Interview with Annie Nightingale

Entertainment Music and Art

This interview was originally published by The Oxford Student in November 2013.

Annie Nightingale always wanted to be “cool”. After 43 years on BBC Radio 1, its longest serving and its first female DJ, she remains the epitome of the concept with her Friday night show championing “dubstep, urban and all things bassotronic”.

Annie’s passion for discovering and promoting new sounds has fuelled her radio career and meant that she has remained at the cutting edge of the British music scene for more than four decades. “I haven’t grown up very much. Most people listen to pop music and they grow out of it. I didn’t”. Raised in Twickenham, south west London, Annie fell in love with the blues at the Eel Pie Club. At the same time she became interested in pursuing a career in journalism, “I used to watch movies and thought journalism seemed exciting, they travelled to all these exotic locations on the hunt for a story”. After honing her craft at the Brighton Argus Annie combined her passion for music with her writing and began freelancing appearing in Cosmopolitan, the Daily Express and on national TV.

Annie’s passion for searching out and sharing new sounds still excites her today: “You want to put stuff on the radio people haven’t heard before. But it has to be good. There is trust between the audience and me as a DJ. I have to deliver the best.” Annie’s obsession with finding new sounds has meant that she often shunned the mainstream. Although she was a daytime DJ when she first joined Radio 1 her ambition was to be on at late nights because “that is when all the cool sounds were on. As a nighttime DJ you aren’t obliged to play the playlist. You don’t have to be an entertainer. You have to really know your music but you can also experiment”. Annie championed the British urban revolution years before it started making an impact in the top 40. Tinnie Tempah, Wiley, Professor Green all owe her a debt. Modestly Annie views her task as introducing the audience to new acts before handing them over to daytime DJs when they became popular. Having championed prog rock in the 70s, house in the 1990s and now base and trap Annie has not allowed herself to become an anachronism: “You have to stay relevant or else why should you be on Radio 1?”

Why Annie should be on Radio 1 at all was a question asked by bosses when she first joined the station in 1970. Their opposition was not based on Annie’s ability. The issue was her gender. “In the early days Radio 1 said ‘there would never be a woman on the station’ and I would think ‘why?’” I had never encountered this attitude when working on newspapers or in magazines. I would attack Radio 1 in the press. I was a music journalist and I didn’t want to just describe music in print! I wanted to play the tunes! It seemed insane that I wasn’t allowed to play on them the radio”. Even more shocking to Annie was the reason bosses gave, “they said radio DJs were husband substitutes. I found that ridiculous”. In the end bosses relented but the welcome was far from warm “I was branded the ‘token woman’”.

As the ‘token women’ who had no experience of the exclusively male pirate radio ships Annie was plunged into the deep end from her first day. “Nobody showed me the technical side. All the men had learnt on the pirate ships. It was terrifying. I was scarred out of my mind. I had a lot to prove”. In an internal BBC report in 1973 the head of light entertainment wrote that women didn’t have the aptitude or the interest to present music. Yet Annie was proving her detractors wrong and because of this she thought once the door had been kicked down there would be “loads” more female DJ’s at the station. It was another twelve years before Janice Long arrived at Radio 1. “I thought maybe they wanted to be TV newsreaders?”

Even in 2013 British radio still has a distinct gender imbalance. The campaign group Sound Women reported in August that only one in five solo voices on British radio were female. Female participation in specialist and dance radio shows is even sparser. Fellow Radio 1 DJ Annie Mac has made calls for more females to be included in specialist programming. There are just two dance specialists on Kiss FM, Hannah Wants and Charlie Hedges, the latter of whom also co-hosts the breakfast show. According to their website, Rinse FM has seven female-led shows. Yet this pales in comparison to 43 shows hosted by men. Over the last year Radio 1 has recruited a raft of new specialist female talents including Éclair Fifi, B Traits and Monki. “Radio 1 is by no means crammed with women but we have a lot of good new women on board,” reflects Radio 1’s leading lady. Yet Annie is quick to point out that at sister station Radio 2 from Vanessa Feltz, whose weekday early breakfast show finishes at 6.30am, there isn’t another female DJ on air until ex Radio 1 colleague Jo Whiley hits the waves at 8pm. “The Today Programme on Radio 4 made headlines over the summer because they recruited a second woman to their presenting team, so maybe it is working. But then if you look at the comments on articles it’s all ‘shut up you winging feminists’”.

Annie has defied two of the ugliest attitudes often found in broadcast media: sexism and ageism. Never letting her gender or age to define her Annie has always wanted to be judged by the quality of her work. “Whenever you get an opportunity you should work at it and know your subject, it should be done for love. I still am still on Radio 1 not because of I’m a woman or my age but because I love it.”