Working towards a fairer music industry

In Conversation With Zakia Sewel

Having grown up in a musical household Zakia Sewell’s career path is a prime example of  how immersing yourself in like-minded communities can create organic and unexpected opportunities.

With a love of music instilled at an early age, Zakia made her bones behind the tills of Notting Hill’s iconic record shop Honest Jon’s, an ideal meeting place for anyone wanting to absorb the knowledge of local ‘heads’ as a grounding for further music exploration.

From here she took her first steps towards DJing and the seeds grew for her now weekly NTS Radio show Questing / w Zakia, which features cosmic music from across the globe.

Alongside this she also regularly produces and presents radio documentaries and podcasts for numerous platforms including BBC Radio 4, BBC World Service, Resident Advisor, Tate, and Boiler Room.

We spoke to Zakia to find out more about her various projects and how she combines research skills and a passion for rarely examined subjects to bring a number of distinct disciplines together.
Radio, Presenter

Firstly, tell us about how you started working in music. What was your first entry point to the ‘industry’?

I have to start with my upbringing, which was very musical. Both my parents are musicians. Not for work, but that’s their passion – that’s how they met and they were in a band together. I grew up with lots of music at home and with my parents rehearsing in their various bands, so it felt natural for me to be interested in music. I was lucky in that I grew up in London so was surrounded by lots of friends who I’d go out to gigs with. I've always been interested in researching and collecting music. Back in the day it was MP3s or sharing tunes on Bluetooth, and then that progressed into collecting vinyl at university.

I studied English Literature at uni which allowed me to delve into the research side of my mind but by the time I finished I felt so saturated that I just wanted to immerse myself in music. I used to go to Honest Jon’s, the record shop on Portobello Road, and ended up getting a job there which was a pivotal moment for me. All kinds of incredible collectors come in and I learned so much during that time. I thought I knew about music, but I started working there and got schooled!

And how did this lead into a career in radio?

While I was at Honest Jon’s I started getting a few DJ gigs through people that I’d met in the musical community. Around this time I was volunteering as a producer at NTS a few days a week and then eventually they offered me my own show, which was about five years ago. I started off doing a monthly Sunday slot, and then after two years I was offered my now weekly Saturday mornings. Just being out and being an audience member means you get to know people and that’s how I got the NTS placement, so it felt quite organic. A lot of my friends and people that I knew just from going to gigs created a sense of community and that started to feed back to me.

Alongside your NTS show, you’ve also produced radio documentaries and podcasts for the likes of BBC Radio 4, Tate and Boileroom. How did those opportunities come about?

The research aspect of university was something I really enjoyed and I wanted to bring that back into the work I was doing, so after a few years at Honest Jon’s I started looking into radio production and TV research. I ended up doing an internship with a radio production company a few days a week, where I would be an assistant producer for various documentaries on Radio 4 and BBC World Service and I eventually built that up toward pitching my own documentaries on music, arts and culture. At the start, producing documentaries and presenting radio shows felt like two separate roles but I’m now at a stage where it feels like they’ve come together. For the radio production work I sent a bunch of emails out to different companies that did free internships. Obviously not everyone can afford to do that. I was living at home with my mum in London at the time, so that enabled me to do work for free.

At what point did it feel like you had turned your work into a viable career?

I didn't really grow up with any pressure from my parents about having a career. My dad is a labourer and his ‘thing’ has always been his music but he’s never really made money out of it. My mum has mental health issues and doesn’t work, so I never had a sense of wanting a career. It was more the case of trying to make enough money by doing a bit of temping, a bit of DJing and scraping by doing things here and there. I’ve always sustained myself through various projects and over time through following the things I love it’s culminated into something. Rather than thinking about it in career terms, I was following my instinct for what I was passionate about.

My Albion (BBC Radio 4) A four-part series exploring the songs, stories and symbols that make up British national identity.
Presented by Zakia Sewell and produced by Alan Hall and I for Falling Tree Productions.
Listen here

What is the role of a producer?

