What does it take to become a master radio DJ?

MistaJam, one of the UK’s leading radio DJs and the founder of the much-loved Capital Dance station, tells us what’s needed to master the craft and reach the top of the profession.

Every day between Tuesday and Saturday, Pete Dalton, who’s known to his listeners and dance music fans around the world as MistaJam, travels to a purple-hued studio in London’s Leicester Square and performs something that, if you see it up close, feels like a magic trick.

With his shows on Capital Dance, the station he founded in October 2020 that already reaches 800,000 people each week, he creates what sounds on air like a kicking house party. Pete plays the biggest current dance music tracks and talks excitedly about the artists behind them. He tells stories, cracks jokes and interacts with his listeners, his energy level rarely dipping below an eight. Pete loves to imagine people responding to this party—dancing in their kitchens while cooking dinner, perhaps, or head banging as they sit in traffic. In many ways, it’s what guides him as a radio DJ.  

All of which made seeing behind the scenes of this house party so surprising and impressive. On the recent Friday afternoon I visited Pete, the Capital Dance studio was positively serene. With over 20 years of radio experience, which includes 15 years with BBC 1Xtra and Radio 1, Pete exudes calm expertise. At any given moment he was methodically recording upcoming parts of the show (links, a mix), while simultaneously showing me how a radio studio works and keeping tabs on the show’s live output. With a few seconds left on a track, he would switch from quietly conversing with me into “on air” mode—the upbeat, passionate broadcast style that has propelled him to the very top of UK radio.   

When we caught up in the days following, Pete offered infinite wisdom on the craft of radio DJing and dance music generally. He feels that the scene has historically been too exclusionary, too pretentious, perhaps too self-serious. With Capital Dance, he wanted to create an inclusive platform fuelled by endless energy and positivity, with a meticulously created playlist that’s based largely on audience reactions. “We care about everyone being welcome in our house,” he said.  

When I visited you in the studio, I was immediately struck by the level of multitasking you were performing. Is that typical? And what might you be doing at any given moment? 

It is very typical. In radio they call it “driving the desk,” because it is like driving. When you’re driving a car you have to focus and think about seven or eight different things. It’s the same principle in radio. You’re concentrating on a number of different things at once. 

If you’re a specialist DJ who is doing mix shows, you might have turned up with a load of songs you want to play and you have an hour-long show, you’ve got to figure out how all of these songs fit into the hour. You don’t want to go over the top of the hour, going into someone else’s time. Or as I used to do before I got better at it, you come out of the studio after the show and go, “Ah, I didn’t play that, and I really wanted to play it!” It’s about your planning. You’re constantly looking at the time, thinking about what’s coming up next and what’s happening now. 

After the show you’d debrief. What did I do that worked? What didn’t work? What can I tweak for next time? Change for next time? Then you move on and do the next radio show. If you’re any type of DJ you’re already used to spinning plates, there are just slightly different plates that you’re spinning on the radio. 

How long did it take you to get to a skill level you were happy with, where you felt competent? 

There’s the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours theory, and I think I passed this point a number of years ago. When up-and-coming broadcasters ask me what they can do to improve, the answer is practice. The more you can practise, the more you can do radio, the better you’ll get. The more you can put yourself in a situation where everything goes wrong, and you figure out what you need to do, with the audience not realising that everything has gone wrong, the better you’re going to get.

I’m not too sure when exactly I figured out that “I’ve got this.” There are still points where I don’t think I have. 

What’s an example of that? You seemed so on top of everything in the studio. 

Saying the wrong thing. Doing the wrong thing. Dead air—the big thing for radio, meaning silence would play out on air. Those are the DJ anxiety dreams. Turning the microphone on and forgetting what you were going to say. These are the things that go through your anxiety-driven mind. But part of why I think radio is so important is that if all else fails just be yourself, just be honest. If everything has gone wrong in the studio, the audience would rather hear you explain that, rather than you going, “Ugggghh.” 

My anxiety now is mainly when we do the special shows. Like the Capital Weekender live shows. With those you get nervous because there are so many more variables, you’re not in your safe space of the studio where you know what you’re doing. 

What is the main thing DJs need to “make it” the world of radio?  

