Ross Yusof, balls and pushing buttons.
Meeting Ross Yusof – properly, as opposed to bumping into him, eight years ago, in the back corridor of the Capital FM studio, me waiting out the jam after my shift, he about to begin recording his football show with Fly Guy and Jeevan – was livelier than I’d dared hope. It felt more like a fun two hours with a fellow chatterbox. I didn’t know I was about to be out-chatterbox’ed.
I’d heard he was a nice guy. Four different people told me so, when I asked what he was like. I’ll admit I had a bit of a small crush on his on-air persona – well before I even had my first flirtation with radio – so in all the intervening years between then (the last stretch of the 90s) and now (more than 15 years later), I was silently hoping that I wouldn’t lose my cool or let my inner groupie ruin my pretend-cool, while also hoping he would really be the nice guy and not an obnoxious B-List celebrity-type person.
While some may choke or balk at being thought of as Mr Nice Guy, Ross is the real thing, but he also seems – to my eyes – to be unaffected by labels, either the kind bestowed on him without his knowledge, by acquaintances, colleagues or others, or by labels others self-anoint themselves with.
I suspect he won’t mind if you think he’s not Mr Nice Guy. There are, as he says, long after I’ve switched off the recorder, “better things to worry about.”
Though he said that in the context of us having traded stories about personal family dramas, it seems to encapsulate his general outlook. Perspective, borne of having seen – and still witness to — a ton of crap in this world.
So I wanted to write about him the way I see him through my eyes, having met and sat with so many personalities (some devoid of personality, some frothing with the bizarre kind) but then I remembered his mother might read this, or even his 11-year-old son, so I thought discretion would serve us both well.
He is the most unusual combination of boy-next-door laid-back while seemingly invisibly zapped by some contagious, buzzing energy that pops out of nowhere.
The deep grooves around his eyes are testament to the dozen twists of his smiles which seem to bubble up to the surface every few seconds, despite a personal history punctuated by black moments.
He’ll mention, in a very matter-of-fact way, that this [big personal thing] happened then or that [dark stretch] happened then and you’ll catch yourself holding your breath to see what his face says next, but before you can blink, he’s on to the next thing his brain tells his mouth to say and there is that eye-scrunching grin again.
Talking of unusual combinations, Ross is the radio presenter who has clocked up over 12 years in radio but does not need it for ear candy.
“I don’t listen to the radio,”
he says deep into our meet, with a tinge of surprise that I find this surprising. He listens to his “800 mp3s that I play on rotation,” he laughs.
The 49-year-old knows music (he knows how to play the guitar, but instead of elaborating if he’s concert-worthy, talks about how his brother is in a band and is quite good) and he is filled to bursting with anecdotes. It’s been a very colourful life thus far, this radio DJ who was told by his then-girlfriend that he should go into radio because he talked so much.
And that seen-it-done-it-don’t-care-what-you-think-of-me openness. It’s like a superpower. Though one of his social media accounts has the words ‘cynical sod’ in his self-penned profile blurb. I don’t see it, the cynicism. Though I didn’t know it then, I would be proven wrong soon.
At the most random intersections of our chat, he will regale me with another eye-popping incident of his “wild child” period. I didn’t make that ‘wild’ part up. He said so himself. With unapologetic cheerfulness, I should add. I steal one of his sodden fries and settle in.
Let’s just say from the time of his first job in Blighty (and there were many jobs) there were lots of attractive people, a flat in Chelsea, the occasional Porsche and big, beefy guys. But at least he knows the streets of London like the back of his hand. Always a good life skill, being able to manage so many disparate characters who can either land you in a dumpster or slap you with a paternity suit. Either one is quite likely with the young Ross, I think, listening to him trot out experience after experience in characteristic buoyant recollection with flailing arms and a hundred expressions.
It’s been five years that he’s been on BFM. When this pops up like all the other tangential conversation nuggets, he, like an excited 18-year-old, energetically launches into telling me all about how “we’re going to have a party – it’s our sixth year!” Is it to commemorate the sixth year of the show? (They’ve never had any party to commemorate anything.)
“Well, maybe, and also because it’s a chance to party,” he says, fast as lightning, before that explosion of laughter that drops like hailstones throughout.
It’s for the loyal listeners. His weekly show gets five-figure downloads a month, he says. He pastes the podcast of his live show (“I tweet it, I Instagram it, it’s on the Facebook page and on the BFM website,” he iterates, confirming his ease of immersion into a digital world far removed from scratchy vinyl records) literally an hour after he’s done talking for 46 minutes live on air with his motley crew of football commentators every Friday evening.
Not bad, all that digital in-your-face scrambling for eyes and ears. For a one-man show. “I have to,” he says. “I write it, I produce it, I make all the kick-off sounds — everything,” he emphasises, “but it helps.”
Each show podcast is downloaded, on average, close to 10,000 times. That’s a lot of football fans who want to hear him talk. Or it could be a lot of Ross fans.
Which wouldn’t be surprising as, by his admission, “I’ve done every slot on Hitz.” (He’d joined halfway through the first year the station monopolised the-then stale airwaves.)
Despite the odd incidental technical or verbal gaffes that can lead to a fortnight of suspension, Ross managed to create a brand for himself amidst all that radio chatter.
Having grown up in the UK, Ross loves and “lives for British radio.” John Peel is his favourite DJ and he loves all genres of music. “Those 30 seconds that you speak,” he says, “you have to make them smile. But it’s easy (he means here) for DJs to fall in love with the sound of their own voices.” That’s when he decided, above the witty, likeable on-air persona, to “stick to football.”
Having started with the graveyard shift of midnight to 6 a.m. brought its own set of pros and cons. Cons: “Bukit Jalil was a mad area then, you have to walk through construction sites to get to the studio, with rats chewing on cables,” and this one, which makes him shake his head in mock-exasperation, “People used to tell me all these ghost stories.” Fun.
“Yeah,” he says, “great.” You had to be there to see how funny his face is when he says that.
Pros: he was in a unique position to be able to give live on-air English league football updates to cabbies and insomniacs alike when no-one else was doing so. Because the time difference between these live matches happening on the green pitches of England meant that most in Malaysia were sensibly tucked in bed, unlike the newbie DJ then.
“Radio was so new,” he remembers. That newness partly explains the times he would get abuse from listeners’ calls, when Fly Guy and Lil Kev went on holiday and Ross would sit in for a week. “They were superstars,” he adds. Yes, they were. Those were the days when there was ad revenue on the books for the next three years but, as with all sensational successes, there is the dark side. You’d have to ask Ross yourself if you want details. Like I said, discretion will serve us both well.
He is unfiltered with his seething opinions on the bad and the ugly of what listeners don’t hear beyond the sweepers, jingles and smooth, practised deliveries of DJs.
Though I have passed through the carpeted and glass-walled areas where he used to work, listening to him tell me in minute detail the amount of power-flexing going on in the name of millions in revenue (“despite the repetitive shit,” he mutters) I now picture it more like rats in gilded cages on spinning wheels. But a gilded cage is still a cage, no?
He talks on, clearly not needing any probing questions from me, and what catches my attention is his unilateral proclamation that the only way to break the monopoly of broadcast behemoths is to “be nothing like them.”
Which is advice that would likely fall on deaf, disinterested ears for interested buyers of defunct stations up-for-sale as we speak, as said buyers would “probably WANT to be like [the established players].” A pointless exercise in futility if someone wanted to loan him 20 million to buy a defunct station and reinvent it, in some hope of breaking the market monopoly, if it’s as formulaic as what’s been playing the last 18 years. “Wishy-washy,” he terms it, “but that’s what sells.”
This is where he admits his disillusionment. And there it is. The reason he writes ‘cynical sod’ on his personal social media page.
“But radio in Malaysia,” he explains, recalling the heady rush of the first bull-run of that youth-focused station, “had no structure then. You could listen to a station, and for 45 minutes, you wouldn’t know which station you were listening to,” he says, in complete seriousness. “But all the station had to do,” he says, almost feverishly, “was to brand themselves with every song. Simple things like that,” he adds.
But it leaves little wriggle room to stray from the script. “It was a rigid format,” he concedes, adding that editing facilities “made us sound [more] slick” even with loose cannons such as over-excited listeners’ calls.
But it worked; the money poured in.
But soon enough Ross needed escape.
The endlessly cavalier fashion of human management. (Actually, he uses another word starting with the letter C, but it’s more salty when it’s spat out rather than replicated here.)
“You have people telling you that you’re completely replaceable,” he reveals, “even if one of us has a lot of knowledge.”
“I love music,” he says, “but that place killed it for me.”
The inducement to lure him away from a runner and back to the glass cage was a month-long paid trip to the 2006 FIFA World Cup (he had the time of his life, obv) where the hardest thing he had to do was a twice-daily phoner across time zones to the studio. Tough job (not).
But the inducement worked, because if it’s anything Ross is known for it’s his love of football.
“Football first,” he grins, “Manchester United second.”
He lasted just two more years, then it was him finding his own way, with help from Fly and friends.
To say Ross and MU are forever intertwined is the understatement of all three millennia, or maybe since the first leather ball was kicked. Has he ever lost his fanboy cool? “Yes,” he admits, when he met and spoke with Bobby Charlton during the team’s trip to KL for the launch of the MU store. “Like a blubbering schoolboy,” he blushes, drowned out by my wholly-unprofessional laughter at the image.
He is, however, outright hilarious with his spot-on impression of an Italian lady, a growly Mancunian or a Liverpudlian yob. For a boy who was sent to boarding school near Brighton telling the headmaster he wanted to be a footballer.
I don’t think he means to be funny on purpose, but I also wonder if it doubles up as a coping mechanism. But I am not his psychoanalyst, and I don’t think he needs one, because his bullshit-radar is in very good condition.
This personal antennae of his to detect when something smells rotten becomes more evident as we somehow end up talking about race politics, the state of society, and the Great Big Evil Corporation.
He has a lot of insider information about the slightly Machiavellian machinations of the industry. Anyone would be naïve to think it is all glamour and laughter.
It wasn’t the first choice of career for him. If he had his way he’d probably spend all his time on a beach playing football. And preferably while his son is winning the English football league.
I don’t blame him for feeling brittle at the recollection of those early years, but if he is he doesn’t let it cross his features longer than a micro-second.
But this vocal, outspoken and somewhat-irrepressible man manages to surprise me, still. I told him that an internet search on him produces quite little in the way of scandal or sensationalist press. “Yeah, I tried the same search myself,” he laughs, completely un-self-consciously.
So while he’s talking I pop open the lens cover of my camera. Before I even have a chance to focus and point it at him, a frisson of nervousness runs through him. The smile is a little wonkier than before.
“What’s wrong with you?” I ask. “Just relax. You’ve been so un-self-conscious all this time,” I tease.
“Yeah, well, when you tell me to relax, that’s when I can’t,” he laughs, and shifts so uncharacteristically in his seat as the camera clicks.
Aside from his salty candour, the salt-and-pepper hair and that shoot-the-breeze vibe, I’d say that moment was my other most favourite part of it all. If you have to ask why, you may need more time to understand the nuances that separate the persona from the person.