Elizabeth Alker

Everything you’ve read is true*

Here's a voice you might recognise... from Rochdale, a comedy foil to Radcliffe and Maconie and bridging the music gap between classical and the avant garde. It's Elizabeth Alker. Affectionately known as Alkerpops by most. (Or Alker-traz and Alker-stezer by Guy Garvey). I met Elizabeth a few years ago and had a friend's view of what it takes to do a career in the music industry. She's reported from Glastonbury, The NME Awards, The Proms and The Brits. She's brave, curious and possesses a wealth of music knowledge.

Where I grew up, working in the music industry felt like going to the moon

Rachael  0:14  

Elizabeth, thank you so much for doing this podcast Call On Courage. I'm excited to have you. And I think you're going to be the first voice on here that people will have already heard before. So that's exciting. For people listening outside of the UK, can you tell us what you might be recognised for?

Elizabeth Alker  1:19  

Could be a couple of things, I suppose, for many years between 2006 and 2018 I was a regular voice on 6 music, which is the BBC alternative music station as a reporter. I was a regular with Radcliffe and Maconie, who people might have heard of. I did the daily music news. And now I present the Saturday breakfast show on BBC Radio 3. And a show on Thursday nights called Unclassified, which is experimental, electronic, new classical contemporary music.

Rachael  7:22  

I wanted to know why you decided to go for music journalism?

Elizabeth Alker  7:38  

I was at Leeds University, and I was involved in student radio there. As our degree was coming to an end, I had this real sense… I realised, oh, my goodness, this is just a kind of conveyor belt, and I'm about to drop off the end. And I'd studied communications and politics, which I’d been advised to study at school. But actually, it was very academic, not vocational. There were no plans to get us into work after. No support from the course - not that it promised that there would be but there wasn't. And I think I just thought you’d look for these jobs like music journalist online, and something would come up and you'd apply for it. I realised, you know, these courses are churning out hundreds of people every single year. So I spent a few weeks in real panic. And I remember being in my bedroom in my student house in Leeds and thinking, if you want to do this, you’re going to have to make this happen and somehow push through. This isn’t gonna fall into your lap. This is not something you can apply for remotely, you're going to have to be in people's faces, you're going to have to hone your craft. Contacts are a big part of it. 

I did get quite a lot of work experience. While I was a student I understood the importance of that. Because I'm from Rochdale, and my parents are teachers and you know, we don't have any contacts in the media at all. And even though it was my dream, like I said to work for the NME or a magazine like that. It also felt like that was going to the moon. You know, London felt like the moon. Like the music press felt like the moon. And I grew up in Rochdale. Yeah, in a small village outside of Rochdale! I think I thought well, you might as well just do it, because what's the alternative? So you may as well just go out there and try and make this happen and who cares if you've if it fails? Then revert to Plan B, but don't revert to Plan B or C before you even tried Plan A. 

So I just did whatever I could. I’d buy magazines and I'd look at the masthead. Who the people were and guess their emails. And I'm really thankful that it was in the age of email and not phones. But I do know people who did use it to phone editors. I didn't have to do much of that. And I was always trying to run before I could walk. Look what I've written for the Rochdale Observer to Q magazine! I remember this guy actually emailed me back, ‘Yeah, nice, darling, but you're really not ready for us. Do you know who we are?’

Rachael  10:56  

I know a lot of stories because we're friends and I know significant moments, you stepped into new opportunities and had a new audience. Can you look back on your career and pinpoint significant moments? Was there a big break?

Elizabeth Alker  11:15  

Yeah. So the first one, I had been working very, very hard and balancing lots of things, lots of plates spinning, because with getting into the media, it's making money and also getting experience. So I had a full time job in a primary school in Leeds. And I was working at the Leeds Guide magazine, I had a little section that I edited, called Around Town, so I was around town quite a lot as well. And then in the evenings, I got the train to Manchester. I did studio production, phone operations, that sort of thing on their late show, which was 10pm to 1am. So two or three nights a week, I’d do my job in the school, then I'd do the Around Town stuff in Leeds, (I was living in Leeds,) then I would get to train to Manchester, my uncle had a flat in town. Total God-send. And I would have some tea with him and then go and work 10pm to 1am, come back, go to sleep, get up at 5am and get the train back to Leeds and do my job in the primary school. I managed this for about three months before I was on the verge of a breakdown! And I remember walking into the BBC late one night to one of these shifts, and was at the end of myself. And on the phone, my Mum, she's had a lot of these kinds of phone calls - ‘I was like I can't do this anymore, and maybe I need to give up on this dream.’ I walked into the studio and I was like, ‘This is it.’ 

I'm just going to do this session, and I can't do this anymore. Somebody walked into the studio, who was a producer at BBC Radio 4. He was our guest on the radio that evening because he was promoting a pantomime. And he said, ‘Do you want to work at Radio 4? They needed an assistant producer.’ Before the end of the week, I had that job. And I went to work upstairs. I remember when I was at Radio Manchester, I would walk along the corridor at the BBC on Oxford Road, we'd go upstairs to the canteens on the same floor as Radio 4. They had it playing in the corridor. I used to think, ‘oh, imagine if one day I could come work here.’ And I've worked on network radio ever since. So that was my breakthrough on national radio.

Never take a chocolate peanut off Stuart Maconie

Rachael  13:52  

So much bigger audiences compared to what you'd experienced before?

Elizabeth Alker  13:58  

Yeah. And, and then the second one was when I started working with Radcliffe and Maconie.

Rachael  14:04  

Yeah. Which is my memory of hearing you originally. If anyone has been a designer anywhere in England, it's like, 6 Music. It was always on in the background.

Elizabeth Alker  14:19  

It felt like so many things fell into place. I was in London, but this job came up and it meant I moved back to Manchester where I'm from, and I got on with them straight away and they're hilarious. It was just the most fun. I couldn't believe it. Like I just could not believe that. Everything had aligned, you know, it was kind of natural. Felt very honoured to work with them. They're just so hilarious and it didn't feel like work.

Rachael  16:47  

I think most of your work on the radio is obviously live. I mean, what can even mentally prepare you for that?

Elizabeth Alker  16:59  

I was really feeling hugely out of my depth and struggling with nerves for the first part of my career, for sure. It took a long time before I stopped thinking about what I was doing. Because if you start to think about what you're doing, that's when everything starts to unravel, and you start having an out of body experience. Exactly. You start to imagine stadiums full of people who are listening to you. I mean, I've had so many panic dreams about being on the radio. Like looking at my scripts, and the words don't make any sense. So yeah, but you just find ways to manage your nerves. And also, the more you do it, the more confident you get, of course. And you have to build a healthy relationship with it as well. Like, as you know, I was so focused on this thing it was so kind of important to me. Too important. It was too important in my 20s. And you have to get to the stage where you're like, there’s really more important things, this does not matter. And that happens as you get older anyway, doesn't it as more things in life happen. But I think establishing that healthy relationship with what you're doing is good as well. You come across as a lighter broadcaster, more fun, you know.

Rachael  23:02  

There's so many questions coming up for me. I am curious about a lot of things. I mean, were there any moments where you've had to take that breath in and check yourself and realise that you're about to interview a living legend?

Elizabeth Alker  23:34  

There's loads. Lou Reed is the person that most terrified to me. 

My way of dealing with that sort of thing is just to go into over-prepare mode and I just hole myself up and research everything that needs to known… that could possibly come up about that artist or this project or whatever it is. And so I did that. I remember being in my bedroom in Brixton and just sitting there for days. Trying to remember everything that I thought I needed to know about Lou Reed. And that always pays off because he actually really warmed to me and we got a really good interview. That's quite rare with him. And then Mark E Smith I got to meet him. I think I met him in the queue for the sandwich shop Rustica, in the Northern Quarter. I met his mate Weirdo Kenny, I ended up going to the pub with him. And he was like, I can get you an interview with Mark, I was like, okay, whatever. I’ll give you my phone number. And about two or three weeks later, my phone rang. Yeah… 

Elizabeth Alker  28:15  

And I also interviewed Paul McCartney. Yeah. I did that with Stuart.

