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READER LETTER: Goodbye Steve Wright, you will always be my hero

READER LETTER: Goodbye Steve Wright, you will always be my hero

Friday 23 February 2024

READER LETTER: Goodbye Steve Wright, you will always be my hero

Friday 23 February 2024

I clearly remember the day I proudly brought home my shiny, white, plastic digital alarm clock from Boots. In the early ‘90s it was high-tech enough for my dad to refer to it as “my new gadget”. I’d bought it because eleven-year-old, insomniac me had decided she needed to know – day or night - what time it was, and the hot, red digits would burn this information into the air twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Naturally, the other bonus about the alarm clock was the screeching drone set to one fixed volume, which my sister hoped would halt the daily fight to rip me from my bed to arrive at the school gates at something resembling ‘on time.’ What I had failed to fully appreciate at the time was that this high-tech gizmo had a tertiary function. As well as being a timekeeper and alarm clock, it was also a radio.

A couple of years down the line and with a lack of much to do other than ‘doss around’ in my room, one day I worked out that the long, thin wire poking out of the back of the white, shiny cube wasn’t, in fact, “something that needed chopping off” as my mum had advised, but was actually an aerial. I also discovered that, as if by magic, that aerial could unite music loving, bored and aimless teenage me with the world. The wonderous world of ‘Steve Wright and The Posse.’

I’d never really listened to radio before I started listening to Steve and the gang on the Radio 1 Breakfast Show. Radio was always there, of course, in the background. But I couldn’t have named a presenter, and I didn’t regularly listen to a particular show. I’d never felt part of something when I listened to the radio. Steve Wright changed all that.

Instead of the droning alarm, I worked out how to set the shiny, white, plastic cube so that Steve’s show would wake me. Becoming a teen had done strange things to me and, almost overnight, it seemed I had become a keen timekeeper. Now, I was up at 7am to the sounds of Steve, before a quick shower (so as not to miss too much of the show,) then downstairs for breakfast by 7.45am. I soon realised that I didn’t need to look at the burning red digits to know what time it was – I could tell the time exactly by the feature I was listening to on Steve’s show. When Collins and Maconie’s ‘Thought for the day’ finished, I needed to switch off the radio and make my way downstairs to spread some ‘I Can’t Believe it’s not Butter’ onto my regulation breakfast at the time - two slices of lightly toasted Mighty White bread.

Although Steve popularised the ‘zoo’ format in the UK - which involved a regular cast of real and imaginary characters, running jokes and a general feeling of being down the pub with mates - his shows were meticulously planned. I loved the detail, the routine, the tapestry that was woven every day by a master of radio clearly at the pinnacle of his game. I suppose some people just listened and absorbed the show. I devoured and dissected it – which features hit the bullseye, which slightly missed or needed a tweak to the format. He was only at the helm of the Radio 1 Breakfast Show for just over a year, but to me it felt like a decade, probably because of the sheer volume of content he packed into every show. When he left after falling listening figures and a spat with management, I was crestfallen.

There was a short-lived TV chat show which, of course, I loved, but TV bosses didn’t. ‘Zoo’ radio flourished under the brash and brassy lads and ladettes of the ‘90s, but Evans, Ball, Moyles et al never captured the same feeling for me as listening to Steve had. There was a gentleness to his take on the genre that others crushed. He established an intimacy with the listener that only a master of radio can create and, for me, this was especially powerful in the mornings when we all need a soothing, reassuring and predictable hand to guide us through the first fragile hours after waking.

Listening to Steve on breakfast felt decidedly grown up, middle aged even, which was probably reflective of me always feeling much older than my teenage years. I can’t remember ever thinking that listening to Steve was ‘cool.’ I don’t suppose it’s a moniker he ever chased. After all, to be cool is to one day become irrelevant. I don’t recall speaking to any of my peers about listening to Steve; I wouldn’t expect any of them would be tuning in or would care much for radio. It felt like my space, my private universe. That’s the power of radio and the reason it became all I ever wanted to do.

