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09: The most important voice in UK radio you've never heard

09: The most important voice in UK radio you've never heard

The untold story of Gavin Douglas, one of Black British radio's key figures.

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Chances are you’ve never heard of Gavin Douglas.

But if you’ve had one ear to what’s been going on in UK radio over the last decade, you’ve definitely felt his impact as a curator, radio programmer, trainer and mentor. Snoochie Shy, Jeremiah Asiamah, Jamz Supernova, Tash LC, JK & Bempah, Reece Parkinson and CassKidd are just a handful of the country’s prominent radio hosts that he’s had a role in developing, and that’s before getting into his influence as Head of Music and Creative Producer at Reprezent, and Radar Radio’s former Director of Radio.

So how did he get here? As we find out on this episode, it’s one heck of a three-act redemption story. Starting as a pirate radio DJ in 1990s Birmingham under the alias G Child, he became known as the city’s R&B golden boy, DJing regularly in the city and scoring head-turning interviews with the genre’s headline names (and we mean headline: he managed to get Mariah Carey, Jill Scott and Destiny’s Child on his Birmingham pirate radio show).

In 2002, he scored his dream job as part of the inaugural roster on BBC Radio 1Xtra, a station dedicated to Black British music. But after holding down the station’s flagship R&B show for eight years, he was let go in 2010, leading to a period that he describes as the darkest of his life.

Now, about that redemption arc. Gavin regrouped, and what followed was the phase of his career where he perhaps had his biggest influence, as a mentor to young radio DJs and later as a key operator at Reprezent and Radar, two of the most impactful British stations of the last decade, with established pipelines into the BBC (often filled with former students of Gavin’s). Put simply, contemporary UK radio looks very different without him.

Gavin has given very few interviews in his life, so we jumped at the opportunity to tell his story on No Tags. We get into a lot of big picture questions – what is the future of Black British radio? Should radio playlists exist? Does radio still matter? – while getting the inside scoop on his time at the BBC, Reprezent and Radar. He also lays out the history of Birmingham’s pirate radio scene and its political impact on the city in the 1980s and 1990s, which is really worth sticking around for.

To accompany the interview, Gavin has provided a chronological playlist of some of the key records that have “shaped his love for music one way or another” – from classic jungle and reggae to hip-hop and neo-soul.

Chal Ravens: Tell us a little bit about growing up in Birmingham. What was the teenage Gavin like? What were you up to?

Gavin Douglas: I’ll be honest, the teenage Gavin was nothing like the adult Gavin, this person that ended up inspiring more or less a generation of radio presenters, DJs, producers, etc. That just wasn't the path that I was on when I was younger. I was very troublesome, I could never really focus on things too much, schoolwork and things like that. I was very rebellious, I didn't do well at school. I think for the first two or three years I was okay, but then I was really bad. I was always getting into trouble and just disassociated myself with school. I didn't want to know. 

When I left school, I started doing an engineering course, for the sake of it, because my mum was saying to me, “you can't lie down in bed all day”. I didn't know what I wanted to do so I started to get into DJing. I remember I bought a pair of decks from one of my friends and I started to become obsessed with learning how to mix, and that's where the music career started really, where I was like, okay, how do I learn to mix? You see how it is now, I think it's a lot easier to learn to mix because there's a lot of people that will show you, but back then there weren't loads of DJs that I was growing up around. I learned to mix jungle first before any other genre.

Chal Ravens: Is that what you were into as a teenager?

Gavin Douglas: I loved it, I still love it now. That could be a whole [other episode].

Chal Ravens: I think you were exactly the right age for exactly the best stuff.

Gavin Douglas: My first experience of raving was 1994, I was 17. I went to a place called Que Club in Birmingham. The party was called Pure X. I've still got the flyer, still got the tapes, all the memorabilia's still there so I can relive all that stuff. I was obsessed with tapes, I would listen to all of these sets and then I would find the records that they've played and try and work out how they've mixed two tunes together. And it took ages to click, obviously, but when you're persistent with something, you'll get that penny-drop moment where you’re like, “oh, I got it! It's in, it's mixing, that's it!” And from there on, I just carried on. After I'd learned to mix, I couldn't get into the jungle scene because it was just too hard to get into.

