Radio 1 presenter, triathlete and all round nice guy, Greg James, spoke to us about everything from the importance of great storytelling, to the unpredictable side of creating his shows.
On arriving at the BBC studios I’m welcomed by a friendly face and a big smile. It’s clear that Greg is very much in love with what he does and it translates in his amazing ability to connect with his 6 million daily listeners.
First things first, congrats on completing your Gregathlon and for raising over £1million in the process. You must be so proud.
“Thanks. I’ve just returned to normal after trying to be a triathlete for a week, and have to say I sort of miss it in a weird way... It went very well and I’m so thankful for all the support”
How would you describe the moment when you crossed the line?
“Well, I had mixed feelings because one part of me was so pleased it was finished and we’d got to the end of this huge challenge, but another part of me had become used to it after training for so long. I won’t go as far as saying I missed it, but it definitely became part of my routine.”
It must have been amazing knowing so many people were behind you, cheering you on. Which part did you find the hardest?
“The hardest part was definitely the sleep deprivation and the attritional nature of it. At one point we realised we hadn’t really slept for two days, and we had to travel from Sheffield to Glasgow and then get into the icy cold water. I think by the middle of the week we were all just knackered and the only thing that kept us going was the amazing support from the listeners and all their generous donations.”
“There wasn’t a moment that I thought I’d quit – but there was a time that I didn’t feel my body would be able to make it. My legs were aching and my feet were blistered and I was just a bit of a mess really!”
I caught you on Lorraine’s ITV breakfast show before the event where she thoughtfully gave you some nipple guards, massage cream and a swimming hat. Did you ever get round to using them?
“Ah, good old Lorraine.”
“She gave me some cream for my nether regions, nipples guards, and Vaseline for the chafing situation. She even offered to apply the cream - which was lovely of her, but I didn’t take her up on the offer!”
So we first met during Alt+J’s awesome set at Glastonbury, with the sun shining and a cider in hand. What would you say are the main challenges of hosting your show from a festival?
When you do TV stuff it’s just a bit unpredictable and it’s hard to tell how things are going to go. A lot of work goes into making sure everything runs smoothly but even then things can go wrong, bands go on late and you’re not in control like you are in a studio.
One year the festival lost power on the Friday because of thunder and lightning and in those situations you’re kind of helpless. When we went on air we had nothing lined up and no bands had played yet, so we couldn’t show any pre-recorded footage. It was madness.
I suppose I’m less comfortable in situations like that because in the studio I’m confident that the team and I are able to sort out any issues. If you’re on the Radio and things go wrong, you’re not exposed like you are on live TV.”
Last year we caught up with Lou Fitzpatrick, a long standing project coordinator of the Silver Hayes area who talked about a range of variables she has to plan for. Has a moment ever stood out to you, when you thought, “this is bad, how am I going to rectify this”?
“Yeah, I mean filling time is always a difficult one. When you think you have a minute to introduce an act and then suddenly it changes, you can start to panic. One time I was introducing Paolo Nutini - I’d just started talking about how we were going to switch to his stage and my producer was in my ear telling me that we had 6 more minutes to fill!
That was tough.
In real life with friends, six minutes is nothing. When you’re live on TV and people from all across the country are listening to you, the pressure is on. I think the most important thing is to keep calm and not to overthink it. As soon as you start worrying about the situation people will notice and they’ll feel uncomfortable for you.”
So you’ve hosted your own show from the age of 14. What is it about radio that has excited you from such a young age?
“Radio is my absolute favourite thing. I’ve always loved listening to great storytellers - whether it’s test match special and they’re painting an amazing picture of the cricket match… or a drama/comedy on Radio 4.
When you’re telling a story and communicating without any visual help, you have to focus on every little detail. That’s why features like on my show like the ‘tiny celebrities’ work really well - I love the idea that people are using their imagination to create the character inside their heads.
In a way, I sometimes think it’s a shame when you find out what someone on the Radio looks like because you’ve already created an image of the person in your mind and they might not be what you expect. I remember my mum was absolutely devastated when she found out what the characters from the Archers looked like in real life.”
As you’re a recognisable face and you’re on television a lot, do you find you get approached a lot?
“Yeah I do and that’s one of the nicest things about the job. Radio 1 lets you put your personality on the radio so everyone can see it.
