“ What’s the best thing about being a radio DJ?
The music. Being able to sit in a room for a few hours every night and play the most exciting music that you’ve come across, cranking up the volume in the studio and knowing that you’re sharing it with other people too, as you would your best friend. I try and spend as much time as possible listening to demos, new releases, albums and singles, and if I were to actually listen to it all then I would do nothing else and I wouldn’t even have enough time to do the show because that’s how much stuff I get. I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to listen to it all.
And the job’s perks?
Having music sent to you is one of the perks of the job. Having music sent to you by people that have an idea you might like it, so they might have stumbled across a group or are a group themselves who think they might fit into the show, is one of the perks of the job. It’s almost as if you’ve got friends who are selecting things for you. It’s really great to be thought of in that light and to be sent all this music just because it is your job. It’s like a dream made reality.
What’s the worst thing about it?
The downside is that of course there’s not enough time to listen to it all, it overwhelms you and it depresses you because you can’t listen to everything. It’s a shame, but when you’re looking at a massive pile of new releases, the quickest way to listen to them is to give them about ten or 20 seconds, which isn’t really fair, but sometimes you have to do that or you’ll never get through it. So that’s the downside, but it’s a small down.
How do you get around pesky PRs nagging you?
It’s a two-way thing. They are sending you material that might be good for you and you might really like. It’s about trying to arrive at a happy medium where they don’t take over, but on the other hand you can’t forget that you need them too and there would be many exciting new bands that I wouldn’t have discovered without a press officer having sent them to me or told me about them. They’re good people.
What does your typical day involve?
It varies. A day without any other appointments consists of me being at home listening to stuff and planning the show, answering emails, sorting out when I’m going to put out certain sessions. Then I make a little plan of what’s going to play when. If I’m at home I’ll leave fairly late and get to the studio an hour before my show. And when I get there, I open my post, check more emails and have a quick listen to anything that’s just come in just in case it’s more exciting than the stuff already lined up. But sometimes I might only have half an hour to do that. Then other days I might have to go into London earlier to interview people or have a meeting. When that happens, I might stay in [Central] and go to a gig before the show or use that time to check more music out before the show. Those are the two routines I practice.
What’s the worst thing that’s happening whilst you’ve been broadcasting and how did you salvage the situation?
There are always lots of silly little technical things that go wrong. You might press a button and think you’ve taken yourself off air or press a button and you can’t hear anything, but it’s still broadcasting. The CD might not work and sometimes it’s annoying because you put a CD into the player and you’re busy reading a text or whatever and you assume it’s working out OK and then go to play it and it’s not lined up and not recognised by the machine. Real disasters: occasionally you can put your foot in it with a guest and I know I’ve done this but I can’t think of any specific occasions off the top of my head. Yeah, I’ve often said the wrong thing and they’ve looked at me and it’s embarrassing.
What was your break and can you advise readers on places they could try and get their’s?
I started DJing when I was at university, but it didn’t have a radio station and it never occurred to me to do a radio show. I was just somebody that was really into music and bought loads of records and realised that I could do something with them. A friend and me decided we were a bit bored with what was on offer in the city we were in a thought we should do it, so we put on our own club night for our own fun and our friends’ fun. I really enjoyed it and got into DJing and started doing it at other nights. At the same time I became the music ed of the university magazine for a year and really enjoyed that so those two experiences made me decided I wanted to do something with music, but I wasn’t sure how. XFM then kinda came into being and I phoned them up and asked if I could have a job there. At the time they weren’t even called XFM and they said no, that they had a full schedule. They had planned a broadcast at Reading Festival and I’d read about this in the NME and it sounded like my kind of thing. After about five phone calls I got through to the right person and they said they were full, but they took my details and called me back the next day asking for a tape. So they listened to it and said there was loads wrong with it but they asked if I wanted to do four shows over the course of Reading. So that’s what I did and at the end of that, the organiser told me about getting a licence in London and that became XFM. So I was there at the beginning. He was a tremendously loyal person: it took him five years to get a licence and in the mean time we did a couple of RSL (restricted service licence) broadcasts and he made sure the people who were committed to that got a role in the station when it got a licence. There was a certain amount of commitment involved and I would take two weeks off work in order to make it easier because my show was from midnight ’til two. So I took all my holiday in one year doing radio shows. But because I loved it I thought it was great and the idea that this could turn into a job was the prize. So it worked out really well and took me longer than I had envisaged, but that’s what it takes.
