Reaching the Top in Radio

Grace Hopper, Radio One Producer

  • “I was very lucky I always knew I wanted to work at Radio 1 and be a producer there,” Grace Hopper tells me over the phone in her usual chirpy voice. And with hard work and determination, that’s exactly what she does now.

You may recognise Grace’s upbeat tone of voice from Radio 1. She is currently working on The Scott Mills show, which broadcasts on weekdays on Radio 1, and she used to work on the Greg James drivetime show before he moved to his current morning slot. Her CV boasts working with some of the most well-known voices on national radio, but the road to being a Radio 1 producer wasn’t easy: it required a lot of perseverance, and putting in a lot of hours… 

Grace first tried her hand at radio when she was just 15 years old at her local hospital radio in High Wycombe. “I knew what I wanted to do, and was lucky to have that drive, ambition and vision… I threw myself into it as young as I possibly could.” And she took all the jobs (paid and unpaid) along the way.  Following her degree at Exeter University, her first freelance position was at BBC Radio Devon. She also worked at Exeter Hospital Radio, Heart Radio, BBC Cornwall and BBC Somerset – and squeezed in a few shifts at her local pub!

“I got lots of beginners’ experience, but I was working seven days a week and doing loads of different roles,” she said. “Local radio is a great starting point – one minute you’ll be producing a sports show, then reading the travel news, then playing and discussing a band featured on BBC Introducing, then taking call-ins on a political story.”

She then moved back home to South Buckinghamshire and started freelancing at BBC Berks and BBC London – sometimes a double shift. “I wouldn’t advise working seven days a week, but as a freelancer sometimes you have to take all those opportunities when you want to get further up the ladder.” She got her foot in the door when she got a job as a freelance team assistant for Radio 1 for six months, before she gained a fulltime position in the role at Radio 1. “It was nice to get that first full-time job – because I thought, ‘This is where I want to be.’ All that hard work, like working at 5am on a Sunday morning all paid off! And then it was my chance to work my way up the ladder at Radio 1.”

Grace with presenters and fellow producers at Radio 1’s Big Weekend, Hull 2017

Producing the Scott Mills Show

The role of a producer is being responsible for the output of the show, ensuring that everything runs smoothly. “We make sure the presenter knows exactly what they’re saying, and they’ve got all the accompanying audio and facts. I prep callers before they come on the show and keep things to time. We have to hit the top of hour, hit the news on time, and make sure the programme is going to plan.”

There’s plenty of prep work involved too. In the morning we have a team meeting to see what they can bring to the table for that show. “For live radio you have that personality and voice… Scott Mills and Chris Stark bring so many stories and input, it’s great. You have to have the presenter’s buy-in, or it won’t work.

“Then we go set things up for the show, find some callers, edit a funny clip from TV the night before, and provide the supporting tools for Scott and Chris to use in the studio. We’re an entertainment show, but also a music show, so that needs to be put in the schedule.”

Grace in a Scott and Chris sandwich

Plus, if they have any celebrities in for interviews, they need to think of a way to make it novel and interesting.“We have a no-straight interview rule now. We get them involved in a game or regular show feature and it lifts the chat.” Then the interview will have to be edited (if it’s not live) and Grace has to highlight potential press lines, make sure the social media team have all the details they need, as well as videoing segments for social media and TV. All while making sure the show is reactive and reflects what the audience are experiencing and expecting that day.

Hello, from Sir David Attenborough

Grace fondly looks back on the two years she spent with Greg James on his afternoon drive time show. “We did some amazing content together. We had the royals come in and co-present which was so rare, and so brilliant.”

The Gregathlon was another highlight for Grace. Greg climbed the three highest peaks in the UK for Sport Relief, but it coincided with the Beast from the East storm in February 2018. “We travelled around with a mobile radio station and he did the show from there. The Beast from the East felt like it kind of reflected the mental health story and challenge that people go through. Sometimes these things in life come and you have to pause, and that’s ok.”

Grace and Greg James at the finish line of the Gregathlon for Sport Relief

She’s also met and worked with numerous celebrities during her time on Radio 1. She admits she was nervous briefing high profile guests when she started out, but now she can greet them with complete confidence.

“I try to be really professional when briefing guests, but sometimes it’s easier to maintain the coolness. I have been starstruck when I met The Killers. I’m such a big fan! I think meeting so many celebrities has also made me realize that they are just people.” She also says she got starstruck when meeting Sir David Attenborough. And it ended up being one of her most memorable moments from working on Greg’s show.

“Adele’s video for ‘Hello’ had just come out… We wrote [Sir David] a script to narrate over the video and it had all been signed off and pre-approved. But when he came in, he was a little nervous and said do you mind if I didn’t do it, which obviously is fine – David Attenborough is allowed to say ‘no’. So, Greg and I tried to make him feel as comfortable and at ease as possible because we knew it would be a big moment and really fun, good content. But he decided just to have a chat.

“Then live in the middle of the interview, he said ‘Don’t you want me to narrate something?’ And he took this script without having read it before and read over the video so perfectly. And it became a massive global video and was written about in the press. It felt like a real success story. He said afterwards, ‘You created such a comfortable environment for me, you made me feel comfortable enough to do it.’ And that’s what it’s all about. You want the radio to be friendly and be a voice of comfort. We did that with him, and that’s why he did it.” The video now has 4.5 million views on YouTube alone.

Grace’s success hasn’t gone unnoticed. She was named in the Radio Academy 30 Under 30 in 2017. “I was so delighted to be named in that line up. It was a lovely moment and I feel immensely proud and grateful for that accolade. It helped opened the door to the Radio Academy, so I feel like it was just the beginning.”

She is now a Radio Academy Trustee. “When you can do something for an organization you have a passion for, it’s a nice thing to do. They do amazing things like launching a benevolent fund to support those who are affected by the current financial climate. We’re overseeing the decisions to support the industry it’s quite a tough role. Now I’m helping lead on the 30 under 30 award, which is a nice full-circle moment.”

Grace receiving her Radio Academy 30 Under 30 Award

Switching off and speaking out

With such a full-on job, it’s no surprise that Grace likes to switch off in the evenings and leave her work at the door. “Although I’ve fallen foul of it on many occasions. Especially in the current climate, working from home makes it hard to distinguish the two. I tend to switch off my emails and get outside for fresh air and exercise. Netflix is my best friend at the moment. But I also love swimming – we live on our phones, especially in my job, as I always need to be up to date with what’s going on in the news. I love swimming because I have to leave my phone on the side of the pool, and I can totally switch off.”

Switching off from work and the digital world can be hard to do sometimes and can have a negative effect on our mental health. This is something that Grace is very aware of. She realizes the pressures that can build up at work, which why she is a Mental Health First Aider for the BBC.

 “Sometimes you get so wrapped up in your line of work, it’s important to stop and think am I supporting others? Am I being supported? Am I looking after myself? A lot of people have taken me up on it, more than I thought would. When you have such a big workload we often don’t stop and reflect.”

As well as offering mental health support to her colleagues, Grace is also mentoring a team assistant – a role that she has done herself before, to pass on some of the wisdom she’s learnt along the way. She especially wants to reach out to women who may have had negative experiences in the workplace. “We women have to work hard to change certain perceptions. If a woman speaks up or speaks out, they’re seen as being cocky, whereas men are seen as being confident,” she says. “Especially as a mental health first aider, I think that comes into play a bit. It’s important to encourage women around me to feel more confident.

“For example, I was in a meeting once where everyone was talking over each other. A couple of males were speaking over a girl. A female producer colleague stopped everyone and gave the girl a chance to speak. She was naturally spoken over, but this woman gave her that platform. That’s what we need more of; everyone championing each other.”

Radio in lockdown

Grace is still working during the Coronavirus pandemic, although she’s not limited to just producing Scott’s show. She’s been working with Jordan North, Clara Amfo and Maya Jama while the BBC work with a reduced staff to aid social distancing.

“I feel like radio is more important now than ever. We’re really supporting our listeners. People have more time and space to pay attention to things like radio, and a lot of people are isolating on their own, or feel lonely or overwhelmed by the situation,” she says.

“You can react [to the current situation] and be that supportive voice… It’s important to strike a balance between letting them know that we’re here, but also being an escape. Radio can sometimes suffer because the competition is so much bigger with TV shows, Instagram, streaming etc. I just hope that continues past the pandemic because we’ve highlighted how powerful radio can be.”  

Grace says that she doesn’t do radio for the praise. She does it because she enjoys it and she likes knowing that she’s supporting an audience. But with all her success, she certainly deserves any praise that comes her way. Thanks for giving us a peak behind the curtain into the world of Radio 1, Grace!

Quick Fire Questions

  • Books or movies?      Movies 100%
  • Cats or Dogs?    I’m not a big fan of either… but probably dogs.
  • Active holiday or relaxing holiday? Relaxing – my job is so busy I like to relax.
  • If you had a superpower, what would it be?    Teleportation
  • What are you watching on Netflix right now?    Just finished Unorthodox… also Normal People
  • What music are you listening to right now?   I really like Arlo Parks – she’s an emerging artist. Very soothing, she writes about things that are real in a relatable way. Also, upbeat music is good right now – I’m listening to some dance music and old pop classics
  • Biggest weakness?    I’m an overthinker
  • Ideal date night?    Going out for a really nice meal, and watching a movie
  • Favourite food? Italian. Specifically pasta, tortellini.
  • Who’s your favourite female icon?  Fearne Cotton has always inspired me. She was on the radio as I was getting into Radio 1. I love her passion for music and I have a similar style and taste to her. She’s great at talking about her feelings and being a strong female in my industry.

Making it as a Journalist

Michelle Johnson, Editor & Journalist

Michelle Johnson

  • Michelle is all about collaboration, the little wins, and resilience – all of which have helped her to climb the ladder in the competitive world of journalism and media. She worked for over six years at HELLO! before her latest role as Director of Editorial at Vantage Media.

“I always wanted to be a journalist, I always wanted to write. But I didn’t like the cutthroat nature of journalism,” said Michelle. But after university graduation, she did what many budding journos do to cut their teeth in a short-course magazine NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) course to get experience and develop expertise and she loved it.

Following some time freelancing and a stint of work with local papers, she secured a 6-month placement as the acting editor for West Essex life, a local free distribution mag. It was a trial by fire, but the role put her in good stead for her career-defining position at HELLO! She initially took a job as an editorial assistant to the managing editor, and ended up staying with the publication for six and half years, working her way up to an international features writer, before seguewaying into her passion: film.

Michelle Johnson BAFTA
Michelle at the BAFTAs

“There was an opportunity to make more of film, but nobody [at the junkets] was talking to tabloid or print press. So, I campaigned for a video camera and created an in-house film department to get access to A-list actors. Soon we were getting interviews every week. I’ve never been afraid of talking to people, so interviewing seemed natural way of telling stories… Red carpets are fun, not least because people think its super glamourous, but a lot of it is waiting in rain for a celebrity to ignore you!”

After six and a half years, Michelle wanted a new challenge. She took on the role as digital editor of Tempus, a small luxury lifestyle mag. They had no website, app, or digital presence, so it was a great opportunity to take everything she’d learnt and apply it to a niche audience. Tempus found a new publisher in Vantage Media in 2018, where Michelle is now director of editorial and editor of Tempus.

Now her average day at work is all about making sure she’s abreast of what’s going on in the world of luxury lifestyle, planning and coordinating a variety of editorial projects for clients and in house, and working with writers and interviewees. She also has lots of meetings. “Relationships with PR and marketing are crucial. It’s important to work very collaboratively.”
It’s clear collaboration is something she values highly, as she also recalls one of the standout moments in her career as seeing the publication of her first magazine as editor. “To see that come together after working so closely with our creative and sales teams was amazing. The collaboration process was incredible. I felt very lucky.”

