Here's my mum with the news! Radio DJs on the switch to home-broadcasting

What can we expect as the coronavirus forces presenters to broadcast from their living rooms? Sirens, pancakes, family interruptions – and big happy bangers

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.”

Early cheer … Capital XTRA breakfast’s Yinka Bokkini and Shayna Marie.
Early cheer … Capital XTRA breakfast’s Yinka Bokkini and Shayna Marie. Photograph: @CapitalXTRA

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.”

All set … Reprezent’s Henrie Kwushue.
All set … Reprezent’s Henrie Kwushue. Photograph: Jahnay Tennai

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.”

BBC Asian Network’s Bobby Friction.
Devotional soundscapes … BBC Asian Network’s Bobby Friction. Photograph: Ashok Prasad/BBC

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.


Kieran Yates

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Porridge and politics: how the breakfast broadcasting war got brutal
Early morning programming on TV and radio is in the grip of a brutal ratings war. So what’s the perfect recipe for a hit show in these fractured times – and can we learn anything from the last 35 years?

Simon Usborne

20, Aug, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
'We push each other forwards': tuning into the north's independent radio scene
Stations such as KMAH, Melodic Distraction and Sable Radio are propping up local music scenes – but can they survive when all the funding goes to hip Londoners?

Jemima Skala

03, Jul, 2019 @3:33 PM

Article image
Annie Mac leaves BBC Radio 1 after 17 years
The Irish presenter – about to debut as a novelist – will be replaced on new music show Future Sounds by Clara Amfo

Hannah J Davies

20, Apr, 2021 @9:24 AM

Article image
Female British artists underrepresented on UK radio, survey finds
Fewer than one in five songs in top 100 airplay chart so far this year were by British female acts

Laura Snapes

21, Aug, 2020 @5:00 AM

Article image
Bobby Friction's best of BBC Asian Network:
Ahead of the station’s live event, DJ Bobby Friction picks political pioneers, radical rap stars, EDM overlords and artists a step away from becoming international superstars

Interview by Harriet Gibsone

21, Feb, 2017 @7:30 AM

Article image
What have the royals ever done for the arts?
From the RSC to the ROH, Britain’s most prestigious arts institutions are all by royal appointment. But as Prince Harry marries Meghan Markle, is it goodbye Royal Variety Show and hello Royal Reprezent FM?

Claire Armitstead

15, May, 2018 @1:41 PM

Article image
Radio 1’s Greg James: ‘It was like a balloon popping. I was choked up'
The DJ has just finished his epic – snow postponed – Sport Relief challenge and talks about the anguish of not finishing first time around, why radio is like ‘plumbing’ and the joy of paying tax

Sam Wolfson

16, Mar, 2018 @6:07 PM

Article image
Greg James on being Radio 1's new morning DJ, fatbergs and David Attenborough
James on how Mel B ruined the 90s for him, why his listeners are the funniest people he knows and spending his teens downloading Chris Moyles jingles

13, Aug, 2018 @12:01 PM

Article image
Bobby Friction's playlist: Kanika Kapoor, Raxstar, Jaz Dhami, Divine and Badshah
Ahead of the first BBC Asian Network Live event, the DJ selects his favourite current tracks, including Bollywood bangers and the best of British Asian rap

Bobby Friction

27, Apr, 2016 @11:50 AM

Article image
Fifty years after the radio revolution, are the BBC’s stations now irrelevant?
The Home Service, and the Light and Third Programmes became part of British life. But too much of their successors’ content is unfit for the digital age

Miranda Sawyer

23, Sep, 2017 @11:03 PM