Chal Ravens: How do you mean?

Gavin Douglas: Because even though Birmingham had its own scene and stuff like that, and there were producers and labels here, it was just too hard. There were no entry points in there for me, there wasn't anybody where I could say, “Let me come along with you”. I was just a stranger to anybody in that world, so there was no bring-ins, there was no connection to anybody. However, by the time we got to ‘96, ‘97, when the music started to change, I started to feel like I wasn't enjoying it as much. So I went back to my original roots, which were hip-hop, R&B, dancehall. That's the music that I grew up on. So I'm now catching up on the few years that I've missed, and I was enjoying it, like, this is good man, I like this. 

There was a kid that lived down the road from me, and his mum was a DJ on a pirate radio station. He was going up on the station doing a set one day, and I said to him, “Can I come?” He says, “Yeah.” I grabbed my records, grabbed a couple of my brother's as well just to fill it out. We've gone up there, and then I started playing these records on the show. He said to me, “Well, if you're gonna do this, you gotta have a name.” I didn't think about that before. And don't ask me how or why, but I thought of G Child.

Tom Lea: I was actually gonna ask if it's because you were the youngest sibling, because you'd mentioned your older sister.

Gavin Douglas: People have also asked whether it was in relation to ‘Regulate’ [by Warren G & Nate Dogg] because of the “Nate Dogg and the G Child” lyric. But it wasn't that, it was just something that popped into my head and I thought, I'll just run with this for now. Almost like a temporary solution, and then it stuck. Doing the show with my friend was cool, but I wanted to do my own thing. So I asked him who was running the radio station, he told me who it was, and I then approached him and said I wanted my own show. And he gave it to me.

Chal Ravens: What was the station?

Gavin Douglas: It was called Kriss FM, with a K. So that's when it all really started to take shape. At that point – initiative time – I'm inspired by all these other DJs that are on Choice FM, which was in Birmingham as well as London. And I'm wondering, how are they getting these records? Because I'm going to record shops and I'm buying promos and stuff like that, but [those DJs] had already played them. I figured out that the record companies are sending the DJs the music, so I'm like, how do I get to the record companies?

I went to Choice FM, I went to the receptionist and said, “Have you got a list of the record companies that send you music?” She gave me this list. I could actually frame it because it was so important to my career. When I got home, I ended up calling all of these record labels. One of them that actually answered the phone was Sony, and it was DJ Semtex1. ‘Tex at the time had just started doing radio promotions for Sony and he was looking for regional people to join his street team, nationwide. I ended up doing the Sony street team stuff with him. Now I'm getting all the records. Now I'm getting all the interviews. So at this stage, I've interviewed Mariah Carey, I've interviewed Destiny's Child, I've interviewed Jill Scott, I've interviewed all of these people. And this has happened really quickly in terms of where I'd started and where this has got to. I'm now golden boy, because I'm coming with interviews with all of these [artists]. 

Chal Ravens: On a pirate station? You've got a Mariah Carey interview?

Tom Lea: Wow, I thought you'd suddenly fast-forwarded to 1Xtra then and I was gonna say, hold up - but you were running interviews with Destiny's Child on Birmingham pirate radio in the ‘90s? That is wild.

Gavin Douglas: Yeah, that's what I was doing. I've got all the interviews, the tapes and everything.

Chal Ravens: Who was your favourite person that you interviewed?

Gavin Douglas: Jill Scott, because she was so motherly. I dunno if you've ever been to a Jill Scott concert, but she's one of the best performers in my opinion, because she could have Brixton Academy feeling like you're at home in your front room. You know that type of vibe where it's so intimate, but at the same time, there's a whole lot of people in there. The way that she captivates people is very unique. When I was interviewing her, I felt the same thing, but even closer. So again, fast-forwarding, what this done is it gave me a name in Birmingham.

Tom Lea: I know you said you were the golden boy but it must have blown people's minds. 

Gavin Douglas: I mean, don't get me wrong. It also brings a lot of hate as well, because I'm now coming into this fast, and I'm overtaking people before me. But I'm a lone soldier. I'm not part of a crew. I'm not part of a clique of any kind, it's just me. So there was a lot of resentment and a lot of hate that I got at the same time. However, because I was determined to make the best of my situation, I didn't care.

At that point, there was this station that was being spoken about – Radio 1 were going to have this Black music radio station, and they were looking for regional talent. They were going around the country scouting for talent and when they came to Birmingham, people were saying, “you need to speak to G Child.” So Ray Paul2 found my number, called me, and I will never forget the day. I was at my sister's and he called me, introduced himself, said who he was, and told me to come and meet him and to bring a mix with me. 

He liked the mix, because I sent him a mix where I was mixing instrumentals and a cappellas, but doing it more or less back-to-back, like one would be an instrumental, then a cappella, then it'd be a normal track, blah, blah, blah. He heard something within that and he called me down to the Radio 1 studios to do a pilot. I was so nervous. Have you ever seen them Calm tablets that you can buy? You know what I'm talking about? Supposed to calm your nerves. I had to take some of those before I went to the studio I was so nervous. Because it felt like it was my big moment. Almost like that 8 Mile, ‘Lose Yourself’ type moment, that one chance, don't blow it. And you know what? I blew it. I couldn't speak. I couldn't fight the nerves. It was just too much. But he seen through that, and seen past the nerves, and still ended up giving me a show, which felt surreal. But after a while, I started to grow into it and started to feel at ease with what it was that I was doing. And the show went on for eight years.

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Tom Lea: Something I just wanted to go back on – what was the pirate radio circuit like in Birmingham in the ‘90s? We hear a lot about the London pirate radio scene, but you never really hear much about Birmingham.

Gavin Douglas: People don't realise this, there was pirate radio in Birmingham before there was in London.

Tom Lea: I didn't know that.

Gavin Douglas: This is history, this is. There was a radio station called PCRL that was one of the first pirate radio stations in the country.

Chal Ravens: When was that?

Gavin Douglas: We’re going back to the ‘80s. For Black music, PCRL was a powerhouse in Birmingham. They had all the best DJs, they had the Black community locked. Because it was the only outlet that you could hear [Black music] – apart from if you was listening to Janice Long, the people that used to be on Radio 1 who used to play a little bit of reggae here and there, Ranking Miss P and people like that. But in terms of community, that was PCRL. And that's where you can listen to it 24 hours a day.

Tom Lea: Could you pick it up all across Birmingham as well?

Gavin Douglas: Yeah, all across Birmingham. And if they were to hold a party, these parties are legendary in Birmingham. A PCRL party? Roadblock. 

Chal Ravens: It’s funny, you think about the history of London pirates and there are a lot of them. The idea that one station could control what an entire community was listening to is barely possible. London's too big. And Birmingham's massive, but it's not so big that you can't have this kind of joining-up of minds.

Gavin Douglas: But the way to look at it geographically is that Birmingham, as a whole, you've got an inner city, and the inner city area is mainly populated with Black people. So when you're broadcasting, you can go across the whole of Birmingham of course, but what you're doing essentially is you're going across the inner city. And that's as far as you really need to go. 

Tom Lea: And was PCRL still a powerhouse going into the ‘90s, when you started? 

Gavin Douglas: Yeah. PCRL was the number one, but then what happened is, obviously, they influenced other pirate radio stations. So then there was more [competition]. By the time that I joined in, PCRL was still going but they'd declined a little bit, because there was other ones that were coming through. 

There was one of them that I joined, Sting FM, which was kind of the new kid on the block. All of the younger DJs and the established older DJs were on the station, so then they got the buzz and everybody was listening to them. They kind of carried on from where PCRL had left off. With PCRL, they had the opportunity to go legal and everything and... I don't know if this is Chinese whispers or whatever, but apparently the authorities said that if the person that runs the station stops running it, then it can go legal, but if he continues to run it, they won't allow that to happen. Because the person that ran it was very radical, very pro-Black. I remember he'd do talk shows and it would be very like... talking about ancestry and that type of thing. It's a guy called Cecil Morris, and because he was very anti-system, the authorities didn't like that, and they didn't want him having that much control over a sector when they felt like he might be a loose cannon. But to finish, pirate radio in Birmingham was so powerful that it caused a riot.