People come up to you and talk to you as if they’ve known you for years. They offer advice, talk to me about their favourite parts of the show and even offer to buy me the odd pint. To me, that’s what it’s all about - people connecting to the show and getting really involved.”
Creating your shows
Speaking of getting involved, I just watched you hosting your show a moment ago and you seem like a natural with the tech side of things. How much has the technology changed since you first started creating your shows?
“So, I started Radio 1 in 2007”
The day after your graduation?
“Yeah, the day after I graduated. Great research. Some may call it stalking but hey…
You should see my search history.
In terms of the radio itself, I’ve always been quite fascinated and nerdy about the technical side of things. This is going to sound like a really silly point, but I really like the way things sound. I like to be involved in the whole process of creating the show – from making sure we have the right music, to the right editing and transitions. I really care about that type of stuff because it makes a show great and if you don’t care you’re kind of just a gob for hire.
One thing that has massively changed since I joined is the visual side of things. It’s become so vital to Radio 1 and it’s survival and I’ve always been really up for it because it’s been such a huge part of my life. Back at Uni we used to create little sketches for our show, and I was always online. I used twitter, I was already on Facebook and got Snapchat and Instagram when they came out.
When I started at Radio 1 my show ended at 6.30am, being on social media allowed me to reach out to listeners that might not get the chance to listen to the early shows. That’s why I do all the silly parodys and sketches like to ones with Taylor Swift when I’m singing in the car, because people respond to that more.
They’re first and foremost designed to be funny, but they’re also there to make people realise that the radio station does more than play music and talk.”
Radio 1 Features
The features are great. I’m a massive fan of innuendo bingo, which I’m saying as your drinking water so I better be careful with what I say next… Out of all the features you’re involved with, which one do you enjoy doing the most?
“Yeah, they’re all great fun.
For my show, I love doing ‘rage against the answer machine’ and ‘the mayor of where’ – and the tiny celebrities are always fun.”
I love tiny Kanye
“Yeah, he’s seems to be a clear favourite for everyone.
For people who don’t know what the tiny celebrities are - we take a pop culture moment, whether it is the Grammys, the Oscars or the BRITs and we’ll just mess around with the voices and do impressions with high voices.
It really is as stupid as it sounds but people really respond to it and it’s quite different from other things on the Radio - it’s kind of stupid and you just have to go with it.”
A video posted by Greg James (@gregjames17) on
Do you feel the pressure to do lots of research in your free time?
“I did at one point, maybe about five or six years ago there was a huge thing about Radio 1 maybe being under threat – people were saying that radio was old fashioned or dying, but actually Radio has become even more important over the last few years.
Obviously I would say that because I’m in it, but it really has.
It’s very reactive and you have the ability to talk about things that are happening right at that moment, which is more aligned with how we consume things. That’s something that radio is really good at and TV isn’t, because it usually has to go through a huge production line.
If something happens during my show – I literally open the microphone and talk about it – which I really love doing. It’s kind of like a social media platform - like an Instagram post, a tweet, or a vine.
I don’t really feel the pressure to stay relevant because it’s already part of my life, I think the moment it doesn’t come naturally to me I’ll know that’s when I should stop.”
You’ve interviewed some pretty huge names throughout your career and you do it really well. Do you ever still get star-struck?
“Yeah – there’s loads. I get star-struck quite often, usually by big Hollywood movie stars and the huge entourage that comes with them.
I think that’s a good thing, because I feel like I’m the middleman for the listeners. That tends to be my way into an interview, I try and normalise the celebrity as much as I can.”
Like when you showed Jake Gyllenhaal the wrecking ball video…
“Exactly. We showed Jake Gyllenhaal the video of me doing the wrecking ball parody, and when he saw that he sort of got what was going on.
British stars seem to get it more because they know about Radio 1 and how many people the show reaches, but the American stars can sometimes be a little tougher to crack.
I get scared the whole time with those sorts of interviews. That’s why I plan them meticulously to make sure I don’t stumble and just say ‘hmmmm, yeah – so what about the film’ and panic.”
Find out the everyday side of those celebrities must be really interesting.
People can find out what they’re doing in their latest film, but it’s not so easy to find out what they did that morning, or what they had for breakfast - perhaps not that, that’s a bit dull.
“Ha, no it’s exactly that type of thing that our listeners enjoy. There’s a mystique around movie stars/pop stars and when you hear those little nuggets of their real life it’s amazing.
Two moments stick out in my mind immediately when talking about this.
