It’s Jukebox day at Do!! You!!! Radio and Charlie Bones has already taken calls from a variety of listeners. One caller is relaying progress on his job hunt after being fired live on the show just a few weeks prior; Sinéad, who has a show on the station called “Queen of the Rushes” calls up to offer Charlie a tarot reading before softly crooning Black Sabbath’s ‘Planet Caravan’. Meanwhile vocalist Shari Klein, who’d been listening to the show, calls up to explain that her track ‘Fruit’ had just been played — before providing a rendition on-air in Dutch.
“There’s an ephemeralness of radio,” Charlie comments when I ask him about the selection of calls he’s just taken. “The most amazing things happened today. It's rare to allow a show to be taken over by people's requests. Just for the chance, it could be terrible for two hours and suddenly — something happens, it makes it all worth it.”
With a reverb and a flanger, Charlie set up his very own radio station in October, having spent the last decade at the helm of NTS’ flagship weekday Breakfast Show, providing a soothing tenor between the hours of 9 and 11. Charlie’s real evolution from scene favourite to household name came as the pandemic hit, tens of thousands of people tuned in each month to hear his signature unpretentious, authentic presenting style and eclectic music selection to match… a comforting opposition to the stiffness of mainstream radio. “Everything aligned,” he says, “I didn’t do anything different — I’ve pretty much been doing the same thing since I started.”
“I think the reason it shot off is that I’m not really trying to blow people’s minds and show off my most amazing, incredible records. It’s just about regularity and comfort. I like to think about myself as being like Frasier — he’s useless at his job, but he’s there every day!”
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His sudden exit from NTS in August last year had come as a shock to listeners. Announcing on air that he and NTS would be parting ways, he detailed struggles with his mental health and a lack of support from the station among factors in the decision. While there had been hints about going solo, it wasn’t until three months later that Charlie confirmed he was fundraising for his very own, independent station — Do!! You!!! Radio.
The motivation had come from a desire to subvert the new tradition of the independent radio format. “It was hard to leave,” he says.“I was very angry about a lot of things. I spoke to a lot of people who were running stations when I quit, and I told them ‘I don’t want things to be the same anymore.” They told me ‘oh you just need a holiday, take some time don’t worry.’ But when I pushed them, they would say ‘You know, why are we doing this?’ I wanted to create something that would make going to work actually enjoyable.”
Now eight months on, Do!! You!!! Is in full swing. Many things are different — there’s a new studio (Kristina Records in Hackney), Charlie and his business partner Oscar have enlisted a multifaceted assortment of station regulars and guests — including King Knut, Dr. Banana, Ian Wright and Natalie Shooter, and there’s a new assortment of projects: a GALA Festival takeover, a mobile phone app and even a video platform: Do!! You!!! TV.
But what remains the same is Jukebox on a Wednesday, banana tees in the merch store, regular faces in the chat room and the fact Charlie has the breakfast slot. “I'm actually not a morning person at all,” he mentions when I ask him why he chose not to give himself a more ‘prime time’ slot on his new station. “It just ended up that way when I was at NTS. They kept asking do you want to do more days and it naturally went that way — honestly it's taken years off my life. But people are used to me in the morning now, so what can I do? I’ve given myself an hour later anyway… I’m on 10-12 now, none of this 9:AM stuff.”
He insists it hasn’t been an easy ride, despite already having an established fan base from his NTS days. “It’s been tricky. It costs a lot of money to run a station, the more listeners you have the more it costs. You obviously have to get revenue somehow… but if everything is assimilated then what is the point?”
“I’m just trying to subvert mainstream radio. Right now it’s the lowest common denominator out there — Iggy Azalea playing every four minutes or whatever. There aren't any weird records anymore, I want to bring that back. Those disc jockeys in the early days who must have gotten Kate Bush records across their desks and gone ‘fuck it, play it’ and introduced the public to this insane talent. That’s what I want to be, I want to find that stuff.
“I knew when I started this the key thing was going to be about holding on and not compromising, and if you slip down you'll be in a real mess.”
Charlie’s subversion is as present in his selection of guests and his choice of tracks as it is in his now-renowned presenting style. Choosing to keep things rough-around-the-edges and unpretentious, he compares a lot of his inspiration to one of the UK’s finest broadcasters: “ I think a lot of what I do is inspired by John Peel shows, there’d be mistakes and things — that’s what you need live, that’s what keeps people engaged.
“A lot of people listen to what I do, and I think they think it’s easy…it’s not easy. I’ve instilled in my listeners a sense that this is trial and error, it’s DIY… Do!! You!!! Is never going to feel really slick.”
For a podcast episode on Radio 6 he recalls recording “months ago,” Charlie was invited by John Peel’s son — BBC Radio 1 presenter Tom Ravenscroft — to explore the seminal radio presenters’ collection. “It was so nice, I got to meet both Tom and John’s wife. There are a lot of similarities between us. I don’t have a house like that, but the fact that he would have people just showing up and staying from Canada and stuff to play music for him. People come to Kristina Records sometimes and they say they’ve come from Australia, or I’ll do an event and people have come from Munich or Antwerp to come to watch me play in a pub.”
In another similarity to Peel, Charlie also got his start in pirate radio. Inspired by the sounds of London, while growing up in the outskirts of Reading, Charlie got his start in the year 2000 on a pirate soul station and ITCH FM. Though he’d been on the airwaves for long before then: “You know when you watch movies and TV and people are like ‘I always knew what I wanted to be.’ I didn't have that at all. It was only five years into NTS that I realised I'd been on/off radio since I was 15, it was always in the background.”