Chal Ravens: Literally?

Gavin Douglas: Literally. This is how powerful the voice of pirate radio was in Birmingham – if you was to say something that was controversial or wrong, the next thing you know that word is gonna spread. And that word can spread negatively, where it can cause violence. And that's happened.3

Tom Lea: So you joined the BBC and were part of the opening roster of 1Xtra when it launched in 2002. What was the landscape like in terms of DJs playing Black music on mainstream radio in that period? When you hear the stories about it, it's often the same key names that get brought up: Trevor Nelson, Tim Westwood, David Rodigan, people like that. I thought it would be interesting to hear your take on it as someone who was actually there at the time, and maybe in terms of people who don't historically get the credit they should get for their roles in it? 

Gavin Douglas: My experience was different because I wasn't raised in London, so I don't know the days of Trevor Madhatter [Nelson]. I don't know the days of Rodigan in his Kiss FM era, or Westwood in his Kiss FM era, because those were stations that were unheard of to me back then. Birmingham had its own scene, its own incubator where we had our own talent, we had our own nightclubs. Don't get me wrong, there was always – and people probably won't like me saying this – there was always an inferior kind of position [compared to] London, where to us growing up, London felt like this magical place. I remember my barber when he used to cut my hair when I was little, he would say, “I'm gonna give you a cut like they do in London.” But Birmingham definitely did hold its own.

Some of the names that probably don't get mentioned: there was a guy called Simon ‘Schoolboy' Phillips, who was on Choice FM. He'd do a daytime show and he'd do a specialist show, and the way that he would do these shows, it was almost like two separate people. It used to blow my mind that this guy could present a specialist show just as good as he could do a daytime show. Who else was there? Another guy called Big John, who is a dancehall DJ, in my opinion one of the greatest dancehall DJs from this country. He's amazing. Dean Alexander was another one that used to do a hip-hop show – one of the significant things of his career was that he broke the news the night that Tupac died. Trevor Ranks, too. There's so much more that I can mention, there's so many key players that had such an influence on Birmingham in that golden time of the ‘90s.

Chal Ravens: Tom and I were talking earlier about the structure of making radio and how dominant the playlists can be. A lot of BBC radio is structured around these A-B-C playlists, so you do have your specialist shows, but in the daytime, playlists are sort of how it works. I'm interested to know how the playlists affected your show and whether you were ever part of the playlist committee – because there are these secret cabals of playlist makers who are so powerful. If they decide to put something on the A-list, it could be a big hit. What was your experience of that? 

Gavin Douglas: In terms of the radio station and how the playlist used to work, there was a playlist committee, we used to do playlist meetings, I think they were every two weeks. There would be a select amount of DJs, producers, obviously the Head of Music. We'd sit in the room and go through tracks that were forthcoming, tracks that have been sent in by labels or whatever, and the DJs were allowed to bring in their own songs that they thought should be on the playlist. So it was very open. They wanted to have the influence of the DJs because they knew the importance of DJs breaking music. I enjoyed going to the playlist meetings. It was always interesting to see what made it and what didn't.

Tom Lea: Do you think radio playlisting is as valid now? People consume music in such a different way, and actually, music gets broken in such a different way. Do you think playlists still feel valid? 

Gavin Douglas: I think it's still important. Because I think nowadays, things are quantified by looks.

Tom Lea: And numbers.

Gavin Douglas: And numbers, but that's part of the look. So tweeting or posting A-list 1Xtra, A-list Kiss Fresh, A-list Capital XTRA, A-list Rinse, A-list Soho Radio… all of these things add weight to whatever it is that person is posting, without a shadow of a doubt. Does it do the same in the sense of [how] many people are listening to this, so it has that listening impact? Maybe not.

