Industry Insider: Xfm London radio DJ Steve Harris

February 5, 2012

Industry Insider Steve Harris
Want to work in The Music Industry as a Promoter, Producer, Publicist, Executive, DJ, or Tour Manager? Industry Insider gives Music Vice readers an exclusive insight from inside the industry as we talk to music professionals. We find out the specifics of their position and how you can grab their attention.
In the latest installment of Industry Insider, we speak to Steve Harris.

Steve Harris

Steve Harris is a DJ with Xfm Radio in London, UK. Steve hosts a show every day on weekday afternoons, together with a weekend slot, which is broadcast on 104.9 FM throughout London, on digital radio across the UK and to the world via mobile phone apps and the internet.

How many years have you been involved with radio; and how long have you been with Xfm in particular?

I’ve been with Xfm for 5 years now; and Ive been in radio since the beginning really, I haven’t really done anything else. That’s both good and bad I suppose.

How did you get involved in Radio to begin with then? Where did you start?

Well, from out of school really; I went the good old fashioned route of helping out at the local radio station. The first one I was with was a South East London station called Millenium FM,  a tiny station and they usually are [for most presenters]… I didn’t go the Hospital radio route. Hospital radio* can be a good way in to the industry, but you can get stuck in that world I think.. Still, it’s a notable way of getting a start though, I guess.

*Hospital radio is a form of audio broadcasting produced specifically for the in-patients of hospitals. It is primarily found in the United Kingdom but also in the United States, Japan and the Netherlands. Some professional radio presenters volunteer for hospital radio in their early career, as it provides a training ground for budding broadcasters. Such broadcasters include:  Andrew Edwards, now of BBC Radio Leeds; Daniel Fox, now of  Heart Northants;  Paul Moseley, now of BBC Radio Norfolk; and  James Dundon, now of Pirate FM.

What were those first days like? How did you get your first break?

Well, since I was 16. Initially you’re working for free, doing whatever it is you have to do – making the tea, and odd jobs. I worked at loads of different radio stations in the beginning. When I was 16 I loved laying in bed late at night listening to Talk Radio. In Canada and America, Talk Radio is a lot more popular; but here in the UK there is only one big station really – well one or two – talkSPORT and LBC 97.3 [‘London’s Biggest Conversation’]. There was this late night show called ‘Ian Collins and The Creatures of the Night’ and I used to just absolutely love it. The guy who presented it was my hero. Bizarrely he is now working in the same building as me [in Leicester Square]!

Well anyway, so I pestered Ian Collins with faxes and emails to let me just come in…

So you’re saying that kids out there looking to get a foot in, need to be persistent and not just expect to knock once and get an instant invitation..?

Oh yeah! Pester, pester, pester! A MILLION times! And then I finally got in there for ONE night and I’ve never been – in all these years in radio – as excited as I was that night! I was just SO excited to be there and meet Ian [Collins], to be in the studio…

Anyway, so one week turned into a lot longer. I was 16 and just doing my GCSE exams at the time. One night turned into a week, which turned in to a month. And I stayed there for 2 years, and ended up producing it! The first year I worked completely for FREE and in the second year I started getting paid.

I think that is something a lot of people need to realise: whether you work in Promotions, as a Writer, as a Radio host, as a Performer; There is a huge amount of ‘dog-body’ work you have to do and free jobs. It’s almost like you’re someone playing the lottery, badly! Get someone who buys a scratch ticket for 5 years and never wins anything, and then wins twenty bucks and they’re like ‘Yay! I won!’ ; thing is they’ve spent a lot more than that scratching away all these years! But, that ‘win’ still tastes sweet as ever when it finally comes!

How do you feel about Internships as a way to get a start in Radio?