Firstly when Usher came on the show and he started talking about doing the school run. I mean obviously he has kids so he must take them to school, but it’s just so hard to envisage.
And then there’s another moment on Graham Norton’s TV show, when Chris Pratt spoke about watching TOWIE - he did an impression of a person from the show, which was great.
It's moments like that when you realise that these celebrities are just people and they enjoy the same things as you - that’s what people really latch on to.
If you can find that USP in an interview, then you’re laughing really.”
The right amount of wrong
You have nearly 6 million listeners that tune into your show everyday. Do you ever feel worried about how your personal opinions come across after expressing personal them on air?
“Sometimes - it is risky because it’s live and you’re putting yourself out there.
I think the idea for Radio 1 is that you become the same on air, as you are off air – just a bit livelier because you’re on the radio.
That’s why I really love doing what I do because it’s quite a dangerous job in a way. You express your opinions and you don’t know how people will respond, you’ve just got to trust your producers and the team around you.
I think that’s why some presenters have an alter ego on the radio, because then they have something to hide behind. When you put your own personality out there you’ve got more to lose.
I’d like to think we’d always push the boundaries.”
Like your tag line - “the right amount of wrong”
“Yeah exactly, I stole that from a Las Vegas casino. I probably shouldn’t admit to that as I could get sued.”
Do you find that you’ve become more extroverted since being on the Radio? It must be difficult to go on air when you’re not feeling 100%.
“Yeah - A few mates of mine were asking me recently what it’s like to do a show when you’re going through a breakup, or just having a bad day…
Radio has become my therapy in a way, I feel very comfortable in this studio but it’s taken me quite a few years to get to this point.
Like most teenagers I didn’t have bags of confidence, but radio brought me out of my shell and that’s when I realised it’s what I wanted to do.
A really important thing that everyone reading this should remember is to never sit back and think 'that’s it' when you think you have your dream job. I’m always learning and because of it, I’d like to think I’m always improving.
The thought that you’ll never be done learning is quite daunting, but it also means you’ll never get complacent and you’ll constantly evolve.”
You seem just as comfortable in front of the camera too. I caught you on 101 and realised that we share a mutual dislike of the Kardashians.
“Great, that’s good to hear - I knew there was a reason that brought us together at Glastonbury.
Yeah, it’s the role model thing for me and celebrating people with not much talent.”
I’m always amazed by the size of their fan base – the five girls have around 50 million followers on Instagram each – which combined is more than the population of the UK, France, Germany and Spain put together.
Imagine what they could do with all that power…
The last few years has seen an insurgence of internet celebrities that are just so incredibly famous.
Some of them add lots of things to society and they’re great role models for young adults, talking important issues that can help people who’ve been bullied, or are suffering from other issues.
But then on the other hand you’ve some people who are just so mindless, and all they care about is selling themselves and making money.
It’s quite sad really.”
You’ve interviewed a wide range of aspiring actors, comedians and musicians. Is there anyone that you’ve spoken to in the last few years who is a great role model, but perhaps doesn’t get the coverage they should?
“That’s a tricky one.
I love Ricky Gervais – he’s not only a very talented man who can make us all laugh, but he’s also extremely clever.
He’s not afraid to call people out on things either which is fun to watch, and he’s a great ambassador for animal welfare.
He uses his position really well and he’s definitely someone I look up to him for all his charity work.
If you’re fortunate enough to be in a position where you can reach out to loads of people and spread a positive message, then it’s an amazing thing to do.”
Talking of reaching out, you’ve been inspiring people all over the UK to get active during Sport Relief.
What advice do you have for those taking part in any charitable sport events in the future? Other than to invest in nipple guards of course.
“That’s the thing about Sport Relief, I love being active and when I am taking part in these events it makes me feel great.
It’s a no brainer really because you raise money, you get fit and you you feel really good afterwards. One thing I’ve learned over the last few years is that I’m just happier when I’m physically fitter.
I’m better at my job, I’m more alert and I’m better company when I’m with my friends.
One piece of advice I’d give is to try and fit your training into your routine, because that way you’ll continue to stay fit and healthy after your event and it will never become a chore.
Get outside, go the park and take a friend - training outside is so much nicer, not to mention cheaper.”
Thanks Greg, you’ve been an absolute pleasure to speak with.
Where to find Greg
You can catch Greg's show every weekday from 4-7pm.