I don't know that if something gets played on Radio 1 then the next day in school everybody's talking about it, the way it was. However, if an AJ x Deno – like when AJ x Deno came out, and they get to 1Xtra and get playlisted? That's a big deal. That's a big deal, these are school kids. Or if they get mentioned by GRM Daily. That's a big deal. It means the same type of thing – it's the buzz, it's the look. Things have changed a little, but I wouldn't disregard the power of the playlist and radio play. I still think that it holds weight. But I just think it's transcended from what it was into something else. Is that diplomatic?

Tom Lea: It’s a little diplomatic!

Gavin Douglas: Honestly, if I thought that there was no relevance left to radio playlists, I'd say it doesn't do anything. I feel like it does still hold some significant value. 

Tom Lea: Yeah, but I think you're also right in the sense that it's probably something that sits alongside a big Spotify playlist cover or a GRM Daily premiere at this point. 

Gavin Douglas: By the time that we got to 2007, 2008, the quality was coming out of R&B. Especially by the time that we got to 2009. I'm not even ashamed to admit this, I was playing stuff off the basis that it was new, rather than that I actually cared about it. 100%. And that's where the passion and the position that I was in was completely taken for granted. I didn't value it or enjoy it in the same way. R&B for me was on the decline, it wasn't motivating me in the same kind of way that it was.

Tom Lea: Do you feel like that's why your 1Xtra show ended? You felt like you'd run your course as an R&B fan?

Gavin Douglas: Yeah, absolutely. Because the passion wasn't there, I didn't care about it as much. The truth of the matter is that I didn't care about [my show] enough to try and save it, and you could hear the decline of what it was that I was doing. It wasn't up to the same standard of what I was previously doing, when I was all in, all invested. So by the point that I lost the show, when they told me, I wasn't like...

Tom Lea: Were you surprised?

Gavin Douglas: Nah. Don't get me wrong. It's never nice when you get that call into the room and you get told that your show's getting axed. It's never nice for anybody, I don't care who you are. But where you are mentally, and what's in your environment at the time, is going to [dictate how it] affects you. Now the way that it affected me, and I'll be honest, I've never spoken about this before, is that it affected me more so mentally, because everything else around me changed. The people that once wanted to have conversations with me didn't care anymore. You've lost everything that it is that people are communicating with you about. And I'm now trying to go back to my natural habitat, which is being spontaneous and using my initiative and thinking of ideas, but no one cares. 

Tom Lea: So was that a hard period for you? There's actually an old Facebook post that you dug out on Twitter recently, where you refer to being lost. 

Gavin Douglas: Absolutely, I was depressed. I went through the toughest time in my whole life. I've never been through a tougher period. Never. From 2010, to about 2011, 2012, maybe. Thoughts that I wouldn't even want to share. Tough, tough. Really difficult, because everything could come crumbling down. This whole wave that I've been riding so high for so long, so quickly, had all come to a crashing end.

Tom Lea: There’s a really good newsletter called Herb Sundays by Sam Valenti IV4, and something that he once talked about in it was the importance of explaining to artists that at some point, you're going to be cold, and your hot streak is going to run out. It’s key to prepare people for the fact that there’s always going to be a period in your career where people think you've fallen off or no one really cares, and you have to get through that. Had anyone prepared you for that at all?

Gavin Douglas: Absolutely not. It was the rude awakening that I never knew I needed. I wasn't prepared for it. You say to yourself, the day's gonna come, but then when the day does actually come, you don't know how mentally ready you are for it until you're actually in it. So I don't think I was mentally ready for it, it was very challenging. There was so much stuff that was going on in my personal life at the same time that was also bringing extra challenges. However, the interesting part of this, which is probably going to make a really nice segue, is that the same day that I found out that I'd lost the show on 1Xtra was the same day that I found out about Reprezent Radio. That's an absolute truth.

Chal Ravens: How did you find out about it?

Gavin Douglas: There was a an organisation, I think it might still be running, called Media Trust. While I was still at 1Xtra, I remember I was saying to them, I want to do some talks with young people, go to schools. And they wasn't really coming back with anything, so I was just like – again, initiative – going online, finding what I could find, and I found out about Media Trust, and that they worked with different organisations and did pair-ups, stuff like that. And that's how I found out about Reprezent in Peckham. 

Tom Lea: Am I right in saying you were originally a volunteer there?

