Inspirations For The Nation: Annie Nightingale, Steve Wright – The Night And Day Of Radio One

A farewell to an era in broadcasting...

Brighton, 1999, and the cafe at Borders bookshop, home-from-home to many an aspiring young writer poring over the contacts page of several not-purchased music mags while nursing one solitary coffee. Borders would eventually, inevitably, go bust.

This particular afternoon I don’t even buy that lone latte though, as it turns out there’s a book event involving a Brighton icon, Annie Nightingale, and as I wander up the stairs there she is barreling down the other way, all wild hair and big shades, like a flashbulb-dazzled rock star leaving Studio 54. Our subsequent doomed-cafe meeting will go on to change my life, a bit.

25 years on, and it’s been a heavy few months for the broadcast-DJ hall of fame; we’ve lost two of Radio One’s genuine legends. In mid-January it was Nightingale, the grand dame of the dancefloor, still rocking clubs well into her eighties. Then, suddenly, in February, eighties/nineties stalwart Steve Wright, afternoon soundtrack to many of our childhoods. Two very different characters – one mainstream daytime, the other niche nighttime – but both hugely influential, in a way that many stars of that station definitely weren’t.

That hall of fame would be a weird place to visit. Think old Radio One alumni now and a rogues gallery of pervs and egomaniacs probably springs to mind – even John Peel’s mighty legacy was dogged by the looming asterisk of early dodginess – while 90s new brooms like Danny Baker and Chris Evans hardly oozed likability. Nightingale and Wright seemed different; clearly driven too, but chiefly by a joy for the job, and sharing stuff with the masses.

Wright’s hugely successful show would essentially set the template for daytime radio to come, while Nightingale crashed barriers as the station’s first female DJ, thriving for 50 years amid all the mock bants and barely disguised beefs elsewhere. 

Some bizarre stuff went on behind the scenes. There’s an extraordinary bit in the autobiography of ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris (who Nightingale replaced on TV’s Whistle Test; its first female presenter too) about his financial dispute with ‘Bruno’ Brookes, particularly awkward as their shows followed each other, so they’d still do jokey handovers while Harris was going bankrupt and Brookes tried to requisition his record collection. 

By the eighties the savvy Nightingale took a more musically-free evening slot, so avoided much of the ego aggro. Meanwhile Wright was deep in daytime, but managed to stay likeable despite life at the crux of pop culture. That’s him introducing a young pink-wigged Madonna on Top of the Pops in 1984 (“you just won’t believe this!”), and he even inspired The Smiths. That DJ Morrissey sang about hanging in Panic? Yep. They put his face on a promo T-shirt, too.

Everyone listened to Steve Wright in the Afternoon: it had just enough edge not to be shite. For an alternative comedy-obsessed quasi-muso like me, peak Wright was the Jagger/Richards era, grotesque caricatures of the bickering ‘Stones voiced by comedian Phil Cornwell. I recall Wright asking Mick, probably at Christmas, if he’d bought Keef a present. “I got him a chair,” yawled the singer, “but he wouldn’t plug it in.”

Wright’s pioneering version of zoo radio was crucially different to the often tiresome posse-leaders who followed, as he seemed fairly normal. A bit of a dork, in fact, and that was revelatory for us non-jock listeners: so disk jockeys weren’t all dicks. Maybe the music biz was accessible after all. 

That made a big impression on me, particularly in the fallow years after messing up my GCSEs. Nightingale was cooler, so I got into that show later, having belatedly become a student in her native Brighton. Inspired by its mixed-up ‘90s club scene I did some student radio guest spots but never quite nailed the audition tape so stuck with music writing; just album reviews, initially. Then I bumped into Annie in Borders. 

I nearly bottled it, in truth; saying you’re from the student paper wasn’t necessarily the coolest intro. And Annie looked busy – she knew The Beatles! Who knows her afternoon plans? – so I was really just hoped the inevitable brush-off would be fairly gentle. But no.

“The university paper? THAT’S IMPORTANT!” bellowed the icon. Or I’ve always remembered it that loud and emphatic, anyway; it certainly resonated with me for that first writing year, and beyond. We arranged to meet later, so I rushed to campus, quick research in the communal internet room – different times – and borrowed a dictaphone; the one that took C90 cassettes. 

And Annie was just as enthused during the interview itself – she had something to plug, true, but didn’t need to be nearly so present and positive; you walked away feeling like Tom Wolfe, or Hunter Thompson, or – my literary hero, then – Tom Hibbert from Smash Hits. It turns out that Annie did a journalism course, pre-broadcasting, so knew the feeling, and just seemed naturally predisposed to pushing people forward. New musicians, new writers, no matter. 

That experience was crucial for me, because my other big early interview was a potentially-offputting nightmare. I’d been sent to meet rap pioneers The Sugarhill Gang, who were doing a tacky PA-type thing at a trashy Brighton nightclub, with fellow 80s veteran Melle Mel. And Mel was who the tour manager brought out for me: a slightly neglected, embittered MC who I had zero questions for, but you can hardly say ‘sorry, didn’t ask for you’ to one of the Furious Five. That chat went as well as a Bruno/Bob Harris handover.

So, I thank my lucky stars for Nightingale, and briefly followed her path, writing for the Brighton Evening Argus; admittedly her stint was typically groundbreaking, as the only female news reporter. My early stuff was all about clubbing, which soon got tiresome; Annie was the definite highlight, DJ-wise (followed by my first Clash interviewee, in 2007: Andy Wetherall. But then that was all about rockabilly). 

Reading numerous Steve Wright tributes recently, the big takeaway – apart from certain papers using it to trash the BBC – was the sheer joy he took from broadcasting, and talking to the nation. He was lost without it. For Nightingale, too, it was all about the excitement of sharing, in her case – literally – new music. 

Crashing through barriers (big shades on, no distractions, apart from nervous student journalists) was how it had to be. In just doing what they loved, she and Wright showed the next waves that the music business could be a better, more inclusive, less dick-dominated place. 

And that’s important. 

Words: Si Hawkins

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