They took us backstage at the arena, and there was all this catering for vegetarians, because obviously he brings his own caterers in. I went from being fairly kind of relaxed about it, because he's quite well known for being nice and professional. I feel like we've kind of met the queen here, you know, I've never seen so many people part of an operation like that.

Rachael  28:45  

Wow, that's so cool. What for you makes interview gold? 

Elizabeth Alker  28:59  

I think you want to feel like that person has opened up to you, and that you've earned their trust. That they are warming to you and sharing with you in a way that they wouldn't be the other people because they can see that you are serious about them and what they do. You're not going to stitch them up, you're not looking to catch them out. And you've done your research.

Rachael  40:28  

What have been some of the pinch me moments musically that you've reported from? Events, festivals, gigs?

Elizabeth Alker  40:39  

Glastonbury. We've had some amazing experiences at Glastonbury, I’ve reported from the mainstage. I stood on the stage when Jeremy Corbyn was there. I was on the stage when Patti Smith sang happy birthday to the Dalai Lama! I was like, right there. That was awesome. Yeah. Award ceremonies we did a lot. The Brits I've been to a few times. Yeah, and the Mercury Music Prize. You do red carpet runs, and you get to meet all kinds of people. Like members of Led Zep I’ve interviewed and Blur at The Brits. Yeah, those are the big ones.

Rachael  42:52  

So what scares you?

Elizabeth Alker  43:15  

I think being shown up in front of lots of people. Yes. So failure, all the normal things!

Rachael  43:28  

Yeah! Why be brave?

Elizabeth Alker  43:31  

Because if you're not brave, then you'll never achieve what you thought was impossible. And there's that Morrissey lyric isn't there about shyness and it'll stop me from doing all the things that you want to. And that's that, that kind of spins around my brain quite a lot in these more difficult situations. And it's so true, isn't it? I mean you can’t let fear takeover. It will stop you from doing all the things that you want to do.

Rachael  44:12  

Absolutely. What's sexy about courage?

Elizabeth Alker  44:17  

Um, well, there's an exciting element to being courageous, isn't there and stepping into the unknown. 

Rachael  44:32  

What does courage demand?

Elizabeth Alker  44:37  

A little bit of madness. Gosh, what does it demand? It demands willingness to go on a difficult journey. And faith in the outcome.

Rachael  45:00  

Who’s someone courageous that you admire?

Elizabeth Alker  45:04  

I think you're very courageous actually Rachael. So I really do admire that. People who start something from scratch. I think it's the hardest thing. And there's so much risk involved. There's so much faith in God, you know that this is going to become something that it doesn't look like right now. I think people who can do that. I think they’re very courageous.

Rachael  45:41  

I've run out of options. Yeah, I have to do this. Thank you!

What are the benefits of courage?

Elizabeth Alker  46:00  

You will get to do the things that you want to do

Rachael  47:32  

Courage and confidence. Are they the same thing?

Elizabeth Alker  47:36  

I always think they're different. I think if you've got natural confidence in yourself to do something, then you don't need courage, do you? But I think courage perhaps creates confidence. So they work closely together. Yeah, I think they are different.

Rachael  47:56  

A time that you wish you'd been courageous?

Elizabeth Alker  48:39  

I think sometimes I could be more courageous in maybe relationships, everyone feels like that, don't they? Like, you know, I wish I'd stood up for that person, perhaps in that scenario. It's not a career thing. Or I wish I’d confronted that person who was saying something I didn't agree with or was doing something that I didn't agree with. I could be way more courageous in those scenarios. So that's a place that I'd like to improve.

Rachael  49:21  

Oh, Elizabeth, thank you so much. It's been a brilliant time with you. 

Elizabeth Alker  49:25

My pleasure. Absolutely, my pleasure.

*About the music industry.

When Patti Smith sung happy birthday to the Dalai Lama
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