For the love of film

There’s no doubt that Michelle is a hard worker, but she also admits that she’s had some luck in landing her role. “The cool thing is I love it, but it’s challenging. In the early part of my career especially, I managed to lilypad between different roles and jobs and met some incredible people.”

She has had some amazing opportunities. She recounts when she had the opportunity to interview Angelina Jolie when she launched her preventing sexual violence initiative. “As a subject matter, it’s something that I’m very passionate about. I didn’t think I’d get the opportunity to do an interview on such as serious topic, and her answers were amazing. That was a real privilege. It was cool to do something that could impact someone’s life in print. I’m very interested in charity, so I want to talk to ambassadors and bring attention to deserving causes.”

But it’s not just speaking to superstar A-Listers, she celebrates the day-to-day too. “I talk a lot about the little wins. One of the things I like to do when I’m stressed out or got a lot on my plate is find those tiny wins.”
She isn’t afraid of a challenge and her drive and passion has helped her career, for sure. Michelle is a huge film fan, and thanks to her determination to chase her dream, a large chunk of her career so far has involved watching, writing about, and interviewing the stars of films.

Michelle Johnson
Michelle hosting a panel

When I asked her when she felt most star struck, she struggled to pin down just one person. “I’m a big geek about directors, so when I met Joss Whedon [Director of The Avengers] or Martin Scorsese at the Wolf of Wall Street premier. I was obsessed with Casino, so I asked him questions comparing the two because I think the beats of the films are so similar.

“Ah, and then there was Dame Judi Dench – she’s so nice, but if she doesn’t like your question, she’ll tell you. The vast majority of my interviews have been positive, and both celebrities and press are at a premiere or junket for the same reason, so it’s actually quite hard to be star-struck during these events… Tom Cruise is still the pinnacle of a ‘Hollywood star’, though. When you’re face to face with him it’s a bit surreal. And every co-star will have something nice to say about him. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

How to make it as a journalist

Michelle has three tips for anyone who wants to make it as a journalist:
You have to be resilient: People who go into journalism will likely intern for a long time; you can expect to be doing that 12-18 months. It’s about not giving up and taking every opportunity you can. Even when you feel like a task might be quite boring, it might turn into an opportunity.

Accept and learn from criticism: When you do get the chance to write, take any criticism that comes your way. It’s not about you and what you’ve written. Any red pen teaches you more about the style of your publication. It’s about the collaborative approach. If a young journo sees their writing has been significantly edited, find the Sub Editor and get them to walk you through it. Writing is a collaboration.

Don’t pigeonhole yourself: For example, if you want to be sportswriter, but opportunity comes up at a local paper, take it and you can refine your skills. Your first job is not necessarily what you end up in. Always take the opportunity to learn.

Michelle Johnson’s mentors:

Marie Dawson – taught Michelle on her NCTJ course. She’s an author who worked in UK and New York, published a book, then went on to teach budding journalists. “She had the most amazing stories about her freelance career both in London and New York, and was always happy to share advice to help you pull out the real heart of your features.”
Linda Newman – another NCTJ mentor, who recommended Michelle her first editor role at West Essex Life. “Linda is an editor, writer and teacher who is super positive about magazines, full of brilliant stories and insight and always really fun to be around. She’s the biggest champion for her students.”
Juliet Herd – former International Managing Editor at Hello! “I started at Hello! as Juliet’s assistant and so learnt a lot about the practicalities of working for international magazines at high pace and quick turnarounds.”
Amanda Nevill – former CEO of the BFI. Michelle interviewed her a few times, including when she was leaving the BFI after 17 years, when she told Michelle inspiring stories about her about leadership and being a CEO as a woman.

Early in her career, Michelle was focused on print, before she moved over to video for her film work. But she is astutely aware of the importance to move with the times and embrace digital. In her role at Tempus, she created the daily news website that the publication now has and was able to flex and push her digital skills in the process, including playing with analytics.

