Radio 1 – love it or loathe it 

3 October 2007

Glenn documents his love/hate relationship with the station

Radio 1 will soon, like me, be celebrating its 40th anniversary and the station has formed an important part of growing up for teenagers from way back in the Tony Blackburn era of the sixties to the Chris Moyles era of the present. Although not such a popular station nowadays due to the intense competition it faces from ILR and digital radio, though audience figures of 10 million a week are still good for such a competitive market, in its glory days from 1967 to 1993, Radio 1 was by far the most popular radio station in Britain- attracting a staggering 23 million listeners in the late sixties and even by the early nineties, when there was more competition, still attracted 16 million a week- and played a massive role in the daily lives of teenagers and young adults during the first 25 years of its life. Even now people of a certain age still recall when the shop floor went silent for Our Tune every morning and when they hung around the radio on a Tuesday lunchtime to find out what was number one that week.

I grew up in the eighties when Radio 1 became dominated by figures with egos bigger than Broadcasting House like Simon Bates and Steve Wright and when Radio 1 boasted it was ” the nation’s favourite” and ” Britain’s favourite music station” and you better believe it or else the slogans seemed to say and the bloated looking red and blue 1 ident, while still the best Radio 1 ident of all time, seemed to smack of this we’re bigger than you and we know it. Somehow to me there was something almost Stalinist about the whole Radio 1 set up in the eighties and living in an area where the station had no competition, especially when Radio 2 decided to make its target age the over 50s after 1985, I ound Radio 1 at times, but certainly not all the time to be stifling, as if the world hadn’t moved forward since 1967 and the fact the station still broadcast on medium wave only for most of the day seemed anachronistic, when ILR stations in the cities had stereo FM 24 hours a day. (However, to be fair to Radio 1, until the late eighties anything above 98mhz FM was reserved for the emergency services and the 95-98mhz frequencies were devoted to local radio, so Radio 1 had no room to expand on to FM.)

In particular I loathed Steve Wright in the Afternoon and the whole egotrip that passed for his three hours of a programme and the fact at one stage he was on the station six days a week, as if he seemed to be scared someone else might get on the air and take his place. Even now on Radio 2 the same ego brags about ” the big show”, how great he is and his sycophantic posse seem to fawn over his every word, but in the eighties this Weird Al Yankovic lookalike was ten times worse and behaved as if the BBC belonged to him. On a Radio 1 Roadshow broadcast hosted by Wright in 1984, I heard the immortal words ” this show loves you more than your own parents” and started to go on about how big his show was to the audience. How I wished someone would have told him to shut up, but it seemed as if he had turned the whole show into a Nuremberg Rally where dissent was not allowed. When not on the road, Wright seemed to spend his whole show talking, playing the odd record which was interrupted by inane jingles constantly, and having his posse ooh and aah over his every word as if it was Shakespeare he was quoting. Oh, but he’s very popular and he’s very talented was what I was told by his 7 million admirers at the time, to which I replied, ” torture used to be very popular but it doesn’t mean to say it was a good thing”, and Wright was my equivalent of being tortured whenever his show was inflicted on me.

Same as I could never tolerate Simon Bates for very long, although apparently neither could John Peel, who was rumoured to have came close to beating The Bates up at the ego fest that was called the Radio 1 Christmas Day Party. ( Now Peel was always one of the better DJs and when I found this out, my respect for him grew further.) Bates himself was no stranger to violence either, having nearly caused a walkout in 1985 by technicians at Broadcasting House for hitting a technician in a row over a telephone, Bates no doubt seeing himself as more important than the lowly tech who had the misfortune to beat Bates to the phone. Someone whose opening gambit was ” Morning World, Morning Simes”, as if he mattered much to anyone outside of Britain, and whose show closed with a mock up of a rock concert with the line” Simon Bates has now left the building” obviously considered himself, like Wright, to be bigger than the whole Corporation.

Bates programme was a pretty turgid affair that barely changed in the fifteen years it dragged on. Fair does, the Golden Hour was bearable- although ” but what was the year?” soon became pretty obvious to regular listeners as most people would know 10cc scored their biggest hit in 1975 with “I’m Not In Love”- but the rest of the programme was about how great Bates was and how he knew such and such in the music business. Then, of course, at 11.00 there was the sickmaking Our Tune, highlighted by some schmaltzy music, and Bates reading out some tall story, that seemed to get taller as the years went by, about Sharon from Nuneaton who met this guy called Dave who drove a 38 ton truck, they were engaged and then Dave crashed into an Inter City 125 and then died and then a week later she was badly injured when she was on a train and it hit a truck like Dave’s at 125 mph on a level crossing and how it brought them closer together. OK, I’m making this up, but the stories were close to this and cynics often wondered if listeners made them up, and then the feature would end with a request for a sickly love song that the couple enjoyed on the lines of ” Hello” by Lionel Ritchie. It was enough to make anyone sane kick the radio, although near the end of Bates reign in 1992 I had to laugh when an attempt to make Bates show more trendy and appeal to younger listeners, he was forced to play a rave tune and he spluttered, ” err, it’s OK if you like that sort of thing.” Obviously this was someone who was irked that he now had to move on from 1978, when this show was created, and knew his days were numbered.

The Radio 1 breakfast show was also something I avoided like the plague. Ever since Noel Edmonds, still my favourite breakfast show host of all time, decided to quit in 1978, his successors were never the same. DLT, while excellent in other slots, never seemed at home on the breakfast show and quit to be replaced in December 1980 by Cliff Richard lookalike Mike Read. Read, in particular, grated on my nerves: I was 13 at the time he started this show and most 13 year olds didn’t want to hear a DJ play Beatles songs on his guitar for his own amusement. Also his decision to ban Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax, which was followed by a wider BBC ban on this song about gay sex, backfired badly as the single became one of the biggest sellers of all time and Read was made to look a hypocrite when tabloid papers revealed that he wasn’t as saintly as he made himself out to be on the radio.

You’re beginning to think from the tone of this article that I despised Radio 1 as a teenager. I could say that, yes, I couldn’t stand their weekday programmes, but I also understood that Wright, Bates and Read were by far the most popular DJs in the country and when Bates stepped down from the morning show in 1993 as part of the ” year zero” shakeout at the station I could understand why millions of people were unhappy that their favourite radio show and Our Tune were being scrapped.

Anyway enough of the bad things about the nation’s favourite and on to the good things, of which there were many on Radio 1 in the eighties. Firstly the jingles, made by PAMS of Dallas, were of an excellent standard, in particular the one that went ” 275 and 285 and stereo VHF” where the tone of the vocal was raised on the last two words. Others that stick in the memory are the ones that heralded Newsbeat, of which more later, and the ” beep beep beep yeah” one that introduced a travel report. Some people might have found them cheesy, but they were instantly recognisable and still remembered fonldy by older listeners especially the sung jingles that introduced a DJs show with the DJs name.

One institution that survives from the old days into the 21st century is Newsbeat, the 15 minute news bulletin broadcast at 12.30 and 5.30 pm in the seventies and eighties. Although I haven’t heard Newsbeat for many years now, and the timing has been moved to 45 minutes past the hour, in the station’s heyday Newsbeat was a very successful attempt at mixing serious news items with lighter items at the end of the bulletin that would interest the station’s listeners. The bulletin would typically start with a PAMS jingle and then James Alexander- Gordon of football results fame would give out the day’s headlines in BBC English to add gravitas to the bulletin, and then a newsreader such as Laurie Mayer or Matthew Bannister would cut in to discuss the news in more detail. Also, a jingle linked the items in the news instead of a pause between each item, which made it more unique and ” Radio One” and then after a round up of the joyless news articles, Mayer would then switch to an interview with a pop star or a new Radio 1 DJ. While devotees of the World At One might have sneered at Newsbeat, it did at least try to present serious news alongside the pop and was a very fine effort by the BBC to present serious news to younger listeners, who were often not too interested in the latest inflation figures. That it has lasted since 1973 is a credit to the bulletin and indeed has seen some of its presenters go on to greater things: Richard Skinner became a respected ” serious” DJ on Radio 1 in the eighties, Laurie Mayer became a familiar figure on regional news in the South East, and Matthew Bannister in 1993 became the station’s controller.

Radio One wasn’t just a music station. In the early eighties, there was even a news magazine on Sunday afternoons called Studio B15, hosted by Adrian Love. Studio B15, named after the basement studio it was broadcast from, covered the issues of the day and even in 1980, daringly broadcast a complaint from a prisoner about conditions in his prison and the attitude of prison officers to the inmates. All this was a million miles away from Our Tune and Mr Angry. Although Studio B15 was pointlessly axed in 1983, Radio 1 continued a trend towards speech programmes that would interest its listeners such as documentaries on AIDS and youth unemployment, with the one on youth unemployment featuring a Liverpudlian declaring that he had more chance of winning the pools than finding a job in the very depressed Liverpool of the time.