There are so many people coming in to radio now, as keen as I at 16. The difference for me, as opposed to the kids today, is that I knew that there was a strong chance of a job at the end of the tunnel. I knew I would be working for free for a long time but I was confident that there was a paid job at the end of all that time invested. Now as the media industry shrinks and the money in the pot diminishes, you get these kids all coming in to the station and working really hard, becoming part of the station; but when the year is up there is no job at the end of it! I don’t want to tell them: “You’re wasting your time!”; because that is exactly the same position I was in at their age and there MIGHT be an opportunity; but there are certainly much less jobs going on now. In the late nineties there were more jobs and a LOT more money. It was a very different world back then. Today is MUCH harder. And ironically ‘Media’ is more popular than ever as a dream occupation these days! Everyone wants to work in media – it’s like this all encompassing word!

So you were one of the stations youngest DJs when you first started out – did you have a particular genre or style you focused on?

I am primarily into indie guitar/rock music just because that’s what I like; but to a certain extent you need to keep an open mind in order to go where the work is. I have worked for rock, dance, and pop stations… But if I had a choice; Id be doing what I am doing now with Xfm. There are not that many stations around that play ‘guitar music’ though; there’s Xfm, there’s [BBC Radio] 6 Music; and there’s Kerrang in the Midlands… that’s about it really! So unless you endlessly stay in those three with little career progression, you don’t get on to Radio One just doing rock music stations. Sometimes there are international career moves you can make as a presenter too though which can be cool.

Recently it seems as though the 90s guitar band sounds are coming back on to the underground and live circuit.. Will guitar bands and ‘Brit Pop’ bands come back in to the mainstream again?

Well yeah its the “all things come around” pattern; the Libertines are out of fashion now but they’ll be back! In five years time they will be back in fashion.

Yeah, its like Doc Martens – they go in and out of fashion but they always come back!
Could you explain the reality of your job? What does your job as DJ entail?

It varies from show to show. Different shows have different functions and that is why different personalities host different sections of the day. I used to do The Evening Show;  which is more of a ‘breaking new bands’ kind of show. A lot more active listeners so there would be more interviews and breaking new bands. There is quite a lot of pre-recording for an evening show.

Team Xfm at Japan benefit - Steve Harris second on right

Team Xfm - Steve Harris second on right

Now I am on lunchtimes which has a bigger audience, but it is what we call a ‘passive listen’. The audience at lunchtime are using it more as background music. As a ‘Jock’ that sounds a bit depressing – like you are simply wallpaper! But to a certain extent its true – you are providing a soundtrack to their day and you are not there to be ‘in your face’. Lunchtime is a lot more mainstream, a lot less ‘extra’ stuff around the music. My job is to go in; have a bit of a chat; talk about lifestyle stuff; big up the music; and keep the music flowing. Post 7pm perhaps you’ll go more specialist again and that is where you can break new bands.

What about mornings? What is the function of a morning show?

The morning show is the number one slot. Everyone wants to host a breakfast show. I always cover breakfasts for Xfm and I really want to do a Breakfast Show.  It is the most important by a mile and that is why breakfast show hosts get paid ten times as much as anyone else! You live or die by your breakfast show because that is when people tune in! Mornings are ‘the bread and butter’ of a station. The London market is so competitive that unless you are ‘high profile’ – unless you’re on Telly or you’re semi famous – its hard to get a full time breakfast slot.

It always strikes me as ironic that there are a tonne of people out there listening to one voice and feeling like this presenter is such a social personality.. but all the while [you’re] sitting in a small room, basically talking to yourself! It is a bit like being in a Big Brother house where everyone is listening to you but you are not aware of the numbers of people you’re connecting with… How do you deal with the solitary nature of your position?

Yeah, even after 15 years it is a weird thing! You do go in to a room, for three hours a day, and talk to yourself! And especially when you’re not doing loads of competitions and having listeners call in… like the show I’m doing now where there’s not a load of interaction… you have to remember that you are talking to people! I hate it when a mate comes in to see me because it can spoil the glamorous illusion of the job. They think its the most exciting thing in the world – and I love it – but they come in and watch me sitting there for ten minutes talking for twenty seconds and touching buttons and are like ‘what now?’. Then I have to make small talk!

Well maybe that is a good thing to tell people about the job! If you don’t like your own company then don’t be a DJ – because you’re going to be on your own for a lot of your time!

