Selector Radio at 20 – The Story So Far

Selector Radio began 20 years ago this year – a new radio show from the British Council to provide a platform for new UK music to be heard around the world. From this simple idea the show has grown massively – as it leaves its teenage years behind, it can proudly boast a listenership in the region of 4 million listeners every week, broadcasting in over 35 countries and available to many more online via Mixcloud and this website. Newer strands include Selector PRO, which brings music industry professionals together to learn from each other and discuss the key trends of the day, and Selector Live which brings the best UK talent to stages and audiences around the world.

So in 2021, #SelectorAt20 celebrates the past two decades of curating the finest UK music, while also asking what the future might hold for the industry. But when your country is locked down due to Covid-19, having a birthday party can be a challenge – and our plans for a live event in January 2021 have inevitably been put on hold for now. Despite this, we have some special editions of the show lined up and, with any luck, will bring you some live music later in the year. Firstly though, how did we get here? It might be worth casting your mind back to a very different era.

 

From 2001 ... A Selector Odyssey

Twenty years is a long time and, at the risk of stating the obvious, the UK looked very different in the year 2001. The world had evaded the elusive Millenium Bug and in football, Sven-Göran Eriksson began his long reign as manager of the England men’s football team, thumping Germany five goals to one in September 2001 with a frontline of Emile Heskey and Michael Owen.

UK music in the new millenium

In the UK, internet use could reasonably be called a niche pursuit – just 36% of the population had internet access at home in 2001 with many still using dial up connections rather than the faster broadband so commonplace in the UK today. Facebook, Twitter and Spotify wouldn’t appear at all until the middle of the decade and even MySpace – which was claimed at the time to launch the music careers of artists including Lily Allen and Kate Nash – didn’t go online until 2003. But the first rumblings of disruption to a decades-old music business model were felt in the form of file sharing sites like Kazaa and Limewire. These allowed users to illegally share music between them for free which posed a huge challenge to the record companies. Some might argue the issue has never been fixed; this month a DCMS inquiry (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) asked representatives from major labels if streaming, as we know it today, is fair for artists.

Selector was designed to give airtime to those lesser known names for an international audience who, in a pre-internet age, might struggle to easily find this music elsewhere

Shaggy’s ‘It Wasn’t Me’ was the best selling single of 2001 while another chart-topper of the year, Hear’Say’s ‘Pure and Simple’, appeared as a result of the popular TV talent show ‘Popstars’. The TV music talent show would come to dominate the UK chart for many Christmases to come as Simon Cowell’s X Factor churned out a slew of identikit seasonal singles on the back of the long-running show until the bubble was finally burst by the end of the decade when a social media-supported campaign to get Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Killing in the Name’ to the top of the charts prevailed. Joe McElderry was the fall guy.

Selector was therefore created within this sickly sweet era for UK pop music, when we still had Top of the Pops on our screens (until 2006) and talent show cover versions competed for top spot alongside lamentable offerings from generic boybands and the likes of Las Ketchup and even Bob the Builder. Selector was created to effectively verify the statement: ‘there’s more to UK music than this.’ It asked, what about the acts beyond the charts? And, given the ubiquity of UK pop music around the world, it was designed to give airtime to those lesser known names and emerging artists for an international audience who, in a pre-internet age, might struggle to easily find this music elsewhere.

 

Andi Oliver and Selector Radio’s Early Years

This new UK music show, produced for the British Council by Somethin’ Else and hosted by Andrea Oliver, was known simply as The Selector. The show ushered musical guests through the doors who would go on to become genuine household names in the years to come. 

‘Presenting The Selector was such a special time for me,’ says Oliver. ‘The sheer scope of artists that we featured from a very early Amy Winehouse to swirling drums featuring Benjamin Zephaniah was simply breathtaking!’

Other session guests included Dizzee Rascal, ElbowBat For LashesJamie TKT TunstallEmmy the GreatKano and UK jazz stars Soweto Kinch and Jason Yarde. All were in the early stages of their careers. These sessions are still available to listen to in the Selector sessions archive.


Above: Young Fathers have been one of hundreds of acts to enter the Selector studios for a session over the past 20 years celebrating UK music. Image: Folded Wing.

 

Opening the door

Sam Duckworth – then performing as Get Cape Wear Cape Fly – still fondly remembers his time on the show back in 2006: ‘Selector was one of my first radio sessions and certainly the first time I was able to picture my music going out to the wider world. I can still remember the excitement as a 20 year old musician, in the early infancy of the internet, picturing where my tunes would be heard.’

