Sunday, February 18, 2024


"I'm Alright", a novelty song that charted at number 40 in 1982

The outpouring of grief at the sudden death of Steve Wright on Monday 12th February speaks both to the intimate connection between the radio DJ and his audience, and to his professionalism. I shouldn’t have been surprised at my upset over the loss of such an engaging, friendly and funny personality, when that was all I knew of him. 

Media coverage of Wright’s death, coloured by a narrative that he “died of a broken heart” at the ending of his Radio 2 afternoon show by the BBC in 2022, later dispelled by his own brother, collides with his own lack of sentimentality about his career, having only taken over “Pick of the Pops” four months ago, with further projects to come.

Usually a straightforward and nostalgic chart rundown, Steve Wright turned “Pick of the Pops” into a Steve Wright show: engaging chat, meticulously researched facts, and massive current-sounding jingles firing off all over the place, the energy kept high throughout. He did cut off a few songs too early, but name a DJ that hasn’t done the same.

What makes a Steve Wright show can be tracked through an abundance of radio recordings, and listings in the “Radio Times”. Starting his professional broadcasting career at the launch of Radio 210 in Reading in 1976, presenting evening and weekend shows, he was interviewing Marc Bolan and his wife Gloria Jones within its opening fortnight. Wright’s confident and cheeky radio personality is already evident, with only the jingles and content telling you what year it is, despite having to give way to AA Roadwatch telling the audience that the car parks in Bracknell are filling up fast. He also displays the “gift of the gab” required at a time when there were still restrictions on playing records on UK radio.

After three years, a six-month stint at Radio Luxembourg had Wright reading the news bulletins during his own evening show – the peppering of news headlines, weather, showbiz stories and “Strange But True” features through an average Wright show, over and above the news already on BBC Radios 1 and 2, would be read in the same way, more conversational than authoritative, keeping the audience both engaged and informed – “infotainment” is an apt description for any of Wright’s shows.

Headhunted by the BBC, Wright’s first two years on Radio 1 were essentially a bootcamp - if you weren’t a top-class national broadcaster by the end of this, no-one will be. His first Radio 1 show was on 5th January 1980, presenting Saturday evenings for three months. One month later, Wright presented “Top of the Pops” for the first time without a screen test. After covering the flagship breakfast show during April, and after taking May off, Sunday mornings became Wright’s main show in June - this month also had him present his first Radio 1 Roadshow from that year’s Lawnmower Grand Prix in Holt, Wiltshire. From June to August, he also presented a Saturday lunchtime hour titled “The Amazing Facts and Figures Show”: a “Radio Times” listing in July had Wright saying that “collecting useless but often fascinating bits of information has always been a thing of mine, and it’s surprising what you find out.” The “Strange But True” and “Factoids” features and spin-off books make perfect sense now, especially the one that stuck in my mind: if you unfurl a human brain, you can cover an ironing board with it.

Wright moved to Saturday mornings at the end of August while both frequently covering other presenters’ shows during the week, while acting as film reviewer for fellow host Andy Peebles. This continued until October 1981, when what became known as “Steve Wright in the Afternoon” began, although he continued reviewing films on other shows for the station. The lightly satirical characters like Mr Angry, Damien the social worker and local radio DJ Dave Doubledecks would start to appear, the meticulous preparations for each show becoming more apparent, inviting comparisons with Kenny Everett.

All this happened before you get to what people start with when they talk about Steve Wright: the “zoo radio” format, with lots of co-presenters, lots of features, big interviews replacing character sketches, lots of clapping and lots of “love the show, Steve!” from listeners’ messages. Hearing him speak on his Radio 1 show from May 1983 about spending a week in Los Angeles and New York, mostly listening to the radio and watching CNN and MTV, explains why his shows for the BBC right up to 2024 retained an energy not present on other British radio shows – it had to be imported. Scott Shannon innovated the “morning zoo” breakfast show on WRBQ-FM in Tampa, Florida, taking it to WHTZ in New York – Shannon did not continue with the zoo format upon leaving WHTZ in 1989, but the station continues to run a similar format at breakfast time today.

The major innovation Wright had upon the zoo format was to run it in a continent where, if people weren’t experiencing a lull in their day at 2pm, they were taking a nap. It was a second wind for its audience as much as an entertaining listen, augmented by bespoke jingles sourced from New York production houses. Ironically, when Wright moved to the Radio 1 breakfast show in 1994, carrying the existing format didn’t work, and his Radio 1 career ended the following year – perhaps it was a bit full-on for British audiences at that time of day. After a short break in television and at Talk Radio UK, Wright joined Radio 2 in 1996 for two weekend shows, resuming an updated afternoon show in 1999 that, while toned down a little, remained an outlier to how the rest of the station sounded.

I am not ready to talk about Steve Wright in the past tense, and listening to so much of his work from across his career only made me wonder what he could have done next. His public modesty about his own career is admirable, and while he never really got personal on air, you were always left with the impression that he was a thoroughly sincere and hard-working man, such as when he spoke to Simon Garfield for his book about BBC Radio 1, “The Nation’s Favourite”:

“Part of the success of the afternoon programme wasn’t the fact that we were postmodern and smart, it was that we were reliable and friendly. You could switch on wherever you were and be amused and have a friend. That sounds terribly pretentious, but it’s true: it’s comforting, it’s something nice, it’s upbeat, we tried only to reflect the good, the funny and the interesting... It's just a jobbing broadcaster doing a gig. When you do a show you can't think of the exact numbers of people tuning in and how it compares with the last figures - such thoughts are impostors. What people remember is the time you got them through their depression, or the time you helped them with their exams... Everything else is unimportant. At the end of the day it's just entertainment. Nobody has a disease.”

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