“I would just do a podcast, if I was starting out now”: Greg James on the Brits and life in radio
So, you were at the Brits last night – how were they? You took along a listener, can you tell us more about how that came about?
Yeah, so we went with Katie. We do a thing called Bleak Mornings at around half past six to get the show going; we have people who share their miniature sadness’s in their life, and Katie was one of them. She said, Ah I’ve just been dumped, it’s my boyfriend’s birthday next week, he dumped me on Valentine’s day – and then we just thought, well why don’t we supersize this idea and just invite her for the Brits?
So we were like, screw this! What are you doing Wednesday? She didn’t know we were going to do it. She had an amazing time, and it was really nice to see it through fresh eyes. She was a great reporter. We very much like the show to be all about the listeners. It’s not just a show directed at them, it’s a show literally with them. That’s exactly what Radio 1 should be doing – it’s a human thing.
What’s it like going to all these award shows where you get to meet so many of today’s stars? Have you got used to it yet, or do you still feel a bit weird about it all?
I don’t particularly like them really. It’s not where I’m at my most comfortable or happiest. They’re fun, but they’re not real, if you know what I mean. And that’s why it was so nice actually, to take someone like Katie along, because you demystify the whole thing. It’s just a laugh, and you shouldn’t ever take those things too seriously. But yeah, they’re good fun to go along to once in a while, and get dressed up and see all your pals or whatever, but that was never a thing that I wanted to get into when I was getting into radio – “One day I want to be at the Brits!” – no.
Was speaking at the Oxford Union a similar experience for you, or does that feel more worthwhile than attending award shows?
I much prefer doing this. I feel like it’s one of my roles as doing the job I do. It gives me great satisfaction to do things like this because this is sort of how I caught the bug for radio. A guy called Chris Hawkins came to my old school and did a talk and it was one of the first times I saw a presenter in real life. It was like, “Oh! He’s a real person, he wears t-shirts and he’s normal and does a job that’s extraordinary!”
I would do shows in my bedroom, just silly little bits or prank phone calls or whatever…
How old were you then?
I was fifteen then. So I saw him and I chatted to him a lot afterwards. And obviously now we know each other, and I’ve told him that story and he was like “That’s pretty weird”! But it really inspired me to do what I do now. I think it’s good to always demystify these sorts of things, and say that these jobs are attainable. It’s a really important part of my job I think.
Before you met Chris Hawkins, was radio presenting something that you were already interested in pursuing?
Yes. I remember being excited that he was coming in because I knew that he was involved in radio. I didn’t know who he was actually, but it felt like a fun job and I was obsessed with listening to it. I would do shows in my bedroom, just silly little bits or prank phone calls or whatever. That’s how I really got into it. And then seeing someone who actually did the job just meant that it really opened up the possibility that I could get into it. My parents were teachers, and they did that every day, and my sister worked for Deutsche Bank back in the old days, and she had a “job job”, but I never really wanted to have a “job job”. I always thought that I would go into acting or theatre or writing comedy or something. Then radio just appeared. I liked the people that were on it. If you can get away with that as a job, then you’re sort of winning.
Did you get involved with radio at university?
Yeah, I did a lot of student radio. So that was really the thing that took it off to the next level. It was definitely still a hobby, and I just enjoyed it, but there was actually a moment where I thought “I feel like I’m quite good at this”, and I loved it, I loved all the workings of it. I remember thinking “Why not?”. I didn’t think “I could get on BBC Radio 1”, but just why couldn’t it be me to do it?
I found confidence in doing a radio show that I didn’t really have in other aspects of my life, which was quite exciting.
What does it take to become a ‘good’ radio presenter? What made you feel like you had the knack?
I really like people. I really like making people laugh. I’m interested in people in their stories. I like music a lot. I like the idea of being part of someone’s routine, because I loved having people as part of my routine. So all of those things together. I know how radio made me feel as a kid, and I quite liked the idea of doing that to people now, so that’s why I fell in love with it.
