Huw Stephens hosts Radio 1's new music show on Wednesdays between midnight and 2am, showcasing a genre-spanning selection of new music each week, as well as taking charge of the station on weekend afternoons (1-4pm). Last week, Q sat in on Stephens' early hours show to witness the Welshman's quest for the latest talent first hand. The last time this writer passed Radio 1's unassuming home, Yalding House, a former car show room just around the corner from Broadcasting House in London, there was a 200-strong crowd camped outside as fans and paps fought for the best view of that day's guest, Cheryl Cole.
Post-kicking out time on Wednesday night (23 May), the scene is somewhat more humble as a lone security guard unlocks the door to admit Q. However while there might not be anyone outside, a crowd of a different kind is already in wait on Twitter and Facebook, if the burbling comments and posts ahead of Huw Stephens' new music show are anything to go by. Tonight Alt-J (pictured below) are in session, so added to the regular mix of internet seekers discussing their discoveries and new bands hoping their tunes might get an airing, is a host of student fans who tweet to say they should be revising but have stayed up late especially to hear tracks from the Cambridge band's debut, An Awesome Wave.
The reason for that anticipation is clear, as despite existing in an era of rigid playlists and brand identities, Stephens' two hour show appears to be an oasis of freedom, and as such Studio Y3 - located in the building's basement and lit with ambient pink lights that makes it feel more like an aquarium than a radio station - buzzes with energy as the clock slowly approaches midnight. Engineers rush about with bits of cable and microphones, last minute tracks are imported into Radio 1's player system and bits of paper are shuffled back and forth.
Though producer Natasha Lynch explains it takes two days of prep for each Wednesday show, not only does Stephens decide the running order as he goes along, but the DJ's commitment to the newest sounds means his playlist for the evening is never really finished. "We can add something new into the show about half an hour beforehand," Stephens explains, before adding with a grin, "or during the show itself! We did that recently with a [dubstep producer] Jakwob track. He tweeted up a link after we went on air so we played it. The only condition is we have to check the language, they're very strict about that."
There are no such vocabulary issues tonight. Along with Alt-J, who are currently soundchecking next door, Birmingham (or "B-Town" as they insist it's now called) band Swim Deep have been recorded in session earlier at the Beeb's Maida Vale, leaving Stephens the task of trying to fit all the music he's got teed-up for tonight into two hours. "Have a lovely show everybody," he tells Lynch and her colleague Kate Holder (know on air as "Producer Kate") as a succession of lights start flashing to indicate there's 10 seconds till air time... And then all of sudden, via a breathless succession of Little Comets, Peaking Lights, Coloureds and London newcomers Savages - whose first ever release Husbands was only posted online 24 hours beforehand - it's already a quarter-past midnight. "It's just playing records on the radio really," Stephens tells Q as he settles into his rhythm. Then again, radio is in the Welshman's blood.
Recruited to Radio 1 aged 17 to host a Welsh regional opt-out in 1999, the station's one time youngest DJ has become something of a stalwart. Not only does he have his night shift and a show on weekend afternoons (he also organises Cardiff's annual Swn festival and hosts the Reading Festival's main stage on the side) but via his key role in the station's In New Music We Trust and the wider BBC Introducing strands means in many ways he's John Peel's inheritor. He certainly takes the late DJ's commitment to new music - Peel was often spotted loading post bags full of demos into the back of his car so he could take them home for a listen - as his blueprint. "I listen to every thing I get sent, and anything that's marked, Radio 1 Unsigned, comes to me. That's about 150 things a week," explains Stephens. "Plus I get tips from a lot of contacts, agents, friends and blogs, Abeano and The Line Of Best Fit are really good. And I'm on Twitter all day."
One such discovery last year were Alt-J, who now 20 minutes into the show are ready to go live. Officially the room between Yalding House's studios is called the "Live Lounge". Unofficially it resembles a neglected sixth form common room with its threadbare benches and knackered computers (Radio 1 are due to move into the renovated Broadcasting House in October so wear and tear is starting to show around the place). Encouragingly this basic feel gives the proceedings the air of a friendly jam rather then a session on national radio. It's a million miles away from hyperventilating blogs and cold MP3 aggregators. "It was very relaxing, we forgot we were on Radio 1," singer Joe Newman tells Q between songs. "It's cosy in here and at this time of night everyone is 10 percent more sleepy than in the day so it takes the nerves off. Huw was been crucial for us so far, he's really championed us. We'll always be in his debt."
Back in Studio Y3, the show enters its second hour with Stephens playing a pre-recorded interview in his Label Of Love segment. Usually a showcase for "independent labels of all shapes and sizes putting out interesting records" tonight he covers the Independent Label Market which recently saw the bosses of a host of indies manning stalls for a day in Spitalfields. The segment ends with organiser and label boss Joe Daniel from Angular picking one of his favourite new tracks of the moment, Society's All That We've Become, which with its mix of indie and David Axelrod-righteousness, makes everyone in the studio ears prick up. Which of course does beg the question, with a track that good - and taking into account the BBC's public service remit - why is Stephens' new music showcases restricted to the early hours? After all this is the one thing you don't get on too many commercial stations.
"It's a good time of night to be on air," argues Stephens, indicating that for many of his international online listeners it isn't actually 1.30am. At the same time "Producer Kate" spends the second half of the show cutting together the sessions and interviews into a free, immediately available podcast allowing listeners to tune in when they want. And with live interaction via social media a key part of the team's role during the show, letting them immediately gauge audience reaction to particular songs, Natasha Lynch explains the acts they championed on the show have a good chance of making it on to the daytime playlist. The likes of Dry The River, Will Moon and Alabama Shakes - the latter Stephens started playing from their Bandcamp page - were all debuted in this slot and have all gone on to wider Radio 1 coverage. Still, just imagine the damage Stephens could do if he was on just two hours earlier...
"I always panic around now that I don't have time to play all my tracks," Stephens declares as his show enters its final 15 minutes. "Can I fit 20 records into the end of the show? Probably not." In fact he clocks up over 30 songs in his two hours, ending with Coves (about whom Leeds record shop Jumbo later tweet: "Love the way radio works, heard Coves on Huw Stephens and now we've got it in the shop...") and Flow by Mista Shak, which only made its way on air after its creator handed a demo to Stephens personally when he was in Leicester.
With the show now having covered hip-hop, dubstep, indie, folk and everything in between - not to mention all the demos and audio streams Stephens waded through that didn't make the cut - you wonder, can Stephens listen to music for enjoyment any more? Finding new talent is his job, indeed his lifestyle, so is he playing stuff he genuinely likes or just what he thinks he should play? Despite the fact he's off air and it's now way past 2am (Stephens isn't even remotely flagging he's actually enthusiastically working out what he can showcase in the daytime with his "free plays" during his weekend show) the answer is obvious from the look on his face. "You play things you love and stuff you think other people will love," he explains with a big smile. "I mean, I like everything we play, but some of it I really love!" In Huw Stephens we trust. Paul Stokes @Stokesie