How to steal my job… Shola Aleje (radio producer)
Jojo Jones sat down with BBC 6 Music Radio producer Shola Aleje over Zoom to talk about getting into radio producing, knowing your worth and staying excited about your job…
J: What would you say to someone who didn’t know who you were or what your job role entails?
S: I’m a radio producer and co-produce the Lauren Laverne Breakfast show on BBC 6 Music. For somebody who doesn’t know what a producer is, the main role is to put together a show ready for transmission each day, everything from booking guests to working on the music with the presenter, loading and complying tracks, and overseeing the technical side of things – basically, we make sure the presenter gets on-air each day in a smooth and seamless way!
J: What is the balance between creative and technical responsibilities as a BBC 6 Music radio producer?
S: In terms of the creative, when you’re a producer, you have to constantly be thinking about how you want the show to sound music and content-wise. My main role is making sure we’re keeping the show as eclectic and diverse as possible with the guests and music, working closely with the presenter and team to make sure this happens. The most important thing is for our show to educate, inform and entertain. We play new music alongside the old and it’s a big priority to make sure we’re getting as much new music in alongside the playlisted tracks. That involves listening to a lot of music, daily!
The technical side of it is making sure we get Lauren on-air everyday. On the days I’m in, I set up the studio, and make sure that everything is in working order. It was a huge learning curve when becoming a producer as I had to really step up my game and learn the ins and outs of the technical side of things.
J: Let’s go into that journey a little bit, so how did you first find yourself as an assistant producer?
S: I was working in a recording studio in west London for eight years, in the mastering department. A few years in I realised that I really wanted to get into radio again properly. About 10-12 years ago, I was doing radio shows here and there on small radio stations, I was applying for jobs in radio and it just was not happening. You know, I still have all of my rejection letters. But then a few years later, when podcasts were gaining traction again, I thought ‘Oh, okay. I can make a podcast. This is easy.’ I got myself a Zoom recorder and started to teach myself how to edit just by watching YouTube videos, this was still when I was working at Metropolis. So, there was a period where I was working A LOT. I kind of burnt out. And that’s the thing about the hustle is that it can have long-term effects like my sleep is still affected by it…
I ended up getting work experience where I was shadowing a show, then I started to get freelance shifts. I then got put on a show every Saturday for three months, so I was working six days a week. And then I got offered this gig at Amazon audible to work as an assistant producer on an audio documentary. That’s kind of when I decided to quit my job and go freelance. I now work full time for the show as a member of staff.
J: It sounds like you have been able to be really adaptable in your career. What do you think is the value of being flexible and adapting to things outside of your control?
S: I’m not one of those people who has a plan. I don’t say ‘I need to be at this stage by this age’ because I think that can actually be quite counterproductive. I thought ‘if I’m going to try and make it in radio, it has to be now.’ What’s stopping me? If I could edit, then I can do this and I can do that. I love music, I get on with people and I work hard and I think I just try and keep that in my head. And I think when you are creative, it’s like breathing. I feel like when I’m not able to create, I feel really cut off and jaded. So that drove me really.
It’s so funny though, I still doubt myself all the time. I can be quite vulnerable because of who I’m surrounded by and put most people on huge pedestals. Working with Lauren [Laverne] is amazing because she’s such a great teacher and such an incredible woman. Every day is a school day working with her and the team.
Sometimes I get a bit exhausted because there’s a lot of pressure when you’re working on such a huge show, the standard is very high, from guest bookings to content. Sometimes the wind gets knocked out of me, but most of the time it’s genuinely amazing. And you know, when I work on really great shows and get beautiful reactions, it’s makes it all worthwhile.
J: Working environment is something I wanted to ask you about and finding your creative community… Have you ever noticed things in other people, or even in employers, that let you know they’re going to be a good person to work with?
S: Well, I’ve been quite lucky with the people that I’ve worked with within our team. Mark [the other producer on the show], is brilliant and I’ve learned so much about how to produce a show from him; he’s taught me so much – the importance of detail, organisation, and precision. I remember working on T-Shirt Day and I knew it was going to be an extremely busy show on the day, so planning ahead was crucial. By doing this I was able to have fun in the studio with Lauren and let loose a bit. I’ve only learned things like that as time has gone on. Being organised makes you a really great producer because it allows you to have the space to think and not panic.
J: Agreed. When you embrace that you’re always learning, there’s always new people to meet and new avenues to go down, it makes things so much easier….
S: Oh, it also is really exciting because for example, with music, my big thing is my next favorite song is always around the corner and I love that. One of my favourite broadcasters, Gilles Peterson, has his handle on social media which is ‘searching for the perfect beat’ and I just love that, because he’s somebody who has been in the game for years and still gets excited about finding new music. And I apply that with my job to keep things fresh.
J: So what would you say to someone who’s reading this article and has really connected to what we’re speaking about, they have this curiosity and this drive and excitement, but they don’t quite know where to take this in order to get into say a radio producer role…
S: The Radio Academy has some really good jobs there. There’s a facebook group called Sound Women (which is now defunct but some great alternatives are Ladies Music Pub and Normal not Novelty). UK audio network is a place for audio producers and engineers to find work and discuss things within the audio industry too.
What I would say to people looking to get into radio is to figure out what your favorite show is and find the producers of that show. You can usually find it very easily on Instagram and/ or Twitter. Honing in and finding those individual people rather than emailing an info@ email address. Listen to those shows and almost pretend like you’re producing it. For example, I watch Loose Women and I sometimes pretend that I’m producing and it’s actually really fun because I’ve never worked in TV before. And I always imagine what it would be like to be in someone’s ear and do the thing where you say ‘time to wrap up and move on’. So I think for someone who’s looking to work specifically in production, listen to those shows and break it down, even in just half an hour chunks and be like, ‘why did they play these songs, why are they asking those kinds of questions?’
If you want to be a presenter, I would strongly recommend you learn the ins and outs of what it takes to run and build a radio show. If you know how to edit it, that means you’re able to create your own showreel too.
J: I wanted to talk about the value of just showing up and just being there. I think it’s so important…
S: Oh, yeah. Massively. And I think getting in touch with someone and going ‘give me a job!’ isn’t the right attitude. It’s more about what you can offer them rather than what they can offer you. Also, when you’re starting out, try not to think about the end point too much – think of the now and continue to stay creative, continue to generate ideas as well. If you have a favourite indie or smaller station, get in touch and say you love the station and ‘I think there’s a gap for this or that’, and ‘let me know if you need any help on research’. It’s about offering solutions to problems and making yourself indispensable. But also know your worth to avoid being exploited.
J: And any advice once you do find yourself in a radio or creative workspace as a beginner?
S: I don’t know if it’s because I’m a bit older, but I realised that your employers will figure out who you are in time… One big piece of advice when starting out somewhere new is you don’t have to go all guns blazing with trying to impress people straight away, Impress people with your hard work, perseverance, and good tea-making skills, ha! They will figure out who you are in time.
Producer, BBC Radio 6 Music
Listen to Jojo Jones on the first Wednesdays of the month 12-2pm on Voicesradio.co.uk
Image: Marcus Hessenberg