If you don’t know “W.O.L.D” it’s Harry Chapin’s lovely lament about an old-school disc jockey who falls out of fashion. Bruce – who as far as I know has never been vain enough to have tried to shore up his fast-disappearing hairline and is now completely slaphead – will soon be gone from Radio 2. And by then the last DJ will have left the building.
It’s the end of an era. By last DJ, I mean the jocks who loved pop music more than anything, who were time-served, who were doubtless aware of the cruel epithet “good face for radio” but carried on regardless and were great at their craft, for craft it definitely was.
It’s not viewed as that any more, at least not by the BBC. There, anyone can be a DJ. Well, anyone who’s already a name, preferably from TV – a chat-show host, perhaps, or that contradiction in terms, “reality star”. But, listening to these types, you never get the sense they care about music or their listeners the way a jock like Kenneth the Bruce does.
He still does because he’s still going to be a DJ come his sign-off from Radio 2. Bruce will re-emerge on Greatest Hits Radio, in the same mid-morning slot, having snaffled his PopMaster quiz into a black bin-liner on his departure from Wogan House.
He hasn’t been sacked, the way Smashie and Nicey were, but he did announce his departure live on air like Smashie and Nicey, who rushed to the mic in the hope of saving face before the axe fell. No, he hasn’t been sacked – imagine the outcry if that happened. It would have far exceeded the squealing, placard-wielding protest by my younger sisters and their teenybopper mates outside the Beeb’s old Edinburgh studios back in the 1970s. The reason? Scooby Doo was under threat of being dropped.
But this old dog didn’t need to be taught new tricks. Bruce’s turns for Radio 2 have been the most popular anywhere on British airwaves. Has he jumped before being pushed? His ears must have been burning – old men have been disappearing from the BBC at a staggering rate. And despite the PR-vetted announcement that the move was entirely his decision and he’s enjoyed great times over 45 years, was there the feeling that, among those trying to reshape the Corporation, he just wasn’t loved enough?
Reshaping means wooing younger audiences. Radio 2’s targeted socio-economic group is “mood mums”. What a ghastly name. It makes this sought-after female constituency sound erratic in their choices, possibly determined by the time of the month, and a bit neurotic. In fact, the official categorisation is “35-44, time-poor, family-oriented, put children first, tight for money”.
Bruce is 71 and for mood mums may well be a Jurassic jock. They didn’t grow up with his beloved 1970s tracks which in any case have been slowly disappearing from the playlist, under orders from on high. But he is not like the DJ in W.O.L.D. who remarks of his station: “They said they liked the ‘young sound’ when they let me go.” Bruce has not been languishing in a graveyard shift with a niche-nutter listenership. Eight and a half million have been tuning in for his weekday warblings and witterings: Tracks of My Years, Ken’s Love Song (yesterday – up yours, 70s police – it was the Hollies’ The Air That I Breathe) and of course PopMaster.
For the most recent contest, between a parcel courier and an air-conditioning manager, he was classic Ken: enthusiastic, encouraging, interested in the tiny personal details, bumbling. When minds went blank I was shouting: “Edison Lighthouse!… The Adverts!… ‘Kung Fu Fighting’!… Aneka!… Why are people so dense?” But maybe live on air I would forget my pop trivia. Radio quizzes can appear deceptively simple, as can the skills required to be a great DJ.
In W.O.L.D., the jock is talking on the phone to his ex-wife, though we only hear his side of the conversation. The song goes: “Remember how we listened to the radio/And I said: ‘That’s the place to be?’” You can imagine young Ken, perhaps back in his accountancy days, dreaming the same dream.
Maybe he really did start out spinning 45s at birthday parties, rugby club discos and grab-a-granny nights. I imagine that once, over the course of a single evening, he raced round three 21sts – a neighbourhood record. And that the down payment on a traffic lights display left rival DJs scrambling in the dark, a son et lumiere spectacular enabling him to dominate the weddings scene. It all kind of fits.
By the time of Bruce’s radio breakthrough, DJ-ing had changed. Jocks were no longer bigger than the pop stars. The big beasts – Edmunds, Travis, Bates – had been raving egomaniacs. I laughed when they said berkish things and loved it, too. They were playing the tracks of my years but then, like Mike Read pompously smashing a copy of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax, pop on the Beeb fragmented. Though not so much that an affable fellow from Glasgow cannot still be pulling in 8.5 million.
It seems astonishing that the BBC are about to kiss goodbye to such numbers. Kenneth the Bruce may not fit some trendy idea of what the Corporation wants its audience to look like. No, he truthfully tells us who it actually is.