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Radio 1 DJ Arielle Free on Dundee Big Weekend exhibition and connection with listeners

© Alan RichardsonArielle Free at the Dundee V&A.
Arielle Free at the Dundee V&A.

With some of the biggest names in music, glorious sunshine and a buzz around the city, Dundee’s hosting of Radio 1’s Big Weekend back in May was an unforgettable experience for all those involved.

None more so than for Scots presenter Arielle Free, who became something of a national ambassador when the festival rolled north of the border.

The DJ, from Stirling, has been back in the city this week helping to collect items for a new exhibition at the V&A museum showcasing highlights from a weekend that saw more than 81,000 music fans flock to Camperdown Park to take in sets from the likes of Lewis Capaldi and the Jonas Brothers.

Contributors include community groups and partners based in the city, the performers, and Radio 1 listeners who donated their cherished festival memorabilia, photos and items.

A beautiful, Big Weekend

“It was such a beautiful weekend,” Arielle said. “Maybe I’m biased because it was in Scotland but the weather was perfect, the people were just fantastic and everyone was so happy from beginning to end.

“Even the park having a hill where everyone could see the main stage – as someone who’s five foot three I appreciate those things!

“The weather led to a lot of interesting suntan marks, I saw a lot of red shoulders and there was a constant smell of sun tan lotion in the air but it was lovely.

“When we do these festivals, we go and everyone has such a great time and then we move on to the next one, the next town. It’s so nice that we’re going to have this moment where we can really celebrate what happened.

“We’ve got so much involvement from people who were there and the listeners. I’ll probably lose my voice blethering away to everyone.”

Arielle Free and Greg James introduce Lewis Capaldi at the festival. © SYSTEM
Arielle Free and Greg James introduce Lewis Capaldi at the festival. Image: Kim Cessford / DC Thomson

Items gathered include T-shirts worn by revellers, a football shirt from Livingston FC where a key was hidden on the countdown to opening, and an old ticket from the last Big Weekend in Dundee in 2006 found in the pocket of a vintage jacket.

The audio guide for the exhibition is narrated by Arielle and breakfast show host Greg James, and will also be available on BBC Sounds.

“It feels like a full circle moment because one of my first forays into broadcasting was voicing the elves in the Christmas Grotto at Stirling Thistle Marches,” Arielle, 36, laughs. “I was about seven then. Voicing an exhibition is very highbrow compared to that, but also I feel like this is maybe my calling in life…”

Showcasing Scotland on the air

The Dundee event was Arielle’s first proper Big Weekend experience, having usually been left behind in the London studio to cover in her five years so far at Radio 1.

She was put to work in the run-up to it, running a treasure hunt for people to win the final tickets and hiding out in locations all across Scotland.

From the pitch at the Tony Macaroni Arena to King Tut’s in Glasgow, she showcased all corners of the country to millions tuned in across the UK and beyond.

“I remember speaking to one of the bosses and they said it was so lovely to listen to because there was a genuine passion there in Scotland.

“They felt like they got the best insight into the people, the places, the culture and why our banter’s so good! I definitely was going in on the Scottish pride.”

Donning tartan from one of her favourite designers, Hayley Scanlan, on stage, there was a distinctly Scottish stamp on the festival despite people coming from all over and the global superstars in attendance.

Arielle Free.
Arielle Free.

“The line-up was so perfect,” Arielle said. “Lewis Capaldi rounded it off with a massive homecoming gig and we had his best mate, Niall Horan, on before him.

“We expanded the dance event on the Friday from the tent to the second main stage and doubled the numbers.

“There was so much homegrown talent on that stage like Hannah Laing, who is from Dundee, and we had Denis Sulta and the LF System boys off the back of the most amazing year.

“It was nice to celebrate all these artists from the homeland who are smashing it globally.

“It was also amazing having people like the Jonas Brothers here, seeing them all being photographed going round Gleneagles and enjoying the fruits of Scotland!”

At the heart of the festival, though, were the people of all ages that came to Dundee for a weekend of fun with friends, family and fellow fans.

The Radio 1 family

A sense of community is the ethos that the station aims for, still drawing in millions of listeners every day even in the age of streaming.

The presenters, Arielle says, see a great responsibility in considering those tuned in at home as part of one big family.

“Nothing rung home stronger how much of a public service radio is than the pandemic,” she said.

“I always knew that people tuned in and got involved, but during that time people were scared, they needed information, and a lot of people were isolating on their own.

“I was doing weekend early breakfast and our audience changed from people who were still out from the night before, had come out of the club and wanted to hear some bangers, to people delivering essentials and lots of people just wanting companionship.

“It really feels like we’ve stuck with that. My show goes out from 4 to 7am, and there’s a lot of people who are at the end of a night shift or starting work really early, driving on their own, young farmers, people on their way to the airport for holidays…

“There’s something really magical about early breakfast and how interactive it is. I’ve done a lot of other shows across the network and I’m so lucky to see how interactive they are across the board.

“You wouldn’t expect people to text in at five in the morning, you think they’d be like ‘shush and stop being so hyper!’ but it’s the opposite, they really appreciate the company.”

INTERVIEW: Radio 1 presenter and Love Island gossip queen Arielle Free on her long, hot and super-busy summer

It’s also a surprisingly worldwide network. Arielle is just back from a tour DJing in Australia, where on several occasions she bumped into people saying they listened every day.

“I was sat having breakfast in the middle of Melbourne and this girl said she was Emma, the one who texts in when she’s going for her run,” Arielle recalls. “It does feel like a huge global community, but it feels like family.

“When I got back for the show I was dying to hear everyone’s gossip and see what I’d missed. I genuinely feel like the people on my show are my mates.”

A dream job

It’s been a big year for Arielle on the station. In March, she raised over £500,000 for Comic Relief in her Tour De Dance challenge, which saw her brave freezing temperatures to pedal 100 miles alongside listeners on a 10-person bike, all while DJing.

“Now Vernon Kay comes and trumps me with £6 million!” she laughs, after her BBC radio colleague’s UltraMarathon efforts last month.

“It was when things were getting really expensive for everyone and the cost of living was rising really high. I didn’t expect anywhere near that.

“I look back now and at the time I felt a bit in shock. You do get a bit overwhelmed by the lovely messages and the pain and not wanting to disappoint people. We got there despite the weather and it’s definitely something I don’t think I’ll ever forget. In a good way and a bad way!”

A lifelong music lover, and a talented dancer in her youth, Arielle joined Radio 1 in 2019 and now presents weekday early breakfast.

She’s also the voice of the Radio 1 Dance stream on BBC Sounds and regularly DJs at club nights across the country and beyond.

And no matter how tired the early mornings and late nights make her, she still never takes her dream job for granted.

“I’ve always loved music and it’s why I got into the radio from such a young age. It was my companion when I was revising at high school and was always on in the car when I was going to dance classes.

“I was really lucky to get a place at Scottish Ballet’s Junior Associates. I lived in Stirling at the time and my granny, my auntie or my mum would drive me through to Glasgow every Saturday.

“I’ve always been obsessed with music and wanting to unearth the next big thing. I was terrible at trying to play music, so I thought I could talk about it, because I do that every day.

“It took a long time, hammering the Radio 1 door, but I’m glad of the journey because it means I’m even more grateful for every day that I have on the station. No matter how tired I am, the minute that fader goes up, I just absolutely love every second of it.”

A Scottish voice

As the only current full-time presenter on the Radio 1 line-up from north of the border, Arielle is proud to bring a Scottish voice to the station.

Broadcasting from around Scotland this week, she takes any opportunity to take the show on the road and promote Scots artists.

“I think there was an eight-year gap between Edith Bowman leaving and me joining,” she said.

“I really wanted to be that voice for the girl that was me in Glasgow, listening in the car even though my mum was demanding Wham and Lisa Stansfield!”

She’s relished being in her homeland, visiting family and friends and working on the exhibition.

“I won’t be home again until Christmas, so it’s great to have an excuse to be up here.

“I do stuff on BBC Scotland and the minute I get that phone call I’m there. I would move back in a heartbeat if I could.

“The more I’m home, the more homesick I get. Before the pandemic I was working so much in Scotland and every time I was getting these horrible pangs.

“People were laughing when I said on the radio that I’m going to have my hen do in Scotland because so many of my friends have never had a night out here.

“It’s the best in the world. If we don’t end up in the Blue Lagoon chippy at the end of the night then I’ll be really disappointed!”

Radio 1’s Big Weekend Experience runs at the V&A Dundee until January 7.