Ahmed Hussain on BBC Asian Network: “The buzz of 20-25 years ago is coming back”

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Ahmed Hussain is the new head of BBC Asian Network, after taking over from Mark Strippel in August last year. His appointment marks the first time since 2017 that the role has not been shared with 1Xtra, so what does the future hold on his watch? BizAsiaLive.com sat down with him to find out.

Can you tell us a bit about your background prior to taking over at Asian Network?
When I was at school in East London around the age of 14/15, I used to listen to pirate radio and I thought it was really cool. I wanted to get a job at one of the stations, and eventually got a show through some friends at a record shop in Canning Town. I branched out to a community station in Newham that occasionally got a restricted service license, and we eventually evolved it to an internet station. Later on I started working with a production company that made shows for Asian Network, including Kan-D-Man and Limelight’s show, and I used to work on a number of shows across Asian Network, 1Xtra and Radio 1. I’ve probably worked across the majority of the shows on Asian Network in the past. After a stint as the head of the UK’s Prison Radio service, which helps to rehabilitate offenders, I applied for this role, and here I am!.

What are your top priorities for the station?
Representation matters” he says emphatically. “I want all young British Asians to feel like Asian Network is for them. We represent people whose ethnicities might be Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and right across the sub-continent. Our Bengali audience is the youngest and fastest growing audience in the UK- how do we bring that audience on board and say ‘we are a station for you as much as for everyone else’?

We’re about to go really big on 50 years of Bangladeshi independence this month [March]. We have also just launched ‘Asian Network Represents’, after the biggest talent search ever in the history of the station. A lot of the demos we received came from people who had probably never come to Asian Network before, and we are opening that door for them. We want all of our audience to be excited to be a part of the station.

Is there still such a thing as ‘the British Asian sound’ though?
I don’t think there is a single British Asian sound- it’s certainly not just about Bollywood and Bhangra any more. We have to create touch points for all kinds of British Asian sounds. The ‘Hype On The Mic’ YouTube videos with Kan-D-Man and Limelight are a good example of where we have reached out to an audience that might not listen to our daytime output- and that’s ok. Bobby Friction covers music from worldwide, but also underground producers and upcoming R&B singers. There are British Asian DJs who have come up through the wedding circuit but are now making a name for themselves on Tik-Tok and Instagram. A lot of things now make up the British Asian sound!

During last year’s ‘Great British Singalong’ across BBC radio stations, Asian Network seemed to struggle in finding songs that everyone could sing along to. Is it important for British Asian music to be culturally relevant to non-Asians?
One hundred percent! If you look back 20 years ago you find artists like Jay Sean in the mainstream charts, and we are at a point again now where we need to push it. I want this to be a bit of a reset for everyone- I am here now at the station and I am looking at how we do that. We know it takes time, but we can help. If you look at Steel Banglez, he has had those mainstream hits but it hasn’t been celebrated in the same way as artists of the previous era. I want to find that new generation of talent and focus on them. Our annual Future Sounds list is one way that we can really put the investment behind these artists, with things like live sessions and iPlayer performances. I also want to talk to the industry- we all have to work hand in hand, we can’t go against each other.

How easy is it for Asian artists to break through into music of Black origin?
I think about 1Xtra, and how Stormzy paid tribute to the station for supporting him from the very beginning. I want to get to a point where our artists are crossing over too. If you look at Bobby Friction’s weekly ‘Introducing’ slot, he had 52 different artists across 2020. Even if three of those artists cross over to the mainstream, that would be a win for me. Artists from our Future Sounds have already crossed over: Joy Crookes has been on Jules Holland and Radio 1, Asha Gold has had support from 1Xtra, as has Priya Ragu.

It’s an exciting time, because if you look at that buzz that was around 20-25 years ago, it’s coming back. We can’t do it on our own though- we need the industry to take a look too, and when that particular guy or girl is ready, we can help them.

With eg. ‘Brown Munde’ becoming the unofficial anthem of 2020 though, has the Asian music scene become too inward looking?
What we have seen over the last 18 months or so- with the killing of George Floyd, with the ‘Me Too’ movement before that, with the pandemic- is that people have taken a moment. They have thought ‘I shouldn’t have to do something to please other people’. I think it’s important that artists are authentic and true to themselves.

I know what you mean though, if you are keeping it very insular, how are you supposed to get everyone else excited? I think what you are seeing now is an acceptance, where people can be themselves but still be mainstream. Zack Knight has just released a song with Jernade Miah in Bengali and English, where in the past it would probably have been in Punjabi. Nish is an R&B artist who sings in Bengali- he was on the Spotify ‘Fresh List’ over the last couple of weeks. Our new weekend show hosts Nikita Kanda and Mistah Islah have come up via social media and BBC 3 where they had a mainstream audience.

With no RAJARs or public consultations, how are you measuring audience demand for different content on the station?
BBC Sounds is a massive platform that Asian Network plays a key part in. All our shows and non-linear content are on BBC Sounds. To give you an example, in October 2020 we launched ‘Asian Network Celebrates’ with special mixes for Diwali. They drew in the highest numbers for any piece of content Asian Network has ever put on BBC Sounds.

On social platforms, we have nearly a million subscribers for our YouTube content, nearly two million if you add up all our platforms. Where we used to do physical outreach events, e.g. on breaking into the industry, due to the pandemic we have done those as Instagram Lives. For the first Live we reached over 50,000 young people. So we can see that there is demand out there for the content, even without RAJARs.

Can you explain the process by which music gets put on the Asian Network playlist?
The first Insta Live I organised at the station (below) was about exactly that, because I said we need to be very transparent about how people get on the playlist.

We have a music team who put together playlists for the shows, but like all the other stations we have a wider music committee. All the music choices are based on merit- there is a strategy for the station, there is a sound. It is very difficult to play everyone’s music! For the evening shows people have more freedom, but the daytime shows are playlisted shows. In the playlist meetings, the music team leads them and there are presenters, producers and other people who work at the network.

With the highest cost per listener hour of any BBC Radio Station, can we expect to see any further cost reductions at Asian Network?
I am not aware of any further cost reductions.

A lot has been made of the BBC’s ability to raise funds via its commercial operations – what parts of Asian Network’s output might lend themselves to being made commercially available?
When events come back, they are probably the most viable option for commercial purposes. Could we possibly do content internationally? Maybe. There is a separate team who look at commercial options for all of the BBC’s content.

Lastly, have you got any top tips for young people who are looking to break into media?
Absolutely! I’m really keen to help get more people into the industry. The first thing I would say is: talk to anyone and everyone- you never know what networks people hold. Also, be a little bit cheeky- it might get you somewhere! Remember there’s a fine line between being persistent and being cheeky.

Most of all though, I’d say to people don’t be afraid. The truth is, if you don’t put yourself out there, you’ll never know. We always have questions and doubts, even me when I went forward for this role, but here I am. I’m always happy to talk to people when my time allows.

We are very grateful to Ahmed for taking the time to talk to us. Keep it with BizAsiaLive.com for all the updates on what promises to be an exciting next few years at the BBC Asian Network.

By Ashley Chisholm

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