Hi Sarah! Thank you so much for taking the time out to answer my questions, how are you?
I’m doing well! Ish. Okay. Fine? That question’s tricky to answer right now. I’m very lucky because I still have the structure of work, but I’ve tried to distract myself from you know, the pandemic and the whole general horror show that is this time, by taking on more work than ever which is loads of fun, but a bit of a nightmare for someone as disorganised as me! Happily though work is pretty darn fun, which is very lucky indeed.
For those who don’t know you, could you give them a little intro?
I’m a bit of a jack of all trades, master of none really. I’m the presenter of BBC Music Introducing in the South West and the weekday Arts and Culture shows on BBC Radio Devon as well as the occasional show on BBC Radio 1, Radio 4 and 6 Music. I also write the occasional piece for The Guardian and Clash magazine, have a podcast called Calm Down Dear which is all about enthusiasm and is tonnes of fun, and am currently studying an MA in Creative Writing at Exeter. Phew!
Did you always want to work in music? How did it happen?
I think yes, but I always felt a little embarrassed about it, as though I didn’t know enough so couldn’t possibly do it. It was only when I realised that having opinions, passion and knowing that I didn’t know everything might actually make me a pretty good candidate! The specific moment that I knew was when I was on study abroad at the University of North Carolina and one lunch in the dining hall my friends and I were having the classic, easy-going conversation that is “what do you want to do for the rest of your life”. I sat and considered the sort of environment I’d like to work in, who I’d like to spend my time with, and what I’m passionate about and lo and behold, there it was: music journalism. I applied for work experience at NME when I got home, and for some reason they gave me it. That gave me the taste, and I’ve never looked back.
How did you start working with the BBC?
It’s actually a bit of a weird one. I’d moved back to Devon having graduated from uni in London and, because London, being broke. My boyfriend still had a year left of his music degree in Plymouth so I moved in with him, and took on a part-time job as a librarian while doing the occasional bit of freelance music journalism. Just as I was starting to lose my mind at the seeming impossibility of making anything of myself in music journalism while in Devon, said boyfriend was asked to do a session for BBC Introducing in Devon. I’d never even heard of them back then, but he said they were lovely and I should get in touch. I did, begged them for anything, started volunteering, and got a job there three months later. That was almost six years ago, and I’ve been there ever since.
What’s your favorite thing about being a DJ?
It sounds so basic, but just putting the playlist together. It gives me such joy to select these songs and then to play around with the order so that the unexpected can sit side by side in a way that sheds new light on them, and which might bring them listeners they’ve never had before. That and chatting about music. I know I’m very subtle about it, but I’m quite a fan of that bit.
You are a presenter for BBC Introducing in Devon and Cornwall (It’s actually BBC Music Introducing in the South West now!), would you consider yourself to be a talent scout as well?
It feels a little pompous to say so, but definitely; that’s the core of the job. Every single track which we play in the shows is picked from tonnes of uploads by myself and Maddy, the brilliant woman who helps me bring all of the shows together. There’s genuinely nothing quite like discovering someone at a gig (remember those?) and getting them to Upload, or seeing a new name pop into the Uploader, pressing play and your entire day getting better because of that discovery. I’ve been doing it for five years now, and the thrill never wanes.
What’s been your favorite interview you’ve done so far?
Gah that’s difficult, but I’d be inclined to lean towards one I did for my podcast, Calm Down Dear, as in that we really get to go deep into topics in a way that radio, at least in the way I do it, often doesn’t have time for. With that in mind I’d say recently one of my new favourite artists Pixey was wonderful; she almost died in her early twenties and that experience gave her the drive to, in her words, “achieve something and be fulfilled”. She bought loads of kit, taught herself to play guitar and produce, and now she’s one of the most exciting talents on the scene. And she loves Harry Potter. Total winner in my book. The forthcoming episode with comedian Laura Lexx is a real winner too, as her candour was beautiful to behold and often hilarious to listen to.
Did you always want to be on the radio?
Honestly I’d say no, but then I look back and go “huh, you sure did listen to a lot of radio, text in loads, and have very specific memories of your favourite presenters playing your now favourite artists”, so I guess that’d be a lie. Certainly when I got a job in it, everyone’s response was along the lines of “you, talking for a living? Yup, sounds about right”. I did a little bit of presenting in school at a local community station (which I ridiculously forgot to mention in my initial BBC interview) but as soon as I got into it, it just felt right and I’ve pushed hard to progress ever since.
What’s your day like being a radio presenter? Is it always the same?
Well it depends on the show really! I don’t have a producer for any of my shows so I do all of the guest booking, feature, events and long-term planning as well as all of song selection and presenting (obviously), which means a lot of admin which honestly, I’m terrible at. Most of my days are filled with emailing, planning and listening, honing the playlists and coming up with stupid things to do on air, so that once I get into the studio (always now very close to On-Air time thanks to Covid) it’s all fairly easy! Depending on the guests and if it’s a TV day too, I’ll often do a fair bit of filming/recording at home before I head to the studio. What was my front room has, since Covid, basically become a multi-purpose studio and office, which is faintly ridiculous. A lot of presenters and producers write scripts before the show too (sensible), but I don’t as I’ve learned that I want to be more present and immediate in my chats, but also that I need to slow my very quick speech down by thinking. I’m basically a producer’s worst nightmare. Maybe for the best that I don’t have one.
If you didn’t choose to work in the field you are in, what would you have chosen to do in music?
