Naughties Survivor | BBC's Gemma Cairney
Updated: Dec 19, 2021
Labelling Gemma Cairney is near impossible. If forced to, the titles ‘broadcaster’, ‘author’ and ‘entrepreneur’ spring to mind. She first rose to success as a DJ for Radio 1, before diversifying her talents into multiple artistic avenues. With an infectious laugh and a love of all things culture, Gemma has never lost her identity within her creative direction and is an inspirational figure for those who do not wish to be defined by any singular pursuit.
“...I just wanted some more peace [on moving out of London in 2015] for my mind. It was a creative decision as much as a wellbeing one. I think we live in very noisy times and I needed to pivot to work out what I wanted next in my career and my life.
“I went to see a friend in Margate and it was really compelling to me - I loved the sky and the Turner-esk pink skies. There was an energy, a sense of rejuvenation. I can see the sea from my living room - and when they are magical days, it’s unreal. Like last Sunday, the water was really still and I’d just finished hot yoga, I didn’t have much to do, and there weren’t loads of people around. I just had the best swim.
But, the City is only an hour and half away and who knows what will happen in the future. It’s been a life change and a good experiment.”
Gemma started working at the BBC when she was 23 - and immediately fell in love with radio broadcasting. In particular, how it is a shared experience and stimulates imagination in a romantic way that visual media can never replicate. This is something Gemma has always carried with her in whatever she pursues.
“Starting at the BBC was mostly really fun. I think when I was 23 and, via youth, less self-consciousness. But also I think my generation was less self-conscious. I also lived very much for the moment, and it didn’t take anything too seriously. Even though it was a huge breakthrough and an amazing accolade to call myself ‘a presenter on the BBC’, I didn’t necessarily know what was going to happen or have set goals. I was just going with it, if that makes sense?
It’s quite mad really. I’ve always been very optimistic. Everything was really exciting but I didn’t think it was going to last that long. I remember thinking, ‘I might as well have a good time while I’m here!”
As your career has evolved, do you now approach broadcasting differently?
“I’m not sure - I still listen to lots, I’m influenced by others and I’m a learner, and I see that as a very organic process. My approach would always be just to be me and come at something from my perspective.
Yes [at the start] I was humble to the fact I needed to learn - I wasn't a professional broadcaster and I needed to learn my craft on the job. But in terms of how I carry myself generally, my public profile responsibility…. I don’t really follow the rules. I try not to overthink what those rules might be - like what would make me more employable, or more successful. Or how many followers I have. I’m not that interested in numbers.”
Gemma is a real advocate for career evolution. She has taken on longer form projects for BBC 6music, after leaving the pre-breakfast show and the 2 am wake up calls that came with the job.
“My career has been so varied in its 10 years, and I still feel very young. There’s this bizarre contrast, I still feel young, alternative, energetic - all of those things. But at the same time, I am experienced, I’m confident, I’ve won awards, I’ve presented across different BBC networks and traveled the world while doing so.
“I’m this Ying and Yang, in terms of what I represent - who I actually am. I’m not what my output is. For how I broadcast specifically, the one thing that is different to when I started, is a real respect for my craft and a honing of a skill, and an experience. With that, comes a deeper sense of confidence - knowing that I’ve put myself out of comfort zone before and that I’ve flourished within that. To push my boundaries is nothing but a good thing for me.”
Would you say you’re always looking to seek new challenges?
“I think I’m quite insatiable like that. Especially at a certain point around 5 years ago, I just wanted to try new things. I’ve done a lot of things I never thought I’d do. I didn’t go to University, I’m not white, I’m not… a man. All these things that can help with a sense of confidence, privilege, and an understanding that you can do whatever you want.
“I didn’t necessarily have those things or the easiest upbringing, I didn’t expect to be in this position as a teenager. Or amount to much at all, let alone do all the things I’ve done. It’s just been running with the moment.”
But you were always creative...
“I definitely think so, I think I’ve used escapism a lot in my life, and art and creativity has been such an obsession because of that. I have a huge imagination. Growing up in the 90s and being susceptible to a bold, brash pop culture was affecting.
“My Mum grew up all around the world, so her reference points were quite interesting. My Dad was in a band in the 70s - they were never big but that rock and roll aesthetic was there. There was so much of the world I loved that existed before, and they were usually music or pop culture related. Whether that's being obsessed by Michael Jackson Dangerous and listening to every word on a Saturday afternoon and my mind just being blown by the poetry of it. I have always been an obsessive by creativity, without really being conscious of it.
“But my dreams? When I was 16 I went to Brit School and wanted to become an actor. There was always an element of activism - I wanted to change the world, I loved how theatre brought the world together. I wasn’t necessarily obsessed by fame or money, but I do think the glamour element was appealing.”
“I don’t want to sound tragic but I never thought me succeeding would be possible, but then people around me started to make it in their realms and disciplines. Then it got me thinking - they’re not that different to me. People are people.
“Radio provides an ideal platform to access all those areas. Even with the rise of different platforms, they can all supplement each other."
However regarding podcasts. Although they’re not a new thing, however, the way we consume them certainly is. Would you say they fuel or negate traditional radio?
“I believe it fuels it. For example, I call myself a radio purist. I am in love with the medium of radio. The fact that it is one of the only things we still have 24/7 that is still an access point of live, and it’s shared. So you’re having an experience that is very unique in terms of an atmosphere it creates.
“Whether that's educational, hard news, features, conversation, sports - or an amazing piece of music or a shit piece of music. There’s nothing like Radio for that - that it can fill a space with someone's senses whilst they can get on with cooking or at their desk…. It's a shared experience because it’s live. Good radio is magic, it’s almost inexplicable how it can take over you.
“I loved that it uses sound to spark the imagination and take you on a journey in the way that TV can’t. Again, I think it’s something that you can’t have in podcasts - even though I love them, and I’m excited by the independence of them and the stories they can tell with their innovation factor - but they're not shared live. Which is something we’re losing from media.
“I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to do so much different work. But it’s not without hard work - I graft, I produce, I bring people together, I knock down doors and I ask and ask and ask. Also, I fail. But I feel like I’ve got to give and I just go with the tide really.”
And in terms of starting your own production company - Boomshakalaka - what prompted to start this?
“It started when I was on early breakfast, and I felt dissatisfied with this idea that there was this hierarchy that was in control of my destiny. Although - critique, discipline, structure, institution - all of these things I have such respect for are important to my career and have been interwoven into my journey.
“I still had this strong sense of ‘Punkary’, in that I wanted to do something my own way. I was putting out all of my energy in a space where I was feeling unhappy because I was so tired all the time.
“I didn’t want to be feeling like that anymore, so I thought - what can I do to give me the autonomy over something I've created? So I thought I’d pitch some stuff through my own company, that I wanted to a project for Women of the World festival. It was the first video content I produced under Boomshakalaka. It was called WowNow in which I went around the country speaking to young women about what was affecting them.
“To this day, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done, not just because I was able to co-produce it, but that streamlined a snowball for other projects. For instance, I wrote my book from that experience. I just needed to be driving something in my own career - and that’s what it represents.”
“It is multi-disciplined, it’s hard to define - but I’m proud of that. That is what the new world is. We’re all multifaceted, we’re all quite hard to put into words. Art is completely complex and a rich tapestry, and to have a company that can umbrella these stories - with diverse voices - it’s something I’m very proud of.
“I co-direct the company with my best friend Bethany Clayton. So I often exec-produce, where I sit at the top and it’s like I make sure all the ingredients come together for the pie. We’re now making stuff quite Regularly for Radio 4 within the art bracket.”
“We have an amazing pool of resources we use - and through my experience in this industry, I have amassed all these connections. I’ve been around for a while, I’ve got a big gob and I’ve partied hard. I love different sorts of people and I really respect the creative industries as a whole. From the highs and lows - to going to drama school originally - it has all culminated into what I can offer now, which is manifested in a community of amazing people.”
What’re your thoughts on the rise of social media - you do use to connect people, but you’ve already spoken how it can be used to scrutinise oneself. How do you react to it?
“I’m 33, I’m in that balance of remembering what life was like without it. I do think social media is a fuel to the epidemic of mental health being trickier to navigate, and also a sense of loneliness which I feel like is sweeping. I think people are finding it harder to talk to each other and hang out - the humanness of being human is sort of seemingly and despairingly going.
“It can get me down, but I do have fun with it. I love to make others laugh, to connect with people and make them feel positive. I’ve noticed that now we have Insta Live and stories (on Instagram) it makes you want to broadcast and create content. Which is really cool, but it is also insane.”
There are these different arguments of how it unlocks creativity, how we are more powerful than we’ve ever been in that sense. Yes, it provides a platform to express ourselves - but it also forces us to examine ourselves against the countless projections of perfect people. Instagram can be used to speak about mental health, but social media can also be the root of those issues. Do you feel the benefit outweighs the negatives?
“I don’t think anyone has the answers. I have my own theories, but they’ll be within my own personal boundaries.
“But at the same time, I’m not here to doom-munger, there’s lots of that going on. And that's another thing, the access to information, and the overwhelming nature of that. Sometimes I do find myself yearning just to switch off and….be.
“For example to have a political discussion and just thrash something out in a debate, when you try and do that on Twitter, you’re putting yourself in a dangerous zone. You’re not going to be able to have the same quality of discussion or conversation, or even passion because it can so easily become anger. The freedom of being able to talk cannot be fully replicated online as it is in person, and we have to be mindful of that.
“But at the same time - YES, communities are created online, and it’s so fun and artistic. I like poking fun at things, I like showing off my fancy shoes, I have a very frenetic, colourful, lucky life. If me sharing that makes other people feel like they can have that life too, then that's a good thing. And that is what I try and use my platforms for, to say look, I don’t necessarily fit the stereotype of what you think success looks like, I’m not rich and famous. But I do push myself and I do have fun and I see the importance of friends. I try and keep my voice active within stuff I genuinely believe in.
“I am a real person and I make mistakes all the time. I’m scatty, I’m messy and sometimes sad and that’s okay.
“Ultimately, it should be playful, it should be a creative tool. We should be less angry - the cesspit of anger terrifies me. I know how to reach positivity - I do understand people, that’s why I do radio, why I like to go out dancing and why I wrote a book.
“But more recently, I do wonder whether I’ve been properly representative because I don’t put out the harder stuff. I haven’t spoken much about heartbreak or that fact I go to therapy. I don’t write that - but do I have a responsibility to say there is toughness, as well as magic?”
It’s interesting what you say about responsibility, everyone on that platform doesn’t have to be that perfect individual in every sense of the word. But do you feel like you have to discuss those issues to be fully representative or your interests?
“It’s interesting because, on mental health day, I saw people really exposing their vulnerable side. But I think I do that in a nuanced way. I feel like I know how to represent the joy but it’s also important to show a realness. But, no one is completely perfect.
“Who is actually an expert at navigating this space? I’ve heard professors speak, I’ve worked with Google, I’ve done loads of things over the past 10 years, and it doesn’t seem like anyone has the answers.”
Looking closer to home, where would you like to see yourself in the next 5 years.
“With Boom - I would love to have more of a team to relieve some of the pressure from myself and my co-director. So get some investment, at the moment we’re looking into that. I would like to venture into some film projects.”
“I really want to do fiction stuff, I want to do drama.
“I’m exploring different avenues, I’ve got a treatment for a show that i went to see at Edinburgh Festival that was nearly a TV show but never became one. I said to the writer, ‘why don’t we see if we can make this into a film?’ Also, other people have approached me about writing, so I’ve been dedicating some time to learning that as a skill. It’s still very early stages, but I think there’s a lot of weight in telling stories through drama
“And hopefully I’m getting people to take me seriously - stuff like The Sound Odyssey’ on Radio 4 has got a high potential to come back, and ‘The Leisure Society’ is definitely coming back.
“I would love to live abroad. I was speaking to a guy who runs a permaculture farm on the North of Malawi on a recent holiday that I could maybe do a writing residency here, like just go super off grid. There’s always L.A. there’s New York as well. I have a house here, but no real responsibilities - so I just don’t know where I’ll end up.
“It’s exciting and terrifying. All of my friends are settling down to get married - but whilst I’ve still got the energy I want to peruse everything.”
If there was one thing you could change about your industry, what would it be?
“I was going to say scrutiny - but that’s not necessarily bad - I think an over scrutiny towards the negative. People baying for blood all the time. It’s as if our opinions have become so resolute since we can publish them online.
“It’s like - you have to be this. You have to be that. Who are you following? Who are you the next? How do you look? You have to represent this voice. Etc, Etc, Etc. This way we encapsulate actual people’s personalities in a headline, or a political box, it is quite exhausting. Particularly if you’re interested in a lot of different things and are multi-representational. Labels - I can’t really adhere to them, and they don’t define what I do.”
(This is why Gemma’s career is so fluid and diverse)
“I don't’ get the mainstream success jobs - it’s not my story. My aim wasn’t to get the breakfast show on Radio 1, it was to try lots of different things and see what my path is. It’s not a conventional career and I’m not a conventional talent. And it’s pushed me to think outside the box, and it’s kept me on my toes and challenging myself.
“I’ve always wanted to write, but didn’t think I had the headspace - now I’ve written a book. It’s like always finding different ways to communicate. Sometimes I have to be like that - this agility, this multi-disciplined, multi-faceted human. And I’m very thankful about that.”
I think we can all be a bit like Gemma.
You can follow Gemma and all her off-beat adventures here.
And give her production company, Boomshakalaka, a follow while you're there!