The front cover of Tempus, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio

“Many journalists think [SEO] takes away creativity, whereas I’m of the opinion that it’s just another facet of your creativity. In fact, news writing itself is almost algorithmic, it’s the basis of what SEO is now. You wouldn’t write a Q&A in the same style as a long form piece, so why would you write an online piece in the same way as a print piece? It’s all about adapting to your media.” Flexibility and a willingness to learn have obviously contributed to her success.

Working with women in media

The role of media is so important, but also at a unique turning point at the moment, as Michelle highlights. “You have leaders of countries accusing CNN of ‘fake news’. It fascinates me… Whether the media we consume is aspirational, escapism, current affairs, it’s all essential.”

Michelle Johnson Iron Throne
Michelle on the Iron Throne

She has a real love for magazines as a medium, thanks to the huge variety you can get in one publication. But she’s enjoying the challenge of shifting to digital. “People talking about the golden age of newspapers, but I also love being in the industry at this sometimes-difficult time; we see new things happening all the time. Who’d have thought social media manager would ever be a job? It’s amazing seeing the industrial changes in real time.”

Reflecting on the gender balance in her industry, she recognises that magazines, in particular, have a lot of women in leadership roles, and for the majority of her career she has worked mostly with women. “I’ve felt very supported as a woman in my industry, but I’ve internalised certain things… You can start to paint a picture of how to assert yourself more kindly and more authentically.

“I think I’ve got a work persona; you’ve got to have tough skin if you’re going to put your work out there. I’ve had a few ‘Silly little girl’ comments from online commenters when I wrote for the Guardian as young journo. That filled me with absolute fear. But you get over it quickly and find that resilience. We have so many amazing women breaking barriers in every part of our industry: war reporters, content creators, editors… it’s really inspiring to see.”When asked if she’s experienced any sexism in her industry, she says she’s experienced a healthy dose of mansplaining – particularly in the world of film. But for the vast majority, no, she has not.

“Journalism is seen as a middle-class profession, so I had more doubts about my class than my gender. I was worried I would stick out like a sore thumb, but you learn to adapt very quickly. I don’t think I’m easily intimidated.”
But what she does admit she’s struggled with is asking for a promotion or pay rise. It’s important to know your worth, she says.

“In general, I feel women could be served better by knowing how to negotiate… And we could all do with trusting ourselves a bit more. Certainly, I don’t remember being taught about business or leadership in school, but I don’t know why. I think this is why I’ve become interested in leadership as a concept – what makes a someone a great leader, an innate leader?”

It’s a great question. But as the editor of a successful magazine, and a firm believer in determination and collaboration, it looks like Michelle is on her way to becoming a great leader, herself.

Follow Michelle on Twitter, @chelleajohnson to see what she what films she’s watching, how work is going, and how she’s handling life in lockdown!

Quick-fire questions

Are you a morning lark or a night owl? Night owl.

Sweet or savoury food? Savoury.

Summer or Winter? Winter

All-time favourite film? Impossible question! Interview with a Vampire.

All-time favourite music album? Any 80s compilation album (currently obsessed with the ‘You spin me right round, baby…’ playlist by Audrey Mathena on Spotify).

Biggest weakness? Wine

Where do you feel most at peace? At home

Drink of choice? A Sauvignon Blanc

Favourite holiday destination? The last place I went to was Belize and it was amazing! We went trekking in a rainforest and had a Maya temple site to ourselves due to lack of tourism. It’s a must-visit.

Your favourite female icon? There are too many to count! Once I learn of someone I find inspirational – whether it’s Emma Thompson, Hillary Clinton, Ava DuVernay, Papusza – I just learn everything I can. Currently I’m recommending Naomi Alderman, because I’m STILL obsessed with her novel The Power since reading it last year. Plus, I found out she wrote the Zombies, Run! Game, which has been a lifesaver to me during lockdown.