Do you think radio still has a prominent role in young peoples’ lives today? Will it always be around?
We have a really good visual offering – we deliberately do that on radio. I guess one of my roles on this new show, one of my big aims, was to make sure that we introduce new people to the radio or the idea of radio being in their day. It’s not impossible to change habits; that’s quite an exciting challenge for me.
For example, podcasts are bigger than they ever have been. And that is radio – podcasts are radio. You’re spending time with audio, and that’s a really helpful thing, because people find audio can give them something that Netflix can’t. It’s an intimate club, and I think that’s what one of my roles on the Breakfast Show is, to try and add radio to someone’s day, even for ten minutes if they tune in for the quiz or the ten-minute takeover, whatever it might be where there’s a routine to it.
How has it been taking over The Breakfast Show? I know you said that it would be one of the biggest challenges of your life – has that sentiment held true?
Yeah it is a challenge, it’s honestly been more fun than I could’ve possibly imagined. We are having the most amazing time, and we’re in this really nice sweet spot of going for it and we feel like we’ve learnt enough knowledge over the last twenty years essentially to nail certain ideas.
We’re learning all the way, and I find it hard, but that’s good – it’s supposed to be challenging and it’s supposed to test me. I feel like I’m getting better as the shows go on, and that’s quite exciting; I never thought that would be what happens. It’s a good lesson for me, that you should never stop listening and learning, so that’s one of the things I’ve learnt. You should always listen to people and try and improve.
When you decided to take it over, did you feel like you were in any way not good enough?
Not when I took it over in August; I would’ve felt like that three years ago. I wasn’t ready for it then. Now I was totally ready for it, and I just said to the boss, ‘by the way, I really want to do this show and this is what I would do’. Then the moment came that Grimmy didn’t want to do it anymore, so they were like, ‘Go on then, show us what you got’. That was a really nice moment where I actually delivered on what I’d said, which was very satisfying.
But I didn’t feel like I couldn’t do it – and that was a nice feeling.
I think that’s our challenge, is just to create those must-listen moments…
What show has been the most fun to record?
Today was quite fun when we had Katie in as a reporter for the Brits. But there have been so many silly shows we’ve done. Probably the most extraordinary bit of radio I’ve ever been part of is The Escape Room that we did on Monday and Tuesday. They blindfolded me, and I had no idea what was about to happen. They took me out of the studio, put me into a cab, drove me to a secret location, and locked me in an escape room.
I was lying in the room for the next thirty hours, and I had to use the listeners to try and work out what the code was to try and get out of the room, and I eventually got out thirty hours later, thanks to all the listeners getting involved. It was a real test of everything, it was really fun and people got so hooked on it. Radio 1 has never seen so many tweets and texts, and from the 15-24-year-old audience who were watching things unfold on Twitter or Instagram, and would go onto the app and listening because they were like ‘I’ve got to hear what happens next’. I think that’s our challenge, is just to create those must-listen moments. That’s where radio can win.
Is there anything exciting coming up on the horizon for you?
Me and my co-writer Chris Smith, we write a series of children’s books called Kid Normal, and they have done really well over the last couple of years. It’s been a great other project for me to do and the third one comes out in March, so we’re gearing up for the launch of that and doing lots of tours around schools and meeting kids and doing signings and events around that.
I’ve really set aside this year to nail that Breakfast Show, because it takes a lot out of you. You really need to be on it, and not have too many distractions. I’ve had a really great start, but I’m now eager to do the next six months and see where we can take it.
Do you have any advice for students hoping to go into radio broadcasting?
Yeah, I would say listen to everything. Work out what the radio landscape is, work out what you love, and steal all the things that you love. That’s kind of how you do a show, you take all the bits that you love. Also, I would just do a podcast, if I was starting out now. You just never know what that killer idea could be or become; all you need is a microphone and a killer idea and suddenly you’ve got a hit podcast. It’s very hard, but actually there are so many places where you can express yourself, so I would probably be doing that.