You don’t find many radio producers like Dan Roberts. Here’s the typical techie schoolboy who loved music, microphones and mixing, but knew how to harness his passion.
By creating his own luck and opportunities, Roberts blagged an apprenticeship at London indie station XFM and went on to work with Danny Baker, Vanessa Feltz and Joanne Good on BBC London.
The Sunday Sessions show he engineered for two years, where newcomers including Lianne Le Havas and Tom Odell would perform live in the studio, attracted over 1.4 million YouTube hits.
Now Roberts has been given his own show. Every Saturday night, he can share his love of live music and talented musicians with the populace. He’ll be running Radio One in five years, everyone keeps telling him. And the thing is, they’re probably right. Not bad going for a 24-year-old. How did you get a break with XFM? Well, um, that’s quite a funny story actually: I knew I wanted to get into the media, into radio specifically, because I loved working with bands, plus I had a studio at home. I was 16 and I used to listen to XFM a lot.
Now, the key technique to getting into radio is to go for the smaller stations and target them. I phoned up XFM at 2am and said, 'Hello, can I speak to Jon Hillcock?'. He said in a Chinese accent: ‘Oh, he not here’. And I went, 'Er, OK, well it's Dan, I was wondering if I could speak to Jon about some possible work'. Then after a few seconds of silence he went, 'I am so sorry mate, but I have been getting prank calls all night and I thought this would put them off…’
I think he felt guilty so he told me to email him and we could arrange a time to come in. So I got in like that. Of course, as a 16-year-old, doing a show from 2-6am every Saturday morning wasn't manageable, so Jon put me in touch with his colleague Graeme Smith who did the request show. I did that for eight months, for free. What about the BBC? I was starting at University in London in 2007 so I looked on the Sony Award winners website and found the name of an award-winning producer at BBC London, knew it was email@example.com so emailed them: ‘This is what I do, I am just starting university, I live in London, I’d love to come to and help out.’
They invited me along. I did one phone shift at the old Marylebone High Street studios… I had technical experience and knowledge and – I think it was about four days later – they asked if I could handle the drive-time programme! It was timing… I had what equated to about six hours worth of training and then I was let loose on that Friday to drive the show. Everything went smoothly and they knew I could drive a desk and I understood how radio works. That was it.
The next two years I spent studio managing programmes from sports show on Saturdays, where you have 15 football games out on ISDNs all over the country, to driving the breakfast show. And on to producing Danny Baker, introducing live music on Robert Elms, and you picked up the music manager role and producing Jo Good. We did the Sunday Sessions for two years with Jo [sometimes featuring your correspondent as a pundit], January 2011 to December 2012. My technical background in radio led to a creative on-air producer role where if we wanted to do a live music session, I know how it’s going to work and I can produce it. All the way along, you made your own luck, without going through a traditional BBC radio production training route. Yeah – you can carve your own path in radio. If you want to just do the job then fine, but if you wanted to go in 110% and worth on making the best radio, then you can and you’ll go far. There is an increasing push for people to be able to do everything with fewer resources.
You have to be able to drive a desk, manage talent, work with live music both the bands and the PR; you have to think about everything. It's a full on job. Then of course in the evenings outside of work I’m seeing live gigs. I can, usually, pretty much find an avenue for a band somewhere: the playlist, my show, Robert Elms, something online. One play for a small band in London means an awful lot; it could be the start of their career. What about formal radio training though? While I was at BBC London I started a radio production course at Westminster. It was 50% theory, 50% practical. So the theory would be about law, media ethics and programme formats. The practical would involve making radio programmes and setting up ‘pretend’ radio stations working in a team. But it was less about technical stuff: no one actually said to me, ‘This is how a microphone works’, or how a fader works.They would say, ‘You hold it about this far from your face and you talk, and you fade that fader up’. They knew what to do, but not why they were doing it. @page_break@
And of the 20 on that course, most of you managed to find work? I have brought in three people to the BBC from Westminster from my year; someone else presents on 1Xtra now; there is another girl who’s just got a staff job at the BBC. There are a couple others who work for commercial stations. It’s hard to say but probably eight got work making radio.
But the most important bit about going to university for me wasn't the course: it was student radio; to actually 'make' radio and do whatever you wanted to do [with that]. Provided you didn't swear, you could do whatever. It would be awful sometimes, but often you would get a real radio gem, and learn your craft. You just got better and better and better though… Yeah, you’d make mistakes and learn the hard way…and I won three student radio gold awards, [including] best newcomer in 2008. On a practical side, for the live Sunday Sessions, there were technical challenges. You used your own desk… That’s a Tascam DM3200. It’s a 16-channel input to it and it obviously has different layers [but] it worked perfectly and it still does to this day for sessions and everything. It is just the right amount. Anything bigger than 16 channels and I think we would be looking at bigger studio anyway. So you set yourself that constraint, or the desk sets you that restraint. Yeah exactly, it kind of limited us to what we could do. And that was the only factor really when we were booking the bands, they need to fit into a 16 channel desk.
We are using old mikes from the old GLR days that we rescued from our Elstree studios. C414s and things like that… we have a box of 5 x C414s, two of them are a matched pair, used for overheads and things like that. The rest are your standard Beyerdynamic M201, SM58s and for a drum kit we'd have a few Sennheiser, AKG and Shure mikes but apart from that, that's it. And monitoring, well we do everything on headphones; we try and keep the amount of noise down in that room for various reasons. So we do everything on headphones. And this is going to continue with your new show which started on Saturday? We only have an hour as opposed to two, so we are doing one band. The other thing – the curse is – that I'm now not co-presenting it where you have a bit of time to think ‘right I am engineering this band whilst presenting the programme, what am I doing and saying next’.
We want to keep it as live as possible and as direct. So when I say the band is playing now, I turn my chair and swivel it around to another mixing desk, they play and it goes out on air. But there's that element of ‘God, this is live radio, this is happening now!’. What advice would you give to somebody who’s on a course like the one at Westminster? My simple advice that I give – and I say this to every student that asks me – I say, just don't be shit. That’s my first one, just don't be shit. If you don't reply to an email when someone has given you an opportunity to come into a station and shadow a session or help cable-bash, don't say, ‘Oh sorry, I'm busy’ or, ‘Oh, I am kind of not looking to just do that’, just make yourself available whenever.
You have to start at the bottom. I drove desks for Vanessa Feltz and breakfast shows for two years before I could get to a position to then start doing live music. And it takes time to get into that position before you can start doing the work you're passionate about.
But also, you think you might know it all but you don't. That's what I've learnt. On the Sunday Sessions, I had sound engineers coming in and going oh, we'll roll that off there… add that into this group, compress this at…, I have never used my desk like that before. I would learn so much from doing that and even now I am still picking things up when we have bands come in and they do things differently. Every kid wants to work at BBC Radio 1 but there’s another thousand people with more experience than you that are still knocking on the door, so join the queue. But you know there are other options within the BBC that you can target.
It’s great to have goals but take small steps and learn from the people that have more experience. The BBC has some of the best producers, engineers and access to bands, festivals and the like, so be keen and willing to do whatever, whenever, wherever! Tips for the three 'next big thing' bands? Well, the amount of music I listen to each week can be painful… three bands that I actually like listening to outside the office are The Preatures – an amazing band from Australia who haven’t got any release in the UK yet but stay tuned… Will Heard is a great singer songwriter who has just got a record out now with the Austrian producers Klangkarussell. And Coasts, a four-piece from Bristol who tick all the boxes.
Dan Roberts' BBC London show is on 9pm-10pm Saturday nights