After hanging around the outrageous, bonkers and amazing Island FM office for a summer, the team offered me a chance to produce Jim Delbridge’s Sports Saturday Show, meaning the bulk of my Saturday afternoons in my later teens were spent in the wacky world of Westerbrook. I loved it. Jim is another kind, gentle and encouraging soul who will always have a special place in my heart. Wrighty had made his way back to the Beeb by then and we were on at the same time as his Saturday afternoon show. With no OnDemand services, I relied on catching snippets before and after my shift, bombing along Bulwer Avenue in my white Fiat Uno.

After University, radio was firmly my destination, and I became a Broadcast Journalist. It was not just my career, it was my passion, my specialist subject, my obsession. When I moved into PR, I sought out an agency which specialised in broadcasting. Suddenly, I was playing with the big boys, as household names in TV, sport and music wandered in and out of our studios plugging their latest product, book or brand tie-in on national TV and radio. We were based in the heart of Marylebone – Steve’s stomping ground. After a few months in the capital, I moved to a flat just off Marylebone High Street, so it became mine too.

On the day I finally bumped into him, I hesitated. I had never approached a celebrity on the street before and I haven’t since. I was encountering them every day and always felt cheesy about asking for photos, but of course I’d taken snaps for posterity. Seeing Steve was a whole different ballgame. For the first (and last, so far) time in my life, I felt truly starstruck. This balding, overweight, middle-aged man made my heart beat in my throat and my legs felt like they had turned to jelly. I went to approach him…and hesitated. He had clearly spotted me. It was too late to run away, and my legs wouldn’t have carried me anyway.

“Go on then,” he said, first appearing stern and then a sly smile forming at the corners of his mouth and spreading to his eyes. It felt like I had an invitation to speak.

“I’m so sorry, I never usually do this, but I’ve listened to you for years and you’re the only person I’ve ever really wanted to meet and…” I gabbled on, grabbing the railings near the pedestrian crossing where we had locked eyes to steady myself. There was something about Steve that made it all tumble out. My love of radio, my long-standing history as a fan of his, my background as a broadcast journalist and my current work in PR. We chatted for a while, but I was keenly aware that he was a famously private person, no mean feat for someone who had been a household name for thirty years at that point. I was worried I might unintentionally overstep a mark. I needn’t have been. He made me feel comfortable and so very privileged as we spoke intensely and he listened to everything I told him, asking questions which suggested he was genuinely interested to find out more about me. As we parted, he encouraged me to indulge my passion for radio by getting back on air, saying,

“The one thing you must be in radio is memorable. And you’re memorable.”

Over the next couple of years, I accompanied plenty of household names into Steve’s show at the then-Western-now-Wogan House for pre-recorded interviews for ‘The Big Show’. As a dreaded PR, I was – of course - firmly locked out of the studio, but I was allowed the privilege of a front row seat in the green room as he put actors, presenters and sportspeople at their ease. None of the guests ever

had a bad word to say about Steve. They all loved speaking with him, and we would all bounce out of the studio sad to leave the warm and jocular environment Steve created. He showed guests from all different backgrounds and walks of life the respect they deserved and, more importantly, he showed a deep and unending respect for his listeners. He never coasted through a single show or took his place on national radio for granted. That’s not easy when you’ve been on air for nearly fifty years.

Living in the small neighbourhood of Marylebone meant I saw Steve regularly. He was a fan of the local restaurants and often frequented them with his daughter and sometimes his son. I found it incredibly touching how close they appeared to be and how much time they spent together, and I never dreamt of disturbing that, so I never approached Steve again. But I can see him now, bowling purposefully down Marylebone High Street, dressed all in black, shirt half untucked, with a flat cap pulled low over his eyes, on his way to do some ‘serious jockin’.

RIP ‘Sir’ Steve Wright. Thanks for everything.

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