Radios 1 & 2 @ 50

At the British Music Experience we recognise the hugely important role radio has played in the UK’s musical history and now is a good moment to reflect on this week’s 50th anniversary of Radio 1 and 2.  Yes – it was a whole half century ago when Tony Blackburn placed the needle on The Move’s Flowers In the Rain to open the first show.

Radio 1 was Britain’s first national pop station, conceived as a response to the illegal pirate radio stations.  Fifty years on it is still right up there as the third most popular radio station in the country. While your age and your musical tastes will colour your memories of the station, its ongoing influence is undeniable.  

I grew up in the days of Blackburn, Simon Bates with his ‘Our Tune’ feature, Ed Stewart and the beautifully named Emperor Rosco. This generation of DJs was later brilliantly parodied by the Smashie and Nicey comedy characters but these people were responsible for making or breaking records and indeed whole careers. Behind the scenes the station’s producers were shaping what we listened to through selecting the playlists for the week, while pluggers desperately tried to use their influence to ensure their artists got playlisted.

For me and millions of others the key figure in my musical education was Radio 1’s late, great John Peel. In a time when it was much more difficult to access the music you wanted to hear, Peel was my saviour. When punk began Peel was the first to get it and his playing of badly-pressed indie singles from all corners of the country was one of the real delights of my teenage years.

It wasn’t just punk. though. Peel helped broaden my musical outlook with his wide-ranging and sometimes bonkers selections. He also commissioned sessions, giving opportunities to many young upstarts as well as frequently going back to favourites like The Fall.  I grew up owing Peel a lot and was lucky enough to meet and interview him: he was everything you wanted him to be and more. 

Peel in a nutshell is what makes Radio 1 great.  He didn’t fit their mould of what a DJ should be but the broadcaster was a public service and Peel provided an outlet for those who otherwise weren’t catered for by the station, so they largely let him get on with it.

The Breakfast Show was another Radio 1 institution and I have to say my all time favourites in this slot was Mark and Lard, who took over from the very different Chris Evans. They were hilarious and had great musical taste. This inevitably meant they didn’t last too long and were shifted to the afternoon where their madness was thankfully given free reign.

Mark and Lard were all part of the shift away from the ‘Smashie and Nicey’ and Radio 1 Roadshow era as BBC bosses realised the world was changing. New presenters like Steve Lamacq and Jo Whiley came in and Pete Tong’s show became a must-listen for anyone interested in dance music.   

Over the years the likes of Peel, Lamacq, Janice Long played a crucial role in breaking acts who went on to have massive success but, just as importantly, also gave us a chance to hear artists who, but for their intervention, we never have heard of.

We will all have our favourite Radio One DJs or favourite eras, but what is important is that the station has survived intact and healthy into the new digital age. (The same can be said of Tony Blackburn himself, still plying his trade on Radio 2).  Indeed Radio 1’s it’s spin off urban station Radio 1Xtra has some of the best DJs around, providing a perfect national platform for UK talent.

These days, to be honest, I’m much more likely to listen to 6 Music or 1Xtra than Radio 1, but it is such a crucial part of the British music fabric that I’m glad it is still there; still an important part of the music landscape and it will probably still be with us in another 50 years.

At the BME through our Timeline and Transmission features we illustrate the history of British radio from the pirate stations, through to the forming of Radio One, and the launch of DAB, highlighting landmark radio moments throughout. 

On Sunday 1 October, former Radio I DJ and 6 Music regular Steve Lemacq will be appearing at the Music Room at the Royal Liverpool Philhamonic, talking about his 30 years in the music biz, Radio One exploits and the rest of his career. This date kicks off a series of events in Liverpool, London, Nottingham and Cardiff.