Of Annie Nightingale’s various accolades, which include an honorary doctorate in journalism and an MBE for services to radio broadcasting, the DJ is most pleased with her gong for Caner of the Year, awarded to her in 2001 by the dance magazine Muzik. Nightingale asked what she had done to deserve it and was told: “Everywhere we’ve been partying, you’ve been there. Miami, Ibiza – for dedication to the cause.”
Then 61, she had chalked up more than 30 years at BBC Radio 1, but the caner award was special because it acknowledged her standing in dance music – the genre to which she has dedicated herself since the late 80s. “That one [is my favourite honour],” she said. “Wouldn’t it be yours?”
Nightingale is still at Radio 1 14 years later and is the station’s longest-serving DJ by decades. She is the only presenter from its “nation’s favourite” era of the 1970s and 1980s who hasn’t been sent to the quieter climes of Radio 2 or the regionals, and one of very few over 40.
When indie music champion Zane Lowe, 41, left in March to join Apple’s radio station, Beats 1, there were mutterings that he was no longer considered relevant by Radio 1 listeners – yet Nightingale, 75, has not just survived but thrived.
Recent months have been cluttered with activity: she played a midnight set at Glastonbury in June. This month, her 50 years in broadcasting is being commemorated by a two-part career documentary called On Air with Annie Nightingale. Also this month, she is releasing a three-disc album, titled Masterpiece, of her favourite songs, from The Who’s Baba O’Riley to Flux Pavilion’s ravey Blow the Roof. Alongside that, she’s on air every Wednesday between 1am and 4am. The station’s website describes her show as “Annie Nightingale with the biggest bass bangers”.
Much of the reason Nightingale has avoided ageism at a station whose remit is to “reflect the lives and interests of 15–29 year olds” is that she’s tirelessly enthusiastic about new music – specifically dance, which evolves and fragments at a staggering pace. She’s evolved with it, having been a passionate fan since the early days of acid house in the 80s. She specialises in the genres bass, breakbeat and trap and has become a reliable purveyor of new cuts and classics.
The station has a cohort of dance jocks, such as Annie Mac, who’s been promoted to the early evening slot formerly occupied by Lowe, but Nightingale has gravitas that younger presenters can’t buy. MistaJam of 1Xtra, the BBC’s dance station, lauds “her unflinching support for drum and bass, grime and all things UK and bass driven these days. She’s a real pioneer, and her influence is as strong as it ever was.”
Radio 1 DJs are in a bind. By the time they have the experience needed to carry off a high-profile national slot, they’re considered too old. And experience is key: in 2003, then controller Andy Parfitt took a chance by hiring 23-year-old unknown Wes Butters to present the cornerstone chart show. He lasted a year. Nightingale has survived culls by hiding in plain sight. Like John Peel, who was still going strong at Radio 1 when he died aged 65 in 2004, Nightingale inhabits the station’s late-night hinterland, where presenters are under less pressure to deliver the ratings.
“She’s only interested in being on in the evening and weekends, when you can play the latest music, not just chart hits and playlisted music,” says David Morley, who produced On Air with Annie Nightingale. He adds: “She was reborn in the era of acid house – she got into that music and it breathed new life into her career.”
Nightingale was lucky – ravers in the late 80s were an egalitarian bunch who welcomed anyone who loved the music. “She was older than a lot of people who were making the music but the bands in that culture were very accepting of people outside their generation. It came down to the music, rather than the image,” Morley says.
As an interviewer Nightingale knows when to talk and when to listen, and exudes a warmth that makes interviewees feel she’s on their side. “She’s a fiercely loyal friend,” says Sarah Lowe, a music PR who shared a London flat with her for a while in the mid 90s when Nightingale was presenting a weekend show aimed at clubbers, the Chill Out Zone.
