Part Two of a special interview with Joe Walker — walking through his career since joining Reprezent Radio in 2017, here he is on Beats 1, working with Julie Adenuga and Rebecca Judd, The Sunday Roast, grief, anxiety, his kinship with Scully and launching new podcast, International Clearance.
If Reprezent Radio was Joe Walker’s proving ground, then Beats 1 would act as his finishing school. As touched on in part one of our interview with the writer, broadcaster and podcast host last week, transitioning out of writing and into radio never seemed like a linear pathway. “It was a lot to do with timing”, he concedes, pausing for a moment after appearing deep in thought.
“I’d been at Reprezent maybe a few months”, he continues, “and I still didn’t really know what I was doing. Everything was still pre-recorded and I was learning on the job but it just so happens that I loosely knew a guy who worked as a newsreader at Beats at the time. He was about to go on paternity leave and I think he knew I’d been writing about music and also knew I was on the radio … but not how new I was to it. He put my name forward as someone who might be able cover him on the news, so I went along to an interview, bombed completely … I knew I wasn’t anywhere near good enough … but soaked up the whole experience. I spoke about being on Reprezent, about what they stood for, why I was there and about the bustling, exciting radio community that was coming through at the time from across stations like Reprezent, Radar, NTS, Rinse. I think they must have taken a shine to me, because about a year later I got an email from them saying they remembered how passionately I’d spoken about these new radio voices and asked if I could recommend any potential new presenters. I sent them a bunch of recommendations in response and a day later, they emailed me to ask if I wanted to come in as well. I took that to mean them thinking, ‘was it out of order that we didn’t ask him to come?’ … and I was fine with that. I went along completely relaxed, no nerves at all, just thinking it would be another experience gathering exercise, and nailed it. I did really well. They got in touch shortly afterwards to ask if I wanted to start on this playlist show that they were running. It was a big surprise.”
Joe joined Beats 1 at the same time as fellow Reprezent broadcaster and previous Polymer interviewee, Naina, inadvertently introducing the respective station managers to one another for the first time. “They ended up running a Reprezent residency takeover on Beats 1 off the back of that”, he says proudly. Had it started to feel like a career now, I ask? “That’s a great question”, he responds, gently clearing his throat. “The first time I’d ever thought about presenting was back when I’d just started working for RWD. Palace, funnily enough, had just done a call out for auditions for presenters to help front their new YouTube channel. They’d got a little truck outside one of the stands at Selhurst Park on one of the first games of the season, so I thought I’d go for it. I got to the final three or four and it was down to a public vote … I think my audition video is still on YouTube, actually. I am very wooden in the clip because I was nervous … arms behind my back, very stiff … but I found out that I’d got the RWD job while it was all going on, so I didn’t fight for it, I didn’t try and get people to vote for me. That was my first taste of presenting, but beyond that, because of how specialist my shows were when I joined Reprezent a few years later, I never thought of radio as a career. Of course it was exciting and I was ambitious but I couldn’t see a pathway until then. Beats immediately refocused everything for me though. It made me want to think about improving and refining what I’d done before, just because I knew I needed to up my game if I wanted to stay.”
“I knew I wasn’t like everyone else that wanted to be a radio presenter as well”, he continues. “I hadn’t spent the last five or 10 years working towards it, I’d not even been at Reprezent for two years. It had some disadvantages in terms of profile or whatever, but I think I got the Beats gig because I delivered things a bit differently and I didn’t have this eyes-glazed-over way of presenting. I didn’t have a commercial radio voice. I was quite hung up on that for a bit and tried to work on polishing how I sounded, but in the end, I had to remind myself that’s why I’d got the job in the first place.”