Apart from its non music speech programmes, Radio 1 at the weekend broadcast some notable interviews and music documentaries. The second rank DJ Andy Peebles soon found himself thrust into the spotlight when he became the last person to interview John Lennon a few days before he was gunned down in New York and the recordings of the interviews broadcast after Lennon died attracted huge audience figures. Peebles, apart from his unique sport and soul show on a Friday night, also became popular for presenting My Top Ten, Radio 1’s answer to Desert Island Discs, where a celebrity selected their favourite ten records in between a lightish interview by Peebles.

Then there was the music expertise of Paul Gambaccini, who became well known in the seventies for presenting America’s Top 20 and co writing the Guinness Book of Hit Singles. Gambo, as he was affectionately known, was an expert on popular music. If you wanted to know what make of shirts the Beach Boys were wearing when they recorded Pet Sounds, he would most likely know. In 1982 Gambaccini embarked on a series of documentaries for Radio 1 on the world’s greatest rock musicians. It was through Gambo that I realised there was more to music than New Romantics and became a huge fan of The Beach Boys and Jimi Hendrix through him that has continued to this day.

On a more Transdiffusion level you gained the impression that the BBC of the eighties, even if it was still quite keen on banning singles with sexual references, cared far more for Radio 1 than it did in the seventies. Freed from being a branch of Radio 2 with limited broadcasting hours and having to take such anti diluvian fare as Friday Night Is Music Night, the eighties Radio 1 now broadcast for 18 hours a day and was far more tolerated by BBC executives than it was in the seventies. Also, in March 1985, Radio 1 was finally moved from basement studios in Broadcasting House to its own building, Egton House, which was also the home of the Gramophone Department, at a cost of £ 1million. Now with its own purpose built studios, Radio 1 had facilities which befitted the nation’s favourite music station. The decision to move emergency services from the 98-100 mhz frequencies on FM saw Radio 1 allocated frequencies between 97.6 and 99.6 FM and Radio 1 on stereo FM was rolled out across the country between November 1987 and March 1990. Finally the last remnant of dual broadcasting on FM, where Radio 2 lost its FM frequency to Radio 1 between 2200 and 2400 on weekday nights and on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, ended in March 1990.

One institution that lasted from 1973 to 1999, well past the Bannister revolution of the mid nineties, was the Radio 1 Roadshow. Essentially this was where Radio 1 paid a visit to the country’s resorts and the station’s leading DJs entertained a crowd of thousands for an hour and a half live for nine weeks during the summer ( another appealing factor was it cut Simon Bates show in half). The jingle which announced it, ” today, live from Blackpool Pleasure Beach…. it’s Gary Davies”, followed by the crowd cheering, and the 1973 vintage Radio 1 on the road jingle meant that Radio 1 was visiting the millions of people who enjoyed its programmes and giving them an hour and a half of free entertainment that was broadcast across the nation.

I visited a roadshow in 1985 in the none too glamorous surroundings of Seaton Carew, a fading holiday resort that served Middlesbrough and Hartlepool, a place which had long since fallen off the tourist map. However, even in this declining environment, Radio 1 was prepared to make the effort and sent out weekend breakfast show host Peter Powell and newcomer Mark Page, who hailed from the area, to host the roadshow in appalling weather conditions- the summer of 1985 being just as bad as this year’s non summer. I arrived at 9am to see the two trucks which hauled the roadshow stage and the goody van into place and a Range Rover carrying Powell and Page pull up. By 10am a massive crowd had braved the heavy rain and turned up, one local joker appearing in his Radio Tees T shirt, which attracted a few smirks and comments from people who said they preferred Tees to Radio 1, but well out of earshot of the stage. ( I wonder how Steve Wright would have reacted had he seen this T shirt.) Then at 11am the Tommy Vance voiced jingle blared out and we knew 8 million people would now be listening to the events from a place few people south of Middlesbrough would have heard of. For all I was soaked, I was pleased to be part of something that, unlike the football crowds of the time, was totally peaceful and which Radio 1 seemed very keen to promote and they put as much effort into this roadshow as they would one in Bournemouth.

Yet even if a Roadshow broadcast, unless they could tempt a well known pop star to perform, which happened occasionally, wasn’t the same as a Peel session by The Fall, it still meant that Radio 1 was connecting with its massive daytime audience in the same way that the small audience who followed Peel late at night appreciated his avant garde music sense, even if those who appreciated the on stage behaviour by Steve Wright didn’t generally listen to Peel introducing a post punk band from Redruth and vice versa. The maxim established at the station’s start of popularity by day, elitism by night worked quite well for most of the eighties.

