How to Get Started in Radio: An Interview with Jonty Usborne

Jonty Usborne is an award winning engineer and radio producer specialising in technical innovation and creative multimedia, multi-platform content production. Currently at BBC as software engineer and trustee at The Radio Academy, he joins us for a quick chat on how to get started in radio, how to manage your station, and the future of object based broadcast radio.

Can you tell us about yourself and how you got into the radio industry?

I got involved through student radio at my university (the University of Bath). Before I even arrived I looked up their website and had a nosey around and signed up to the student radio station there in fresher’s week, along with about a dozen other societies and clubs (which I probably only went to about once!), then never really left!

It was a few years into doing student radio that it occurred to me that it might be kind of fun to do it as a career.

What does your day consist of as a radio software engineer at the BBC?

I’m part of the media play out department at the BBC. We look after media delivery, which means getting content to you.

Specifically I’m with the team that builds the online web media player, so anytime you watch or listen to anything on a BBC website, your phone, radio player, BBC News website, or your laptop via the iPlayer then the actual media player online is what we build. I’m not really involved specifically in radio with my day job, but I’m in the right sort of area.

Are you working on anything super cool at the moment?

I guess it depends how technical and geeky you are (haha!). What am I doing at the moment? The BBC is contributing to an open source project called dash.js, which is what I’m working on most of the time. It’s a new HTML 5 based which is a media delivery library. Basically it’s a HTML5 replacement for a flash media player.

Not too long ago you were a cadet in the British Army. How has your time there shaped who you are now and the current work you do in radio?

Yeah I was! I was an officer cadet part of the officer training core which I was in at university. Technically it was a unit of the territorial army which funded me through university.

It was awesome! I had a great time. I joined about the same time I started in student radio in the first year at university. It was pretty full on, but it was fun.

You received demolitions training whilst you were there which must have been pretty scary!

Yeah! We learned all sorts of things. I was attached to the Royal Engineers for a while. 2 big things that they do is build bridges and blow things up (to overly simplify it!), but it was good fun.

I learned a lot of really useful things about myself like the importance of hard work, discipline, and everything else. As well as the skills of how to build a bridge, which might not be as useful as in my day job now, but overall it was a good experience and really good fun.

We went on loads of adventurous training, go skiing over winter, and pre-deployment training in the summer. It was a really worthwhile thing to do and I recommend it if you have time at university or if you have time outside your day job to join the army reserves.

I few years in I started doing more and more radio. I just couldn’t quite keep up both, so I ended up focusing on radio instead and ended up moving into my student radio station.

As a trustee at The Radio Academy, how do you help improve radio broadcasting and audio production standards?

Well we’ve done quite a few things. I joined as a trustee a couple of years ago; the organisation has really grown a lot in the last 18 months.

The Radio Academy

The biggest things we’re quite proud of right now is our awards, like the Audio & Radio Industry Awards (ARIAS). We’ve also brought back the Radio Festival, so we’re really investing in radio, training, and new opportunities.

I started as a trustee there off the back of the work I did which was the chair of the student radio association, so I was really focused on making sure that the Radio Academy industry in general looked after it’s young members and encouraged young people to get involved in radio and audio in the creative sectors in general.

We’ve done some really great things like continue the 30 Under 30 intuitive which was supported by Radiodays Europe which was great. That was something I was on a few years ago, which was one of the reasons I started to think that this could be a career. A lot of things we do like that are a really positive difference.

You managed the University Radio Bath (URB) for several years – What are some key takeaways from your time there?

Yeah I was there for a long time! I worked and studied economics for a bit before realising it wasn’t quite right for me, then moved to study mechanical engineering. As part of that I took a year out to work full-time as a contractor with the MOD and then came back and thought that’s not for me either. Eventually all of this was leading up to “I should have done radio to begin with!”.

If you’re just going into university, school, or any sort of educational part of your life then totally do student radio because it’s so much fun! Even if you’re not going into radio as a career because it is so much fun.

You get the freedom to do (within reason) anything that you want, which is a privilege you won’t get in a professional work space. Even if you know you’re going to end up being a producer in commercial radio one day as that’s your ambition, student radio affords you so much more freedom to be creative and really push the boundaries. Something you can’t really get away with in the professional industry.

I should have done radio to begin with!

What were some common challenges you faced running URB?

It’s volunteer run, so you can sort of get away with anything really! This is also one of the downsides, so you don’t have the financial freedom or support to deliver on. Especially if you’re running a station and it’s self-funded then it can be quite tricky sometimes.

In the years that I was managing URB, it was difficult to find the time to be creative and do some cool and imaginative things, plus also doing all the managerial stuff like respond to Ofcom, paid license fees, and everything else.

If you are going to go into the radio industry or any other professional industry then it’s a really useful thing to do.

What do you know now that you would have liked to know before you started running the URB station?