Well, regardless of what aspect of DJing you’re interested in, it’s passion. It’s the most important thing. If you’re not passionate about it, it’s never going to happen. Regardless of what your career aspirations are, you have to be passionate about this industry because it’s brutal at points. It’s only passion that will see you through the times where it’s not that good. 

What are examples of that? 

The numbers. Sometimes the numbers aren’t where you want them to be. Some stations put a lot more emphasis on the numbers. I have broadcaster friends who ended up losing their job and it took them a few years to get back into it because there are no other spaces for them to get back on the radio. 

The feedback as well sometimes can be very brutal. On social media people can give you that feedback directly. Not so much since I moved to Capital, but previously I would get some really brutal messages, really horrible messages from people, who for some reason or another didn’t like me. It wasn’t through any fault of my own—but you have to go back to that passion, asking why am I doing this?

I’ve talked before about the aloofness and the credibility aspect of dance music. I’ve never really fit into those moulds. So if you didn’t go to this particular place, or know this particular person, you might feel like you’re excluded. 

There can be points where you might hit a glass ceiling in your career and feel like it’s not going anywhere. So again, you’ve got to take yourself back to your passion. The world is a bigger place than you think it is. There are more opportunities than ever because if you have an iPhone you can create a radio show. 

How competitive are DJ slots at your end of radio? 

Hugely competitive. The only place I can compare it to is the sporting world. Or even the acting world… You might get a call for a try out, or be asked to create a demo for someone at one of the big companies and they like what they hear and ask you to come in and record a pilot. 

My own route into national radio [with the BBC] was doing pirate radio for a number of years, community radio, trying to get my foot in the door wherever I possibly could. I did an event with a friend and got spotted by an executive producer who asked me if I did radio. I was able to present him with eight hours of my radio shows. He said I seemed like I was very serious and asked if I wanted to come and pilot for them. 

Piloting as a process is similar to the TV world, where you try out. They put you into a studio situation, they’ll say, this is what we normally do with the show, what would you do with it? I did this and they offered me a show. The reason they offered me a show was because I’d had enough training before I’d got to that point. Then when I got to that point I realised I didn’t know anything and continued to learn on the job [laughs]. 

I went in with an overnight specialist radio show and then proved my worth. We then tried out having the overnight show and another slightly more multi-genre show. Which meant I went on to do lots of other different shows. I was in the building, I was learning, I was making connections, I was getting better. I also wasn’t afraid to email people asking for feedback. 

Every radio station is always looking for talent, they’re looking to bring new people in. It’s about making sure that you’re in the best possible position for that. 

Do you notice common characteristics in the people who do wind up on the bigger radio stations? 

Tenacity. 100%. No two DJs have had the same path. I know this from talking to so many over the years. Anyone who says they know specifically how you can get a show on one of these networks is a liar, because no two people have the same path. But the one thing that everyone has is the tenacity and the drive. There’s that saying, hard work will beat talent every time. 

It’s about spending the most possible amount of time figuring out what you want to do, and who you want to be on air. What do you want the listener to come away from your show thinking and feeling? Figuring out those things takes a lot of time. We were talking about the brutal aspects of the industry—you need to have taken knocks but come back from them. So tenacity is really important, you need to want this. 

I’ve always been interested in the psychology of radio DJing. The hosts always seem to be upbeat and positive but of course, we don’t always feel upbeat and positive. Is it a persona you adopt? Is it about going to a particular place or zone?  

I think that’s an important question because ultimately there will be an aspect of what you do as a broadcaster, a performer, a DJ where it is purely about the audience. But if you have a daily radio show, spending so much time with people, you owe it to them and yourself to be honest. Over the years I’ve found that whenever I’m having a really shit day and I go on air and pretend that I’m not, the show sounds shit. I’m trying too hard. I’m overcompensating. But when I’m having a bad day and there’s something on my mind, I can bring that to the show. 

We’re all human beings, we’re all craving connection. I don’t think there’s a medium other than radio that allows you to have that human to human connection on such a broad scale. 

We talked in the studio about people partying along to your show, having kitchen raves and these sorts of things. Do you actively imagine people in these rituals when you’re doing the show? 

Any DJ or broadcaster who doesn’t think about the audience is failing. The audience has to be at the heart of what you’re doing. To be of service to people in the moment, I have to be aware of what they’re doing. You’ll hear clever radio DJs do this. 

