Radio 1 turns 50: Annie Nightingale on pirates, sexism and the sound of the underground

Annie Nightingale in 1970
Annie Nightingale in 1970 Credit: BBC

As Radio 1 celebrates its 50th birthday, its first female DJ, Annie Nightingale, looks back at the battle with BBC bosses over its identity 

“I don’t think families want to hear punk rock music on Radio 1 while they are having their breakfast,” declared Doreen “The Godmother” Davies, the BBC’s redoubtable head of the playlist committee, during the Seventies. As Radio 1 gears up to celebrate its 50th birthday next week, Davies’ words sum up the Radio 1 predicament. Right from the start, when Radio 1 first emerged from the ashes of the Light Programme on Sep 30 1967 this brand new station wanted to sound cool, but not upset anyone. It wanted to think of itself as edgy and down with the kids. Yet when I joined Radio 1 as its first female DJ, in 1970, the BBC still assumed that its average daytime listener was a housewife, tuning in while toiling away at the ironing; her husband at the office. The shadow of Housewives’ Choice, the record request show for women that ran on the Light Programme from 1946 to 1967, still persisted. Even though I had contributed to Woman’s Hour, one of the reasons that I, as a woman, was initially rejected as a potential Radio 1 DJ was that DJs were intended as “husband substitutes”. BBC exact words. I kid you not.

Pop radio was our under-ground, our resistance, our future

In 1967, the corporation still hadn’t woken up to the fact that we post-war kids had a completely different view of the world. We’d been shaped by stations such as Radio Luxembourg and pirates such as Radio Caroline that had operated offshore before the BBC traded support for Harold Wilson’s Open University initiative in return for an act of parliament shutting down the pirates. We were not going to grow up as younger versions of our matching-white-shoes-and-handbag mothers, or join dad and become the “And Son” name above the family shop door. Pop radio was our underground, our resistance, and our future. It was our Snapchat and WhatsApp. It felt like it was end-to-end encrypted. Music for teenagers.

Annie Nightingale with Paul McCartney Credit: Rex

I loved pirate radio and the brash fresh music it played. None of the “orchestral versions” of Beatles records, thank you. Once you had heard the real thing, you were never going to fob off young people with pale imitations or watered down versions. Yet back in those early years, watered down is exactly what Radio 1 sounded like. My theory is that Radio 1 was not welcomed by the BBC hierarchy. The phrase “disc jockey” was said with a nose pinch. Notionally ghastly and American.

There were, for years, needle time restrictions, meaning that DJs could only play commercial records on air for a certain number of hours. The rest of the time the Musicians’ Union demanded we had to play “live” versions of pop songs performed on air by signed-up members or members of the BBC’s in house orchestras.

So how could Radio 1 be a replacement for the younger listeners to the Light Programme, and at the same time reflect the biggest cultural youthquake ever? One answer was to make huge stars of the first wave of Radio 1 DJs. They achieved massive listening figures compared to today: 18 million was standard. The DJs became better known than the pop stars whose music they were playing. They were a very assorted bunch. Some had the professional RP of the actor. Emperor Rosko [Mike Pasternak] was the son of Hollywood producer Joe Pasternak. Tony Blackburn was a doctor’s son, ex-public school, from Bournemouth. Simon Dee was the most glamorous of the ex-pirates, with an E-type Jag and the full James Bond swagger. When his publicist thought Dee was getting too big for his boots, he would say: “Do you mind not flicking your cigarette ash on my carpet, there’s a good chap”.

Simon Dee in London, October 1969

I saw very little of these DJs. I was at home in Brighton bringing up my family; they were rushing around the UK making lucrative personal appearances. But some became friends: I was a guest at Kenny Everett’s wedding, riding to the reception next to his mother on an open-top double-decker bus. This was before he came out as gay. Much later he was kissing his Russian boyfriend under my mistletoe. Johnnie Walker was probably the most supportive. He would give me advice such as: “Never be afraid to pause, stop the music, stop speaking, when you are on air. It can be very dramatic.” This was the guy who, back when he used to broadcast from Radio Caroline, would get his audience to drive to the coast at night and flash their headlights at him at sea, defying the law. A real daredevil pirate.

It did feel strange being part of their gang in my early days as a DJ. The BBC was still extremely patriarchal. Before I joined I’d even been told by a senior executive, Joanna Scott-Moncrieff, that female presenters were not to be encouraged as they would sound either too plummy or too fishwifey. There was this entrenched notion that a woman’s voice would alienate the female listener. But as someone who had started out as a journalist, I had been used to working as the only girl in an all-male office. And I had led the outcry when Radio 1 initially refused to sign any female DJs. Eventually public opinion changed; they had to take on someone. I had been circling the most persistently. When I joined, I expected to last a year at most.

I pressed the wrong button and brought the station to a shuddering halt

My main obstacle when I first began was operating the desk. This was the difference from being a traditional BBC announcer, who would be in a separate studio and wave at someone else to play in the records. Being a DJ, you really needed to ride those records, to know when to chase the fade and punch in the jingles.

When I first began, it was like taking over from an airline pilot in mid-flight, with no training manual. It was absolutely terrifying. I had to learn on live radio. In the middle of my first show I pressed the wrong button and brought the national broadcaster to a shuddering halt.

Nightingale on air in London, December 1970 Credit: Getty

During the Seventies our offices were housed in a squat-ugly Sixties building, called Egton House. The lift often broke down. We were moved to an old car showroom called Yalding House where the lift broke down even more often. But when the BBC finally moved into its billion‑pound New Broadcasting House, Radio 1 was allotted the plum location on the eighth floor penthouse. It was an acknowledgement that Radio 1 had come of age, and had been accorded respect within the BBC. A lean efficient machine that delivers a steady audience.

Pandemonium ensued. Families erupted. Parents protested. Their children were listening in the car

The events of 2017 have brought home to Radio 1 one of the reasons why it continues to exist in the era of Spotify. An algorithm cannot sum up the emotions of a nation after a horrific event such as the Manchester bombing. Radio 1 has become the national noticeboard, a place for young listeners to express and share their feelings.

And yet, Davies’ words still might resonate with Nick Grimshaw, who now hosts Radio 1’s flagship breakfast show. He doesn’t experience the hazards I used to, of playing a record at the wrong speed or inadvertently spinning the unexpurgated version of a record full of swear words. But what tripped him up was suggesting to his listeners one Christmas that there might not be a real Santa Claus. Pandemonium ensued. Families erupted. Parents protested. Their children were listening in the car, on their way to school.

So Radio 1, 50 years on, still has to be all things to all people. Not an easy one to achieve. Happy birthday.

Annie Nightingale is the longest running broadcaster on Radio 1, with weekly shows on Radio 1, IXTRA and BBC 6 Music. Her autobiography, Wicked Speed, is available as an ebook via Amazon