Adil Ray: 'Be real, and the rest will follow naturally'

Adil Ray is pulling off a rare feat in British Asian broadcasting – he is appealing to almost everyone. Amol Rajan finds out how he does it
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Does the British Asian community really exist? This is the vexed subject of Balti Britain, the latest tome from Ziauddin Sardar, cultural critic and columnist for the New Statesman.

It is a curious fact, as Sardar observes, that the British Asian community is about as diverse as any other discrete group in the country. Its members came to Britain either directly from the Indian sub-continent or via east Africa – that is, two continents separated by thousands of miles. They include Hindus, Muslims, Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Sikhs, never mind the sub-divisions of those religions. They speak several hundred languages, profess degrees of allegiance to at least six different countries, and now span three generations.

In other words, if it does exist, the British Asian community is anything but monolithic. Catering to all tastes is basically impossible. And yet this task has been bestowed tothe BBC Asian Network, whose very mission is to unify, chiefly through music, these very disparate groups.

One man is succeeding more than most. Adil Ray, 34, Birmingham born and bred, has landed upon a formula that is inspiring imitation. His weekday show, broadcast between 3pm and 7pm, showcases up-and-coming musicians from the Asian community, and intersperses it with comic entertainment. Two years after he first moved to the Asian Network, where he presented the late-night Adil Ray Show, he has become the leading light of a digital network pulling in 500,000 listeners a week.

Because it is a digital station, specific figures for Ray's show, which is available online, through DAB radio, and via digital and satellite television, are impossible to obtain. But he is widely regarded as the outstanding talent in a station that has flourished precisely because it can appeal to such a wide range of tastes within its target demographic.

"You know that there are certain values and types of behaviour that unite the Asian community in Britain," Ray says. "The mentality that our parents brought with them, a hard-working, law-abiding, entrepreneurial spirit, is still very much shared by my generation, and it's my job to tap into that. If anything, I feel like we second-generation British Asians are really finding our feet in Britain, and feeling positive about who we are. While everyone else is all doom and gloom and credit crunch, we're flourishing now more than ever, and our music reflects that."

Asian music is indeed flourishing on Britain's airwaves. Other DJs catering to these tastes have enjoyed great success. These include Shak Yousaf, the drivetime star on the AM station Club Asia, who has cult status among his 100,000 listeners.

It is Ray, however, who is the undisputed king of this competitive market. He is fond of repeating a mantra beloved of many successful radio DJs: "be real". "Part of the secret of any success that we have as a network is actually not thinking about being Asian all the time. I always tell the production guys that we should just concentrate on being real, and the rest will follow naturally. Sometimes you can try too hard, rather than just have faith in your instincts."

Ray, whose parents came to Britain from Kenya in the early Seventies, grew up in the Yardley area of Birmingham. The area was "very white, and you knew the National Front were an active presence". He attended Handsworth Grammar School, commuting 10 miles each day to a Birmingham area notorious in the Eighties for the Handsworth riots. While he and his father thought about moving to a more convenient, safer area of the city, "Mum insisted that we stay in Yardley, and bottle it through."

As well as listening to mainstream radio, Ray grew up listening to various community stations such as Buzz FM. He went to university in Huddersfield, becoming a DJ at the Black Hole club, a favourite student dive. Later he would work at Choice FM, but rejected the offer of a full-time job at the station in order to complete a degree in marketing.

"Going from listening to people like John Peel and Pete Tong on the radio to being a DJ myself came easy to me," Ray says. He started off playing R&B, hip hop and acid jazz. "In my early career, I would constantly be thinking about what I should be saying, worrying about what would happen if people didn't like me saying this or that. It takes a while to develop the confidence that allows you to speak without thinking sometimes."

Speaking and thinking have tended to unite in Ray's more recent projects. Presenting Desi DNA, a fashion and lifestyle show on BBC2, has opened up work in television. He recently made an episode for the BBC3 show Mischief titled Is it Cos I Is Black?, exploring racial stereotypes. A reportage programme for the more highbrow BBC4, Tales from Europe, consolidated his reputation as one of the BBC's brightest Asian faces, alongside the likes of Anita Anand, Asad Ahmed and the irrepressible Hardeep Singh Kohli, left.

"I'm very conscious of how hard it is for a lot of people to get into the media. I want to do as much as possible to help those who haven't had the chances I've had," Ray says. "The key is to work hard and know your strengths. There was a point at which I thought all I'd ever get asked to do was things about being an Asian in Britain. But then you think to yourself, "Actually, people out there are interested in what a British Muslim with a northern accent has to say.'"

Ray says that he wants to write more comedy, and has just filmed a documentary for BBC2 called Explore, for which he reported from Argentina. In September, he'll go to Turkey for another edition. Then he has his radio show.

"Things are going pretty well just now. Asian music is flourishing, and the people involved in it are too. I think we've got a product that a lot of people are interested in, and I like being given the chance to sell it." That marketing degree clearly paid off.