The Nation’s Favourite: The True Adventures of Radio 1 
by Simon Garfield.
Faber, 273 pp., £9.99, October 1998, 0 571 19435 4
Show More
Show More

Radio 1 used to sound like Surrey to me. Perhaps it was the disc jockeys they used in those days, with their creamy car-dealer’s voices and their discreetly tabloid opinions; or the on-air pub quizzes and snooker, where female contestants were flirted with and spoken to slowly; or the endless suburban doze of the afternoon programmes; or the sense, if you cared about pop music, that the records played were nothing but restaurant muzak to the DJs – to be talked over, cut short, looped repeatedly, forgotten about.

West Byfleet, as far as I could tell, liked its radio this way during the Eighties. There were Radio 1 car stickers on Ford Sierras. There were conservatories being added to the strains of Simon Bates’s mid-morning show. There were big and tidy back gardens, on hot Saturdays, ringing with the amplified chuckle of Dave Lee Travis. I was 12 or 13. I’d stay in the car when my parents went to the garden centre, trying to get a better reception on my portable radio.

At that time the station had more than twenty million listeners. The London pirate stations did not reach the rhododendron belt, and BBC local radio was even blander than Bates at his chummiest. So Radio 1 it was: whole school holidays of it, burbling by, endured for a chance few minutes of New Order or the Smiths. Then, as now, pop was going through one of its quiet phases – elderly singers, supergroups and reunions, teenage stars charming everyone’s grandmothers – so I suppose it was appropriate that the national pop station should be so safe. Radio 1 was light entertainment. Cool Britannia, and government talk of ‘cultural industries’, was a long decade away. Early in this book, Simon Garfield repeats a well-known but telling tale about Dave Lee Travis (or ‘DLT’, as he gruffly liked to be known). Travis was having a party at his home, and decided to invite John Peel, then the only DJ at Radio 1 with a serious interest in the music he played. Peel, who was much older, and held a far more marginal position in the station’s daily schedule, went along out of curiosity. Looking around Travis’s house he ‘suddenly realised that DLT didn’t own any records. He asked him, and DLT said, “Oh no, it’s too much trouble and the dust ... Anything I really like I’ve copied on tape. I’ve got quite a lot of tapes and I play them in the car, you see.” ’

The station was in tune with the times. Television and football, the two other great British forms of entertainment, were out of favour with the Conservative Government. Radio 1 channelled its energies into milder areas: listener competitions and phone-ins, fake guests with silly voices, summer roadshow tours of holiday resorts. It dismissed most dance music as ‘not good on the radio’, and was careful to maintain, as its then controller Johnny Beerling put it, ‘a relationship with the Red Arrows’. The DJs’ jokes tended to feel state-sanctioned. While the Government was busy outlawing the ‘teaching’ of homosexuality in schools, Steve Wright’s afternoon programme invented a highly camp hairdresser called ‘Gervase’. While the poll tax was being planned for Scotland, DLT greeted Scottish colleagues with impersonations of their accents. When the DJs stayed together in hotels, during trips away with the roadshow, the antics were as oafish and obligatory as those of the Young Conservatives. ‘They’d be letting sheep into each other’s rooms and doing apple-pie beds,’ Peel’s producer remembers. Before Radio 1 broadcast the Nelson Mandela tribute concert at Wembley Stadium, a memo was distributed instructing DJs not to make comments of a ‘political nature’.

At its most conservative and dominating, Radio 1 was a sort of Thatcherism of the airwaves, and its empire, like hers, grew outmoded and crumbled. During the late Eighties, just as Labour began its outflanking manoeuvres, the arrival of acid house and rave culture began to challenge the station’s preconceptions of what pop was for. This new dance music was baffling to the men in their forties who occupied Radio 1’s studios. But for thousands – perhaps millions – of Radio 1’s listeners, music had unexpectedly become central again: not wallpaper, but the furniture of their lives. To people who would drive all night up motorways, sometimes waiting for hours in drizzly service stations, or blow their whole week, or break the law, all to get to raves, the prospect of a Radio 1 DJ prattling about dance music – assuming he wanted and was allowed, to play it – was less than thrilling.