Joe’s early work at Beats 1 — now rebranded as Apple Music 1 — was varied to say the least. From covering the news and overseeing the Beats 1 List playlist show to standing in for Matt Wilkinson and occasionally Julie Adenuga, the experience would prove invaluable during his first six months. “It was just really exciting to be in the building”, Joe concedes, smiling. Although it’d take that long for those behind-the-scenes to grasp what he was ‘about’, the decision to then pair up Joe with Julie Adenuga on a more permanent basis was a masterstroke. Alongside Rebecca Judd, Julie’s show — already the station’s UK calling card — quickly became even more of a tour de force. The dynamic was fluid and natural and the trio’s on-air chemistry was undeniable. “I wasn’t meant to be a regular on Julie’s show at first”, he explains. “It was meant to be Julie plus a musical guest and one other every Friday, which could be someone who knew their music or someone Julie liked and wanted to invite on, and that was supposed to change every week. The first show I did with Julie turned out to be the show of my life and I got all these emails from people at Apple in LA telling me how much they enjoyed it. Rebecca Judd then did the following Friday and from there, they decided we should just rotate and every once in a while, we’d do it together as a three. It was a lot of fun.”
“The first show I did with Julie turned out to be the show of my life and I got all these emails from people at Apple in LA telling me how much they enjoyed it.”
While blossoming at Beats, Joe was also still employed by RWD. The magazine, now changing its business model to shift its focus away from editorial and the website, were, to Joe’s surprise, strangely accommodating. “I think they liked the fact I was on the radio and it was probably good for them as a creative media agency to have someone so public facing”, Joe acknowledges. “I’d be at Beats until 9am until about half 1 doing the playlist show most days and RWD would let me come in and work the rest of the day. Because I didn’t want to treat them like dickheads, I’d stay until the last person in the office left every night and usually that’d be Tego (RWD Editor) at about 9pm. The excitement was driving me forward but that first year from 2017-2018 was a whirlwind, really. I’d often work six days a week, sometimes seven. I’d do my Reprezent show, I’d do The Sunday Roast with Scully on Sunday nights, work three days a week split between Beats and RWD and then cover shows at the weekend. I was exhausted. I just didn’t have a life. In the end, I had to let RWD go for my own sake.”
“I’d often work six days a week, sometimes seven … I was exhausted. I just didn’t have a life.”
It was a period of time that coincided with Joe losing two people very close to him — body blows which he admits he still hasn’t fully recovered from. His grandmother, who had been ill for some time, passed in the spring, before his best friend later committed suicide in August 2018. “My last messages from him were about asking to meet up”, Joe recalls, before taking a breath. “I replied to all of them saying I was too busy with work. I’m not saying it caused that to happen, but it made me realise I was moving way too fast and needed to reassess what was important. I ended up leaving RWD early in 2019 to try and take some of the pressure off, but what I should have done was go and seek out grief counselling and probably some sort of therapy to counter the low moods that I was experiencing. I thought by leaving RWD, I’d be able to use that time to reset and recalibrate but all it did was drag everything out. I remember two people putting their arms around me at Apple, on separate occasions, just asking if I was alright. I think I was just on another planet at times during that period. What I’m dealing with now, is trying to patch up a lot of that stuff.”
Although critical of himself for failing to come to terms with his grief properly, Joe credits conversations with both Julie and former mentor Sian Anderson — the two people who have moulded his career more than any other — with helping him through some of his most testing moments. “I’ve had very real conversations with them that I wouldn’t even have with my own friends”, he says. “I feel like women unfortunately bear the brunt of a lot of male therapeutic and cathartic chats, because men don’t often feel comfortable talking about stuff like that. I’ve always respected their wisdom but they’re both very different people. Sian is a straight talker, she’ll cut through your guts, she doesn’t care how you feel as long as it’s the absolute truth in her mind. Julie, on the other hand, is incredible at articulating things and reevaluating how you see the world and how you can navigate problems. I have so much respect for them both. They’ve been a massive influence on my work and my life in general, really.”
Joe’s work at Beats 1 continued throughout 2019 and 2020, although he’s not been on air since August 2020 — a development that has forced him to reassess where he now sees his future. Originally employed to help oversee the Beats 1 List alongside four or five others on rotation each week — “it mirrored commercial radio playlist shows so I’d be playing Lil Pump, followed by Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and maybe the odd Giggs tune” — the station have since rethought the mechanics of the show itself. Known in the radio business as ‘crunch & roll’, Joe’s job was to speak between four and five times every hour to introduce key artists, tracks and radio directives — a discipline he grew increasingly competent at until the pandemic struck last spring. “It had actually gone from being a live show to prerecorded shortly before COVID”, Joe explains, “but once that happened, it went to being pre-recorded from home. And I really struggled with that.”
