Why my friend Steve Wright stuck with the BBC until the very end

Tony Blackburn, Steve Wright and Paul Gambaccini in 2002
Tony Blackburn, Steve Wright and Paul Gambaccini in 2002 - PA

Steve was the epitome of Terry Wogan’s truism: either they like you or they don’t. And they liked Steve Wright. They liked that tone of optimism and sunshine in his voice. He made people feel good.

He was the ultimate mass audience broadcaster. He had a gift that lasted across the generations, and that’s why even at the time of his death his audiences were in the millions.

I’ve been on with all of the major Today show hosts since Jack de Manio and I can say that Steve’s contribution to broadcasting is the equal of any of them. He rates among the all-time greats of radio, such as Alistair Cooke and David Jacobs. Don’t think you have to be solemn to be serious as a broadcaster. Steve was never solemn but he was always serious about what he was doing.

He borrowed from the American “zoo” format which had been pioneered by a man called Scott Shannon and brought it to Britain, putting in a bit of twist with the attitudes of Kenny Everett. It resulted in a joyful combination. His world was populated by characters, such as Mr Angry, and he had his “posse” with their roles. Even people who never saw pictures of the show would visualise what it must be like to live in Steve Wright’s world. Steve created the feeling of a club, and all you had to do to be a member was to listen.

Now, of course, to construct a three-hour programme a day requires at least three hours of preparation. So Steve gave this show his adult life. It was as great a gift as a broadcaster can give his listeners.

He always had the long run in mind. He would say to me, “We surf the controllers,” and that was a reference to the ever-changing management in radio. Some executives will like you more than others. Steve’s goal was just to stay on the board until the wave was cresting again. And, son of a gun, he stayed on the board until he reached the shore.

He was surprised to be asked to leave his afternoon show in 2022 but he always thought that he would be back on a daily programme at some point. Station output is a reflection of the goals of the management, and management at this time had different goals. No-one said to Steve, “Hey, we’ve found someone better for your audience.” They wanted to serve a different audience.

Steve Wright in 1980
Steve Wright in 1980 - Carol Norman/Shutterstock

People will be interested to know that when he was taken off the afternoon show he received offers from virtually every commercial company but they all insisted that he met their format – either that he have no guests, or that he not choose his music – and he realised that for the commercial stations, they want your name but they don’t want you. The BBC was the only place, as of now, where he could be Steve Wright. He loved the BBC because it allowed greater creativity.

The reason why he never complained during this two-year period is because he was the main carer for his dad, who is seriously ill and whom he would visit at least once a week. That took precedence over everything.

In person, Steve was shy and modest. If you love the medium you’re working in, you’re aware of the giants who preceded you, and you’re aware of the people working now whom you admire, and you don’t get full of yourself. And you also know, as he would say, that you’re only as good as your last show, so you’ve got to go out there and do it again tomorrow. There was no room for egotism.

Steve Wright, Annie Nightingale and Paul Gambaccini in 1980
Steve Wright, Annie Nightingale and Paul Gambaccini in 1980 - PA

I last spoke to him on Saturday. I had no idea that he was unwell. He mentioned to me that he’d had doctors’ appointments but that doesn’t transfer to being fatally ill so I was completely surprised, as well as saddened, by this devastating news. He was still the same old Steve in terms of personality and – as listeners can attest – in voice. On radio he was ageless. I was just listening to Sunday Love Songs, which was the last programme to be broadcast in his life, and his voice sounded the same as it did decades ago.

I thought I would be talking to him this week because there was going to be a Zoom discussion today about the new BBC radio services which everyone has heard about [the BBC last week announced plans for spin-off stations for Radio 1, 2 and 3]. The press release about what sounds like “Radio 2 Extra” talked about focusing on the music of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and mentioned Steve and I as presenters who were familiar with that music, although neither of us had any idea what it was going to be. Unfortunately, my dear pal Steve will not be with us to find out.

As told to Anita Singh