Chad Onianwa: Radius concert series seeks a new normal for Lawrence live music (Column)

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. Occasionally, we’ll also pick up columns from other nearby news outlets. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Chad Onianwa is a writer, visual artist, and founding editor of region journal.

Touring and local acts mix for a new perspective on events

In Lawrence, a new event series is breaking ground, wrangling cutting-edge underground acts and bringing them together with local musicians to create truly special lineups.

In February, we saw the rubbery sax-accented stylings of local jokesters Camp Clover, heady sound and performance art from bay-area experimental artist Evicshen, and Machine Girl with their breakneck electronic hardcore. The high-energy lineup felt a bit like a sideshow in all the best ways: dramatic, creative and intense — a universe with its own logic that keeps you on your toes.

But most importantly, it was fun.

This is Radius.

“I feel like I just know how a good night should go,” says Austin Ellington, the Wichita-raised founder of Radius. “But that’s because I feel like I’ve been to so many bad shows,” he adds, laughing.

Ellington has constantly supported Lawrence and the greater area’s local music scene over the last decade. Originally working at 90.7 KJHK during his time at the University of Kansas, he worked his way through street team and marketing roles with event production company Mammoth.

Today, Ellington is a talent buyer with Mammoth, building relationships with managers and artists, researching talent, and trying to book them in town.

Ultimately, it’s Austin’s experience within local music institutions, his “anxious in a good way” extroversion, and desire to support others that positioned him to form something like Radius. A “progressive event series” focused on dance-oriented music, highlighting electronic and hip-hop acts, it’s meant to expose the community to new and underrepresented artists.

As the regional college town, Lawrence supports a handful of well-established venues, a buzzing local music scene, and a substantial college radio station. A roll of the dice any given week will give you somewhere to see new local or touring acts. When cultural entertainment in the city hasn’t been completely absorbed into the KU basketball matrix, live music reigns.

But even given this context and a dense history of DIY, punk, and alternative music in Lawrence, Radius offers more than just stylistic variety.

“Something that’s not really talked about much is the importance of the people who attend an event. It’s so much less about the performers than it is about the people who show up and want to have a good time.” says Kemper Robertson, also known as Kemper10k, a Topeka-based producer, Radius’ resident DJ, and Ellington’s good friend.

“We try to bring multifaceted shows that aren’t beholden to any one style but is still thoughtfully curated — and that influences who will show up,” he says.

The duo want to create a space where everyone can have a “safe and pleasurable time,” in an industry where it’s easy to brush off comfort and accessibility. It’s an ever-relevant goal for those working in live entertainment, but especially in the midst of an evolving pandemic.

“It was interesting launching this brand because it’s the most difficult time to throw events in the history of our lifetime,” Ellington says.

Over the span of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ellington and Robertson spent their respective time refining ideas of how they want to show up in their community. Ultimately, this led to the decision to prioritize health, comfort, and connection as they re-assessed their relationships to labor and where they choose to put their energy.

“I was especially influenced by that time when restrictions started to be lifted and people started going out,” Robertson says. “I didn’t want to facilitate an environment that I didn’t feel was safe or beneficial for the community. I turned down a lot of gigs. I’m grateful for that time to reflect and make better choices for my career.” 

Radius is a labor of love born from wanting something more for the local community. Robertson and Ellington actively avoid the gatekeeping that often accompanies local scenes, opting instead for a more organic approach to collaborating with local artists.

“A lot of the people I try to bring on locally aren’t actively trying to be a professional DJ or musician, but I see them around, at shows, participating, going super hard,” Ellington says. “Like, I bet you’d be real passionate being part of something like this!

“I want it to feel like anyone could get up on that stage if they want. I don’t want there to be a wall between the artists or Radius and anyone that wants to participate.”

This open-door approach of mixing local music with touring acts has resulted in the most culturally relevant mix of sounds to grace local stages in recent memory. From their Halloween show bringing hip-hop artist Hook and experimental DJ Jasmine Infiniti to the same stage and most recently French producer and DJ Coucou Chloe, you could hear the results.

“That was probably our best show yet” Ellington says. ”You could tell she didn’t know what to expect coming to Kansas — a lot of the touring artists don’t — but the crowd was so good! She ended up playing hours longer than she was set to, but everyone was so into it.”

Watching videos of this show on Radius’ Instagram page, you can see crowds of attendees huddled around DJ Chloe, who is seemingly unphased by the mass of people dancing around her. It’s difficult to tell the edge of where the stage stops and the floor starts.

“It’s way different to be in a room full of people that you can interact with comfortably without having to hide a part of yourself.” Robertson says. “It’s something I thought was almost impossible to make because of my experience at different places.

“But that’s so much of what’s happening here. It feels good.”

— Chad Onianwa is a writer, visual artist, and founding editor of region journal (@regionjournal).

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here. Find how to submit your own commentary to The Lawrence Times here.

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