Gavin Douglas: Absolutely.

Tom Lea: How quickly did that turn into a full time role, and what did your role encompass? Was it mostly scheduling and production, or was it specifically mentorship?

Gavin Douglas: I volunteered there for about nine months. There was the odd little paid thing here and there, where they'd send me out to do a DJ workshop, but anything specifically at Rep wasn't paid. So the majority of the time I spent with Jamz [Supernova], I wasn't being paid for that. By the time that I did get a job there, the official title was Head of Music and Creative Producer, which is a title that I coined for myself because it was the one that I wanted. In terms of the job role, I did a lot of the recruiting, I'd say 70% of the recruiting of talent. I've done the playlist, I've done the imaging – when I came on, it was only three or four idents that they had, and I was like, it's gotta be more varied than this.

Tom Lea: I don't want to dwell on the collapse of Radar Radio5 too much, for obvious reasons.

Gavin Douglas: It is what it is, it's one of them ones. I look at it as bittersweet because for me, Radar... it was a very significant time in my career, because I'd just been made redundant from Reprezent. This is a real true story: towards the end of Reprezent, one of the young people turned around to me and was talking about this Radar thing, but was laughing at it, because they was saying that this is a radio station that doesn't even have a website, and all they've got is a player. There's no pages on the website. So when you go to, you're greeted with a player and that is it. No information on the shows, nothing. 

Me being inquisitive, I want to find out a little bit more about this. When I found out that [radio DJ] Aaron Hanson's girlfriend at the time was working there, I said, “Could you introduce me to whoever it is that owns this radio station?” Which was obviously Ollie [Ashley]. So I've sent him an email and said I'd like to come down and have a look at what it is that’s going on. He said yeah, cool, no problem. So I've gone down there. I'm walking down Old Street, I've got to Timber Street and I've turned the corner, looked at the building and said to myself, “This building is massive.” I remember him opening the doors, but then when I've walked up the stairs, it's weird. There's some beanbags around. There's nobody here. There's one Radar Radio T-shirt hanging up on this lamp and there's all these Post-it notes – everything's on this wall, on a board. 

I remember the one question that I asked him was, “How is this funded?” He says it’s privately owned. OK, all right, cool. Is what it is. I didn't take much more from it than that. And then I remember him saying to me, “When can you start?” And then when we'd arranged the fee and everything – coincidentally, the day that I started at Radar was the same day that I was supposed to go to the Jobcentre and sign on [as unemployed] – he’s given me this job. There was no, like, when you go to a new job and you get an introduction and get warmed into it and told you're gonna be doing this, this is what you're going to do here. It was kind of like, here it is. Do what you do. What do I do? I'm confused.

Tom Lea: How many people were working there at the time?

Gavin Douglas: Ben [Fairclough] was there. Taz [Psaras]. I don't want to forget anybody just in case... I dunno if Harriet [Taylor] was there.

Tom Lea: Harriet was definitely there really early. I remember that.

Gavin Douglas: Harriet was there before me, I think. But anyway, there was basically this radio station but no structure. Ollie said to me, “What I want you to do is MOT the station. I want you to go from the top to the bottom, and look at everything that's going on operation-wise.” And that's what I did. I looked at it and I said to myself, OK, this is cool. This is great. I can see why this has got some sort of buzz. By the time that I got to Radar there was already a buzz because of the grime stuff that was happening, there were these grime sets that weren’t really happening anywhere else. So there was already a slight buzz. But when I looked at the schedule, I just looked at it as almost like organised confusion, just these Post-it notes all over the place.

Tom Lea: So your job was to turn it into a radio station, basically. 

Gavin Douglas: Exactly. And that's exactly what I did. But then what I also noticed was that there were no real presenters, in terms of people that would do daytime shows. Even though there was 2SHIN doing his morning show, I looked at that, I thought this is cool. But then I think - and I don't think he'd mind me saying this – there were parts of that where it was getting real close to the edge and I was kind of like, this is wild, man. Some of the stuff that's been said, this is crazy. But don't get me wrong, that warmed me into the mentality of Radar. Do you know what I mean? Like even with the slogan and all the rest of it.