I guess the ‘break’ came when I made those first phone calls to enquire who was behind this new radio station. It was a series of breaks really, a series of happy timing that has worked out. Summoning the gumption to phone somebody up and pester them a bit and put yourself in a position where they might give you a chance.
In terms of an outlet for music journalism, is radio the best place?
One of the things I love about radio is its instant quality. If you take a on a news story you can get it on air really quickly because it’s such a simple procedure. If you were doing MTV you’d have to have a camera crew. With print, even thought it’s different now with the Internet, you’d have to wait until the paper went to press or you might miss the deadline. I think its instant quality is one of radio’s great strengths as it can react to things much quicker. As a music journo, it’s a different thing because in a way while there is an outlet for a certain amount of opinion, your opinion has to be curtailed because ultimately people don’t want to listen to someone waffling on their opinion when they want to hear music. They want to hear a snappy opinion. But in some ways the instant quality means that radio can be quite ephemeral. It’s there, then it’s gone and you move on to the next thing.
Do you have to have a large ego to get over those nerves?
I think to be in the media and to want to be on a radio show at all you’ve got to have some kind of ego, whether you’re conscious of it or not. Obviously different people have a different sense of themselves and how they seem themselves but you’ve got to be willing to put yourself up for a fall because you can get a lot of flack. I think it’s a kind of requirement to be there in the first place. It’s how you let it control you really and there are various different sizes in the ego department to select and some that I’d recommend and some that I wouldn’t recommend, but some people have got massive egos.
How much stuff have you learnt on the job, and how much did you learn at university?
On the job, every single time. The hands on experience and the every day practice of having to do things can never be replicated on a course, but what a course can do is give you some back ground knowledge and help put you in a position where you can get some experience and it will also help you understand that both the technical mechanisms and the mechanisms involved in certain organisations so you have an idea of who to talk to about certain things and the certain formalities involved in the workplace, which is important.
Does a broadcasting or drama degree count for anything?
Not many radio DJs have drama backgrounds, some do. Broadcast journalist training would be really useful for understanding how things work and make you see the responsibility of it all, the legalities that surround what you do, what you can and can’t say and what is involved in libelling somebody and what stories from the news you can and can’t talk about. I see any degree course as a means to an end and any course will teach you some things but it won’t necessarily get you the job, but it is a stepping-stone. It will make you realise whom to get in touch with to get that job. Unfortunately the reality is that the key way to get a job is through work experience and by offering your services for free. This is exploited tremendously by the media and MTV and radio and it is in effect an unpaid apprenticeship and you could say that it only allows people who can afford to give their services for free to get involved and you might have to do it for a long time until you get paid work. Before being a regular DJ I did much work experience. I didn’t get paid for it but I got all that experience and without it I would never be able to do what I do now.
You must get loads of work experience applicants at XFM. How do you choose who to take?
There is a more formal application where you send in your CV and that gets processed but for some of the specialist shows, it’s up to the people who run those shows. If they decide that they need extra help then it’s up to them to decide how to do it and try and find it. I’ve got a few people involved over the years who were interested in the show, I wanted people who liked what I was doing and understood it. There would be no point of me taking on somebody who wanted to be on the breakfast show or the comedy shows. If people can help out and bring something to a show or an organisation, that is the key thing. You go in there and try and show what you can bring, apart from the fact that you might be able to make a nice cup of tea and being ready to do what ever you’re asked. If you can come up with ways of inputting into the programme then that’s the best thing to do. Each area has different thing required. What I’m interested in is people who are really into music and involved in that area and can say, ‘Oh I went to this show last night, you should really check them out’, and people who can do good typing, people who can pick up technical things and, in the end, learn how to edit. Two of my work experience are now XFM DJs, some have gone on to MTV and others have turned to running their own labels. Those people who are self motivated, who explore these options, are the ones that will find their niche.
