Meet Aradhna Tayal Leach, Managing Director of The Radio Academy

Apr 12th

Aradhna Tayal Leach started her career in radio as a Broadcast Engineer, but since then her path has given her extensive experience across the media, arts and technology sectors. In a former role at the BBC Academy (the training and development department within the BBC) and through her own consultancy business Clockhouse Media, Aradhna has spent most of her career leading events, initiatives and strategies across the creative industries.

Alongside this work, she is also the co-director of Radio TechCon (the UK audio industry’s technical and engineering conference) and last year, Aradhna became the Managing Director of The Radio Academy, which is the UK’s only audio and radio industry charity. She is bringing her passion for industry development to the role in the hope that our industry can better reflect, represent and influence society.

Francesca Turauskis spoke to Aradhna about her path to the role of Managing Director, bringing in experience from other creative industries and just how many different ways you can have a meaningful career in audio.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

FT: You are the first engineer to lead The Radio Academy. I’m not sure that enough people know what engineers do, and how that looks as a career. Can you give me an insight?

ATL: I started my career at the BBC as a Broadcast Engineer in network radio. I was trained on all aspects of broadcasting, everything from the microphone in the studio, fixing a sound desk, your editing software – or hardware as it often was in those days – all the way through to processing and transmission. So it’s very, very broad.

Then as you go further along in your career you’ll probably specialise in one area: you get Transmission Engineers, you have Studio Engineers.

When your [sound] desk is broken or the microphone isn’t working or you’ve done something when you are editing and you’ve just lost three tracks and you don’t understand why – that’s when you’d call someone like me [a Broadcast Engineer] to come and try and troubleshoot, fault find. Hopefully, ultimately, the number one aim is recovering the programme or getting you back on air.

You also have Sound Engineers or Mastering Engineers who might be more controlling the sound desk, making the sound sound good – music or speech. Engineer is used both for a technical role and a support role, so I think sometimes the terminology can be confusing.

It was really exciting for me when I started my career because I studied engineering at university, but I was very much part of the team that got radio out on air. I felt that if it wasn’t for me fixing problems then we wouldn’t have radio going out to people. So you feel very much part of that.

FT: It really sounds like being somebody that wants to problem solve is a big aspect of it. Are there other skills that you think people can bring into engineering, besides the hard skills?

ATL: Communication’s really, really important. Imagine you’re picking up the phone to someone who has just lost this piece that they spent the last three months recording and then editing. You need to be able to talk to that person to reassure them, to understand why this is so critical – and at the same time you might literally be trying to get Radio One back on air because they’ve fallen off for some reason. So understanding the bigger picture priorities but also the individual’s context and priorities, and communicating appropriately on both.

I think being able to project manage is a really big skill in engineering. For me that was something I was really interested in – I like seeing the whole problem, the thing we need to do, the challenge, working it through, figuring out how we can do it realistically within a certain timeframe. Who do you need to be involved in that? Where might you need to get permissions? Where are your boundaries? For example, you can’t access that studio until midnight – does it mean that I’m going to stay here till midnight or do I need to find a night engineer?

I liked problem solving and then delivering the project side of things – which probably relates more to what I then ended up doing for most of my career, running projects and thinking more strategically about things.

FT: What was your introduction to The Radio Academy?

I found out about The Radio Academy – it must be maybe 10 years ago? At the time, The Radio Academy ran a three day festival every year – which is now a one day festival. It was a much bigger affair [10 years ago] and half a day of it was dedicated to engineering and technology called TechCon (which ultimately has evolved and left The Radio Academy and is now Radio TechCon). The chair of the TechCon committee approached me through the BBC Academy to join, mainly because there were no women on the TechCon committee because [engineering and technology] is such a male dominated world. They wanted to get some different people and perspectives involved.

Fast forward quite a few years, 2018 I was elected to [The Radio Academy] board of trustees. which was really interesting and that’s when I really got involved. The reason that I put myself up for election was because I felt that the Radio Academy, it’s such an important resource to have and I wanted to help shape that and make sure that it was actually supporting all people in the audio industry.

I hadn’t necessarily always felt represented, there weren’t very many people who looked like me. There weren’t very many people with my background. That’s why I wanted to join the board of Trustees. This is our industry charity, so therefore I want to volunteer my time and help to shape that.