Tom Lea: I’d forgotten about the slogan.

Gavin Douglas: Can't forget about the slogan.

Chal Ravens: What was the slogan?

Tom Lea: Tune in or fuck off.

Gavin Douglas: That was a big part of the station's identity. When I looked at what it was they were doing, I was [taken] aback by it, but then I also looked at it as borderline revolutionary. Because where else can you do that? Where I come from originally, you can kind of do what you want.

This has always been my synopsis of Radar: rebellious radio. It's that [puts middle finger up] to the radio industry, like, this is how we do it. One of the main things we needed to change was the daytime output, we needed to have regular shows on there. That's when we brought in [Snoochie] Shy, then Jade Avia, Ralph [Hardy], to do daytime rather than just doing this random specialist show. Kamilla [Rose], people like that. Build an audience that way. In the most modest way, I got it right, because by doing that it propelled the station's reputation very quickly, and that made it even easier for me to have conversations with other people about this radio station.

Tom Lea: You also picked a lot of hosts that then accelerated in size very quickly: [Snoochie] Shy, Kenny Allstar, JK & Bempah, Poet..

Gavin Douglas: Yeah, the Radar Radio lineup turned into a real all-star radio station. Because let's not forget, The Receipts Podcast was on Radar. Let's not forget Michael Dapaah, Mo Gilligan were both on Radar. Obviously Big Zuu, but I can't claim for Big Zuu because he was there before me. But then look at his career now, like…

Tom Lea: Alhan, kind of, I can't remember if he actually had a show but he was always about and on people shows. 

Gavin Douglas: Yeah, Alhan's another one. There was loads: 3ShotsOfTequila, Oloni as well who's doing great. There's loads of them where I've seen an opportunity, in terms of bringing in a balance between people whose content is controversial, it’s not family-listening type stuff, and the Kamilla Roses and Jade Avias where they're more on the PG side of things. It was trying to find that balance between pushing it to the edge and keeping it on the safe side as well. And I think it got there. 

But then I look at the demise. It sounds like radio heaven. In realistic terms, you can't put all of these people that have got all of these different opinions, all in the same space together and think that there's never going to be anybody that offends another person. It's just not going to happen. And so with the whole Pxssy Palace situation6, it didn't come as a surprise to me. Because you've got 3ShotsOfTequila on one side, and then you've got Pxssy Palace on the other. These are the polar opposite to each other. They're worlds apart. But they're also on the same platform. So at some point, somebody, somewhere, somehow is going to hear something that's going to offend. And when it does, we know what the outcome is.

Tom Lea: Where do you think the station would be now? How big do you think it could have got realistically?

Gavin Douglas: It would have been absolutely huge. Huge. Groundbreaking. Because it was groundbreaking at the time. I think it was groundbreaking, but I also think it was ahead of its time. The reason why it worked so well is because it fitted it into a niche that wasn't already there. It carved out its own little lane. And then people started to realise how much that was needed.

Tom Lea: Do you think you'd still have been working there? Or would you have just completely lost your mind at that point? Because it was a very intense working environment. 

Gavin Douglas: Listen, there's people that will vouch for me, where I was saying I'm ready to go, you know, I don't feel I can do this anymore. Because the pressure was intense, there was a lot of pressure that was being put onto us. And there was a lot of things where it was like, you could just see that it was spinning a lot of plates, but them plates now are starting to wobble a little bit too much. And obviously, when one plate fell, the rest of them fell along with it as well. And then it all came crashing down.

Tom Lea: We thought it would be good to end on some big picture questions about radio, and the general state and future of British radio.

Chal Ravens: As we mentioned before, the role of 1Xtra and Radio 1 in shaping British music and what British youth listen to has changed a lot since the time that you started there. Pirate radio, of course, has completely evolved, or disappeared, with online radio taking over that underground position. So I guess we're curious about what role radio has right now in shaping British music, and particularly Black British music.

