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How to get your own radio show

Nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, radio has become an integral part of daily life at home. It has allowed established DJs a new platform to express themselves while giving aspiring hosts a chance to start their own shows. Looking at schedules across major radio outlets, getting into radio may seem daunting, so DJ Mag spoke to presenters, programmers and station managers, who gave us tips and tricks about what their stations would like to see from eager applicants

Start Local

The best place for an aspiring host to start is on a local community radio station. Baile Beyai is one of the co-founders of Leeds-based Sable Radio. He wants hosts and DJs to remember that radio is a two-way street: that the station and its presenters should work together closely. “Stations wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the hosts,” he says, but he acknowledges that “not everyone has equal access to equipment”. With this in mind, Sable Radio is “happy to invest in ideas” and will source equipment for those who need it. If interested, they encourage applicants from all over the world to contact them.

In Liverpool, Melodic Distraction have a DIY attitude to running their music blog, event series and online radio station. They’re always keen on bringing new faces into their community. “We want to provide the facilities for people to learn,” insists co-founder Josh Aitman. “People may feel like the barrier for them getting on the radio is ‘I can’t use CDJs’ or ‘I can’t use turntables’, but you don’t necessarily need these skills to start. We’re happy to teach them.”

“The key thing for our station is having a genuine passion,” says co-founder James Zaremba. “It’s about you. We’re excited to welcome anyone who wants to come into the station to give it a go.” Much like Sable, Melodic Distraction have hosts from around the globe. “We try to represent the sounds of the city as much as possible, but we have regular hosts that live across the UK and as far out as Berlin, California and Ibiza,” says Zaremba.

While the technical fundamentals of DJing can be learned, that doesn’t mean that stations will take people on through confidence alone, or accept new, impatient hosts who want to skip learning the basics altogether. There are always those who jump ahead of themselves, and that attitude can be a deterrent to station managers and programmers.

“Some people email us like they’re automatically going to be given a radio show and then get picked up by national radio,” says Frankie Wells, co-founder of Foundation FM, South London’s female-led radio station. The station wants to ensure that its voices are broad and diverse: “We have shows from all over the UK and globally; Manchester, Berlin, Hong Kong.” Hopefuls can reach out to them directly with a demo and a pitch, but Wells reiterates the need for patience: “It takes a lot of time and it takes a conversation with yourself; to find your own voice, and your own sound, on air. It’s a long process.”

Adrian Newman has been the station manager at Reprezent for 10 years. “Just because you’re a big music fan or into our platform, that’s nowhere near enough,” he says. Bluntly, he tells us he’s inundated with emails from people who “feel entitled” to have a show. “We don’t expect people to come in knowing everything at all,” he says, “but be prepared to learn all aspects of radio, build your network and get an overview of Reprezent before getting a show — especially if you’re somebody that walks in with no profile or experience.” You don’t have to live in London to be on Reprezent, “but it helps”. Pitching your idea through their website is relatively simple. “We have a ‘join now’ button on our website and when we do a call-out we email everyone,” Newman says.

“We always ask that there’s a show proposal, rather than [just] how excited they are to be on Worldwide FM. If they can present it clearly [in the submission], that’s great.” Mari*, Worldwide FM

Pilot

No Signal is the new online radio station that pushes Black British hosts, DJs and producers. They took the internet by storm in 2020 with their star-studded ‘NS10v10’ broadcasts, turning live “versus” battles between musicians into their flagship event. RBC, the co-founder, has similar thoughts to Newman and Wells. “I need to know you can hold a live show for an hour or two,” he says. “I get too many emails saying, ‘Yo, I’m this person or that person’. Please send me a demo or a pilot episode! I need to know you can actually handle being on the radio.”

That’s not to say these stations won’t help aspiring hosts. You can live anywhere and host a show on No Signal, Foundation FM, Reprezent, and there is no formalised way to submit a demo across all stations; No Signal’s RBC is happy for aspiring hosts to drop him an email. The station programmers, above all else, unanimously want to see a passion for radio that comes through in any demo. “The more people invest in themselves the more I feel like I can invest in them,” Foundation FM’s Wells says. “I can’t want it more than anyone else wants it for themselves. You have a voice, you have a platform in SoundCloud, Mixcloud — start there, and then I can get behind you and give you help and pointers.”

At London’s Worldwide FM “every show has a different start”, says station programmer and producer Mari*. She’s been involved in radio for 20 years and has been at Worldwide since it was founded in 2016. The founder, Gilles Peterson, will often recommend people to the station. At other times, a PR or label head will propose a musician they deem an appropriate fit for Worldwide FM.

Regardless of the connection, the success of any proposal comes down to it having “something different and original” about it. “We always ask that there’s a show proposal, rather than [just] how excited they are to be on Worldwide FM,” Mari* says. “If they can present it clearly [in the submission], that’s great.” 

For Mari*, one of the main challenges for a host is how to strike “the right gender and generation balance” on their show. Worldwide FM stresses that there needs to be an equilibrium in a host’s chosen guests to make the show feel like a good fit for their overall programming. “It’s so easy to bring in older male musicians, producers and DJs,” she says, but “Worldwide FM wants to highlight young people, women and their talents.” Mari* would also like to see how someone can map out the first six months of the show: “What kind of guests you want to bring, what your speciality is and the kind of music you’d play, and why your show is original.” Like their name states, Worldwide FM welcomes international guests, not just Londoners.

It’s all about trusting yourself. I didn’t trust my gut early on and let other people’s opinions affect me, so don’t look at what anyone else is doing!” - Frankie Wells, Foundation FM

Once your foot is in the door at a community station, there are inevitable obstacles and barriers for you to overcome as a new host. “You might not be the right fit with the first station that you go with, and it may be a case of trying out a few stations to see what feels right,” writes radio host, DJ and illustrator Anu in an email. She’s played on Balamii, BBC Asian Network and NTS. “I had my fair share of clangs, dead air and corrupt USBs, but I learnt how important preparation is — and preparing for the worst. Now I always have everything backed up on three USBs, with spare cables and spare mics, just in case things go wrong.”

A reminder from station heads and hosts alike is that both parties need to work together, to overcome obstacles and support each other’s successes. “You’ve always got something to fall back on,” says TAAHLIAH, a Glasgow- based DJ and producer who hosts a show on Clyde Built Radio. “I very much feel like I can do what I do for Black trans people, in order to show that we can be in these [radio] spaces. As long as you find something that you can very much believe in, it feels quite personal to you, I think there’s no stopping you.” Spotlighting TAAHLIAH’s Black Lives Matter mix has been one of the ways Clyde Built Radio has supported her work on air.

“It took me a while to feel comfortable on the mic,” Anu admits. “I listen back to old radio shows and I sound so nervous. For my first show on BBC Asian Network, my producer wrote a script for me, which I read off and practiced. Then for the next show, I wrote loose notes which allowed me to develop my own conversational style on radio. That gave me more confidence because I wasn’t having to scramble for interesting things to say.”

On this point, Frankie Wells is also firm. “It’s all about trusting yourself,” she says. “I didn’t trust my gut early on and let other people’s opinions affect me, so don’t look at what anyone else is doing!”

“When it comes to approaching a station, record a 15 minute show, just to show what you can do, those are the types of things that are going to make you stand out.” - NAINA, Reprezent Radio & Apple Music

Grow & win

NAINA is a London-based DJ who’s made her name on commercial stations like Beats 1 (now Apple Music 1) and independent ones like Reprezent, and runs Hooversound Recordings with SHERELLE. “It’s so great having been part of a community radio station because you can literally talk to people for advice all the time — that’s the whole point!” she says. “Everyone wants to see you grow and win.”

 When it comes to approaching a station, “record a 15 minute show, just to show what you can do,” NAINA continues. “Those are the types of things that are going to make you stand out. And it doesn’t matter if you’ve never done a show before, or have only recorded episodes at home that have never been aired. The fact that you’re practising, recording, trying — that’s so important.” Initially, NAINA honed her style playing with friends, out at clubs and “having a mess around in my room” with borrowed controllers.