Then last year I saw this job [as Managing Director] and I just thought “actually, I can do something really meaningful here”. And it’s a very, very different position being the MD compared to those various experiences I’ve had volunteering my time.

FT: We have people coming in to audio from lots of different places now, and The Radio Academy seems mostly broadcast related – is that accurate?

ATL: The Radio Academy is forty-one years old, so obviously there was only radio then but we are very much for the full audio community.

I really hope that more people, especially those starting out in podcasting, do come and look at all of the resources available through our website and through our events. It is our industry’s charity and it’s a really important way to come and be able to connect with other people and see what opportunities there might be for you.

It’s important to me to bring together our whole audio community, and not keep divides between radio and podcasting. You can have a much more exciting and fulfilling career knowing that you can move around audio – you can produce both radio or podcasts.

FT: Is there something that you are very proud of that you’ve done in the first nine months being in the role?

ATL: In terms of active change – representation, accessibility, feeling safe, included and valued, those are just so ingrained in me and my values and The Radio Academy and what I believe we need as an industry. Certainly I think that’s coming through.

I’m really proud of how much we reach out and are trying to be really transparent and open, including where we’re not necessarily getting things right. I’m only human, I’m learning and I think we’re putting a real human face to The Radio Academy and to the industry.

And hopefully to reach out across the whole country as well and whatever level you are at in the industry and whichever bit of it – to reach out to you and say, “we are here for you, what do you need?”

I put myself forward as well. It makes me vulnerable, but I think it’s important and the position that I am in, I want to be visible. I want people to see me and to see the first woman of colour at the helm of The Radio Academy. I couldn’t have imagined seeing that ten, twenty years ago. I didn’t see it when I was starting out in the industry.

I have a brilliant team, so trying to shine a light on what they’re bringing, as well as trying to highlight our members and different people’s stories and perspectives.

If you say what is the one thing? Just being more present and available and open. Hopefully. It’s a work in progress.

FT: You mentioned reaching out across the country – The Radio Academy has regional branches, and I think there’s also regional events as well?

ATL: Yeah, that’s really, really important to me. I grew up in Manchester and it’s a big city, so I’m lucky. But even still, when it came to getting a job and working in media, you had to up and go to London. That’s all that was available. If we want to be inclusive and open and accessible, it’s about going to where those people who don’t feel included are, and showing through actions.

Talking about what I’m proud of, we run this Foot In The Door event, and this is probably one of the things that has really taken on since I’ve started. We’ve been running training days for quite a while, but it’s really found its groove. It travels to different cities around the country a few times a year and we partner with a university in that town and then all of the industry experts travel to that university.

It’s not just for students, it’s for anyone at that new, early-career or career-change stage to find out a little bit more about careers and audio. There’s practical workshops and discussions from the experts and people that you wouldn’t have access to normally. We were in Glasgow in February and we had 150 people in the room and it was incredible.

We have branch events around the country as well, which are organised by people in the local area and a really nice way of bringing together colleagues. What’s nice about The Radio Academy is that you get outside of your own company. It expands your network locally, as well as plugging you into this national network that we’ve got across The Radio Academy.

FT: Do you think that remote working after COVID has made it easier for people to get experience whilst not necessarily having to leave their home regions?

ATL: It definitely helps, yes, because there’s so many good tools that you can use now to have your own remote studio. Being able to do that and then being able to have interviews with people far and wide, nationally or internationally, makes a big difference.

I actually think having a more diverse range of shows and producers and presenters, people with all different backgrounds and based in all different places, it all adds a different perspective and a little bit of colour to our whole landscape. Whereas if you are all in one place, working out of one square mile, talking to the same people and to each other, you are not going to have as rich a tapestry across the audio landscape and therefore we all suffer as an industry.

The bit that I think is still tough though, which we haven’t quite cracked, is while you can do the work and you can get experience, a lot of our industry is still based in centralised city hubs. So from the “outside”, it’s hard to get the connections, find out where the jobs are, meet the commissioners and the publishers who are going to give you advertising revenue, etc. You’re sort of expected to have already made it before you can meet the budget holders.

I think that’s why having these branch events is helpful with widening your network and getting those contacts, finding collaborators, finding mentors or people who might recommend you for jobs or give you advice that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to if you’re just sitting in your own home somewhere.