There’s quite a big difference between producing for live radio and producing radio documentaries. In the early days of NTS, my role as a producer was just to oversee the live shows. So you’d be at the station and making sure that the DJs arrive on time and that they know what’s going on with equipment, and you’d take down track listings and monitor the sound levels. It was a lot less hands on than if you were doing a producer role at somewhere like 1Xtra, where you would be finding the contributors and doing the research.

In terms of the podcasting and documentary work, producing is pitching an idea, finding the contributors, doing the research, recording the interviews, and editing it all. So actually making the documentary.

A lot of your production and presenting work focuses on topics away from the mainstream. Was this something you actively developed to help ensure your shows would stand out or were they born out of your own natural interests?

If I were to say I had a style, it’d always be something with a personal connection. For example, I’ve made a documentary about ancestral drumming traditions on the island that my grandparents are from and I did a documentary with my mum about her schizophrenia. I try to make sure it always comes from a personal place. There is an aspect when you’re pitching something where you need to ask yourself why it’s relevant now or why should someone choose this documentary at this moment – you need to feel out what the impact or meaning of the story is. So you can be tactical about it and go with the hot topics of the moment, but for me it’s always more powerful when your heart is in it.

How does the process of making a radio documentary/podcast differ to your NTS radio show and how do the two compliment each other?

They feed into each other but they’re also very different. I just did a big four-part series called My Albion for Radio 4 and that’s very research heavy. You have to come up with all of the ideas, the narrative, the story arc for each episode and you have to source the contributors, so it’s a lot more journalistic. You also need to have editing skills to put the programme together. It’s more similar to a visual documentary except it’s just the audio. Obviously there’s research involved in the NTS show in that you need to make sure you know who the songs are by, the label and release dates but it’s a lot more about the music and less rational and rigid. To me, they’re totally different things and the bit that connects them is the presenting aspect. Having experience of presenting on NTS then makes it easier when I’ve got to go read a script for a radio documentary. It’s been nice to bridge the gap a bit in the sense that a lot of the people that listen to NTS would never listen to Radio 4 and vice versa. Having contributors in my documentaries feature on my NTS shows means I can feed people back and forth and introduce them to new audiences.

How has your presentation style developed and progressed over the years?

I haven’t listened back to my early shows in a while but the main thing is confidence. I’ve always been myself on the air, and that’s good, but I also think I could be a bit more professional and have a radio persona that’s slightly separate to who I am in daily life. When I listen back to early shows, I can feel that I’m worried about saying the wrong thing but just through sheer practise and learning from mistakes I’ve got better at it. On live radio, and especially on NTS, people are quite forgiving of mistakes. It’s much easier to be natural and instinctive on live radio when you have a bit of a structure in place, so I do make sure I have information on the tracks written down so I’m not trying to remember it all in the moment. Having some bits of structure gives you the confidence to improvise but improvising without anything solid in place can sometimes go wrong. 

When you were first starting out, what terms or skills do you really wished you knew beforehand?

The idea of a producer was quite alien to me. Obviously, there’s music producers who make their own beats, and there’s film producers which is more of an organisational role, but a documentary producer in radio is quite a unique thing in that all the roles that would usually be split up for a film, you do yourself. So realising that as a producer you would be the editor, the director, the researcher and the producer all in one was something I didn’t know about at the start.

Finally, what’s your advice for young people who’re interested in working in radio and podcasting but not sure how to get started?

When I was first grappling with the idea of doing a show on NTS, I wanted to do something original and authentic to me, so I built my show idea around that and not around what I thought was trendy or what would get me a show. My advice would be to really nurture and connect with what your genuine passion and interests are, no matter how niche. Just stay true to those without getting caught up on what you think your show should be. It’s so much more convincing when it comes from a genuine passion. Working in the creative industries means it often does have to be a passion project for a while, so even if it’s not an instant hit, people will recognise where you’ve put the love into something. It might not get you instantly catapulted to where you want to be, but over time it will get you recognised. It is a slow process. Now I’m blessed to have had some amazing opportunities come my way but I’ve been on NTS for five years, doing radio production for six or seven and before that, I was nurturing my love and knowledge of music. So really it has taken me ten years to get to the position I’m in now. You need to be willing to slowly stir the pot and eventually it’ll work out.