Lowe answered the phones for the programme and the two struck up an enduring friendship. “She’s fabulous, one of a kind, a sonic pioneer – her ears are golden, and she has the knack of spotting raw talent before it becomes the next big thing,” Lowe adds.Nobody seems to have a bad word to say about her. Radio 2’s Mark Radcliffe recalls: “When I was a young producer at Radio 1 in 1983, only two people checked to see how I was getting on. One was Annie’s producer, Pete Ritzema, and the other was Annie. There was a tap at the door and that face, with its accompanying voice that I knew so well, was suddenly in the room. ‘Hi, I’m Annie and I’m just checking you’re okay and seeing how you’re getting on.’ I’ve never forgotten it.”
“None of us female DJs would be here without her, because she opened the doors,” notes 6 Music’s Lauren Laverne, who interviewed her on a special music themed edition of Woman’s Hour. Laverne isn’t exaggerating. When Radio 1 took Nightingale on in 1970, the station had never had a female presenter.
Morley says: “She was [initially] turned down, because they didn’t want any women on Radio 1.” Alluding to the perception that Radio 1 was then a station for housewives, Morley adds: “They said the DJs were husband substitutes, and listeners wouldn’t want to hear a woman, but she didn’t take no for an answer.”
The station’s refusal is all the more baffling because Nightingale already had five years’ experience as a journalist and TV presenter. An only child born in north-west London, she trained at Regent Street Polytechnic in London (now the University of Westminster; it awarded her an honorary doctorate in journalism in 2012) and worked as a feature writer at the Brighton Argus.
As a journalist, it was easy to meet the big stars of the day; backstage at a Dusty Springfield concert in the mid-1960s she came across Vicki Wickham, who was then assistant producer at Ready Steady Go!, and through Wickham managed to land a job as a presenter on a new pop TV show, That’s for Me. She had had no previous television experience.
Added to this, she had a baby at 19 (and subsequently fought her parents’ attempts to make her a ward of court when she became a young mother). She now rarely talks about her son, who once managed Primal Scream, or her two marriages
Nightingale claims never to have encountered sexism until she applied to Radio 1 – it took the intervention of the Beatles’ press officer, Derek Taylor, to persuade the station to give her an audition. Her enthusiasm and warmth proved an immediate hit; 45 years later, her CV includes a 12-year stretch fronting one of the station’s most popular programmes, the Sunday Night Request Show, five years as host of TV’s “serious” pop show, the Old Grey Whistle Test, and hundreds of DJ gigs around the world. Perhaps her real legacy, though, is the number of women who now work for Radio 1.
On Air with Annie Nightingale – part two of the documentary airs on 22 July – is a jumble of music and stories that highlight the fact that there are few music superstars with whom she is not on first-name terms. It’s being broadcast on Radio 2 because much of it focuses on the early decades of her career: ironically, “it’s not a Radio 1 kind of show”, as Morley puts it.
The best tale starts with her running into Mick Jagger at a Rolling Stones album launch party in 1973, and ends with her nearly getting sacked for playing an expletive-laden track on air. “After that I was under suspicion all the time of playing tracks with obscenities in,” she says, sounding distinctly pleased.
Born: 1 April, 1940, Osterley, London
Career: Only female journalist at the Brighton Argus, before becoming a presenter on the mid-1960s ITV pop show That’s for Me. Joined Radio 1 as its first female presenter in 1970. She spent five years fronting the Old Grey Whistle Test from 1978. The rise of dance music in the late 80s refocused her career: she now presents a weekly late-night show on Radio 1 and plays live DJ sets around the world.
High point: Receiving an MBE and Muzik magazine’s Caner of the Year award in the space of 12 months.
Low point: Being initially rejected by Radio 1 because it was thought women listeners wouldn’t listen to a female presenter.
She says: “Who wants safe and bland? Let’s have excitement and danger and all that stuff.”
They say: “The secret to her success is down to three things in my view – passion, storytelling and authenticity.” – Radio 1 controller Ben Cooper
• This article was amended on 20 July 2015 to clarify that Annie Nightingale was sole presenter of the Old Grey Whistle Test, not a co-presenter. An earlier version also said Cathy McGowan, who was then presenting Ready Steady Go!, helped Nightingale get a job in music television. It was Vicki Wickham who gave the helping hand.