“My parents’ house was very loud”, he explains. “My family just didn’t really get it. They didn’t understand how quiet I needed it to be when I was trying to pre-record a show. I remember one incident when my dad came into my room and asked if I could help him bring a wardrobe up the stairs. I asked if he could give me 15 minutes because I had to record and then send a load of files off before a midday deadline. While I’m recording, I hear all this banging and crashing outside my door because he’d obviously decided he didn’t want to wait and had asked my mum to help him instead. They just didn’t understand. I’d expressed how difficult it was to the station and ended up deciding that it would be a good time to move out and get my own place. While I was in the process of moving though, they decided I probably shouldn’t continue doing that show … and I haven’t recorded since. I can’t really argue, I think my quality had probably gone down during the pandemic, especially with the issues I’d had at home. Ultimately, there’s not much room to move up that ladder there either, because its a global station with three main hubs in London, LA and New York. Shows are always going to be at a premium. I guess I knew it wouldn’t last forever but it was a decision that took me by surprise a little bit.”
Since going off air, Joe has been tasked with working on a docu-series for Black History Month, which broadcast last October — “there was a lot of production work involved which I’d not really done before, so that was cool” — and has continued to do ad hoc production and editing behind-the-scenes. He’s contracted to continue in a similar capacity until later this year, although barring a change in fortune, feels that his Apple Music journey may have run its course. But rather than be downbeat, Joe has used his time out of the spotlight to focus on ways to improve. “You need so much more than just sounding good on radio these days”, he admits. “There’s no country for that now. Being involved in making radio for young people, you need a presence, people need to know who you are, see you, hear you. You need to be in people’s faces. That side of it doesn’t come naturally to me, but I’m doing more of that now. I understand how important it is.”
“Being involved in making radio for young people, you need a presence, people need to know who you are, see you, hear you. You need to be in people’s faces.”
Away from his work at Beats 1, Joe had sought to refine his own broadcasting nouse by taking on a drive time show at Reprezent and had also locked horns with previous Polymer interviewee, Scully. Together, they would conceive one of Reprezent’s most popular, destination shows — The Sunday Roast. Broadcast fortnightly on Sunday nights, the pair serve up two hours of close-to-the-bone topical chat, music and guest interviews, birthing a partnership that has since extended way beyond the airwaves. But as Joe explains, prior to meeting at the station, the two knew little about each other.
“We were just two people with some music writing experience that the station manager at Reprezent saw potential in”, says Joe. “He told us we should put our heads together and do a Sunday show that was a bit more discussion based. We needed a while to be honest though. I mean, we had a chemistry and we both cared enough about the music we were talking about but we had different ways of doing things. Say the show was due to start at 8pm, Scully would be there at 7.59 … stuff like that. It took me a while to get used to, but when it came down to the work, I could never fault him. We weren’t friends originally but we’re as close as ever now, probably as close as anyone is really.”
“The show itself has taken on a few different forms”, Joe continues. “At first it was more of just a podcast on the radio and we realised we needed to adjust it a little bit to make it sound more like an actual radio show. We’ve played around with the length of conversations we have, the show format itself, everything to be honest. Going forward, I’m not sure how its gonna manifest as the pandemic endures, but the future for me and Scully is definitely visual. We’ve got a load of ideas, a lot of it more short-form and entertaining, but essentially revolving around the same passions and interests we both share. It’s great to see Scully having such an amazing time of it right now as well and I couldn’t be happier for him. I remember working with him at the start when he was a sofa-to-sofa kinda guy, money wasn’t always there. Where I’d always got lucky with salaried jobs, he was the polar opposite and I’ve always respected that about him. He’s the ultimate freelance hustler, always speaking to people and putting himself out there. All that work is paying off for him now and I couldn’t be happier. From what I understand, he’s constantly trying to bring me in on opportunities he’s getting at the moment too, whether people have asked for me or not. Knowing that is just … ahh … I find it quite overwhelming and emotional, to be honest.”
