The announcement on 17 January this year sent shockwaves throughout the nation. People were asking: “just what the hell are Radio2 playing at?” Others were saying what a feather in the cap it was for Bauer. Yes, after 31 years on the mid-morning show, Ken Bruce was leaving. And taking PopMaster with him!
Coming as it did on the heels of the departure of Steve Wright (from weekday afternoons at least), Paul O’Grady and Vanessa Feltz, the loss was a major blow for the station. Ken’s show has Radio 2’s largest audience at 8.2m listeners, about a million ahead of the breakfast show. The world really did seem to stop for PopMaster.
Ken has been heard on Radio 2 for 43 years, has been full-time for 38 of them and on mid-mornings for a total of 35 years (a four year run from 1986 to 1990 and then back from 1992). Three decades on the same show on the same station is pretty remarkable so you can understand Ken’s decision to quit whilst he’s ahead, and well before he’s inevitably given the push. No doubt Radio 2’s daytime music policy was also behind the decision.
Ken got his break into radio by volunteering at Glasgow’s Hospital Broadcasting Service. One of his contemporaries at HBS was a young lad named Charles Nove. In 2018 they got together for an hour as part of an HBS 48-hour charity marathon. Here’s what they had to say:
It was through BBC Scotland announcer Iain Purdon, himself a former HBS volunteer, that Ken got a job as radio announcer. His first broadcast was “a badly read 10 o’clock news” and, typically for that time, his other duties ranged from programme links, introducing concert to reading football results. In 1977, and into 1978, Radio Scotland had Radio 4 as its sustaining service so the announcers were expected to not only introduce any Scottish opt-outs, but to also cover all gaps between programmes emanating from London. From November 1978, coinciding with a number of other wavelength changes across the BBC network, Radio Scotland became a full single service for all of the country. Ken was one of the voices heard on the opening gala night and he secured both a weeknight show Night Beat – ‘music and chat for your late night entertainment’ – alternating duties with Iain Purdon and later Charles Nove, plus the Saturday morning edition of Good Morning, Scotland with ‘news and interviews, music to suit all tastes, a look at the gardener’s world, information for the traveller and a guide to what’s on in Scotland’.
By February 1980 Ken was presenting his own afternoon show on Radio Scotland, initially 3 days a week then every weekday later that year. By now freelance rather than on the staff, he switched to mid-mornings in 1981, ultimately achieving a listenership of 500,000, and was then back to afternoons in January 1983. Ken was also presenting the Sunday morning show Beat the Band. The concept here was that listeners would phone in and challenge the studio band, the Bernard Sumner Quartet, to play whatever tune they named. If they didn’t know it the caller could claim a £4 reward.
Ken had already started to make the occasional appearance on national radio in 1980 when he took over the presenting duties from David Findlay, who’d tragically died earlier that year, on the occasional (every 6 weeks or so) Scottish editions of Radio 2 Ballroom featuring Jim MacLeod and his Band.
In 1982 Ken was keen to move south and went down to London to meet Radio 2 boss David Hatch. The result was some holiday cover for Ray Moore on Radio 2’s early show for a couple of weeks that September and a full month the following May. It was something of a baptism of fire on his first day as Terry Wogan, who was due to follow on the breakfast show, had slept in and Ken had to cover for an hour. It got his name known. Ken and Ray’s styles were not dissimilar and their careers would continue to cross until Ray untimely death in 1989. It would be Ken that presented the tribute programme to Ray.
By now a known name at Broadcasting House it was Incoming Radio 2 controller Bryant Marriott that offered Ken his first regular show on the station, a Saturday late-night show to start in January 1984. Publicising the show in the Radio Times the article opened on the unscheduled Wogan cover and let the rest of the country know about his mammoth three hour and 20 minute afternoon show on Radio Scotland. As to his broadcasting style he described it to be “as natural as possible under the circumstances. I like to think of the people I’m talking to as rather like me. That way it’s easy to relate to them.”
1984 proved to be a busy year for Ken with his daily show in Scotland, weekend commutes to London for the Saturday show as well as covering for Steve Jones on Radio 2’s lunchtime show for a couple of weeks and then a fortnight in for John Dunn at drivetime. The reward was to be offered the prime slot, weekday breakfast starting in January 1985 when Wogan left to start his 3 times a week BBC1 chat show. The move meant an end to his time at Radio Scotland. Wogan’s natural successor had been seen as Ray Moore – David Hamilton’s name was also in the frame – so Ken’s promotion was big news.
The scheduling of the breakfast show was a little crazy, starting quite late at 8.05 and running to 10.30 am but in the event Ken’s tenure was short, just fifteen months. From April 1986 they’d offered it to ex-Fleet Street editor Derek Jameson.
To compensate for the loss of the breakfast slot Ken was moved to a weekday mid-morning show, a time that would become his natural home for most of the next 30+ years, The show was mainly requests and dedications (what we now seem to call ‘shout outs’), billed as ‘a mid-morning mix of melodic music, featuring your favourite Golden Moments’.
This was a busy time for Ken. In addition to his regular music shows he also appeared elsewhere on the network. In 1986 he took over as team captain, and later as quizmaster, on the long-running quiz Pop Score. He also chaired The ABC Quiz which ran for six series between 1986 and 1991. From 1997 through to 2018 he was a semi-regular presenter of Friday Night is Music Night.
