In one of the leading DJs on the island playing foreign tunes, THEO PANAYIDES finds a man interested in what is ‘hot, fresh and trendy’ but also with a love of structure and a sound business mind
I live alone, but it sometimes feels like I live with Alex James. His is the first voice I hear every morning, in between the perky pop tunes aimed at a “30-plus age group” on NJOY Radio, where he does the breakfast show (99.5FM in Nicosia; they plan to go national by the end of the summer). He tells me, indirectly, if I’m running late, since he always does the same daily features at exactly the same time. We even have occasional arguments (yes, I talk back to the radio) when he inadvertently annoys me, mostly by being too politically correct about this or that social issue.
A radio DJ’s relationship with his listeners is curiously intimate. He’s the cool friend who turns you on to new music, the know-it-all with a head full of quirky factoids, the voice whose familiar cadences lend structure to your day – but of course he (or she) is just a voice, the relationship close but forever unconsummated. That’s why it’s weird to be sitting across from Alex at Starbucks in Engomi, down the road from the University of Nicosia, cradling my tape recorder and trying to decide if he looks the way I’d imagined from our rather one-sided previous encounters. He’s 47, with spiky, greying hair and sideburns, a fleshy but mostly unlined face, and compelling green eyes which might seem intense if his demeanour were intense (but in fact give off more of a dreamy, faraway look). He vapes as we talk, which is how he managed to quit smoking, at the second attempt, after many years. “I partied hard till I was about 37-38,” he admits – and gives off a settled, age-ripened energy, like a horse slowing down from a gallop to a companionable trot.
All around us are students, taking advantage of the Saturday morning; Nicosia is home to some 40,000 students, he tells me. His previous station, U Radio – located just a click above NJOY, at 99.6FM – was associated with the university (hence the ‘U’ in its name), but closed down two years ago. He was managing director – as well as a presenter – at U Radio, and is now head of music and programming at NJOY; before that he spent six years (1998-2004) as general manager of Kiss FM, at the time (and probably still) our leading non-Greek-music radio station, and was also in charge at the now-defunct Energy FM. “I’ve been doing radio since 1992,” he says, and is easily among the two or three most successful foreign-music DJs on the island – but would any of these 40,000 students even know him? Or do they only listen to YouTube selections and self-curated Spotify playlists? Isn’t it true, in other words, that radio is no longer relevant to the younger generation?
“Well, you see I tend to disagree,” replies Alex affably. “I tend to disagree. If you told me TV is not as influential as it was, I’d agree with you. But not regarding radio.” That said, his logic is debatable. Radio, he claims, tells you “the story behind” a song – it’s one thing to click on the new Drake single, but a DJ will also supply background info without you having to research. Is that really so important, though? (And wouldn’t a Drake fan do their own research anyway?) Then there’s the gatekeeper argument: “A radio producer will go through the 50 tracks on New Music Friday [on Spotify] and select maybe seven or eight that are good for radio, and play them – whilst you have to go through all 50”. Sure – but youngsters (and even oldsters) don’t need radio for that anymore. Everyone’s a gatekeeper now; everyone makes playlists, from celebs to your actual real-life friends whom you probably trust a lot more than some radio producer.
Then again, radio isn’t just about music. Unlike TV, where “you’re just being fed something, shoved down your throat”, radio gives the listener a chance to think. Alex’s show is quite political – not obsessively so, but almost every day he’ll drop some acerbic remark while going through the news headlines. Is that consciously part of his routine? “That’s part of myself as a person. I’m fairly strong-minded regarding politics, equality, racism, the environment, animal welfare…”
Was he always like that?
“No, I think I’ve matured into this, over the last 10 years. In my earlier career in radio, I was more about what was hot, what was interesting, what was trendy. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve realised that – uh, you know, the new trainers so-and-so’s brought out, or where they were partying last night…” He waves his hand, as at youthful indiscretions: “There are more important aspects in life.”
Was he very shallow as, say, an 18-year-old?
“I wouldn’t say ‘shallow’,” he replies, puffing thoughtfully on his e-cig. “I just think when you’re younger, your priorities are different, and you’re impressed by different things. You don’t really want to be into politics. Your politics then is just resistance to your parents and all the other old people around them, and the System.
“And then, when you get in your 20s, and kind of get in the System – earning money, paying your own expenses, paying taxes – you start buying into the dream that you’ve been sold for the last 25 years. And then at some point you wake up, and you say ‘Hey! Something smells fishy!’. So I wouldn’t say ‘shallow’. I would say I was a typical 18-year-old.”
And now you’re a typical 47-year-old?
He chuckles: “Could be, yeah”.
Alex has indeed ‘woken up’ nowadays. His show – which is in Greek, though our interview is in English; he’s completely bilingual – is studded with digs at everything from the Archbishop’s latest provocation to too-lenient penalties for drink-drivers to uncontrolled development in the Akamas. His Facebook page (under his full name, ‘Alex James Kyriakides’) is filled with photos of rescue cats and dogs looking for homes. “We treat them very badly,” he tells me, speaking of our four-legged friends. “I mean, the state is absent, as in most things that matter in Cyprus. They rely heavily on volunteers, to clean up their shit after them – and please print the word, because that’s literally what the state leaves behind! You have ridiculous laws like hunters being allowed four dogs each, and not having to have them chipped – so they just bring in four dogs for the season: ‘These two are good. These two are not, I’ll just dump them’.” He shakes his head disapprovingly, the familiar voice having shifted from soothing radio mode to an angrier timbre.
