Ros Atkins, 48, grew up in Stithians, Cornwall, reading history at Jesus College, Cambridge, before becoming one of the BBC’s brightest new stars. Holding positions at BBC Radio 5 Live, World Service and Outside Source, he also pursued his passion for music, establishing the Sharp nightclub in Brixton, as well as DJing at events such as Womad. Known for his sharp viral “explainer” videos – turning complex news into short shareable clips – his new show On the Week is available to stream.
i was really nervous when this picture was taken, and it’s clear that I’m focused. The gig was a festival in Regent’s Park organized by Innocent Drinks, and I hadn’t quite realized what I had been signed up for. The guy running the show had been vague and said, “I’d like you to do something, I’ll tell you about it later.” So I was extremely surprised a few weeks before the event when I saw the running order. Hedkandi – a huge name in house music – was in front of me and I thought, “Blimey, I’m a little overwhelmed.”
When I arrived the room was much bigger than I expected. It was intimidating. My hands were shaking and I really didn’t want to stand out among all those heavyweight DJs. Above all, I remember a woman who waved at me after my set and said, “That was disgusting!” and went away. It was just his way of saying, “That was awesome.”
A few bits of my life browse this image – specifically this T-shirt. In the early 1980s my dad’s job as a mackerel fisherman meant he was approached about working with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which took us to places amazing like Trinidad. It was there that I first heard calypso and soca, and became addicted to the music. In 2004, I bought tickets to see [soca star] Machel Montano at the Kentish Town Forum, a night I will remember forever, as it happened to be where I proposed to my wife, Sara. Fortunately, she said yes, so I bought a Machel Montano T-shirt at the concert, and we got married the following year.
At the Regent’s Park event, I decided to wear this same T-shirt. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the last time I had DJed for 16 years because my eldest daughter was born eight days after the concert. Naturally, my priorities quickly changed and I stopped having as much time to go out as I did at home. After all, I was just an enthusiastic amateur DJ, so life went on and I stopped chasing after it.
I started DJing in college in 1995, but I had already fallen in love with dance music a few years before. When I entered sixth grade in 1991, a friend of mine, whose older brother was throwing parties, started telling us about these events happening in Cornwall, a place that had an exhilarating scene in the 80s and 90s. Until then, I had been an unadventurous 16-year-old, but my friend spoke as if he had been converted and I was very eager to know more.
From then on my friends and I started swapping tapes and collecting flyers from parties in Plymouth, Exeter and the Shire Horse pub in St Ives. I still regret not going to the Fantazia One Step Beyond rave in Bournemouth in 1992, which has gone down as one of the great moments of that era. I don’t know why I didn’t go, but maybe I felt like I had too much homework.
The balance between work and party has always been something I have taken seriously. I was pretty excited about going out in the 90s, but I also did a lot of sports, and I did theater and played keyboards in a jazz funk band when I was in sixth grade. These multiple passions continued at Cambridge – but if I felt like I was going out too much and it was interfering with work, then I would need to cut back on some things. It was my rule of thumb: pursue different interests by all means, including standing and dancing, but if it starts to compromise my ability to study, I’ll have to keep an eye on it.
I started to 5 Living when I was 27, in 2001. As a student, I was a very heavy listener – I usually turned on the radio after a party. And when I was unemployed for a period, at 24, I listened to Nicky Campbell a lot. He played a very important role in my motivation to become a journalist, at a time when I was struggling to become one. When I finally started working at 5 Live, I came on ears and never experienced impostor syndrome because I felt like I already knew the place so well. I managed to juggle my extracurricular passion as a DJ on the weekends too. My colleagues at the BBC knew I ran one night in Brixton, but it never really got in the way of my career. Nobody I worked with thought I was cool, partly because I’m not cool.
Earlier this year, a producer from 6 Music asked me to do a half-hour drum’n’bass set for the station. I was really amazed to have this opportunity, but what was more surreal is that it went viral. It’s still one of the most downloaded shows of the year. A number of my drum ‘n’ bass heroes messaged to say they enjoyed the set. In particular, the legend Ray Keith came into contact, one of the people who created the genre. He said, “Listen, if you want to get back into DJing, let me know.”
Since then, Ray has guided me, helped me become a better DJ. I bought kit, started buying a lot of music, and really spent hours in my living room, which got a mixed reaction from the rest of my family. What was amazing was that Ray and I were also booked for a gig at [central London venue] the social. Most people were there because Ray was on, but once in a while, when he was DJing and I was dancing, someone would come up to me and say, “I just wanted to say I like the explanations that you and your team make. “The experience was a charming yet bizarre mix of dance and actuality, which have been the two greatest passions of my life.
As for the future, I don’t know if I’ll be wearing a high-vis jacket again, but if I could arrange childcare, I wouldn’t have to persuade myself to go dancing at all. I always like to do it when I get the chance. But of course, as everyone knows about going out late, it’s the time it takes – the buildup and the fallout when you’re exhausted afterwards – that makes family-life balance tricky.
Now that everyone has phones, I wonder what that would look like? A BBC reporter at a rave. But the truth is, I’m gonna look sweaty, I’m not gonna look like I’m on TV with the makeup and the lights on, but I’m dancing to the music and it’s okay. There won’t be a drug scandal because I don’t do drugs. I’m just out there having a good time, doing what I’ve always loved.