Of course Ken has also been linked with the radio commentary for the Eurovision Song Contest for over three decades. He took over from Ray Moore in 1988 and has covered them all since. Prior to that he had been involved with A Song for Europe when he was the Scottish spokesperson in 1978 and first appeared in-vision in the role in 1983. He continued to be associated with A Song for Europe for many years, either providing the radio commentary whilst Terry Wogan covered the TV side or in previewing the entries on his mid-morning show.
In this montage of clips you’ll hear Ken from 1984 through to 1990. The recordings date from 18 August 1984, 22 December 1984, 29 December 1984, 27 January 1986, 7 April 1986, Olympics coverage 24 September 1988, 9 February 1989, 2 April 1990, The ABC Quiz 18 August 1986 and the Eurovision Song Contest 5 May 1990.
Over on Radio 4 Ken presented the Saturday morning travel show Breakaway between September 1990 and April 1992. Meanwhile on the BBC World Service he had a weekly 30 minute show starting in May 1988 and running through to August 1993.
|London Calling (May 1988) announces the start of
Ken's BBC World Service show
Ken would occasionally appear as a panellist on radio quizzes or game shows including Some of These Days, The Press Gang, Quote...Unquote and, in this example, On the Air. This was a quiz about radio and in this recording from the fourth series from 1987 he’s appearing with three broadcasting veterans: Michael Aspel, Barry Took and Nigel Rees. On the Air was devised and presented by David Rider.
It was change again in April 1990 when a reshuffle under yet another controller, this time Frances Line, saw Ken moved to a weekday late show with a 10 pm start, taking over from Brian Matthew’s highly successful Round Midnight. He was told that it was “a chance to launch a brand new programme into a new area”. Ken saw it as a demotion. It offered some features such as reports from the BBC’s regional correspondents, a short story, a newspaper review but by Ken’s own admission he struggled with the hours. “I was a morning person.”
That show only lasted nine months as from January 1991 he did a swap with Chris Stuart, who’d been looking after the early show since the death of Ray Moore. Finally after a year of early shifts from 6 January 1992 Ken was moved back to weekday mid-mornings with a 9.30 start. Exactly where he’s been ever since, until this week.
At first those mid-morning shows picked up he’d left off in 1990 with requests and dedications. The main feature was Pick of the Hits (1992-96) with listeners also asked to send in their Pick of the Year letters. 1998 saw a bit of an overhaul as the show gained an extra 30 minutes –Jimmy Young’s show start time being moved from 11.30 to noon – and the introduction of The Headline Hunt (1998-2001), though I’m scratching my head to recall what this was all about. Two others features that year have become part of the radio landscape: Love Songs and, of course, PopMaster. Tracks of My Years would follow in 2000.
|The 2022 PopMaster trophy
On the origins of PopMaster Ken recalls a meeting with his producer Colin Martin. “Colin suggested a quiz might bring some added value to the show, so between us, with the invaluable additions to the think tank of pop maestro Phil Swern, we came up with the format and title for PopMaster.” First heard on 16 February 1998 the format has hardly changed since with its straightforward scoring system, six point bonus questions and the 3 in 10. The prizes have changed, from an inflatable chair, shower radio, Radio 2 watch, CD wallet, digital radio, through to Bluetooth headphones and the much sought after One Year Out Tee Shirt. Showing great foresight Ken, Colin and Phil trademarked PopMaster in July 1998 which is why radio’s most listened to quiz is going with Ken over to GHR.
On 28 May 2021 Ken hosted a PopMaster rematch between the first ever contestants back in 1998, brothers David and Mark Taylor. It’s not exactly a high-scoring contest.
Ken’s last show on BBC Radio 2 is this Friday (3 March). His first show on Greatest Hits Radio is on Monday 3 April.
In 2020 Ken spoke to David Lloyd for his Radio Conversations series. You’ll find that online on Audioboom, Podfollow etc. in 2013 Tim Blackmore spoke to Ken for the Radio Academy podcast. I’ve uploaded that interview on YouTube.
Here’s Ken in action on this selection of airchecks.
(1) From 18 February 1985 just six weeks into Ken’s run on the breakfast show.
(2) Later that year on 14 November 1985 a scoped version of the first hour of the breakfast show.
(3) From 24 December 1990 Ken is covering the early show a couple of weeks ahead of him taking over the programme.
(4) Moving on a year here’s Ken again on the early show on 17 December 1991.
(5) A mid-morning show from 30 January 2004 with all the regular features. Tracks of My Years features Gary Jules and listeners can vote for the final Something for the Weekend record. Note how PopMaster is in two separate parts and contestants get a choice of three bonus categories.
(6) Almost exactly five years later from 28 January 2009 with Tracks of My Years chosen by Craig David. We hear the tail end of Terry’s show, Lynn Bowles has the traffic and the news is read by Charles Nove and Fenella Fudge.
(7) Ken celebrates his 70th birthday from his home studio in this recording from 2 February 2021.
Radio 2 show dates:
Saturday night late show 21 January 1984 to 29 December 1984
Breakfast Show 7 January 1985 to 4 April 1986
Mid-morning show 7 April 1986 to 30 March 1990
Late show (Monday-Thursday) 2 April 1990 to 27 December 1990
Weekday Early show 7 January 1991 to 20 December 1991
Mid-morning show 6 January 1992 to 3 March 2023