The pair’s friendship hasn’t stopped at The Sunday Roast, either. Inspired by one of Joe’s ideas and a joint love of football, they launched new podcast, International Clearance, in January. Running weekly with passport stamp-themed artwork teasers, the core premise of the podcast is simple; to speak to British footballers, young and old, about their experiences of playing abroad. “I felt like I had the time to act on some of the ideas I’d had for ages and one of them was this podcast”, Joe explains. “I’d told myself all the reasons not to start one … it’s a crowded market, we’re too late, we’ve missed the boat … but I felt that it was a tight enough idea and I cared enough about it. Without hesitating, I told Scully about it at the back end last year because I knew if the shoe was on the other foot, he’d do exactly the same and ask me to be involved in whatever he had lined up … it’s just how our dynamic works. If you listen to any of the episodes, I’m the guy who regurgitates facts and goes deep on the intricacies of the actual football stories, where as Scully comes at it from a cultural angle and tries to get to know more about what it’s like to live and play football in some of these places.”
Their guests so far have ranged from Peter Ramage — the former Newcastle, QPR and Crystal Palace defender who spent a year playing for Kerala Blasters in India late in his career — right the way through to household names like former England strikers Les Ferdinand and Brian Deane. “Lockdown’s really helped us reach out to people”, explains Joe when I ask about how they go about selecting players to speak to. “Everyone’s indoors and not really up to much and quite a few players we’ve spoken to have just been really grateful to be asked. I had people in mind when we started … I’d made a big Excel spreadsheet actually … and just went with this scatter gun approach. We didn’t have a lot of joy initially, I think we managed to get about three or four interviews done in the space of a few months. My idea had been to bank a load and launch it as a full series but the more time went on, I felt like we just needed to go with it and see what the reception was like. Once it went live and it was out there as this living thing, it became a lot easier to get people involved. We always said we’d do 10 episodes for the first season and then reevaluate, so it’ll stop being weekly soon, but it’s been really helpful for me to have something to focus on. I’m really happy with what we’ve got so far and I’ve really enjoyed the experience.”
Although clearly invigorated by the launch of International Clearance and spurred on by the challenge of reimagining his future post-Apple Music, Joe has also had to face some of the demons first exposed by grief back in 2018 over the 12 months. Inflamed by the pandemic, his internal struggles reached breaking point during the spring of 2020, culminating in a diagnosis of severe anxiety and depression. “I think I’d probably met the criteria as far back as three, maybe even four years ago”, he says, leaning forward and adjusting his microphone. “I was almost a high-functioning depressive without really being aware of it. I’ve never been someone to require medication but I have been heavily demotivated, low on energy and guilty of working myself into the ground a lot, to the point where my body would just give up on me. In this instance, over the last few years especially, I think a lot of it just came down to trying to compartmentalise grief, alongside placing too much worth on my career and forgetting what was important … forgetting to live a life away from music. It all catches up with you in the end. It’s just annoying that it takes your bottom-barrel moments, your rock bottoms, to be like ‘okay, now I’m gonna deal with it’. I think the mistake that people make is trying to put off dealing with things.”
“It’s just annoying that it takes your bottom-barrel moments, your rock bottoms, to be like ‘okay, now I’m gonna deal with it’. I think the mistake that people make is trying to put off dealing with things.”
With lessons painfully learned, Joe admits he now feels ’better equipped’ to deal with whatever life can throw at him moving forward. His resolve, stiffened by those bottom barrel moments, remains steadfast despite an uncertain future in radio away from Apple Music, too. And you get the sense that alongside Scully, he’s found a partnership — and a kinship — that’s bound to flourish on their own terms for many years to come. But from speaking to him for almost three hours, one thing is most definitely for certain; Joe remains one of music’s true good guys — and an endearingly honest one at that.
You can listen to Joe & Scully’s International Clearance podcast HERE.