Duckworth also contributed to ‘the door’ – Selector’s very own hall of fame was a studio door which every guest was invited to scrawl their name on. ‘I popped back a few years later, with my Recreations project, and remember seeing the door of signatures, friends, heroes and future icons and made sure to add my name again. It’s rare for something to feel both exciting and a rite of passage, but Selector has been both for 20 years.’


Above: Selector Radio's old studio door is dawbed with signatures from all the UK musicians that have come in for a chat or session over the years. Image: Folded Wing.

 

But in the very beginning it wasn’t quite so easy to lure musical guests along. Despite the British Council’s international reputation for cultural relations, in the UK no-one knew what this new programme was. Artists were not inclined to give their time to a show they’d never heard of. The British Council’s first Selector Programme Manager, Lisa Phasha explains: ‘They didn't know the Selector and it wasn't broadcast in the UK. Luckily we were working with a production company who were making a number of shows for BBC Radio and the British Council flagged the show to record labels through our networks at AIM [Association of Independent Music] and together we managed to get the word out there.”

As word spread, the show quickly delivered on its promise to showcase a broad range of UK talent and took advantage of radio’s unique ability to travel easily. ‘As a Music department [at the British Council] we had always strived to showcase the diversity of the UK through its rich and diverse music, but with limited budgets this is difficult,’ says Phasha. ‘We felt that radio offered us an opportunity to reach out to wider audiences with a wider selection of what the UK is about. It was always seen as a complement to our other programming – not instead of.’

 

Selector Goes Gold

In 2009, Sam Hall – better known as DJ Goldierocks – became The Selector’s presenter and would go on to present the show for the next 10 years as its popularity grew around the world. ‘The show was a huge part of my life - getting to broadcast around the world for over a decade. I grew up on that show,’ she says.

The new look show, now produced by Folded Wing, continued to bring in musicians that would go on to have huge careers. Before he was a global star, one Calvin Harris dropped by for the Tea and Tunes segment of the show. And live sessions, specially recorded for Selector, were a regular part of the show. Producer John Cramer’s vision was this went hand in hand with the industry’s shift towards live music and away from album sales. ‘It was quite an exciting time really in terms of the music industry in the UK,’ says Cramer. ‘Gigs were becoming much more of an important part to the career of a musician than maybe they had been for years prior to that, and so one of the things I really tried to do when I was the producer of Selector Radio was bring in as much live music as possible from as early as possible.'

Karen Pearson, CEO of Folded Wing, remembers working with a young Jamie Woon on one of the first Selector shows made by her team. 'I remember being sent a vinyl of Wayfaring Stranger in 2007 and listening to it over 10 times in a row. So being able to bring people like Jamie Woon on to Selector Radio is a dream come true; to give them a platform to an massive international audience. He came in to our small Folded Wing voice booth and recorded a beautiful session.'

And it was this Selector session that paved the way for Jamie's early international experiences. 'Off the back of the session and plays of his tracks his music was playlisted on a few stations around the world and he went out to Kazakhstan on a British Council trip,' explains Pearson. 'That led to a residency in China for a couple of months where be presented his own radio shows. We were very proud!'

Above: DJ Goldierocks was Selector host for 10 years, taking UK music to the world.

 

Selector was able to find a home due to the British Council’s existing connections, built up over years of cultural relations activity within these countries

To help reach new audiences, over her 10 years as host, Goldierocks visited over 30 countries. These visits were often to launch and celebrate a new country broadcasting the show and for her to DJ at Selector Live events. In many cases, these were countries where UK broadcasters struggle to have much of a presence at all, but Selector was able to find a home due to the British Council’s existing connections, built up over years of cultural relations activity within these countries. ‘I loved Nepal – the architecture, peaceful, kind natured people,’ Sam Hall explained. ‘I’ve been to China five times with the show and it’s such a vast, completely different place to the UK and that was fascinating. Cuba will always have a very special place in my heart – the music, the people … the rum! It’s such a romantic, artistic, passionate place. We threw some huge open-air parties there and getting on air was quite a feat, but a truly historic moment. We’re the only internationally-made media allowed on air since the Cuban revolution. I’m very proud of that.’

Writing for The Sunday Times magazine in 2011, journalist Katie Glass said the show was ‘as irresistible as the best of John Peel’ heard from ‘the skyscrapers of Jakarta’ to the ‘white-sand beaches of Mauritius.’ Its popularity had a direct impact for artists. When Jamie Woon’s ‘Lady Luck’ was played by Selector, it was picked up by stations across Kazakhstan and China which led to a six-week residency in China the following year. Dinosaur Pile-Up’s exposure on the show led to a gig in Mexico to a crowd of 3,500 - ‘it was pretty mindblowing … that’s bigger than any gig we’d played here’ - and led to international touring opportunities across the Americas. Phil Catchpole, the new Selector Programme Manager, neatly explained the show’s simplicity: ‘There is a trade element … promoters and agents listen to the show [and] pick up and book artists.’

As the show’s audience increased so did the scale of its ambition with shows recorded on location in Mexico, Mauritius, Poland and beyond. ‘Wow, we had some adventures!’ laughs Sam Hall. ‘Broadcasting live on national Cuban radio!’ Selector Live shows featuring the likes of Ghostpoet and Everything Everything proved hugely popular in Ukraine in particular and, in 2016, Selector PRO came to Russia – a new conference-style event designed to connect music industries around the world and discuss the burning issues of the day from streaming challenges to music marketing.


Above: Selector took listeners into the heart of festivals like The Great Escape in Brighton by recording on location, meeting bands like Bad Sounds. Image: Folded Wing.

 

Selector connects

The show also made connections closer to home, back in the UK. Selector took the opportunity to bring listeners overseas into the heart of UK music festivals like The Great Escape in Brighton, by setting up a temporary home in the city and meeting and recording bands in town for the event. However, it was not always straightforward, explains show producer Pete Linney. ‘I had just taken over as producer and it was my first trip to The Great Escape, working with our presenter Goldierocks. I’d never been to Brighton before and had no idea just how much of the city the festival takes over. So I planned some rather optimistic transition times between interviews, giving us about five minutes to walk from Concorde 2 to the Prince Albert. Turns out this is a 30 minute walk, on top of that the heavens opened producing the most rain I’ve ever seen in my life. I had to buy an emergency umbrella, which immediately snapped in half in the wind. In the end, Goldierocks and I sought refuge in the nearest chippy, where I witnessed Sam [Goldierocks] eat a huge fish and chips with a jumbo battered sausage on the side – an impressive feat! I later met a presenter of Selector who did the show in Egypt, who had come over for the festival. He said he’d never seen rain like it!’

 

Student radio: SRA Selector

Although made in London, the way the show is provided to countries around the world as an audio ‘kit’ means it can be repackaged for the local audience. The English language links by the UK presenter can be replaced by a local host who translates the script, or provides their own, in the country’s language. Sections of the show can be cut down to produce a new show which fits the broadcasters requirements. No time in the schedule for a full two hour UK music show? No problem, the kit allows a show to be anything from as short as 30 minutes. The kit approach also means the show doubles as a useful training tool for anyone learning about the production side of radio and a great many radio trainees have found their way into the industry by working with the show in this way.


Above: Cassidy Baillie is one of many former SRA Selector winners who have gone on to forge successful careers in radio.

 

In the mid-2010s, Selector teamed up with the Student Radio Association (SRA) to offer a new opportunity in the UK to would-be producers. The call was simple – produce your own version of the show from the kit and enter it into the SRA Selector Awards competition to be in with a chance to win two days production and presenting training and a trip to Selector’s sister station in Mexico (Ibero 90.9 FM). Phil Catchpole, the Selector Programme Manager for the British Council at this time, was delighted to see the competition take off: ‘To be able to identify and develop fantastic young broadcasting talent using our unique radio show is a wonderful thing for the British Council to be doing here in the UK alongside our extensive work overseas.’

Over the years the SRA Selector Award yielded winners and runners up who have gone on to have fantastic careers in radio on both sides of the microphone. Jack Saunders and Ross Buchanan scored presenting jobs on Radio X not long after each of them won the competition. Jack Saunders is now a mainstay on BBC Radio 1 as host of the Indie show. Andy Backhouse, winner in 2016, went on to present for BBC Music and has recently started presenting a show on a new station called La Bestia Radio, working with friends he made in Mexico City with Selector Radio. 2017’s winner, Cassidy Baillie, worked with London station Reprezent, became an assistant producer with Folded Wing and now is the producer of Selector Radio itself.

