles to the north, so Phillips looked to the internet for a new audience and to the technician who set up Iwer George's streaming.

"We were streaming at 25kbps at the start," Phillips said, "and the best internet connection was 512k at the time.

"When it (the stream) went out there it sounded like it was underwater."

That didn't stop the station from finding an audience for its adamantly local mix of programming among a diaspora starved for a taste of home. On a walk through Brooklyn in 2010, I found every West Indian-run business tuned to the station.

In 2006, Sherwyn Borneo came for Carnival and gave Phillips a Sony Handycam that he soon pressed into use to record and stream video.

"I kept asking TSTT for things before they were available in TT," Phillips said, recalling that he jumped on a one-megabit connection as soon as it became available. It's been a big jump from that Handycam to the Blackmagic camera system he uses today, and he now uses a Digicel 100 megabit connection.

'Play the fool, you're fired'

But he isn't out to make friends with internet service providers.

"I've used them all, TSTT, Flow, Digicel, and as soon as they play the fool I fire them."

For location work, he binds two mobile internet connections from different carriers to load-balance the upstream link.

"I had a long conversation with a foreigner from Colorado last year after Panorama about how to improve the technical aspects of the broadcast. This guy's only interest was in getting better audio quality online, because he loves pan."

Veteran calypsonian Typher (Cuthbert Blackett) performs at Wack Radio 90.1FM on January 28. The station became a mecca for calypsonians and other performers over the long covid19 lockdown and a new stage for online performance. - Mark Lynderday

The station's first video stream of a concert was of Hugh Masekela's performance on San Fernando Hill in 2004, using the compact Marti antennas that were standard at the time.

Phillips quickly embraced wireless connections and then internet connectivity to transmit his feeds and two years ago, he completed the switch from audio streams to all-video streaming of the station's programming.

When I asked Phillips if it's truthful to even call Wack a radio station any more, he laughed.

The move from radio-station programming to a streaming business began after lockdown restrictions ended the idea of live audiences for performance.

"We needed to be able to monetise the streams," Phillips said. "I found out about FundMeTnT and investigated how it could work."

The test for its viability was a tune-for-tune shootout between Phillips and DJ Desmond that was a feature of the station's programming.

"We know our demographic, and we asked listeners to contribute to FundMeTnT if they heard something they liked, and in two hours we made $10,000.

"I immediately contacted Terri Lyons, because if you are going to start you have to start with the (Calypso) Monarch. We went to her manager's office in Port of Spain and set up a stage. Up until recently she held the record for making the most amount of money in an hour and 15 minutes.

"We split the proceeds 50-50. From there we kept going."

After that, the pace of production accelerated, and Wack has produced 140 shows since then. There are 151 shows listed on the FundMeTnT platform (, with collective earnings of just over $1.2 million. It isn't a lot of money, particularly for shows with a big cast.

The Klassic Ruso show on January 28 raised $12,764, for a performance that featured more than a dozen calypsonians and required a crew of three to stage.

"The challenge is bringing the crowd," Phillips explained. "Different shows deliver different results.

"We did a generations show versus pitting new and older artistes, and the young people don't contribute. They don't pay for nothing. Sheldon Blackman's show was excellent, but he made $1,400. He wanted to launch his album. I told him to sing his father's songs."

The mix of new and older, more familiar material has to be mixed right, he said.

"You can't assume that the audience cares or that they want to know. It's important to keep the audience in the space. You can't build a show to a climax. You have to come hard early and keep me entertained. I have to feel like you are performing to me, in my house."

The talk, the encores, he said, give people a chance to swipe their card.

"People like to hear their names called when they contribute."

During the Klassic Ruso performance, Phillips would provide voiceovers between sets, noting donations, toasting the event like a combination of rap DJ and auctioneer, goading an audience that couldn't be heard applauding to pitch in with the most important contribution of the night – cash.

Dr Danielle Elliott as King Jab Jab, Afi Ford Hopson as Jab Molassie and Paula Hamilton-Smith as The Midnight Robber during a performance of The Revenge of King Jab Jab at Little Carib Theatre. The show was streamed on Wack Radio 90.1's platform on February 7. - Wayne Lee-Sing

Most of the money comes in when the shows are live, even though most performances are archived with a live link to both show and donation channel.

FundMeTnT takes 12 per cent of the earnings, with another three per cent going to the foreign banking intermediary that facilitates overseas payments. Rounded up, finance charges account for 20 per cent of costs. Phillips produces artwork and promotional advertising for social media and radio. (Disclosure: Phillips has licensed my photographs of calypsonians for promotional use).

For the uptick in streamed live performances, a conference room at Wack was converted into a studio space. For the lockdown series, Phillips bought additional lighting that he's still paying for.

"I wasn't going for lights at all, but my people said no," Phillips said. "Little did I know that the lights would make such a difference. I learn as I go."

Phillips wants to take his video-driven radio station fully visual, and the challenge now is to find or create video for every song the station plays. Wack has an extensive catalogue of performed music, but there's more to be done.

From a community radio station, Wack has evolved into a calypso television station and Phillips' insistence on remaining lean makes it possible for the station to be even more ambitious.

"You have to find a way to be cost-effective. I have a crew of three. With a crew that size, you could do a show on a shoestring."

The Jab Jab experience

Louris Martin Lee-Sing produced The Revenge of King Jab Jab at the Little Carib Theatre and streamed the 3 am matinee on Wack's platform on February 7.

The show drew in 135 ticket sales at the socially distanced theatre, but only 12 tickets were sold for the matinee that was streamed, so Lee-Sing invited 20 people to fill out the audience for that show.

The "carnival theatre comedy satire" directed by Helen Camps earned $3,949 from streaming, pulling in almost half after the initial airing.

"We made an effort to share the link with all our international friends in advance," Lee-Sing said, "and for about a week after the show, just through the production team and cast and crew."

The Wack team used three cameras, but the wide angle shot wasn't up to par.

"He mainly used the medium shot," Lee-Sing said, "I would have liked more variation but Kenny didn't really know the show."

"I think for a theatrical production it's better if the switcher knows the show. He mainly does concerts though so this was a bit different."

The show isn't available for replay on the platform.

"Kenny took it down and offered me the option to download it high-res from Vimeo for re-upload as I see fit," Lee-Sing explained.

"I'm thinking of making it pay per view. I did get a chance to watch it while it was up and it looked well."

"I'm re-mounting the show at the Little Carib for International Women's Day so I may take another crack at filming it."

King Jab Jab will be performed again at the Little Carib Theatre on March 6 and 7.

Mark Lyndersay is the editor of


"Kenny Phillips reimagines Wack Radio, streams shows online"

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