Yeah well most DJs are weirdos! Its quite an odd occupation! Quite an odd thing to do for a living… You need to almost come across like a friend to the listener. Its one thing to sell music and say “Hi this is Xfm and here’s a great song from Oasis!” – a lot of people can do that – its another thing completely when you speak out and really give them something to think about, in a way they can really ‘get’. The secret is,  if they feel like they’d want to go for a drink with you! Its as simple as that! The public needs to like you, and if that is an act or not, its a craft either way… without sounding too pretentious or getting too geeky – there are a hundred ways of ‘selling’ a song to make it sound big and exciting! There is an art to it. And this art is especially important when you’re playing the same songs, every day! Even Xfm plays a lot of the same stuff each day because thats what the public wants to hear. You have to come in each day and sell those songs in a different way. Its not always as easy as it sounds, but it does have to sound easy.

Xfm is a major station for rock bands trying to get themselves into the big time. It is a station that holds quite a position of influence in this country. How can a band get onto the stations radar? What is the process?

Well like I said, each program fulfills a different purpose so you wont be breaking new bands in the daytime. You have the specialist shows at night which feed new music through to the stations main playlist… so if you’re asking from a bands point of view, how to get onto the radio? They need to find out who is hosting those specialist shows.

Bands need to do a little bit of research and find out which jocks would be into their sound. We have egos too! Make sure you know their names – the amount of demos I got when I was hosting the evening show, saying ‘Dear Sir/Madam’  with a generic message attached! Its like – why am I going to bother listening to this? At least have the decency to find out a bit about me too! Its such an arrogant attitude some of these bands have! Listen to the station and at least pretend you know what you’re talking about, and who you are talking to. So from our end there are two specialist shows – Mary Anne Hobbs from 8, and John Kennedy at 11pm. They are the ones breaking new music and feeding it through to the mornings. I’m out of that world now but that used to be my scene and I received tonnes of demos.

Tins On Toast

Tins On Toast pub nights in Camden, London with Steve Harris

In the mornings you will not get DJs breaking new music. That is like your advert. People do not want to hear new music in the mornings, they want to hear familiar music and a familiar voice. Breakfast time is not the time or place to be breaking new music – even the most specialist of stations wouldn’t do that! You want to be starting with student radio and specialist stations. Do some research and find the right DJs! If you want to go the Plugger route you need some history behind you and you need money as well. A Radio Plugger is an odd job – all they are paid to do is be a middle man, a ‘postman’. Its like selling cars, they come in and sell bands to us!

The problem with demos is this: you get SO many of them coming in. 5% of them are great and you get really excited; and 5% the other side are so bad they are pure comedy. And then there’s 90% which are pretty good, but are we going to put it on daytimes? Probably not! Its not bad enough to take the mick out of it, its pretty good but it doesn’t ‘jump out’ and that’s nine out of ten demos. It is hard to say to bands. I guess that is where all the other things like performance, gigs and charisma come in to a bands success.

Your personal taste in music – who are your current favourites?

Well I like a band called Tribes very much, and I am in fact launching a new pub nights in Camden; and they are playing the first one for me [Facebook event page]. Its at the newly re-branded and reopened Purple Turtle, next to Koko. Its no longer a metal club, its a cool place to hang out! As of now that Ive started this club night. It’ll be a weekly thing, first one is Monday 6th of February.

Tribes – “We Were Children”

Also The Lines from Wolverhampton are pretty good. [Recent interview with The Lines on Music Vice] I’m too old to be breaking new music but one of the buzz artists for the station at the moment is Willy Moon, who does electro rockabilly! He looks like Eddie Cochran… he’s fantastic! He has some really good songs and he’s going to be big! What else… All the Young, a laddish band. They’re probably going to be pretty big too… and Spector I love too. Everyone’s buzzing about Spector.

© Ngawara Madison, Music Vice

Internet links: XFM Radio – Steve Harris
Steve Harris on Twitter

Spector – “Chevy Thunder”:

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