Gavin Douglas: I think it's massive. The answer is within the question, because if you look at where we are now, at this current stage in the evolution of Black music in this country, the majority of people that are now at the top of their game, where have they come from? What's their roots, what's their background? I guarantee that the majority of them, you step back and you find that the seed is radio. Don't get me wrong, I know that there's other mediums and obviously people use Instagram, TikTok and stuff like that to profile themselves and give themselves a voice. That's equally as important now. But I think when done correctly, radio still amplifies voices, it still amplifies careers. I think there's only a very, very small minority of people who have delved into radio and it hasn't done anything in terms of boosting their profile. I would think that the majority of people would say the opposite.

Radio also helps give people confidence and a way of thinking that they might have struggled to get out into the open before they started doing it. So I think it's very confidence-building, it helps people realise that they can have a voice, and they can have a loud voice, they can have a voice that's heard by multiple people. I can't say that there's not any other medium that brings out the same thing because I don't really know that in-depth about other mediums, but I definitely know that radio can bring that out of a person. So to answer, I think that radio in 2023 is still very important. 

[As for] the future of it, I don't know. That one I can't really comment on too much because I'm not as close to the pulse as I was. It's been five years now since I've last worked in radio, and I haven't concentrated on it in the same way that I used to. So where it's going and how it is now at this current state? I don't really know. If I was to give an opinion from afar, I would probably say, bring a little more rebellious radio back into the system again. But do it this time with more regulation, of course.

Chal Ravens: Reform not revolution.

Gavin Douglas: The reason I say that, and I guess it's a good way to conclude, is that for the stems of Black music, in this country, that's what it was built off. It was built off rebellious radio. It was penalised. It was the kind of thing where it was like: you can't do this! Broadcasting this type of music, from here? You're gonna get arrested, you're gonna get a criminal record, you're gonna get your music taken from you. But the people still did it, right? Because they wanted to spread their message. They knew how important it was. And I don't think that Black music in this country should ever lose a part of that heritage, because it's very, very important. It's also something that works hand in hand with a certain sector of youth culture. And I think if radio steers too far away from that, it's finished.

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Episode recorded at: SRP Studios
Theme music: Jennifer Walton
Gavin photo credit: Just Nevaeh
Branding: All Purpose


DJ Semtex hosted BBC 1Xtra’s weekly hip-hop show from 2002 to 2018, before moving to Capital XTRA. He currently hosts Spotify’s Who We Be podcast.


Ray Paul worked for BBC London from 1997 to 2001, and was part of the initial team who set up BBC 1Xtra before sidestepping to Radio 1. He now runs his own production company, The Playmaker Group.


PCRL (People's Community Radio Link) was a pirate radio station in Birmingham, launched in 1985 by Cecil Morris as an attempt to calm local tension in the wake of the Handsworth Riots. Believing that the city’s Black population in Birmingham was not adequately represented by the local BBC and commercial stations, Morris kept the station going until 2004. It was targeted by police throughout its tenure, and Morris was eventually given a suspended prison sentence, fined £3,000 and forced to pay £5,000 costs for “conspiring to manage, finance and operate the unauthorised station”. The prosecution claimed that the station’s broadcasts interfered with the local fire service’s communications system.


Sam Valenti IV is the founder of record label Ghostly International, and runs the weekly Herb Sundays newsletter – big recommend! The specific edition that Tom references here is with legendary hip-hop A&R Dante Ross.


Radar Radio was a London-based internet radio station that operated from 2015 to 2018. Founded by Ollie Ashley, son of Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley, the station’s roster included high-profile talent like Snoochie Shy, Big Zuu, Kenny Allstar, Night Slugs and The Receipts Podcast.


Radar Radio came under fire in April 2018 when resident DJs Pxssy Palace released a statement accusing the station of “tokenis[ing] women, feminism, queer and trans culture, and Black and other people of colour, for capitalist purposes”, “allowing the airing of sexist, homophobic and transphobic shows” and “the theft of intellectual ideas from people of colour”. In the days that followed that statement, a former producer at the station, Ashtart Al-Hurra, released a blog post describing her alleged experience of sexual harassment at the station. Following a subsequent mass walkout of talent, the station suspended broadcasting and never restarted.

No Tags
No Tags
No Tags is a podcast and newsletter from Chal Ravens and Tom Lea chronicling underground music culture.