 

Selector Goes Supernova

October 2019 saw a restyle for The Selector – we dropped the The and, more significantly, Jamz Supernova was announced as the show’s new UK host. Jamz, bringing years of radio experience with her having worked at Reprezent and BBC 1Xtra, quickly stamped her authority on Selector. With a renewed emphasis on electronic music, reflecting her passion for the club scene, the weekly show doubled down on its mission to bring listeners new music from nascent talent all around the UK. ‘There are more releases than ever, each and every week,’ explained Jamz when she took on the role. ‘For me it’s about being on top of it, so setting aside a day, like a full day, that I’m just going to sit, go on the internet and explore. So whether that’s reading music articles, going through playlists … then during the week I normally keep a note of what releases have come out, screenshots from Instagram, and then another list from people that have emailed me stuff. That keeps me up to date and that’s the part of radio that I really enjoy: finding new music.’


Above: Jamz Supernova has hosted Selector Radio since 2019, picking out the best new UK music every week. Image: Joe Wheatley.

 

Selector Sessions

The show relaunched with new sessions from Rachel Chinouriri, Monster Florence and Penelope Isles racking up over 100,000 views in just a few days. Sam Duckworth: ‘Selector sessions pop up in my feeds and you know they’re worth checking out, especially for discovery of new artists – few are so on the pulse and do it so well.’

 

Music beyond the UK

The UK always will be a place where musical evolution is the result of influences from, and collaborations with, people and sounds way beyond these shores

For the first time, the show also played music from beyond the UK, exploring different music cultures through Jamz’ eyes from her trips with the British Council to Ghana, Georgia and Colombia for example, as well as featuring Jamz’ own DJ mixes, captured on location. The show also follows UK artists on their travels, with the support of the British Council, as they meet and connect with musicians in different countries, Selector has played music inspired by these international connections such as the Chris Ryan-produced ‘Cai’ from his residency in Brazil, or Nubya Garcia’s ‘La Cumbia Me Está Llamando’ – the result of Garcia’s time in Colombia for the Mestizo project. ‘Going to Colombia for the first time with the British Council and Selector Radio was an inspiring and amazing experience,’ explains Garcia. ‘I got to listen and learn more about Colombian music which was a big inspiration for the track ‘La Cumbia Me Está Llamando’ which I was fortunate enough to record with fellow Mestizo musicians from La Perla.’

 

By choosing examples of music from outside the UK, and UK music directly inspired by it, Selector acknowledges an undeniable truth. Over the past 20 years and more the UK has been, and always will be, a place where musical evolution is the result of influences from, and collaborations with, people and sounds way beyond these shores. The current Selector Programme Manager for the British Council, Katie Weatherall, feels this is key: ‘While Selector remains a show predominantly to showcase new UK music, failing to include conversations and music from beyond is to misunderstand what contemporary UK music is.’

With Covid-19 impacting on so many lives, radio has seen a resurgence as audiences have turned to something regular and familiar. Selector continues its weekly run – it has never missed a week in 20 years – albeit much of 2020’s recordings were made from Jamz’s living room with remote production support, just like so much of the rest of the industry. It has also put a stop to live sessions and overseas trips for now but, as they say, the show goes on. Unlike TV and film, radio has been able to more easily adapt to the challenge of a global pandemic. Through Selector Radio, the artists featured on the show can still reach that huge audience around the world, without having to board a plane. 'There is nothing else in the world that can give artists experiences like this and the stories keep coming,' says Karen Pearson. 'It’s a very special platform.'

But what about the future for radio and Selector? The world is moving increasingly online and our Covid-19 listening habits presumably won't last beyond the pandemic. ‘As the landscape of radio changes and global output is more significant than ever, it strikes me as fitting that this two decade milestone is a celebration of a pioneering force. 20 years at the cutting edge is quite an achievement and one that has set the tone for the future, time and time again,’ says Sam Duckworth. Lisa Phasha puts Selector’s longevity down to its design as an eclectic show for new music. ‘Services like Spotify offer many of things that 20 years ago we would turn to radio for but I suspect the reason Selector has weathered that storm is because of the diverse programming it offers. It can surprise listeners with something they didn't even know they would like.’

And clearly there is still huge affection for the show amongst people who have been part of its long history over these 20 years. Andi Oliver: ‘I never fail to be proud of what we did and how many listeners we reached plus I got to work with a whole slew of brilliant fledgling producers every single week. It really was a gift.’