Mon 06 Jun, 2024

James Phillips: National Prison Radio’s Rock Show legend

Our wonderful colleague James, ARIAS Gold Award-winner, passed away in May. Listen to a very special edition of The Secret Life of Prisons to find out what made him a unique broadcasting talent.

James Phillips was in prison in 2014 when he first heard National Prison Radio’s Rock Show. He decided he was going to become its next host, and managed to get a transfer to the prison where the show was based at the time – HMP Coldingley, in Surrey.

Fast forward 10 years, James had been released from prison, joined the Prison Radio Association’s staff team, and his show had become the most inventive, innovative, riotous music show on any radio station, anywhere.

He won Gold for Best New Presenter at the ARIAS – the Radio Academy Awards, which are the radio industry’s ‘Oscars’.

James was serving an IPP sentence for an offence which, he later explained, he had committed while on medication for post-traumatic stress disorder. James had previously been a victim of not one, but two armed robberies while he was working at wine merchants.

His time in prison took him to HMP Exeter for several months, before he got his transfer to Coldingley. While he was there, he met the Prison Radio Association’s Chris Impey, and James’s incarnation of The Rock Show was born.

He was transferred to HMP Brixton before he was released on licence, and he moved back to his home in the north-west of England.

Then, in 2020, we made contact with James to ask him if he wanted to pick up the reins of The Rock Show once more, to keep rock fans entertained and inspired during the pandemic. It quickly became clear that James had a genuine creative talent – a talent that the Prison Radio Association’s founding Chief Executive, Phil Maguire OBE, compares to that of the broadcasting pioneer Kenny Everett.

In particular, it was his use of technology and sound to create worlds of audio that marked James out.

James’s shows would regularly be located not in a recording studio, but in a variety of invented locations – on an abandoned ship in the middle of the ocean; in the biscuit aisle at a supermarket; in front on an increasingly-fractious studio audience; in a mysterious hospital. He used sound effects and AI-generated voices to create entire stories that made this far more than just a music show.

By creating a ‘theatre of the mind’ with The Rock Show, James was also engaging in a truly revolutionary act. His shows were subversive. They invited his listeners to imagine themselves in an alternative reality, in a different setting. The power of this idea when you’re locked up in a tiny prison cell is clear.

As well as his technical innovation, James’s engagement with the music was also unique. He would find meaning in each and every track he played – meaning that had a particular significance when listening in prison. He encouraged listeners to be kinder to themselves, because people who are kind to themselves are kinder to each other. He encouraged listeners to ‘do the work’ while serving their sentences. He advocated positive change, using music as his inspiration.

He was also at the helm of The Rock Show Family – the collective of the most loyal listeners to The Rock Show, whose requests James would read out on-air on a regular basis, and who contributed ideas, thoughts, and moral support for the listeners.

As well as winning the Best New Presenter award at the ARIAS, James’s Rock Show also won gongs for Best Music Entertainment Show and Best Specialist Music Show in 2022 and 2023. And just a few weeks before he died, James won silver in the 2024 ARIAS for Best Music Entertainment Show. He was also shortlisted in the Creative Innovation category.

Last year James received a diagnosis of terminal cancer.

In true Rock Show spirit, James took his listeners, the Rock Show Family, on the journey with him. That journey came to an end in May 2024.

To remember James, and to introduce the uninitiated to the joys of National Prison Radio’s Rock Show, and the magic that James would create using nothing but sound and the spirit of rock music, The Secret Life of Prisons presenters Phil and Paula have been joined by Ollie Brookes (the current producer of the Rock Show) and Scout Tzofiya Bolton (a paid-up member of the Rock Show Family while she was in prison) to talk about James’s work, on this very special edition of the podcast.

James Phillips is an irreplaceable part of National Prison Radio, he’s an irreplaceable colleague, and he’s an irreplaceable part of the world of broadcasting.

The Secret Life of Prisons podcast is released every Monday. Subscribe and share wherever you get your podcasts.

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