If I were to stay in music, I’d definitely have stayed in print and online journalism as it still just makes me really happy, but if I were to step out of music then publishing would have a very chatty new recruit!
Is there a particular moment in your career that you are especially proud of?
Eek, it’s between two. First I’d say working at Glastonbury on the BBC Introducing stage in 2019, as I was hosting the stage for a fair amount of the time (weirdly shouting “hello Glastonbury!” and having a tonne of people whoop back never gets old), interviewing every artist who played on the stage for the local shows, gathering content for my own and on-site producing Huw Stephens, which I’d never done before. It was stressful (and hot), but thanks to a very over-planned binder (hello Leslie Knope) I got through it and had a tonne of fun too! Second would be winning in the Radio 1 Christmas Competition and being one of thirty-three presenters to get airtime on the station over the festive period out of over a thousand applicants, which is just mad. I was chosen to cover three Future Artists shows while Jack Saunders had a rest, and it was a total dream. Here’s hoping I get to do it again!
What do you think is one of the biggest misconceptions about working in your field is?
Ohhh, where to begin! That we get paid a lot (trust me, we don’t), that we have a big team to sort things (trust me, we don’t), that we’re all hired full time and so can reply to everything all the time (we’re not and we can’t, sorry), that everyone knows everything about the industry and that we’re all super confident. Sadly I’m learning all the time, just like everybody else, and almost everyone I know in this game has big days of imposter syndrome and anxiety. That said we love what we do, so we keep on grinding!
What drives your determination and ambition when it comes to your job?
Honestly I’m just an aggressively determined and ambitious person by nature and always have been. I often wonder if I’d be the same in any field. That said I heard a brilliant thing once; that you know you’re in the right game if you get really protective of what you do, and jealous of what others achieve, which is totally true of me and radio. I listen back to every show and make mental notes so that, hopefully, my shows are always getting better. What’s great about my job though is that the better I do, the better shows I put on and the better I am at discovering and pushing new talent, the better it is for the artists and the South West scene too. If I’m ever having a blech day, which has happened a fair amount over the past year, I remember that and push myself harder. So far it seems to be working, as South West artists have had maybe their best year yet at network level! Woo!
The music industry is unfortunately male dominated, do you believe there are more women radio presenters now than there was before?
Oh totally. I don’t know the stats, but particularly within the BBC Introducing family (as we cheesily but honestly refer to it), so many of the presenters, and indeed producers and AP’s are women. I’m in an all-female team, as are loads of my closest friends in the game. I think there’s definitely work to be done away from network level, but we’re getting there, slowly but surely.
Was it harder for you being a woman to get into the industry?
Honestly no, but I think I was very lucky. James Santer who was the presenter when I joined Introducing was the most incredibly supportive, fun and caring mentor I could have had; he’s the one who pushed me to go on air, first giving me sessions and then eventually, training me to take over from him. The same can be said of all of the brilliant management in my area, but I know that it hasn’t been the same for all of my friends. Being a young woman in a curatorial position can be particularly tricky; our knowledge is what’s relied on and if a person with certain prejudices looks at you and thinks you can’t possibly be knowledgeable because you’re a young woman, then that can be difficult to work around. That said, as I say, things are definitely getting better.
Who are some of your favorite radio presenters?
I’m not gonna be niche about this – Annie Mac. All day every day. Her warmth, her knowledge, her passion for the music and for genuine connection with the people she chats to absolutely shines through in her radio shows and in her podcast Changes too. Not to mention the fact that she runs a huge company, has kids, and has just written her debut novel. She’s honestly my hero. I properly love Nick Grimshaw too – I think we have a very similar daft sense of humour. Other than them, there are some amazing new presenters coming through right now – my pal Emily Pilbeam of BBC Music Introducing in West Yorkshire for one, and Sian Eleri who’s just taken over the Radio 1 Chillest Show.
Who are your favorite up and coming bands/artists right now?
Gah that’s a big question. I’d say the artist pushing through most at the moment (which couldn’t be more deserved or happen to a nicer person), is George Moir. We played him for the first time a couple of years back and he was signed off the back of that. Since then he’s been Radio 1 Introducing Track of the Week and has just released a new EP, which is a corker. If you love Glass Animals or Easy Life but with a bit more whimsy (I’ve referred to his music as “Whims-die, AKA Whimsy Indie before which he loved), then he’ll be right up your street.
Other than him, Ferris & Sylvester are always a sure fire hit with their inimitable brand of blues-rock meets americana, and Polly Money and Eleanor Knight are both glorious too! There’s just too many to name really – you’ll have to listen to my shows!
What advice would you give to someone who wants to work in music?
Honestly, I always say to do what I did initially. Just sit quietly for a few minutes, and work out what your particular skills are, what you enjoy doing, the sort of people you want to work with, the sort of environment you want to work in, and exactly what you’re passionate about. From there you’ll likely realise hey, I’d be great at the business side of things, or publishing, or management, or broadcasting like me. There are so many options in music which aren’t always obvious. I’d recommend looking through all of the BBC Introducing Masterclasses from some specific advice from people who are the best in their fields, and then emailing people within that field. Potential employers don’t know you’re there unless you tell them. And be nice!
If you could give me a recommendation on who to interview next for “Making Noise”, who would it be?
Oooh it depends on if you want a broadcaster or an artist! In terms of broadcasters I’d say Emily Pilbeam or Abbie McCarthy would be great, but if you want an artist, go for Pixey or Ferris & Sylvester, who have a fab podcast looking at how musicians construct their songs called ‘The Song Uncovered’. So good.