Popcorn-tastic, mate

In his 1994 autobiography My Tune, the veteran disc jockey Simon Bates remarks of his amazement of how low the murder rate inside radio stations has historically been.  Bates evidently knew whereof he was writing, as his book came out a year after his very high-profile resignation from the BBC’s flagship national radio channel Radio 1, and at a time when the station was going through the biggest and most controversial personnel shake-up in its history.  At least one of Bates’s colleagues at Broadcasting House also knew whereof he was writing: interviewed by the author Simon Garfield for his 1998 book The Nation’s Favourite: The True Adventures of Radio 1, the late John Peel talked about how, at a station Christmas party one year, he and a few others formed a “posse” with the aim of cornering Bates in the car park later and beating him up.  The scheduled rumble ultimately didn’t happen – in Peel’s wordsFortunately he didn’t turn up, or we might have suffered an embarrassing reverse, as he’s probably stronger than us‘. 

Then again, perhaps Peel himself may not have been quite so popular as he may have seemed – if the revelations of a new book (released today) are to be believed.  Peel (real name: John Robert Parker Ravenscroft) came from a well-off family who sent him off to Shrewsbury boarding school, but when he got behind a microphone he affected a more down-to-earth-sounding speaking voice.  In the words of colleague David Symonds, ‘John Peel was entirely self-created‘, while another colleague, Andy Peebles, noted…

Alan, his brother, is incredibly well-spoken.  I met him at a Radio 1 event and the introduction by John was in a stylised Scouse accent, ‘You two will get on like a bloody house on fire.  Public schoolboys united.’  This voice of John’s was a complete fabrication. It was an image. I quite admired him for it, but I found it very amusing.

John Peel (1939-2004) (pic: Zetkin)

 

The anecdote is taken from Robert Sellers’s The Remarkable Tale of Radio 1 1967-93, which recounts the crazy times of the crazy people who ran what used to be the UK’s most popular radio station – in the time-frame from its launch to its high-profile ’90s shakeup.  Sellers himself has form in this kind of account: his previous works include biographies of Oliver Reed and Peter O’Toole.  

 

Tony Blackburn (pic: Martinra1966)

 

Radio 1 was set up in 1967 to satisfy a hunger for quality popular music, which at the time had been satisfied only by illegal pirate radio stations moored in the North Sea and elsewhere.  Over the years the new channel would do its best to entertain its audience with the best-quality pop songs.  For a time, at least, it could boast a number of DJs who truly believed in the music they were playing, such as Peel, Peebles, and the first breakfast host Tony Blackburn.  As the years and decades progressed, however, the music champions ended up being eclipsed by radio voices that were – well, just that: voices, with a fan club whose biggest fans always seemed to be themselves.  As the 1990s began, and Radio 1’s crop of DJs seemed to be proof that it was incapable of moving with the times, such characters as Bates, Dave Lee Travis, Mike Read, Bruno Brookes, Alan Freeman, Tommy Vance and Steve Wright found themselves being parodied on television by comedians Paul Whitehouse and Harry Enfield as, respectively, Mike “Smashie” Smash and Dave “Nicey” Nice, playing non-youth-oriented MOR music, and peppering their dialogue on Radio Fab FM with such phrases as ‘Popcorn-tastic, mate!‘, ‘Chippendale-mungus!‘ and ‘It’s for charidee, mate!

It may well be that the egos of such characters meant that replacing them with more credible and youth-oriented presenters was always going to be difficult.  Matthew Bannister, who would serve as Radio 1’s Programme Controller in 1993-8, once likened the job of transforming the station to ‘playing three-dimensional chess in the dark with my hands tied behind my back‘ …

Bates hated Wright because Wright was a threat.  Wright hated Bates because Bates was a threat.  They both hated DLT… the atmosphere in Broadcasting House was absolutely appalling.

Travis would be the first of Radio 1’s outdated jocks to go: before Bannister could begin his job, DLT sensationally resigned on-air during his Sunday morning programme in August 1993, informing his audience that ‘changes are being made here that go against my principles, and I just cannot agree with them.  In fact, the only option left to me is, very regrettably, to leave, so that’s what I’m going to be doing.‘  With Bannister finally in charge at Broadcasting House, Bates then followed Travis out of the door a month later.  Like Travis, he walked before he could be pushed.  According to Bannister in The Nation’s Favourite, the DJ refused to make his exit a quiet one, telling his boss ‘I’m a journalist.  I need to talk to my people.‘  Indeed, you get the impression, both from reading Bates’s autobiography and from studying his career (he was often wont to present his show from various locations around the world), that he might have made a better journalist than a DJ… 

Afterwards, Radio 1’s new bosses appear to have seen no alternative to acting ruthlessly: over the next few weeks Gary Davies, Johnnie Walker, Jackie Brambles, Adrian Juste and Bob Harris were dismissed (though according to Bates they had previously been assured that their jobs were safe).  Wright was kept on: as his afternoon show was the most popular on Radio 1, Bannister reckoned that he would be the best replacement for Simon Mayo on the breakfast show, but after a year in which he struggled to make his trademarked “zoo radio” format work for the kids at breakfast time, Wright decided to quit the station for Talk Radio. 

While all this was going on, of course, Radio 1 was haemorrhaging listeners – with the weekly ratings dropping from eight figures to seven figures for the first time in the station’s history.  This didn’t worry the new regime too much, since the listeners tuning out were the 30-somethings and 40-somethings who had grown up with the station since it was launched, and were now choosing to listen to stations like Virgin Radio and Atlantic 252. 

Bannister and his team’s answer to the negative publicity about falling ratings was, though, to use a kind word, curious.  Steve Wright was replaced by a mate of Bannister’s – Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush presenter (and producer) Chris Evans, who was also allowed to bring his own production team with him.  Evans lasted less than two years as Radio 1’s breakfast host, as an initially compelling show degenerated into truly woeful broadcasting, with Evans arguing with his team, feuding with DJs from other stations, and insulting his own bosses live on-air – even though they had agreed to his demands to reduce his working hours and leave him out of future Radio 1 roadshows.  Finally, Evans walked out in January 1997, after a dispute with Bannister over whether he should be allowed to have Fridays off so that he could spend more time preparing his Channel 4 show TFI Friday.  A photo of him leaving Broadcasting House made the cover of Private Eye, under the headline “Top DJ Resigns – A Nation Yawns”, and Evans saying ‘I’m quitting while I’m a bighead‘. 

Luckily Radio 1’s top brass learned their lesson from the Evans debacle, and would henceforth only employ DJs with healthy egos, such as Chris Moyles and Scott Mills…

Maybe Simon Bates had a point, after all.  He was also quoted by Simon Garfield in The Nation’s Favourite as saying ‘All turns are barking mad.  You can’t employ larger-than-life people and then be surprised at what they do.’  The murder rate in radio stations may well be a surprisingly low one, but who knows – maybe the privilege of being behind a mic and knowing that you had a huge audience could transform the most saintly and self-effacing of us into big-mouthed egomaniacs…?

Since Radio 1’s heady days of the mid-’90s, Evans has been followed as breakfast host by Mark Radcliffe, Zoe Ball (partnered initially with the late Kevin Greening), Sara Cox, Moyles, Nick Grimshaw and Greg James.  The first three have since moved to Radio 2 – as have Wright, Davies and Harris.  And, of course, Radio 2 long ago outperformed Radio 1 in terms of its ratings.  You just can’t help wondering whether there’ll be a similar Bannister-type clearout at Radio 2 one day…

Photo by javierdumont is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA