It’s 8.15am and Radio 1 breakfast DJ Greg James is playing Stay by Alessia Cara. It’s appropriately infectious, bright and upbeat – despite the fact that, in the current climate, its title line sounds more more like a government command than romantic plea.
James is one of hundreds of presenters navigating broadcasting during the coronavirus outbreak. “A show like mine weirdly comes into its own when everything around it is noisy,” James says. “Doing it is a massive tonic. It’s helped me process it all.” You can hear the audience processing it too: a show like James’s leans on its 5m weekly listeners for input.
Their thoughts and observations are a lighter look at locked-down Britain. We’ve heard from trucker Mark imploring restaurants to let drivers in to wash their hands, and an NHS nurse asking people “to stop stealing hand sanitiser from the wards”. Public Health England might want to think about recruiting James for services rendered. “It’s good to be the middleman sometimes,” he laughs.
James and his peers are in a strange position: they may be able to provide comfort in a time of disconnection, just by being. “Voice familiarity is hugely important,” says professor Sophie Scott, director of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL. “From the moment we are born, we react differently to voices we know. We are calmed by them. It’s a profound connection. A familiar voice, one that we are fond of, is both company and solace.”
In terms of song requests, James is seeing trends emerge. “People just want big, happy bangers you can dance to in your kitchen for release in a world gone mad.” Jay-Z and the Beastie Boys are much in demand. Are there any exceptions to the happy banger rule? “Oh yeah,” he says. “We played George Ezra’s Paradise and it sounded sarcastic.”
At time of writing, many BBC presenters are still in the studio, although there are plans to home-broadcast, while stations including Capital Xtra and NTS had already switched . Apple Music announced that its hosts would now record their shows via FaceTime on iPhone.
James is keen for his show to continue as normal for as long as feasible. “Having to do a show from home,” he says, “will affect its quality and interactions.” However, staying in the studio requires deep cleaning, video calls and producers directing from a distance.
Yinka Bokinni, Capital Xtra’s breakfast show co-host, is broadcasting from 7am in a dressing gown from her living room. She is armed with a simple setup: microphone, laptop, headphones. “We’re not out in the world,” she says, “so new music is helping us keep the show fresh. We’ve been playing Young T & Bugsey, Lil Uzi Vert and Manny Norte, which people are going mad for. It’s working out quite good. Today I made myself pancakes while broadcasting to the nation. I just brought my laptop into the kitchen.”
For stations with fewer resources, it’s been a test of guerrilla spirit. At Reprezent, one of London’s best online community radio stations, manager Adrian Newman is scrambling to organise broadcasting from the homes of 16 presenters, driving from Croydon to Buckinghamshire, rationing and testing kit.
Reprezent aims to do interviews via Google Hangouts. Newman does a roll call of presenters: “Amika is using a Zoom Tascam microphone and building shows in Adobe Audition. Scully is using our Mac and a soundcard; Naina is going live from her bedroom covered with Jake Gyllenhaal posters.” Presenter Henrie Kwushue rings in with a progress report: “Everyone will be hearing my mum! Also, I live on the Old Kent Road so expect sirens.”
NTS is one of London’s biggest online stations with studios in Dalston as well as Manchester, LA and Shanghai. Its monthly audience of 1.5m people have been promised 24/7 live home broadcasting. A brief listen offers music from KhalilH2OP, via appropriately named Danish label Posh Isolation, and a pre-recorded “Aquarium” mix from artist Lucinda Chua, her breathy, soulful electronica aiming to bring us out of the dark. “I went to an aquarium recently,” she says, “and the jellyfish were lit so beautifully. It felt like going out in a club without drinking, so I wanted to recreate that.”
The Guardian last year warned of “a crisis over youth audiences” citing a decline of 840,000 among listeners aged 15 to 24 since 2010. But Tabitha Thorlu-Bangura, one of NTS’s senior staff, says: “We noticed a massive spike in people listening – live listens are up by 25% and loads of artists are asking to do shows.” Giving artists opportunities beyond live gigging is where specialist stations like NTS are key.
Greg James is not the only DJ changing what gets played. Bobby Friction, who hosts a late-night new music show on the BBC Asian Network, usually focuses on south Asian rap and electronica, but he has made a move towards devotional soundscapes. “Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan has been the most unanimously requested artist over the last couple of days with his Sufi qawwalis from the 80s,” he says. “People are reverting back to tracks from their childhood.”
Annie Mac, who hosts the evening show on Radio 1, says listeners are looking for escape. “Bon Iver, Frank Ocean – stuff that is anxiety-busting, but not super high-energy happy shit.” The pandemic, while disastrous, has inadvertently created some excellent radio moments, too. “Christine and the Queens was supposed to be doing a live gig from London,” says Mac. “On the day Macron announced a lockdown, she managed to leg it to a studio in Paris, speak to us and put down five songs from her new EP, pretty much in one take, which we played.” These special snippets, breaking up an avalanche of crisis reporting, are a balm for listeners stuck at home.
Later, I listen back to the Greg James show from a week or so earlier, when the world seemed like a different place. The news was getting serious in the UK where almost nothing seemed certain. “It seems like every single day we wake up to a new thing,” sighed James into the mic. “But I’ll be here, keeping you company. We’ll all be here.”
• This article was updated on Monday 30 March to correct the name of KhalilH2OP.