Ben Eshmade has been a vital interface between the listening public and brilliant, sometimes unjustly obscure music for over a decade, combining, courtesy of his Arctic Circle organisation, a widely acknowledged facility for live music promotion and innovatively staged audio-visual events with a bulging portfolio of high-profile radio production, broadcast DJing and label curating projects, along with an ever-burgeoning, critically acclaimed career in arts podcasting.
Perhaps best known for championing artists on the cusp between contemporary classical music and miscellaneous avant-pop styles, Ben’s broadcast/podcast remit is actually panoramic, embracing all manner of genres. His interview ‘victims’ include everyone form Slipknot’s Corey Taylor to folk doyenne June Tabor; Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore to minimalist grandee Philip Glass; West Coast arranging legend Van Dyke Parks to Brixton dance Herberts Basement Jaxx…
Ben’s facility for all things radio began in 1999 with a volunteering job at his local station, Essex FM, in Southend. Graduating from tea-making and editing caller requests to late-night shifts manning the station, in 2000, Ben landed a job in the ‘Traffic Department’, which had nothing to do with cars but meant loading and scheduling adverts for seven locals radio stations (“I basically started carpet sale countdowns”, Ben recalls).
In late 2000, Ben started working a Friday night-shift for the leading nationally broadcast commercial radio station, Classic FM, and by September 2002 he was working there full-time – producing shows for the likes of household names such as Mark Goodier and Simon Bates as well as crafting a series of eclectic, one-off documentaries of his own devising. He also helped research and produce BBC Radio 2 programmes, notably The People’s Classical Chart presented by comedian Bill Bailey, and his radio production prowess would soon be put to the service of broadcast icons such Stephen Fry, Sir Patrick Moore and Rolf Harris.
In 2002, Ben began compiling his own unique show: The Chiller Cabinet. Offering a smorgasbord of classical minimalism, ambient and film music (or, as the original publicity had it: “The grey area where musical genres meet each other for a cup of tea…”), the twice-weekly broadcast was an immediate hit, lending Classic FM some gently hip kudos and cult status for DJ Ben (typically, Virgin Records would invite Ben’s endorsement in the promotion of Brian Eno’s 2004 Original Masters ambient reissue series). Many then obscure musicians being championed by The Chiller Cabinet back in the early 2000s – artists like Max Richter and Jóhann Jóhannsson – nowadays fill concert halls.
The Chiller Cabinet would later relocate to digital station Chill, and Ben would ultimately transfer his well-honed airwave skills to Arctic Circle Radio, broadcast on Resonance FM, and ‘The Hut’, a weekly one-hour show featuring guests and live sessions from AC’s extended family, delivered on Chill and podcast via iTunes – a strand praised by The Guardian for being both “cool and welcoming… a rather addictive hour of new music”.
The stylistic remit of Ben’s radio shows remains broad, while his session guests include such artistic luminaries as Nina Ninstasia, Ólöf Arnalds, Portico Quartet, The High Llamas and Robyn Hitchcock.
Ben’s production skills would continue to be much in demand as the decade wore on. He would be instrumental in the 2008 re-launch of London station Smooth’s breakfast show with Graham Dene, and soon after worked with pundit Tony Cowell (brother of Simon) on Real Radio. Meanwhile, travellers on Singapore Airlines may well be aware of the typically diverse in-flight show Ben regularly compiles for the long-haul carrier.
When not making DJs sound good or disseminating the finest in eclectic musical and general cultural esoterica across the airwaves himself, Ben has regularly turned his hand to other radio projects, most notably producing the Cbeebies/BBC Radio 7 educational programmes Sugar Plum Story Time and Sugar Plum Fairy Time, which engagingly introduced infants to the world of classical music and nursery rhymes, respectively. The series landed a prestigious New York Festivals Silver Radio Award for Ben and the production team in 2010.
Latterly, Ben’s presentational and curatorial talents have taken him deep into the realm of podcasting. Currently employed by prestigious London arts centres The Barbican, Southbank Centre and King’s Place to produce podcasts which reflect the high-calibre programming of the respective venues, Ben has already scored some incredible coups, including a wonderful ‘in-taxi’ tête-à-tête with Philip Glass which has so far attracted more than 30,000 hits for The Barbican, while podcasts about everything from Afro-futurist jazz legend Sun Ra to minimalist eminence grise Steve Reich, and even a programme about the live staging of Oliver Knussen’s Where The Wild Things Are, have won audiences in the several thousands. Ben’s repertoire of interviewees continues to expand and he can currently lay claim to having interrogated everyone from comedy writer Charlie Higson to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger by way of the Kronos Quartet, Nitin Sawhney, Squeeze’s Chris Difford, author Iain Sinclair, Kid Creole, Josh T. Pearson, Peggy Seeger, Mouse on Mars, Ron Sexsmith, the Swingle Singers… the litany goes on. His non-musical podcasts, meanwhile, occasionally touch on challenging subjects, like Deathcast, assembled for the Southbank Centre, which examined various issues surrounding mortality and featured the musings of newsreader Jon Snow, comedienne Sandi Toksvig and a real life undertaker, among others.
Critical acclaim has duly followed, with Ben’s classical music Barbican podcasts being lauded by the likes of The Daily Telegraph (“The classical edition… has excelled itself recently with a handful of offbeat exclusives, including a rare interview with Philip Glass in celebration of his 75th birthday, and a sparkling round-table discussion of Gerard Barry’s adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest), and Metro (“Pick of the Podcasts”).
In no danger of resting on his laurels, Ben continues to expand his portfolio of activities. He can be read (and not just heard) writing article and programme notes for a range of the concerts at the Barbican, exploring in words the music of everything from Benjamin Britten to soundtracks of David Lynch. He has also recently launched an exciting new musical project of his own.
Listen to this space…
David Sheppard, March 2014