FT: It is so difficult and there’s still a need to go to those meetups and be brave enough to speak to the right people.

ATL: Well, I think putting yourself out there and going to meetups – it is hard, but it is essential. And actually believe it or not, it doesn’t get easier. The higher up the chain you get, you’re more likely to know somebody there, but I often go to things and I think, “I don’t know anyone there” and that never stops being a little bit scary, but you learn to be able to do it because you learn the value of doing it.

FT: Beyond doing things like local meetups, is there anything that you would like to see the industry itself do from a top down perspective to help support that career development?

ATL: There are some things that I would like to see. I do think the impetus shouldn’t be all on the creator or the person early in their career. It should also be the other way around. Those senior people should be taking their evening off to go to one of these meetups as well. They will find it really valuable themselves, but also they should be there meeting new talent and you might find the next person that you want to hire. And even if you don’t, you have a lot to give and you have a lot to share.

I also think that there needs to be really open and transparent routes into the industry and up through the industry as well. One of the things that The Radio Academy runs is RAMP, The Radio Academy Mentoring Programme and that’s specifically aimed at people at the mid-level in their careers because I don’t believe that you can just say, “yeah, you can get into the industry. Okay, you’re in now, bye!”. I would like to see more initiatives which have a joined-up follow-up after the programme ends. And I think that’s an industry-wide thing. The Radio Academy and other organisations like us, we’re really well placed in terms of being independent and we must work together. We are not against each other, this goes beyond competitive divides.

Then the third thing I’d say is training. I think there’s a real, real issue in audio with access to proper training. Our industry runs through freelancers. On one level people report that they can’t hire the right talent. On the other hand, you’ve got so many people wanting to get into the industry, loving audio. That’s a beautiful thing. Why would you know exactly which microphone to use or what the legal implications are? We can teach that, and we should be.

You should absolutely go reach out to your local community station or set up your own podcast and learn. But also, we shouldn’t leave people blind to just try and figure it out and then test them at interview. There needs to be more training and resources available outside of those staff jobs. We’re working on that.

FT: You have experience in film and TV as well, and is it the same across a lot of creative industries?

ATL: It really is. And it’s really interesting looking at film and TV in terms of what they’re doing, what we can learn from them. Because it is a brilliant thing that you can be a freelancer, you can have a successful well paid – or paid anyway – career in the industry, but then if that’s how you run [an industry] then you’ve got to support that.

The other things as well as training – are you providing suitable provisions for better mental health, safe working conditions, fair working conditions? It’s an industry wide thing where we all need to come together on these topics and make sure that as an industry we’ve got support structures in place.

FT: There’s so much to go into! Is there anything that you’d really like to add that I haven’t touched on?

ATL: The thing that I really care about is industry development. For some people it’s about making content that really resonates in society, that has an impact with people, that represents people, that offers a voice or a perspective that you might not come across otherwise. What I think I’m good at and where I bring value is that you can’t have impact in society if you are not looking after your own, looking after the industry and looking after the people.

To represent society, you’ve got to be representative and to offer open and inclusive and different perspectives, you’ve got to live that yourselves. That’s what I care about. That’s why I wanted to do the job at The Radio Academy, to work on that. And so all the focus, this term ‘industry development’, is what I do. It’s about developing the industry so that we, as a whole, are lifted, that we’re resilient, sustainable, and effective in order that the content we’re creating for our audiences is the best and most impactful it can be.

FT: I love the fact it’s come back to the audience at the end there as well. It is to serve the audience, it’s to serve the stories.

ATL: That’s why we do it, isn’t it? Otherwise, we just record stories ourselves and why do we publish them? Why do we want to get them out into the world? It’s because we want to have an impact with other people, isn’t it?

The Radio Academy is the UK audio and radio industry charity, which runs national, regional and online events for members, skills and career development opportunities, and further resources such as a weekly podcast, careers advice and learning hub. Individual Radio Academy membership is open for freelancers, sole-traders, podcasters, or any other type of audio lover, and is £36 for the year.

Whether you want to take the next step in your career, master production or stay up to date with podcasting events, the Content is Queen community awaits to support your own development. Explore our membership options here and you can practise your networking skills in October at the International Women’s Podcast Festival in partnership with Spotify.