opinion

'A radio boss told me to be 'less camp' on air - it was the most isolating period of my adult life'

Comedian and radio host James Barr on the struggles he faced early on in his career as a broadcaster - and why he's no longer bowing to heteronormative pressure.

2022-07-05

Words: James Barr; Image: Supplied

When my mum and dad divorced, my mum sat around the house listening to the radio, wearing sunglasses like a depressed Cher. The one thing that got her through those times was listening to the people chatting on the radio, keeping her company. And her many, many boyfriends. Like mother, like son.

That’s why I wanted to be on the radio. I wanted to make people like Mum happy. Make them smile. Make them laugh and, most importantly, make them [*radio voice*] “Win a family dinner for four at The Toby Carvery Hastings!” So, when I finally got a job on my mum’s favourite station, it was the best day of my life — until a producer told me to be “less camp”.

OMGaGa! Moi? Camp? It became the loneliest, most isolating period of my adult life. To me, be “less camp” meant be “less gay”. Being on the radio had always felt like a safe space for me: I could be accepted by straight people without ever having to actually see them. (It feels ridiculous to write that down — honestly, why do I give a fuck what a straight person thinks of me?!) Anyway, I was young at the time and it was early in my radio career. I was young, insecure and, thanks to an overwhelming sense of shame about my sexuality, I genuinely took that producer’s comments on board.

I was told I had to stop using words like ‘amazing’ or ‘fierce’ and use the language our bosses were happy with, like ‘sick’ and ‘bruv’.

Eventually, I quit. After they fired me. I felt worthless, like I shouldn’t exist. It took me more than five years to find my voice again. I work at Hits Radio now. I wake up the UK alongside Fleur East every morning and, thank fuck, I get to bring my authentic self to work. We’re a commercial radio station with an openly gay breakfast host. No one else can say that. I won’t name the station that told me to be less camp, but now I’m finally taking back my power.

My new stand-up show Straight Jokes premieres at the Edinburgh Fringe this August and this one is really, really camp. It’s a revolt at the world for shaming us for our differences — and if you’re wondering about the name, it’s because I’m sick of straight comedians telling jokes about queer people. They are not your jokes to make, Dave Chappelle — they’re mine, f*ggot! You should never need to punch down: it’s lazy. If your perception of comedy genius is to attack a vulnerable minority, you really shouldn’t have a platform. And if your idea of broadcasting is to diminish who a person is, you shouldn’t run a radio station.

Everyone says you should never burn a bridge, but if you don’t, other people will walk across it. This can never happen to anyone ever again. I’m lighting the flame, bitch.

Straight Jokes is previewing in London and Manchester this month, before showing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Get tickets here.