As Charlie revealed to The Face last year, he first met NTS founders Femi Adeyemi and Sean McAuliffe at Plastic People after growing tired of the limitations he faced at his current stations. “That was a lot of the problems I met with being on pirate radio — it was so restrictive about what I could and couldn't do,” he tells me. When NTS launched in 2011, Charlie was one of the first residents brought on board.
As soon as Jukebox ends we head out on Well Street in Hackney outside of Kristina Records, just across the road in this quaint part of East London is The Gun — at the sight of which Charlie shudders remembering hangovers past. He recalls a particularly messy evening that provided a catalyst for him to start taking care of himself — he’s stopped smoking, drinking and now he’s into running. In what could only be described as dramatic irony, as he describes his new routine a bee falls from the roof of The Gun and stings him in the face. A true pro, after a panicked attempt to get some sting cream, Charlie has walked it off — comparing his ordeal to another Do!! You!!! favourite: YouTube star and dangerous animals pursuer Coyote Peterson.
“I used to play recordings from his show all the time when he’s getting bit by bullet ants and he’s screaming. He’s great. That’s the kind of stuff I love having on the show you know? People are tuning in to listen to tunes and they have a guy screaming for two minutes after being bit by a scorpion.”
Charlie’s style of “music second” of course matches the philosophy of the early NTS days, but as the station became “cooler” and more of a tastemaker – Do!! You!!! grew more divergent. “I’d want to have DJs on talking about stupid stuff — I don’t about care their new releases and neither does the listener. I’d get Luke from Horse Meat Disco on to talk about how he’s scared of buttons. That’s what I want, I want button chat.
“When it comes to talking about music I always remember a mate of mine, who said ‘real football fans never talk about football once they leave a game. They talk about anything else.’ I don’t understand people who love music who go on and on about it — is there anything more boring than talking about the cost of records? The scene? Like c’mon. We’ve been doing this since we were 12 — you don’t need to keep selling the fact that you’re a DJ.”
A lynchpin of this “no music chat” was, and remains Jukebox. A weekly segment in Charlie’s show where he allows callers to ring up and — on the condition they sing and provide a bit of chat — they can request songs. Jukebox has laws, Charlie tells me, he doesn’t appreciate people calling in to explain that they are hungover, or to annoy him. I ask if this is the main reason the show is on a Wednesday, to keep it as far from the weekend and people on the sesh as possible, he responds “yeah, pretty much.”
“At its essence, the beauty of it is that anything can happen, it's terrifying for them to call and it's terrifying for me to answer. You have no idea who's on the line — some people have started crying, some people are going through a rough time. But my biggest fear always is that someone will call up and scream abuse at me — that's never happened. Maybe Jukebox shows that people aren’t actually out to kill each other after all.”
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Charlie insists he’s “stubbornly holding onto it,” but after his show, today feels vindicated in its further existence. “I know a lot of people don’t like it. But It has so much to it, just badness. People have some really questionable tastes,” he laughs. “NTS used to be like ‘stop this now, it’s been three bad tracks in a row, this is shit.’ But that’s the point of it! It’s humanising, you need to wait five minutes and something incredible will happen.”
“Obviously I know there are people who are switching it on for five minutes and turning it off. But I don’t think you should cower completely to that. Just make it difficult sometimes. You can’t give them everything that they want. Everything I do is long-term. It’s taken me 20-30 years to get here. I don’t want to start playing the numbers game now.”
As the pandemic hit, Jukebox alongside Charlie’s regular Breakfast Show, became an overnight success. “It blew up,” he says. “It was crazy. I sold so many t-shirts — I bought a car from it. I told my mum: ‘I’ve made six grand, I’ve never seen money like this' and she went: ‘you better not have bought that stupid car’. I’d already paid for it, it was gone — I’m never going to see that kind of money again in my life.”
“It’s a bit weird now, it feels like this is the comedown and that was my heyday. All the conditions were so right. People getting up early, needing connection — that’s all I’ve ever done. Suddenly the hell had ended and then everyone got happy and moved on,” he murmurs. “People are happy again now.”
It’s a double-edged sword for Charlie, who believes much of his success comes from his own admission to his mental health struggles, believing others find comfort in the idea they are not alone. Now with more control over his own schedule, and in a healthier headspace — would that audience still… get him? “I’m a bit worried. You know, like a comic who comes off the drugs and alcohol and suddenly isn’t funny anymore? I felt like people might not be very interested in me when I’m not constantly having a panic attack.”
We settle down for a pint in the sunshine — post-sting — and he discusses an upcoming takeover at GALA Festival in Peckham Rye, South London. While anxious, he’s excited: “My mum would actually do live shows from a steam rally every year,” he laughs, “People would just be showing up asking for lost property and stuff… but it was so entertaining, all this drama from the fairground. I hope it’s like that, just a random recording of what happens at a festival.”
I ask what he wants Do!! You!!! to look like in five years, is it festival takeovers like this? Is the kind of jam-packed programme that stations like NTS have achieved? He shakes his head, he wants really great presenters, some amazing tunes and a real home for his listeners, “the weirdos” as Charlie calls them lovingly.
“It being organic is key for me, because it's good for the listener, respecting them by keeping it connected, it's not just a bunch of people on there trying to make up a schedule. I'd rather find the right show than the show that's going to make us look good online. I’ve noticed that it's hard as the owner of a station to be OK with people just doing really well outside of what you imagined for them. That’s what I’m trying to work on. Do!! You!!! has to be an entity unto itself.”
“My life up until this point has been extremely difficult and I've been working against myself,” he tells me. “But finally, I’ve jumped out of the plane and I’ve gone all in.”
You can catch Charlie both in-person and on the airwaves at Do!! You!!!'s GALA Festival takeover this weekend.
Megan Townsend is Mixmag's Deputy Digital Editor, follow her on Twitter