How would someone break into XFM now?
I think if they rang up they’d be told to send in a tape or a recording of what they do and that might be listened to eventually. Depending on what experience they’ve got, because nowadays people might have come out of university having done a radio show there, it might not be enough experience to go on air straight away. One misconception that a lot of people have is that if it doesn’t come quickly it won’t happen. You need a lot of commitment and perseverance to make it happen. If you want to work at XFM, I suggest that you gravitate to the areas that interest you most. If you enjoy the breakfast show most, get in touch with the breakfast show. Maybe become such a regular caller that they know who you are and then slowly ask if you could hang out on the show, make a cup of tea and involve yourself on the programme. And not in a stalkery, irritating way, but in a constructive kind of way. I’d apply that to whatever area you’re interested in. If you like the Remix then send Eddy an email saying, ‘Hi Eddy, I really love what you do’, etc. You can do it by stealth in a way, ’cause you could say, ‘Eddy, I’ve heard this amazing remix, go to this web blog and check it out’, and if it is really good and he likes it then he might come back to you. Then follow it up, input regularly until he really likes and trusts what you say. Share that music, put a few tracks on a CD and send them to him. You end up building a relationship with [radio DJs] and then you might ask if you can come in and help. It’s funny, in a way, being quite open to people who volunteer their services and sometimes they come in and help on the show and then you stop hearing from them because they don’t want to come in late at night, they realise that actually it’s not very glamourous in the studio and that making tea and typing up a playlist isn’t that exciting and coping interviews that need to be sent over to other people, or sorting out post for someone isn’t either. There are a lot of boring, mundane jobs, but at the same time I would maintain that whilst you’re doing those things you can learn a lot, especially in radio. A lot of what it involves is dealing with people‚”being able to bring guests up from downstairs, making them feel welcome and comfortable and relaxed so that they in turn will be good on the radio or if they’re nervous you can make them feel at home or if they don’t wanna be there because they think they’ve got much more important things to do you can make them feel like it’s worthwhile and that they’re valued. There are lots of skills like that that are quite vital.
What do you look for in bands?
Just something that sounds a bit different. Obviously there are lots of people that have great voices and can play instruments really well, but what might be missing is a certain sense of humanity or vulnerability or a sense of their personality. Those ingredients can really differentiate people and they can come out in different ways. It might be through their lyrics, or their quirky singing style or their interesting way of playing an instrument. They are the things that often make my ears prick up. Whatever that magic quality is, that’s what you’re listening for, whatever the style of music be it guitar music, techno or hip hop. There’s so much of it around and the facilities are so great these days that everyone’s doing it, but I think the thing that we forget is that not everybody has a vision, not everyone has something to say, so you need those things there to make it worthwhile. That might not always come at first, there might be some people who don’t have a great singing voice or a great technical ability with their singing voice but somehow become interesting through their communication of their ideas. Some people are just born that way; they just have a gift for creating interesting things. Not everybody has it or has to have it and I think that’s something to be remembered. One thing to bear in mind is that you should do something because you love doing it. The act of doing something is the reward in itself and the struggle to get any other reward out of it can be quite depressing really. There’s only a certain amount of room for everybody. If you see people in a band having a great time because they’re getting all the girls and they’re getting very wealthy and get to wear sharp clothes or you see a DJ that seems to have a great lifestyle, if the lifestyle is what you’re after you can get that in different ways. It’s more rewarding to love what you’re doing, and if you’re not enjoying then try something else.