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25 May 2016updated 27 Jul 2021 11:23am

“I’m downloading stuff from first thing in the morning”: at 76, Radio 1 DJ Annie Nightingale is still raving

The longest-serving Radio 1 DJ chats grime, sexism, and Donald Trump.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

“I didn’t start off being ambitious; I was just enthusiastic about the music.” From anyone else, this would seem like a platitude. From Annie Nightingale, it makes total sense.  At 76, her enthusiasm for the music scene shows no sign of diminishing.

We meet in a restaurant near New Broadcasting House so that she can whip off to the studio when needed. It’s only lunchtime, but with a generous application of glitter eyeshadow, Annie looks forever the night owl. Currently on a 1am-3am slot on Wednesday morning, Nightingale was the first female DJ on Radio 1, and is now the station’s longest serving broadcaster.

She didn’t intend to become a DJ – Nightingale started in newspaper journalism, but BBC regional radio got in touch. “Somebody said, ‘Would you like to have a go at this?’ I went into a studio inside the Royal Pavilion in Brighton and there was a microphone, nobody there and you had to press a button and speak solidly. I felt so comfortable. It was just a complete eye-opener.”

Women on the radio at the time were few and far between, but this refused to put Nightingale off. “Pirate radio was a great inspiration: it was illegal, somehow very romantic, and they played great music. The BBC didn’t in those days. It was all very pale and watered down. Then I heard the BBC were going to start an alternative station, so then I thought, ‘Great!’ And they thought, ‘No, absolutely not.’”

It took the the Beatles’ press officer, Derek Taylor, intervening to persuade the station consider her despite her gender. “When they took me on, I thought I’d last the year and that would be the end of it.” Did she spend that whole year gripped with anxiety? “That whole year, and the next five, ten! The technical stuff frightened me: if I made mistakes, it would be, ‘See, a woman can’t do it!’

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“After I realised they seemed to like me, I thought there would be loads more women coming through the door, but there wasn’t anyone for 12 years. I was the only woman until Janice Long in 1982.” Today, Nightingale is pleased at how many women have risen to the top of the music scene, and is still passionate about diversity in the arts. “Unpaid internships encourage elitism. I feel very strongly about that.”

When I ask her if she would describe herself as a political person, Nightingale says, “I think it would be very irresponsible not to be.” Over the course of our conversation, she jumps from subjects as diverse as Donald Trump (“terrifying”), Jeremey Corbyn (“idealistic”), the EU referendum (“I wish we weren’t having it!”), former Home Secretary Alan Johnson (“delightful”) and the Sykes-Picot Agreement (like “dividing Manchester, with City and United, in half – the wrong way!”) with equal fervour.

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She’s similarly eager to speak with warmth and fondness of her colleagues, from Nick Grimshaw (I cannot say enough good things about him: he’s just a really, really special person) to Clara Amfo (She really knows her stuff – I’ve got great respect for her). She even surprises me with an anecdote about former Radio 1 DJ Phillip Schofield. “He wrote a letter, when he was a kid, to all the Radio 1 DJs. Apparently I was the only one that replied to him, but I felt a spark there.”

But her most passionate moments – what Nightingale quaintly describes as “when I get a bee in my bonnet about something” – are reserved for music. “I love it as much as I did day one. I’m downloading stuff from first thing in the morning. There’s so much out there – it’s finding the good stuff. That’s what I do.”

Nightingale is renowned for remaining forward-looking into her eighth decade. “Nostalgia is a terrible waste of time”, she tells me. “This is now – grab it now! You can’t look back, you can’t go back.”

Nevertheless, she refuses to forget music scene of her youth. Her job as music journalist in the Sixties introduced her to many of the decade’s most well-known acts, including the Beatles, who quickly became her friends. “I still say we owe The Beatles an awful lot. I recognised what they were about straight away. In fact, Paul [McCartney] was saying, ‘We were the first lot that didn’t have to do national service.’ It was a period of huge social change.”

Nightingale at home with a Beatles LP in 1964. Via Getty

“There’s a lot of anniversaries around at the moment, so next year is going to be the 50th anniversary of Radio 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 – that’s 1967, the summer of love. So there’s a real movement afoot now to say, ‘Oh, it never happened.’ Well, it did! I saw it was happening. We really believed we could change the world.”

Who excites her in the same way as the Beatles did in the Sixties? Nightingale cites Skepta, Lethal Bizzle, Meridian Dan and Ghostpoet amongst others. Britain’s grime artists in particular, she tells me, have that same ability to grab the social moment. “It’s witty and a bit different. There’s a social message coming through. You’ve got to be a wordsmith. They’re very very friendly, guys, too – no moody rockstar business, quite the opposite.”

The #BritsSoWhite scandal, which saw several of Britain’s most successful black artists overlooked at this year’s Brit awards, particularly frustrated her. “I’m a judge and I think it must, it must reflect more of our diverse music. And it is successful diverse music! That needs to happen. Grime has been going for a long time. But it never went away. I’m so glad it’s getting recognition now.”

What does she see as her role in an every-changing music scene, with evolving technology and an insistent focus on reaching younger and younger audiences?

“It’s very much one of curator, because there’s so much out there and it’s changing so quickly, week to week. In many ways, this job is so simple, and it hasn’t changed. You find the music, you pass it on to your listeners, and say ‘Do you like this as well? Is it just me?’ That hasn’t changed at all. It’s actually just enthusiasm, and that communication with the audience. That idea that you play this tune and it goes out there at that exact moment and you don’t know where it’s going, who might pick it up, where they might take it: there’s a romance about that. If I can help people get on with their music and encourage people, that’s what I do it for.”

“There was a time I used to dream of Radio 1 being heard around the world, and now it is. And I’m here to enjoy it.”

Annie Nightingale is appearing at HowTheLightGetsIn, the philosophy and music festival at Hay 26 May – 5 June. Book your tickets and accommodation for debates and parties here.