Ros Atkins looks back: ‘I do wonder how it would look – a BBC journalist at a rave’

The TV journalist recreates a photo from an early DJ gig and talks about mixing D’n’B with working at the Beeb

Ros Atkins in 2006 and 2022. Later photograph: Pål Hansen/The Guardian. Styling: Andie Redman. Grooming: Carol Sullivan. Archive image: Franka Philip

Ros Atkins, 48, grew up in Stithians, Cornwall, reading history at Jesus College, Cambridge, before becoming one of the BBC’s brightest new stars. Holding posts at BBC Radio 5 Live, the World Service and Outside Source, he has also pursued his passion for music, setting up the club night Sharp in Brixton, as well as DJing at events such as Womad. Known for his sharp viral “explainer” videos – crunching complex news stories into short, shareable clips – his new show On the Week is available to stream.

I was really nervous when this photograph was taken, and it’s clear that I am concentrating. The gig was a festival in Regent’s Park organised by Innocent Drinks, and I hadn’t quite realised what I’d been signed up for. The guy who was running the show had been vague and said: “I’d like you to do something, I’ll let you know a bit more about it nearer the time.” So I was hugely surprised a few weeks before the event when I saw the running order. Hedkandi – a huge house music name – was on before me and I thought: “Blimey, I am slightly out of my depth.”

When I got there, the room was way bigger than I expected. It was intimidating. My hands were shaking and I really didn’t want to stick out among all these heavyweight DJs. Most of all, I remember a woman who beckoned me over after my set and said: “That was disgusting!” and walked off. Which was just her way of saying, “That was great.”

Quite a few strands of my life run through this image – particularly that T-shirt. In the early 1980s, my dad’s job as a mackerel fisher meant that he got approached to work with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which took us to amazing places such as Trinidad. It’s where I first heard calypso and soca, and I became hooked on the music. In 2004, I bought tickets to see [soca star] Machel Montano at Kentish Town Forum, a night I will remember for ever, as it turned out to be where I proposed to my wife, Sara. Fortunately she said yes, so I bought a Machel Montano T-shirt at the gig, and we got married the next year.

At the Regent’s Park event, I decided to wear that same T-shirt. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the last time I would DJ for 16 years as my eldest daughter was born eight days after the gig. Naturally, my priorities quickly changed, and I stopped having as much time to go out as it was all hands on deck at home. After all, I was just an enthusiastic amateur DJ, so life moved on and I stopped chasing it.

I started DJing at university in 1995, but I had already fallen in love with dance music a few years before that. When I went to sixth form in 1991, one of my friends, whose older brother was putting on parties, started to tell us about these events happening in Cornwall, a place which had an exhilarating scene in the 1980s and 90s. Until this point, I had been a less than adventurous 16‑year‑old, but my friend was talking as if he’d been converted, and I was very keen to find out more.

From that moment on, my friends and I started trading cassettes and collecting flyers from parties in Plymouth, Exeter and the Shire Horse pub in St Ives. I still regret not going to the Fantazia One Step Beyond rave in Bournemouth in 1992, which has gone down as one of the big moments of that time. I don’t know why I didn’t go, but maybe I felt I had too much homework.

The work and party balance has been something I have always taken seriously. I was pretty enthusiastic about going out in the 90s, but I also played a lot of sports, and I did theatre and played the keyboards in a jazz funk band when I was in the sixth form. These multiple passions continued at Cambridge – but if I felt as if I was going out too much and it was interfering with work, then I would need to dial some stuff down. That was my rule of thumb: by all means pursue different interests, including staying up and dancing, but if it starts compromising my ability to study, I’ll have to keep an eye on it.

I started at 5 Live when I was 27, in 2001. As a student I was a very heavy listener – I’d put the radio on after a night out usually. And when I was unemployed for a stretch, aged 24, I was listening to Nicky Campbell a lot. He was a really big part of keeping me energised about being a journalist, during a time in which I was struggling to become one. When I eventually got to work at 5 Live, I arrived all ears and never experienced impostor syndrome, as I felt as if I knew the place so well already. I managed to juggle my extracurricular passion as a DJ on the weekends, too. My colleagues at the BBC knew I ran a night in Brixton, but it never really got in the way of my career. Nobody I worked with thought I was cool, not least because I am not cool.

Earlier this year, I was asked by a producer at 6 Music to do a half‑hour drum’n’bass set for the station. I was really amazed to be given the opportunity, but what was more surreal was that it went viral. It’s still one of the most downloaded shows of the year. Quite a few of my drum’n’bass heroes messaged to say they had enjoyed the set. In particular, the legend Ray Keith got in touch, one of the people who created the genre. He said: “Look, if you’re going to get back into DJing, give me a shout.”

Since then, Ray has been guiding me, helping me become a better DJ. I bought some kit, started buying a lot of music, and really put in the hours in my living room, which was met with a mixed reaction from the rest of my family. What was amazing is that Ray and I also got booked for a gig at [central London venue] the Social. Most people were there because Ray was on the bill, but every so often when he was DJing and I was dancing, someone would come up to me and say: “I just wanted to say I love the explainers that you and your team do.” The experience was a lovely yet strange hybrid of dance and news, which have been my life’s two greatest passions.

As for the future, I don’t know if I’ll wear a hi-vis jacket again, but if I could arrange the childcare I’d need no persuading at all to go out dancing. I still love doing it when I get the chance. But of course, as anyone knows from going out late, it’s about the time that it takes – the buildup and the fallout when you’re exhausted afterwards – which makes the family-life balance tricky.

Now everyone has phones, I do wonder how would this look? A BBC journalist at a rave. But the truth is that I’m going to look sweaty, I won’t look how I do on the TV with the makeup and lights, but I’m dancing to music and that’s OK. There will be no drug scandal, because I’m not doing drugs. I’m just out having a good time, doing what I’ve always loved.


Harriet Gibsone

The GuardianTramp

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