I’m also breaking a trade secret but every now and then you’ll hear a DJ almost doing market research. They’ll put something out there to see what response they get. They’ll be asking what the audience is doing. I’m more blatant about it. On the Capital Weekender I have one question for the audience: what am I soundtracking for you? Tell me and I’ll shout you out. I’m doing this not only because I want to know what they’re doing, I also want to be part of that with them. I want them to feel like we’re doing things together, and I want that to be a shared collective experience.

Could you explain what a producer usually does on a radio show? Is this a viable path for someone who ultimately wants to become a broadcast DJ?

I’ve known a number of producers who want to be DJs, and that’s absolutely fine so long as you’re giving your all to your job as a producer. Because I’ve also had experiences with producers who want to be DJs who aren’t interested in the presenter producing the best possible show. They’re more interested in trying to get their demo together. 

In a nutshell, a producer for a radio show is very similar to a producer for a song. They’re responsible for the overall sound, the sound levels, the creative direction of the show, where things go. They’re responsible for the presenter, they’re essentially their presenter’s boss. They will find content, they will find things the presenter could potentially talk about. Some presenters will rely on their producers to write the words that they will say on air; some presenters, like myself, don’t, and it’s much more of a collaborative process. 

It’s almost like the producer’s job is to be the boss of that radio show. Every piece of audio that goes out, every little clip that you might potentially play, what the presenter does, what happens in an interview, challenging your presenter and building them to a place where they are feeling comfortable on air. Being the person who is able to coach the presenter: “Maybe next time try it this way.” It’s probably the most important job in radio, even more so than the presenter because of what they’re responsible for. For me, I’ve always been much more collaborative with producers. But different presenters are different. 

Do people in the top levels of radio typically come through education or a formal background? 

There are courses available, and there are people who’ve been through that process. But to be honest it depends what you want to do as a broadcaster. There are certain radio stations where it’s really helpful if you went to a university, you were a part of your student radio. But that’s not the same for every station. I personally believe the most important thing is air miles. However you can get those air miles, whether you’re going into presentation or you’re going into production. If you can find a course that’s going to give you practical experience, it sounds like a great course to me. 

You’ve spoken before about some of the challenges you’ve faced in relation to racism during your career in radio. Would you mind sharing some thoughts on navigating the industry as a Black man? 

For me personally, I don’t necessarily see myself represented at management level in the industry. Full stop. I don’t see people like myself represented at a decision-making level. Again we’re using broad brushstrokes here. I’m also only really seeing Black broadcasters being allowed to broadcast specific genres. 

You can speak about structural and institutional racism within the entertainment industry until the cows come home, but what I’m trying to do, and what I know a number of my peers are trying to do, is kick down doors so it’s nowhere near as hard for the next generation. When you look at a station like Capital Dance where 80% of the presenters are LGBTQ or female or non-binary, and we’re a 100% minority-presented radio station. And we’re successful. And we’re talking to everybody rather than just a small niche audience. I think that speaks for itself. 

It’s striking that there have been relatively few minority presenters at the top levels of UK club music radio in the past 20 or however many years. 

Part of the reason I moved [from the BBC to Capital] is because… I’m trying to think of the nicest and most diplomatic way to say this without getting anybody into trouble. I’m literally being valued at Capital for what I bring to the table. I’m being treated and valued for what I know, what I’m passionate about, for what I love, for what I’m bringing to the table. And I’m still getting used to that. Because that wasn’t necessarily where I’ve been for the majority of my career. 

In dance music it’s felt like there’s only one kind of person who is able to be a success. When you look at the wider picture of the most successful, you only see minorities being successful in the niche, underground lanes. But there are very few who are allowed to be successful as household names. Or in the mainstream or on the main stages, the big lineups. 

I think that change is coming, but I’m not the person who will sit there and rally for change, I’m the person who will just do it. I think that’s what Capital Dance is there for. The numbers are where they are. The energy is where it is. The feel of the station is where it is. Because this is what we care about. We care about being inclusive. We care about being a safe space for everyone. We care about everyone being welcome in our house. 

Could you tell me about the mission with Capital Dance? What were some of the things you wanted to achieve with the station? 

First and foremost, there wasn’t really a dance music station that was a national dance music station. One that would represent the broad spectrum of everything that comes under the dance music genre but in a commercial space. Something that was accessible and easy for people to listen to.

It’s come at a point where the energy of dance music is really needed in the world. There are very few collections of genres that have the energy and universal appeal of dance music. So the idea when I was pitching it was we want to do for dance music what historically other stations have done for pop music, for rock music—these specific stations across the world. There isn’t really anything like that for dance music in this country. 

The other thing I found that was really quite off-putting about a lot of the other dance music stations, the smaller stations, was the barrier to entry. You’ve got to try to search them out, some of them are very local, and a lot of them are inaccessible. Unless you were there at that moment in time, the records they play might not mean anything to you, and there was never really any context given to the songs. 

For us it was about being credible but being aware that we are a commercial dance music station. We’re looking for those records that could cross over. We’re looking to be an entry point for people into the dance music scene. We’re not looking to be the people who serve the expert but we still want to be a nice listen for the expert. So if you’re someone who has just a passing interest in dance music you can dip into this station. 

The other side of it really was to be able to add personality. Within the collection of genres that make up dance music now, the only place that you can get to know a bit more about the artists, the producers, about the world and about the scene is to be a super fan and find the online portals. So again there’s more of a barrier to entry. 

You’re associated with high energy, good vibes radio. Did you want the station to have that same feel? 

100% that’s at the core of the ethos of the station we’re looking to build. We want to be inclusive and not exclusive. We’re listening for music that will uplift. The strapline that’s being used to promote the station is “good vibes only.” 

Since the beginning. dance music has been energy music, it’s been party music, it’s been uplifting music. I grew up hearing from uncles, cousins, people much older than me who were going out in the Second Summer of Love and this was transformative for them. Having these experiences, all loving the music with people who they’d usually never mix with in normal life and coming away from it with new best friends, new relationships. Children are now born because of that. 

And so thinking about the history of dance music—it coming from the necessity of disenfranchised people wanting to have safe spaces where they could go and enjoy themselves. House music in particular came from the LGBTQ, Black and Latino scenes in Chicago, in New York. When you think about drum & bass, that came from soundsystem culture mixing with hip-hop, mixing with house music, mixing with all these genres. It became a music coming out of the inner city that became a safe space for people to come and party, leaving their troubles at the door. That for me is what dance music has the power to do. 

I grew up with some of the very cool aspects of dance music. And don’t get me wrong, there’s a massive place for it. Every now and then I’ll dip into it. I’m never cool enough for it but I’ll dip into it. But it always feels like it’s looking at other people and saying, “You can’t sit with us.” Whereas dance music has always been, “This is for everyone.” 

Do you think parts of the scene have drifted away from what you see as its core? 

Absolutely, but you would get snatches of that when you went to a festival or a club, you would get that feeling of unity. But then you wouldn’t see that reflected in the online portals and publications. 

How has it gone with the station so far? 

I’m absolutely over the moon. The numbers are fantastic. We went from a standing start in the middle of a pandemic in October 2020 and we’re now sitting on 820,000 listeners—which from zero is ridiculous. We’ve overtaken stations that have been established for over 20 years, and it still seems to be on an upward trajectory. 

What’s interesting is looking at the stats behind the people who are listening to us. There are two ways you can measure radio listening. One is your reach—how many people are listening to your station. The other is hours—how long are people staying with you. It seems we’re able to find a collection of music that means people are staying with us for the whole day in some cases. People are putting us on in the morning and turning us off at night. People are staying with us for a full show, which is completely unheard of in radio. 

I’ve been trained to know that your average radio listener will listen for 15 minutes, so what can you convey in those 15 minutes? You want the listener to want to come back for more and be satisfied with those 15 minutes. But we’ve got listeners who are sticking with us for hours, and that’s across the entire schedule. 

Looking at the numbers I’m over the moon. But more importantly than that, looking at feedback. The feedback from the audience, the industry, it’s been overwhelmingly positive. The negative feedback has really been about things that people expected but might not have got. So there are people who are coming to the station and saying, “You’re only playing big songs, you aren’t playing Frankie Knuckles B-sides from 1989.” But there are places for that and that isn’t what we do.

Could you talk me through the process of selecting the playlist? 

There’s a number of different processes. First and foremost it hopefully starts with hearing something. There are record label and management pluggers, who I’ve had a relationship with for a number of years in different guises. We try to maintain relationships with a broad spectrum of people, from the people who are responsible for plugging—essentially selling. 

