Annie Nightingale: ‘I’m always living in the future’

Radio 1’s longest-serving DJ – and the first woman to grace the station’s airwaves – reflects on five decades on the decks
Annie Nightingale
‘I thought loads more women would rush through the door’: Annie Nightingale. Photograph: David Venni/BBC
‘I thought loads more women would rush through the door’: Annie Nightingale. Photograph: David Venni/BBC
Priya Elan

Last modified on Tue 25 Aug 2020 08.55 EDT

Annie Nightingale, 75, was the first female DJ on Radio 1. She started as a news journalist before moving into the arts in the early 60s as a film critic for the Brighton Argus, interviewing the Beatles. She began her DJ career at BBC West before graduating to Radio 1 in 1970. Later she presented on BBC Two’s The Old Grey Whistle Test and Radio 1’s hugely popular Sunday Request Show, before moving in 1994 to a late-night, dance music slot. She is the longest-serving DJ on the station.

Your new Masterpiece compilation is a celebration of 50 years in the business – how does that make you feel?
I think: “No, it can’t be.” I’m always living in the future, because I’m planning a show which happens every fortnight. For me, it’s less about the 50 years and more about the track-listing. I love putting tunes together, and these aren’t the most obvious, greatest hits of the artists. I was happily surprised that these musicians said yes. The Rolling Stones have never been on a compilation before.

There’s a British slant to it. Why do you think the UK music scene is so fertile?
I wonder if it’s because we’re so critical. You can’t get away with making bad music in the UK. However much you hype something, if people don’t like it, they will not react to it. You have to work very hard to make it in the UK. We still have the talent here – just look at grime; it’s unique and original. It’s just a question of whether we have the belief.

You are seen as being part of the swinging 60s – do we romanticise that decade too much?
Yeah, I do. But to me, the 90s were just as important and exciting. I can see parallels with the 60s; it broke down social barriers. Now you get kids saying: “I wish I’d been around in the 90s” (laughs). I say: “You’ve got to make this time your time. You’ve got to get out there and support that DJ and see that gig. You have to contribute to make a culture happen.” I really do believe that.

There’s been lots of healthy dialogue about sexism in the arts in recent years. What were your experiences like?
There was a ban on women on Radio 1. They said that disc jockeys were husband substitutes, so they didn’t need any women. They also believed women’s voices didn’t have enough authority to be on the radio. I was writing for various magazines, so I was in a position where I could attack their stance. At some point, the culture changed, they realised they needed to do something about it and my name came up.

Were you surprised that more women DJs didn’t come along after you started?

I thought loads of women would rush through the door and then there wasn’t anyone for 12 years until Janice Long came along. I ended up thinking that perhaps it was just something that no one wanted to do. Of course, now it’s all changed.

We look back at the music business in the 70s with some horror now. Did you have any sense of that at the time?
It’s become a national joke, the idea of a 70s DJ. I lived in Brighton and had small kids, so I’d come into London, do my show and go home. You were always fighting over studio time. There wasn’t a situation where you’d all hang out together. There was no sense of knowing what [the DJs] were doing when they were off air.

Beats 1 radio has just started to great fanfare – why do you think radio has remained so popular?
Say you’re on a long car journey and whatever music you’ve got in your car, sometimes all you want to is a voice. People still want that connection, I think. The difficulty for Radio 1 is to make sure that the very young continue to tune in.

Masterpiece is out 17 July on Ministry of Sound

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