This is Alex James now; but the younger self appears to have been quite different – and may well have driven his folks to distraction, his Cypriot dad and English mum (both accountants, the safest of jobs) forced to deal with a prodigal only son. Alex went to study Accounting and Financial Analysis in the UK – “but radio won me over,” as he puts it, and he dropped out halfway. In a way, it was fated to happen. “My first appearance in radio was in 1979, when I was seven. We were rounded up by CyBC, basically children whose parents were half-and-half”. The theme was ‘Easter customs in other countries’, “so I represented England and I did a song about ‘Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns!’… Somewhere I’ve still got the cassette of my debut”.
His mum always had the radio on, BFBS in those days; as he grew older and started going clubbing, he envied the power wielded by the resident DJ. (Alex later co-owned a club himself, the venerable Versus from 2006 to 2009, but didn’t do any actual DJing.) He doesn’t really pinpoint what the attraction was, but it probably wasn’t creative per se; he’s never made his own music, and his singing voice is notoriously painful. I suspect it had more to do with being cool – being the centre of attention, but also being cutting-edge, at the vanguard of all the new trends. Even now, he has little time for nostalgia: “It’s 2019, and there’s people who still listen to the 70s and 80s!” he marvels, speaking of stations which play only old songs. (You’d think a DJ would be more of a music geek.) His parents may have heaved a sigh of relief when Alex got a ‘good job’ at CyBC, a civil servant with a steady four shows a week, within a year of coming back to Cyprus – yet he threw it all away when he heard Kiss FM was opening, drawn to being part of “something hot and fresh and trendy”.
Alex James doesn’t have much time for tradition and history; it’s not that he doesn’t respect them (or maybe he doesn’t) – but he seems more drawn to the new, whether it’s music, technology (he gently declines my business card, taking a photo with his phone instead) or the social-justice dream of a new society. Then again, he’s not exactly avant-garde. His tastes are fairly middle-of-the-road; he listens to two hours of music each day, sifting through the new stuff – but the best song he’s heard in the past week (and ‘song of the week’ on NJOY) is the new Elton John, the very definition of a crowd-pleaser, nor does he relish “really depressing stuff like The Smiths”. I mention how much I like radio stations that play all kinds of music, everything from rock to pop to hip-hop, but he doesn’t agree: a clear corporate identity – targeting a specific demographic, like NJOY with the over-30s – makes a much better business model.
Here’s the thing: Alex may have partied hard for two decades, may have ruled the decks at society shindigs like the big millennium bash at the Hilton in 1999, may have organised events like DJ Tiesto’s legendary Nicosia gig in 2005 – but, for this son of accountants, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. He’s always had a business side, whether managing a radio station or owning a club. More importantly, he’s always been big on structure.
I listen to him pretty regularly, as already mentioned – and what’s most striking is how closely he sticks to a formula. Even the wording is exactly the same each day (e.g. describing the local news as news from “the centre of the world, Cyprus”, an ironic jab at local parochialism). “There’s a structure that I like to follow,” he explains. “If you get in your car every day at 7.20 and you know that Alex is going to talk about the news headlines, and you listen to that, that’s what you want every day at 7.20… Because humans like structure, at the end of the day”.
The most intriguing – and perhaps significant – detail is his love of cooking. Food is his other passion, alongside music, and he even toyed with the idea of going to chef school and opening his own restaurant (this was in his late 30s, when he sold his stake in Versus and became less of a party animal) – yet his biggest talent, he says, isn’t for blending ingredients in new and exciting ways but for “following recipes to the letter, and actually getting the food to look like it does in the pictures”. He may not be the world’s most creative chef – but every year he makes Christmas dinner for 30 people, and every year it’s a hit. Structured, meticulous, methodical; maybe you should’ve been an accountant after all, I say half-jokingly, and Alex does a comedy shudder. “Don’t let my dad hear you say that!”
I assume he’d have made a fine accountant – but he probably couldn’t have stuck it out till the age of 47 (he needs the excitement of the new), and it probably wouldn’t have bestowed such an aura of middle-aged contentment. Alex James’ life does indeed seem quite pleasant. He’s been with his partner – a woman he knew when they were both teenagers, then reconnected with later in life – for the past seven years, a stepdad to her kids (now 17 and 12) and a kind of human dad to a passel of cats and rescue dogs. He’s quit smoking, and toned down his rock’n roll lifestyle. He makes money, if not quite accountant-level money. He’s able to speak his mind, whether on radio or social media, and hopefully make people think. Above all, he says with a grin, “if you think about it, I get paid to play music and listen to music all day!… Yeah, I think I’ve got a pretty sweet deal”. He shakes my hand, then goes back to being a disembodied voice on my morning radio.