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25 Years Of Winging It On The Radio

by Andi Durrant

Today is exactly 25 years to the day since I did my first ever radio show. It was new years day 1998, and the only reason I got on air was that nobody else wanted to work with a hangover after the biggest night out of the year, so they let the 17 year old tea boy have a go.

A decade before that in 1988, Michael Jackson’s Bad tour was coming to Roundhay Park, and my mum and her neighbour entered a competition on BBC Radio Leeds to win tickets. I remember the phone ringing one day after school and there being lots of happy screaming. She’d won the tickets and had to go over to the radio station to pick them up in person. She couldn’t have had any idea at the time, but taking me with her was a real life changing moment. I vividly remember holding her hand walking into my first radio studio where Peter Levy (Yorkshire legend) was doing his show. He let me put on a pair of headphones while he interviewed mum and even asked me if I was excited. I think I said “yes” as quiet as a mouse and turned bright red, but that was it. What a job. Imagine doing that and getting paid for it? I thought a radio studio was the coolest most exciting place I’d ever been, and for the next few years I’d “play” radio stations at home, gathering together my dads Grundig HiFi and anything that looked a bit radio-ish and sitting behind it talking. One day a teacher went round the class asking what people would like to do when they grow up, I said I wanted to be on the radio. She replied with “I hope your ambitions improve more than that Andrew”.

As a teenager, a lifelong devotion to dance and electronic music was ignited by listening to Pete Tong, Danny Rampling and One In The Jungle at night on Radio 1, whilst Atlantic 252 played on the school bus. I got my first pair of belt-drive budget turntables for Christmas and used to sell mix tapes on C90s outside school for £2.60. I religiously read Mixmag and Muzik magazine and it seemed like a glamorous, dangerous and thrilling underground world that was far out of reach for a kid in a small northern town.

I was 16 when the test transmissions for Kiss 105 started and it was like music from outer space. We weren't really online yet and there was no social media - the world was a much smaller place. It was like aliens had landed and started broadcasting. I wrote letter after letter asking if I could do some work experience when the station launched properly, and eventually managed to blag a “job” working for free as a tea boy and trainee producer, learning the ropes and coming in every weekend for 6 months to help edit all the “Kiss 100” mentions out of the shows from people like Carl Cox, Judge Jules and Fabio & Grooverider that were sent up from London.

By the time the owners of Kiss 105 and 102 sold the stations to Chrysalis and were renamed Galaxy, I was getting paid work as an overnight tech op. I’d go to college during the week, then get the train straight into Leeds on a Friday afternoon and work over Saturday and Sunday nights, pressing the buttons and getting to watch all the local hero DJs like Tim Sheridan, Alex Pepper, Lee Wright and L Double, Manchester legends like Graeme Park and 808 State, and Tim and Jez from the Utah Saints - who took me under their wing, helped me get into producing music and became lifelong friends.

In every spare moment I’d sneak into the empty studios in the middle of the night and practice doing links, making demo tapes and trying to copy other presenters I’d heard. I think I tried to mimic Dave Pearce for a long time until I gradually found my own voice. Fake it til you make it.

From there I eventually got my own show “The Big Night In”, followed by programmes like Nu Breed with my long-suffering business and music partner Nick Riley, and “The Warmup” on Saturday evenings across the growing Galaxy network. I was also filling in for various daytime shows when my boss (the brilliant Mike Cass) told me I was actually pretty terrible at being a funny, wacky daytime presenter but he heard the passion and love I had for the underground sounds of dance music and pushed me into concentrating on being a full-time nerd.

The brutality of ageing, shown via the medium of one mans press shots

Being part of Galaxy from the start to the very end was one of the privileges of my life and I’m so proud to have been just a tiny part of that family. For a lot of people outside of London, it was the sound and voice of a whole generation - radio for young people, made by young people. We were all just kids really and we made it up as went along most of the time. I’m so glad that myself and Adele Roberts conspired to record a secret message and play out a fitting track in the last few minutes of the station. I’m also pleased we didn’t get fired for it.

In 2011 when it was announced that all the Galaxy stations would become part of the new national Capital Network, I lobbied and fought to launch the whole thing with some specialist shows. Mainly because I was very passionate about it.. but also because I had babies and a mortgage to pay. It was a tough battle as the flagship Capital London station hadn’t had anything like that for many years and it was seen as a huge risk. I’m glad the fight was worth it, and that Capital continues to have some specialist shows, and even launched their own Dance offshoot recently.