The station’s first efforts to adapt were belated and undistinguished. In 1990, seven years after I left West Byfleet – several generations later by pop’s accelerated clock – Bates still had his mid-morning slot. One day he announced, with a little self-congratulatory tremor in his voice, that he was going to play some of the ‘indie’ music he’d been hearing about. One of the records he had selected was, he said, by a band from Manchester called the Stone Roses. It was called ‘Fool’s Gold’, and he introduced it as if it were his own, risk-taking discovery, though the band had been featured in the music press for years and ‘Fool’s Gold’ had been talked up as a hit for weeks. Bates played only an edited version.

Garfield’s book covers the station’s struggles with modern pop music, between 1993 and early 1998, and is told with more care and detail than most media books bother to muster. He summarises one set of Radio 1’s ratings as follows:

In the audience figures for the first three months of 1998, Radio 1 recorded an increase of 240,000 people to 11.1 million, but its share of all listening fell from 10 per cent to 9.6. Year-on-year listening was down by 700,000 ... At breakfast time, Greening and Ball had lost 82,000 ... while Chris Evans [now at a rival station] had risen by 234,000.

Such fidelity to mundane facts requires an element of selflessness, and Garfield has that to a fault. He is not a former DJ. He has never worked at Radio 1. He does not appear to favour one of its factions – and there are many here, from the musical purists like Peel to the variety acts like Wright, to the finger-waggers like Bates and DLT, all of them chattily score-settling and betraying. Instead, Garfield has opened up his pages to a conversation, skilfully edited, between a selection of the DJs and producers and managers. Like his previous book, which was about professional wrestling (not an entirely dissimilar subject), the whole volume, barring the occasional explanatory whisper from the author, is in direct speech.

The problem with this method is a certain bloodlessness. You can hear about Chris Evans’s rages, Bruno Brookes’s castle in Ireland and Bates’s demand to record 26 programmes from the Somme battlefields, but you’re not quite convinced. The anecdotes lack a sense of place. The protagonists lack physical presence. Before Garfield took on the role of popular oral historian, he was unafraid of description. Here his work seeks the purer air of American-style ‘objective’ depiction. The book aspires to follow George Plimpton but, in truth, it is more of a docu-soap.

Like all soaps, Garfield’s has a ‘cast of characters’. Their doings become ‘true adventures’, their confrontations staged set-pieces, their thoughts soliloquies. For about two-thirds of the book, this works well. At the beginning, Radio 1 is rigid with tensions. ‘Most of the DJs detested each other,’ remembers Matthew Bannister, a confident young man who had just been appointed its new controller. ‘Bates hated Wright because Wright was a threat. Wright hated Bates because Bates was a threat. They both hated DLT.’ Even the mild-sounding Peel was not exempt. After the station’s Christmas party one year, he and his allies hid in the BBC’s underground car park, waiting – in vain – to beat up Bates.

Bannister sought to reform this ancien regime. His strategy was classic Birtism: rebrand, reschedule and sack the veterans. And, as with his patron’s initiatives, every change – by accident or design – produced great outrage. Bates and DLT resigned, on air, before they could be fired. Then they went to the tabloids. The remaining old-style DJs grew more paranoid. Studios were occupied like bunkers. Producers had to talk to presenters via agents. Provocative records were inserted at the end of programmes, like landmines.

These are delicious glimpses. But the full story eludes Garfield. By relying on retrospective accounts, with all their revisions and evasions, he lets the villains come across as far too reasonable. This is Bates reflecting on his fall:

A lot of it [my show] was very poor, a lot of it was filling in for rather inadequate music ... With Matthew Bannister it was only right that a new controller wants to change things ... On my old timeslot, you could have put a coffee cup on that programme and you’d still have an audience ... Frankly, I’d been there two or three years too long.

The traces of false modesty here are amusing enough. Much of Bates’s routine as a DJ had a similar quality: like the more manly columnists in the tabloids, the more he played the ordinary guy, the more his vast ego kept thrusting out. When he read out maudlin tales from listeners, over suitably morose music, for his daily and vastly popular ‘Our Tune’ slot, every true-life tragedy sounded similar. Bates’s voice would clot and sink and choke as the drama required. Never mind the details, feel the sensitivity. But you have to know all this to get something from Bates’s testimony in the book. By letting the DJs rewrite their roles, The Nation’s Favourite becomes a jabber of rival histories that will baffle the uninitiated. The many contributions from Bannister may puzzle, too. As BBC controllers go, he comes across as informal and open-minded – a dimpled prodigy from local radio. But his dialect is still jargon: ‘The important thing was to consolidate the management team.’