The Top 40, the Sunday afternoon chart rundown that still exists under the name of The Official Chart Show, was compulsory listening for teenagers in the eighties, same as its televisual equivalent, Top of the Pops, was essential viewing at the time. Fair enough, everyone had known what was number one from Tuesday afternoon onwards when the chart was run down by Paul Burnett, but the show was a much loved institution that spawned a massive home taping boom. Whenever the last few bars of Sing Something Simple played out, and the Radio 2 announcer declared, ” and now a choice of listening”, signifying Radio 2 was handing over FM to Radio 1, the announcer’s voice was accompanied by the sounds of millions of play and record buttons being pressed in on radio/cassettes all over the country as teenagers decided to record the Top 40, or their favourite songs from it, on a well worn C90 cassette that had been used hundreds of times to record the show. People might laugh now, but in the poorer world of the early eighties, where compilation albums were expensive, taping the Top 40 was a cheap way of having a chart compilation, and, rather like selecting tracks for your IPod now, you paused the tape whenever a song you hated came on and started recording again when a favourite was announced. However, this practice must have become more difficult, and I wonder if it was a plan to reduce home taping, when the chart was announced during the Top 40 from October 1987 onwards instead of on the Tuesday before.

Unfortunately by the end of the eighties, and into the early nineties, Radio 1 started to fall behind. The near enough ban on acid house music and rave, and leading DJs such as Peter Powell calling it ” legalised zombiedom” and DLT referring to ” singer songwriters hiding in their bunkers” at the height of rave culture, which did away with the conventional style of singer and group music in favour of electronic dance music with few vocals and no personalities performing ( although I must admit I could never be bothered with this sort of music either), must have left many younger listeners cold. Even the controller of the time, Johnny Beerling, wanted to ape American AOR stations and was proud of the fact that people who had grown up with Radio 1 in the sixties and seventies were often regular listeners. A popular song released in 1989 by The Reynolds Girls, while not attacking Radio 1 directly, had the coded lyrics of, ” AM/FM all that jazz, whatever happened to the radio, they never play the songs we know.” It was no surprise that the pirate radio revival, which had been gathering pace since 1984, saw a market in the major cities, playing the kind of music Radio 1 largely ignored, or was played grudgingly by ageing DJs who had no understanding of it.

Similarly the launch of the Ireland based Atlantic 252, which targeted itself at areas such as Cumbria, western Scotland and rural Wales, where Radio 1 still had little or no competition, in September 1989, with a massive advertising campain under the title of ” our DJs are the dumbest”, meaning they rarely spoke and played the music, soon established itself as a major Radio 1 rival in these areas. Listeners in Cumbria, especially those who used the radio as background entertainment at work now had an alternative to the stagnant shows offered by Simon Bates and Steve Wright. I can recall the relief in the job I had at the time in the autumn of 1989 that we now had an alternative to what John Peel called contemptuously ” end of the pier shows”, by DJs whose format had barely changed since they joined the station. A station which I found very good at the start of the decade had, except for some weekend and nightime shows, become very boring and predictable.

The major changes came to Radio 1 in 1993 as the BBC realised a station whose DJs and listeners were growing old together weren’t appealing to the under 25s. By which time I was well out of my teens and listening to Radio 5, before it was 5 Live and Radio Cumbria, and Radio 1 had limited appeal to me by 1993. The Bannister changes have been covered in depth on other parts of Radiomusications, but, for all Radio 1 sloughed off millions of unhappy fans of DLT and Simon Bates to ILR, as Radio 2 was still very much in its Light Programme phase, and the changes were quite brutal, the station by the mid nineties gained something it hadn’t had for a long time: credibility with teenagers and the serious music press such as Melody Maker. Radio 1’s Bannisterisation, as it became known, also came with a major revival of British guitar music after the electronic rave era and the station’s new breed of DJs such as Chris Evans and Jo Whiley were very keen to be part of this new movement. The new style Radio 1 of the nineties was a very different beast from that from circa 1985 when Simon Bates considered Phil Collins to be cutting edge, whereas someone like Jo Whiley would run out of the studio than play ” Something In The Air Tonight.”

However, the nineties Radio 1 is out of the remit of this article and not part of my listening experience, but in the eighties, which is the decade this article focuses on, I, like millions of other listeners, enjoyed a love/hate relationship with the nation’s favourite where everyone had their favourite and least favourite shows, but everyone at some stage of the week had something to say about it. After all, a radio station which had an audience bigger than Coronation St in the eighties was always likely to attract attention and the comings and goings from Egton House were often major press stories. In a way I do miss those days, but life has to move on and, like television, radio listening has become split between countless stations which fight for their audience share and there’s no way the old school Radio 1 could be revived due to the intense competition.

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1 response to this article

Russ Smith 15 November 2019 at 3:26 pm

I doubt anyone will read this comment after all these years but just wanted to say, great article!

Great website too.

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