I had a good 3 or 4 years of fun at Capital, broadcasting to this huge new audience, helping shape the new network and trying not to get into too much trouble, but I never really fitted in that well with their long term plans. Myself and Nick decided to leave in 2014 to set up our company Distorted and I had 6 months off air before approaching Andy Roberts at Kiss (for years our main rival), and launching The Electrik Playground on the new digital station Kiss Fresh. We also syndicated it out to stations all over the world and did a version for the Nova network across Australia.

That show - recorded mostly in my garage and spare room, ran right up until 2021 when I essentially got fired for the first time in my career, and then rehired in the very same meeting. Kiss had a new boss in the shape of the awesome Rebecca Frank who wanted to shake up and reenergise the schedules on all the Kiss stations. She told me the Electrik Playground had probably run its course and the music I played didn’t really fit the new direction. As soon as she’d finished delivering the news I pitched the idea of the Dance Music Archive - a show and concept for Kisstory based around the huge website we’d created over the COVID lockdowns. Fortunately she went for it straight away, and 18 months in I don’t think I’ve ever been happier on the radio. It’s a nice bit of serendipity to have started with Kiss and ended back there 25 years on.

My day job these days is running Distorted with my partners Nick Riley and Alex Jungius and our amazing team. We’re probably the biggest independent producer of music radio programmes in the world, working with over 70 of the biggest artists, DJs and music brands, as well as producing a huge amount of podcasts and documentaries. Making the switch from behind the decks to behind the scenes has been a steep learning curve, but being able to pass on our knowledge and passion and help other people is a massive buzz.

The day job: The Dance Music Archive on Kisstory, and team Distorted on the roof of our studios in Leeds.

It’s hard to pick out highlights from 25 years on the radio - suffice to say I’ve been very VERY lucky.

One of the best things it allowed me to do was DJ all over the world and play at some of the best clubs and festivals on the planet. A true schoolboy dream. I’ve got to spend time with some of my absolute heroes - interviewing people like The Prodigy, The Pet Shop Boys and Daft Punk. It’s enabled me to play a tiny part in launching the careers of artists and support new talent - watching them grow into global megastars. I had people like David Guetta and The Swedish House Mafia come in and do live mixes in the studio way before they were famous, and watched in horror as they played vinyls full of swears at 5pm in the afternoon.

Broadcasting from Cafe Mambo Ibiza, the Galaxy studios, and a young David Guetta

The first weekend of the new Capital network, doing a brand new show in a brand new studio on a brand new radio station in Leicester Square to an audience of millions was utterly terrifying. So much so I read out the text number wrong in my first link.

I’ve done whole summers of live radio shows from Cafe Mambo in Ibiza, countless live shows from festivals and club nights, and broadcast everywhere from poolside in Miami to the snow covered mountains of the Alps. I’ve also been lucky enough to pick up some awards along the way, and most importantly, I got to share so many of those moments with my very much missed friend Duncan Wallace.

Duncan was just the best producer and the best person you could wish to meet. Kind, talented and humble. After 10 years together he went on to do great things helping launch Apple’s Beats 1 radio station, and worked with Elton John on his brilliant Rocket Hour show before we lost him to a brain tumour in 2021. He still remains a guiding light in everything I do.

Winning the Sony Award, on tour with Calvin Harris and Example, and celebrating with Duncan Wallace

There’s been some other lows.. I was 16, on my own in the radio station in the middle of the night when Princess Diana died, and I was actually on air when the planes hit the Twin Towers on 911.. both of which I was woefully inexperienced to deal with. The silence following the recent death of the queen also landed during my show. I’m starting to worry I might be a bad omen.

So how have things changed in radio in the last 25 years?

I feel like that there’s a kind of paradox in radio right now - we have more choice than ever before, but also much less choice than at any point in the last 25 years.

Back in 1998 nearly every city in the UK had its own local radio station, each unique to their area and audience. Alongside that there were tonnes of different radio “brands” spread across the country, all different and all with their own sound and style. British teenagers like me could listen to Galaxy, Radio One, Kiss, Juice, Choice, Atlantic 252 or a plethora or others, just by flicking the radio on. There were some really daring and different stations with individual voices that played unique, interesting and exciting music and had presenters that took risks and were allowed to be creative and individual.. and most importantly this was the “mainstream”. These were FM stations available in every home, car or office that had huge audiences and broadcast to hundreds of thousands if not millions of people across the country.

Then came the era of consolidation and the “Can of Coke” school of radio. The people that ran and owned a lot of the big stations decided they needed to make more money, and the easiest way to do that was to get rid of a lot of the individuality, create vast national super-networks, make them all sound the same, and draw in big advertisers to spend their money across larger consolidated audiences. If you buy a Coke in any shop on planet earth, you know exactly what it’s going to taste like. It’s the same for radio now. If you listen to Big Corporate Radio Brands you’ll hear the exact same sounding presenters, talking about the exact same things, playing the exact same 10 records. It’s safe, simple and profitable. It also mostly now comes from London, so the opportunities for kids who live in the rest of the UK to get into a radio studio and learn their craft are tiny compared to when I was that age.

However, the whole experiment did seem to achieve its financial goals. A lot of the former smaller stations that got sucked into the giant networks now have less listeners than before, but the overall size of the network is huge, and so the pot of money from advertisers is bigger. I’m a realist and I understand that all businesses need to make money and grow their profits. Also, sometimes you really just fancy a Coke. But sometimes you want an espresso martini or a mango smoothie.

A nation of teenagers who grow up only drinking Coke are probably not going to be as healthy as those with a more varied diet, and will get bored of the same thing all the time. I feel like this is really starting to show, as the younger end of the audience just aren’t choosing to listen to traditional radio the same way. It’s only going to get worse unless the industry takes some chances. Parents in the 90s used to get offended by some of the weird, ridiculous or rebellious stuff their kids listened to. As a parent in 2023 I’m offended by how utterly bland, vanilla and lame it all sounds.

Fortunately the online revolution brought a monumental shift in listening, giving us access to an immense number of new and exciting stations to listen to, along with the whole new world of on-demand content. From podcasting to YouTube, Soundcloud, TikTok, Mixcloud, Spotify and Facebook - in 2023 the smart content creators will be focused on super-specialist, direct-to-fan programmes that “narrowcast” rather than “broadcast”.

It’s what we do at Distorted - connect presenters, artists, DJs and brands directly to their audiences, grow their own communities and have complete creative freedom. It’s the wild west and it’s properly exhilarating.

Have I learnt anything useful in 25 years of broadcasting?

As I was finishing my A Levels and starting to work full time, Baz Luhrman’s track “Sunscreen” came out, which contains more good rules for life than any self help book, management consultant, life coach or LinkdIn warrior could ever give. One of them being;

“Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it's worth.”

I think he was probably right, so really my pearls of wisdom would just be simple common sense life stuff:

  • Don’t be a d*ckhead.

  • Be kind and respectful to people.

  • Work really hard.

Specifically for presenters and broadcasters, I’d also say:

  • It will take a really long time to find your voice and be comfortable in your own skin. One day your toes will curl when you listen back or watch something you did this week, but that’s a good thing. It’s a long game. Just be yourself and it will come eventually.

Baz also said:

“Do one thing everyday that scares you”

That would be my most valuable piece of advice for anyone breaking into radio. Push the boundaries, play that track you probably shouldn’t, talk about the stuff that makes your socials explode, be brutally honest and real with your listeners, say yes to things that you think you probably aren’t talented or brave enough to do. Respect your boss, but don’t be scared of them. It’s better to seek forgiveness than permission.

It’s also good advice for radio bosses. Scare yourselves by giving your teams and presenters more freedom. Give them the power, space and freedom to make mistakes. Let them make things that are magical and memorable.

So that’s my meandering thoughts on 25 years of being in radio, sitting here eating left over Xmas chocolates on New Years Day. When I do my show this evening on Kisstory I won’t be making a big deal about some milestone anniversary. A quick mention perhaps, but it’s about the music not me. More than anything I’m just super grateful and lucky for the privilege of being allowed on the radio. Playing music I love and sharing it with people is the best job in the world and I’m so grateful to anyone who listens and gets in touch. Especially with the Dance Music Archive, it feels like we’re a little group of like-minded nerds and I love every one of you.

Thanks for listening x

Ps: If you're around come and have a listen at 7pm this new years day on Kisstory where we'll be going back to 1998..

PPS: if you want to punish yourself by listening my very first show, my parents recorded it on cassette and we recently stuck it on YouTube. I genuinely can’t bear to hear it but if you skip through the talking by the 17 year cheesemonger idiot there’s probably some cracking music.

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