I thought “would I have liked to have known that I would end up in radio?”, because maybe I then could have skipped a whole bunch of intermediate steps and not gone away and worked in engineering or everything else. But actually it’s been helpful that I’ve had a varied and slightly unusual background, which I think is true in radio as a whole.

If everyone goes to college and studies media, does a degree in radio production, and then goes into a job (which is a valid and great path!), but if everybody does that then it’s not quite as interesting and you all have the same story.

I think it’s nice that we get people from all sorts of different backgrounds.

Surprisingly you have your own Wikipedia page! That must be a little strange right?

Haha! Somebody at work a couple of weeks ago came up to me and said “why do you have a Wikipedia page!?”, to which my response was “why are you Googling me?!”.

I don’t really know how it started off. There was a friend at URB who turns our secretly was a massive Wikipedia author as he’s authored loads of articles. It started off as a challenge to himself to see if he could get away with writing an article and not having it deleted by somebody else.

I should really check as people keep changing my middle name to something ridiculous! But if you look at it there’s twice as many references as actual text, that’s because he went through and made sure everything conformed to the Wikipedia rules. I’m not quite sure how long that’s going to stick around for though!

Last year you gave a talk at Radiodays Europe on the future of radio – Where do you think the industry should be headed next?

That’s a very big question! Yeah I did that talk as part of the 30 Under 30 programme, which was awesome and one of the things that inspired me do pursue it as a job. Really every conference we go to anyone now has a “future of radio” or “where the industry is going”, but sometimes it’s easy to overestimate the influence of technology or changes within the industry. When actually there’s clearly a proven future in what we’re going now.

A lot is going to stay the way it is for now, but changes will be on platforms and how we deliver our content.

Everything is becoming digital and moving online, but a lot is going to stay the same for a while. If you look at the most recent UK RAJAR we have an 83% reach through analog linear radio; it’s fairly comparable with the numbers in the USA. A lot is going to stay the way it is for now, but probably in the immediate future changes will be on platforms and how we deliver our content.

So is linear radio going away? Probably not anytime soon, but what does excite me is the idea of object based broadcasting and more personalised interactive ways of listening to radio. A lot of the old sayings still hold true that radio is very personal as it’s one-on-one and how you build relationships with listeners, which is true and you want to try and deliver a personalisation service which I think everything is moving towards now without losing that relationship and intimacy.

A lot of object based models that people like at the BBC are looking into at the moment, they solved that by not altering the content but living the bits that you’re interested in. Best example of this is on TV where you’re watching a football match. You’re still sharing the experience with everybody else by watching the match, but maybe some down the road might be getting slightly different commentary then somebody else or looking at different camera angles. That’s the idea of object based broadcasting: you’re still sharing the same experience, but in a slightly personal way.

The same could be done for radio- For instance say you’re listening to a particular podcast that’s 45 minutes, but the train journey is 30 minutes, which is just too short to listen to all the audio. Can I listen to that content but shrink it to fit to a specific window? Which is the idea behind responsive radio, something we’re working on at the BBC.

BBC Logo

All these sorts of cool things are going to be the future of delivery, to deliver personalised service to listeners without compromising that relationship. Broadcast Bionics have actually done something really cool with object based editing, which is the other side of things. Which might be the future with how we generate content. It’s a similar sort of way were you might go into a radio studio, open a mic and record everything that comes out, the object based editing approach is to multi-channel everything and record it all, then have the freedom to edit and tweak afterwards.

Object based approaches are the most exciting things that are coming in the future, because radio isn’t going away, it’s the platform and delivery that’s changing.

I think everything is moving towards a personalisation service without losing that relationship and intimacy traditional radio offers.

What advice would you give broadcasters that want to get started in the industry?

The obvious piece of advice on how to get started in radio is do student radio! I don’t just mean student union radio, if you’re school, college, or university doesn’t have a radio station then go find a hospital station or a community one. Those are really the best ways in by volunteering and really getting stuck in.

It’s really all about the experience you have and who you know, especially in the UK as it’s such a small industry that you need to go out and meet people and get work then you’ll start to be remembered.

What are your 3 essential on-air tips everyone should know?

I’m not sure anybody should be taking on-air tips from me to be honest! But the clichés hold true about being yourself and just try and be natural, but it is true!

A lot of student radio people have an idea of what they want to sound like and want to be the next best thing. Not necessarily on-air, be who you are, so you might be a great producer. Don’t have stuck in your mind that you want to be a presenter as that’s what you want to go and pursue. Being a great producer is a job, which is really important!

Figure out what you’re good at, what you want to do, and just be yourself.

Finally, have you any upcoming projects or events you’re looking forward to?

Loads! There’s so much stuff I’m excited about. The Student Radio Awards are coming up which to be fair is actually an awesome event every year at the o2 in London were we celebrate student radio. Plus TechCon which is the more tech side of radio and Rain Summit which is also in London (should be really good), and plenty of other events.


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