A plugger’s job is to try to get the music they’re representing played. If you are an artist, a management company, a record label, you will engage with these people who will have relationships with DJs, with music programmers, with programme directors, a wide range of people both at clubs and in radio, and increasingly with people at streaming platforms. The plugger’s job is to tell you the story behind the record. This is why you should care about this artist, this is why you should care about this song, why you should listen to this song. 

The process, which is what we do on a Tuesday, is I’ll listen to anything that I’ve been sent, anything that’s new, anything I might have missed. Have a look at the marketplace. We’ll see if there are songs that are being reacted to that we might have missed. Things like Shazam charts, which are a great place to discover if there’s music people are reacting to. We’ll look at streaming playlists to see if there are good radio songs. 

On any average week I’m sent upwards of 300 songs. So I’ll first of all whittle those down to artists I’ve heard of, what songs are being reacted to, what songs have I heard while I’m out, what songs do we like, and most importantly, what songs do we think our audience will like. These will then be whittled down and sent to the wider playlist committee. Then the next day we sit in a room and discuss the songs that we think would work best on our radio station. 

Coupled with that, we’ve also got some quite robust methods of measuring the reaction to the songs that we’re playing on the station. If our audience is particularly liking something we could increase the rotation of it. We don’t play songs once, we add songs to our playlist. 

The way music radio tends to work in this country is you have a playlist and it’s split into different categories, and the categories determine how many times per day a song is played. That’s where the term rotation comes from. For us it’s important that everything that’s added to the station isn’t going to just get a single play, which is what tends to happen with a lot of other dance music shows and stations. 

The top playlists are the biggest records on the station, with data to back up the fact that our audience is really liking it. 

Outside looking in it seems like this process has undergone a net gain. Whereas in the past I’m guessing playlists were determined by the tastes of small, insular groups of people, it seems that these days you’re more in a dialogue with the audience. 

I think this is a massive positive. Thinking about my club and festival days, which aren’t over, but thinking back to that experience… you get an instantaneous reaction from the audience. And nobody wants to be the DJ who plays the set that clears the floor. Nobody wants to be the DJ who doesn’t match the energy of the audience. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a record that they know, but it has to be something that you know they’re receptive to. 

There are certain things you can do when you’re in a club to make the audience more receptive to you playing new songs—play something familiar then try out something new and have something familiar ready to go afterwards. Play them a new version of something that might have heard before. Something with elements they know. 

For me, when you look at the data that comes back—and not only that, when you’re able to feel it yourself, and you get the feedback from people who are sending you DMs or an email, we’ve had handwritten letters even, then it feels like you’re building something special. It’s more than a net gain, it’s an absolute positive. 

Are the artists you play on the station typically already established, like being signed to a label? 

That’s an interesting question because the barrier to entry is so low, there are so many songs out there. And a lot of them are really good. But if you are someone who aspires to have that play on Capital Dance—I’m not a football man so I’m probably going to mess up this analogy, but you wouldn’t start playing football and expect to play for a Premiership team in your first season, you’d work up through the leagues. 

The first thing to look for is someone who can champion you. With the advent of apps that can help you to build a fan base quite quickly it’s about getting a groundswell of momentum behind your work. The first record that you put out is not going to be your best record. But if you’re building momentum.. You build by starting small and growing. 

Building your social presence, your Instagram, for artists of all genres TikTok is increasingly important. Build your Spotify profile, your Apple Music, your Deezer profile. You don’t necessarily need a record label to do any of that. But when you’ve got to the point where you’ve got all of this stuff built and you think you’ve got that song, you can go to someone like me, or send your music into Capital Dance, but one of the questions we’ll ask, which we ask of all songs is, what will you do with this once we add it to the playlist? If we add it to the playlist and you’re not continuing to help push the momentum the record isn’t really going to work on the playlist. We might have an audience here who like it, and like it on our station, but if you’re not doing things outside of that it’s not necessarily going to move the needle for you. 

It’s about thinking in terms of a plan. Every release is a plan. If you’re reading this and want to get your music played on Capital Dance, get your music played on local stations first, community stations. Get that specialist DJ support, DJs who are actively going out there to find new music, new artists, to be the person who plays something first. Once you’re at that point, we’ll find you. 

Words: Ryan Keeling