Whole pages of the book are given over to Bannister (who was promoted to director of BBC Radio shortly before the book came out). He features more frequently than anyone else. Given Garfield’s access to management meetings, to confidential discussions about playlists and to preparatory sessions before press conferences – all ‘facilitated’, in the author’s words, by ‘a brave and trusting’ Radio 1 management – it is not hard to detect a confluence of interests. Without Bannister’s shake-up, there would be no book. Hence, perhaps, passages like this: ‘It takes about a year to establish a new radio show, and to establish a new radio show under the press spotlight that we were under, and with production teams who had no idea what I was trying to do and were resistant to it, was extraordinarily difficult.’

By the mid-Nineties, Radio 1 had shed its old presenters (Peel excepted), and about a quarter of its old listeners. The solution, Bannister felt, was to buy in a celebrity. Chris Evans was offered £1 million a year, the most anyone had ever been paid to present a radio programme. Evans’s production company, not the BBC, put the show together. To publicise the deal, a ‘secret’ meeting between Evans and Bannister was faked up for the News of the World, the two of them shown on a damp bench, with coffee cup and fag packet. For the next year and a bit, the partnership seemed to work. Evans plunged into his breakfast show, plugging his favourite records, showing off about his celebrity friends, shrieking out his salary details between fits of giggles. Bannister let him do what he wanted, and the ratings rose. Meanwhile Evans’s PR man, Matthew Freud, fed morsels of breakfast show ‘news’ to the voracious showbiz pages. Garfield obtains some clear-eyed comments from Freud about ‘leveraging’ Evans’s ‘media equity’.

Such transactions, though, like the money markets they borrow their machismo and terminology from, tend to be unstable. When Evans walked away, after a row about whether he should work on Fridays, he left Radio 1 more insecure than he had found it. The station had added some listeners (although his own audience was beginning to slip – perhaps the real reason he left), but Radio 1 was now locked into a spiral of relaunches, special salaries and reliance on hype from the tabloids. The last third of the book can be summarised as follows: a new saviour is found (Zoe Ball, Chris Moyles, two droll Mancunians called Mark and Lard); expectant press conferences are called; complex excuses are concocted when the ratings fail to bend upwards. It is hard to sustain an interest in such repetitive events, and Garfield’s refusal to comment on, or question, Bannister’s permanent revolution begins to grate. Like many media pundits, he lets the executives talk up their revamps, records their airy promises as probables, then omits to ask awkward questions when the figures come in.

In a broader sense, too, this volume is a very contemporary artefact. It is a media book in search of wider resonance. In recent years, there have been plenty of others: about women’s magazines and tabloids, about cable television stations, about competing talk-show hosts. They rarely read as well as they sounded at the meetings with the publisher. The media, naturally, finds itself fascinating; to everyone else, all the plotting and pitching and repositioning are just other people’s office work. This book could be justified, almost, as an archetypal study of a British institution trying to remake itself. Radio 1 is like the Royal Opera House, Radio 4 or the professional rugby clubs; it is struggling with commerce and new competitors, getting the management consultants in, redefining its ancient purpose. Garfield finds interesting tensions, too, in how the DJs regard their jobs. The light entertainers talk unsentimentally about ‘getting the records away’. Their enthusiasm is reserved for ‘spilling their brains out on the air’. The musical purists, by contrast, are full of reverence. This is Tim Westwood, the hip-hop specialist, for example, addressing a playlist meeting:

The strength of this record ... I was in a club the other day, and there was a fight going on, and the DJ put this record on and everyone started dancing. Any record that can stop violence is an incredible record. There were guys with their noses bleeding ... He’s running things in the clubs at the moment, and that’s going to sound so good on the radio, man.

Radio 1 employs more people like Westwood now. And it sounds like South London, not Surrey: cheekier, less male-dominated, multicultural. But Bannister’s changes can be exaggerated. Radio 1’s transition from light entertainment fixture to fashionable niche broadcaster is incomplete and continuing. The purists mostly broadcast after dark, as Peel has always done, to specialist audiences. In the afternoon, when millions still listen, the DJ is Chris Moyles. As he talks about ‘boffing’ singers he fancies, and messes around with sound effects, and pads out proceedings with snippets from Hollywood, the ‘true adventures’ of Radio 1 sometimes seem to have circled back to their starting-point. That’s the trouble with docu-soaps. They rarely have an ending.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences