Tim Cocker: From psychology teacher to Virgin Radio DJ
Tim Cocker is one of the most accomplished and original music radio broadcasters in the UK – but boy did he put in the hard graft to get where he is today at Virgin Radio.
Music is such a massive thing to practically everyone. That’s what really connected with me. I hadn’t realised how much I loved music until I started working in radio. I remember being in my bedroom and listening to Radiohead’s The Bends and Definitely Maybe by Oasis, and thinking, “Wow – this has totally opened a door to a whole new world! I didn’t realise music could be like this.” I recalled something my mum said about listening to David Bowie when she was a teenager. She said, “This music is for me, not for my parents.” And I thought the same thing about Definitely Maybe. I was a proper Manchester head. If it weren’t for the Manchester music scene and those records, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today.
I got into radio because of a late-night conversation in a pub. At the time, I was a psychology teacher and rugby coach, while Kate, my wife, was a radio producer. One very late night while hanging out with Kate and her workmates, one of them said, “Why not just give it a go, Tim?” and offered me the chance of working on a small digital station, which played music that was right up my street. I got the bug instantly! I thought, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my career.”
So, I was teaching during the week and presenting a radio show at weekends – it was weird when my pupils heard it. It was a fine line keeping my integrity as a teacher, while being on the radio at weekends! But it gave me the chance to get a demo together to get my first full time radio job.
Teaching and radio aren’t so different. You need to understand who your audience is, what they like, and how to communicate with them. You have information you want to get across, and you do it in a particular way to engage.
Before joining Virgin Radio, for many years, I was the presenter of the XFM Manchester Breakfast Show. But when I heard that Virgin Radio was relaunching, I knew I had to be part of it. Its brand, its history and its link to Virgin Records, what it means to music, all the names associated with it, and all of that heritage!
However, Virgin Radio was in London and I was in Manchester along with my family. That meant making whatever sacrifice was necessary. So, I used to commute on a Monday morning and go back home on Thursday night. I stayed on mates’ floors during the week, which was just about OK. It was tough, but necessary!
I did that for a year. It caused some strain here and there, particularly as, at the same time, I got a breakthrough at BT Sport, presenting the rugby, so quite often my weekends would get very busy. I’d be away in the week and then come home to present rugby at the weekend.
My family and I would get up and have breakfast together on tablets! I’d be sat at the table as a face on a tablet on the kitchen table, like a remote dad, while the kids and my wife Kate would chat to me. When the kids were younger, I used to sneak into the studio at Virgin and record myself reading a bedtime story and send the file to Kate, who’d play it to our kids. They really loved those videos.
The thing I enjoy most about my work is not just being able to share amazing songs, but to be able to infuse and share my passion for music. I have a great team who put a lot of hours into making sure we play the right music, but they are always open to suggestions. If I go to a gig by somebody I think is promising, I‘ll put it under the nose of my bosses.
I saw Tom Walker playing front of just 20 people in 2016 and afterwards, I went to my head of music to ask if I could get Tom on my show. Tom was one of the first people to play live for us. Sam Fender was another one. Giving new artists a platform – that is the balance. I really like that we support future stars as well as playing decades worth of the classics. We’ve got over 50 years of amazing music, from which I can cherry-pick the absolute gems. It’s kid-in-a-sweet-shop stuff!
My team is the tightest team I have ever worked for. It’s a team that really cares about each other and there’s a real feeling that when you walk in the studio, they’ve got your back. Everyone has really bonded but we’re all unique with different backgrounds and interests, but we all hold similar core values, like a close-knit family.
When it comes to creating material for my show, I rinse the little note app on my phone! It’s the everyday stuff I like, things that are normal and throwaway, that might not actually mean a lot, but that’s the stuff I want – that’s the stuff that’s totally universal and fun. Radio is so immediate – you can have an idea or thought and seconds later it’s out there! That is what’s incredible. My show is live, and when I hit a flow it’s a brilliant feeling. When it comes naturally it flows, when you really believe what you’re saying. It feels like I’m making a difference.
Listen to Tim on Virgin Radio UK weekday afternoons 1-4pm. Visit Virgin Radio to find out more.