Once you’ve had some consistent practise with on-air DJing and conversations with the station staff, the next stage is all about standing out from the crowd and owning your slot for the long-term. How can a new host take that leap from a few guest features to a monthly or weekly show? “Play what you like,” Amy Krawczyk of Clyde Built Radio says. “Some people can be quite stressed out appearing to be cool or knowing everything. The good thing about a radio show is that you don’t need to come in knowing exactly what you want to do. It can evolve as you evolve.”

During lockdown, the Glasgow-based station has been focusing on “Glasgow and the diaspora”, but are looking to extend their hosts to “the rest of Scotland this year, and working on exchange broadcasts with other like- minded stations over the year ahead”, says co-founder Andrew Thomson. For those looking for an outlet, Clyde Built Radio supports newcomers and have made it relatively easy to approach them, with links on how to submit a demo found across their website and socials.

“Make sure you’re doing radio to highlight a certain style of music or community. Do it for something other than yourself and your listeners will get a lot more out of your show, because the passion will be there.” - James Zaremba, Melodic Distraction

A host should pay attention to not only their own show, but also a station’s overall programming, and like-minded presenters on other stations. That wealth of knowledge can be a confidence boost, and help them hone their specialities. “The first thing that people should do is dedicate some time to actually listen to the radio,” NAINA says. “There’s not one way of doing radio, and it’s really cool when you start comparing them because there’s no right or wrong way of doing things.”

“If a station rejects you, don’t compromise,” says Safi Bugel, DJ and co-founder of Narr Radio. When Bugel started out “a lot of people played dance music”, while she played mostly post-punk. “I was a bit embarrassed about that,” she admits, because she felt like she didn’t fit the mould of radio DJs at the time, but “staying true to your sound is the most important thing”; playing post-punk was her niche, and it led to consistent radio slots and club bookings.

For station programmers, that passion for a sound or concept is more important than having a perfect idea for a radio show. “I’m more interested in people and their stories,” Frankie Wells says. “My job is to bring out the best in someone. I don’t really mind if people haven’t Anu come [to the station] with a fully formatted idea. What I like is when people feel like they have something different to offer.”

“You have to have the right intentions,” James Zaremba of Melodic Distraction says. “Make sure you’re doing radio to highlight a certain style of music or community. Do it for something other than yourself and your listeners will get a lot more out of your show, because the passion will be there.”

“It makes sense to be as comfortable as possible on whatever subject you’re going to be talking about: if you don’t, you’re going to sound like an idiot.” - RBC, No Signal

Talk

RBC of No Signal wasn’t a talker for a long time. He never felt comfortable as a host or radio personality. “The way I grew my confidence was through playing,” he says. “I wouldn’t try to talk about stuff that I didn’t know much about. It makes sense to be as comfortable as possible on whatever subject you’re going to be talking about: if you don’t, you’re going to sound like an idiot.”

“Widen your knowledge,” Adrian at Reprezent says. “If you’re doing daytime presenting you have to have a wider cultural experience, so that you don’t come across as a one-trick pony. You may be a big fan of Afrobeats music, but you should at least be aware of lots of other cultural content around Afrobeats so that you can present it fully on air.”

Innovative ideas for radio can come from anywhere. When starting out, Adrian often found the best ideas to be repurposed ones. “If you see something interesting on telly,” he says, “take that structure and reformat it for radio and you’re winning. Evolve and adapt.”

There are numerous ways to get into radio. You don’t need to necessarily become a radio host and then a DJ, or vice versa. Everyone is on their own path. Working from the bottom up with no experience or coming in hot with a singular idea that only you can execute, radio is a medium where almost anyone can shine. There is no one-size- fits-all mentality or a strict method to the magic; rather, it’s about the passion that exudes from the airwaves. Patience, a sense of self and a sincere appetite for any genre of music are the key ingredients in becoming a memorable and reputable radio host.

Contacts:

Sable Radio: programming@sableradio.com
Melodic Distraction: team@melodicdistraction.com Foundation FM: hello@foundation.fm
Reprezent: www.reprezent.org.uk/#/join
Clyde Built Radio: https:/forms.gle/Hx2kD78G3kVzaWWb8
Worldwide FM: info@worldwidefm.net

Read about how independent radio has thrived during the pandemic here 

Dhruva Balram is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @Dhruvabalram