A sense of occasion: Steve Wright in 1994. Image: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy

Something happening, somewhere

The age of radio DJing typified by the brilliant Steve Wright and Annie Nightingale has passed. What will replace it?
February 27, 2024

Shortly after news came of the death of the radio DJ Steve Wright, the podcaster Olly Mann took to X. Mann had worked with Wright for a time, and his thread celebrated the consummate skill of the radio DJ: the construction of intimacy through a kind of audio architecture; the glorious sense of occasion conjured even on a midweek afternoon.

“And from such slender material is this ‘event’ radio built!” Mann wrote. “Sally is here with the traffic. John in Kent is here with the songs. A bloke off Corrie is in for a chat. And yet it feels like something is HAPPENING.”

The way that audio is made, commissioned, heard, is different these days. Increasingly, we listen on our own time, rather than at any set broadcast hour. We play podcasts, pause them, rewind. Spotify allows us to generate our own radio playlists, or to seek out the “radio” of the artists we love. There is no need to listen to the traffic news from somewhere else, or hear what the man from Corrie has to say. No need, even, to stick around for the tunes we don’t like.

All of which means that when something is happening, it is increasingly because we, the listener, decide it is happening. And so the power of the radio disc jockey—of the kind that Steve Wright and that other recently departed great, Annie Nightingale, typified—has shifted somewhat. Wright’s show wasn’t so much about music really; rather, it was about the connections that music helps us forge. The sinews rather than the muscle. Still, the move away from this type of broadcasting affects the music we listen to—what we hear, when we hear it, how it even sounds.

I’m always hesitant to regard technological developments as a detrimental force. After all, the internet allowed for a great opening-up of music—from the early 2000s onwards, those too daunted by the gatekeepers behind the record store counter were free to explore new genres via iTunes; we can now watch a gig in Melbourne then listen to a radio station in Mali; it’s possible to hear the results of a collaboration between two artists who have never even been in the same room.

My theory has always been that, however technology advances, human urges remain the same; they are simply re-routed, like London’s underground rivers. While we might not have the event radio of Steve Wright and his peers, we still want to feel that something is happening, and that we are somehow part of it—it’s why we tune in to Instagram and TikTok “lives”, and why people follow TV talent contests. As yet, however, I think the new audio world has yet to meet this human desire.

There are currently very few truly brilliant music podcasts—in part, this is due to music licensing laws that make it hard to play tracks in full. Hanif Abdurraqib’s Object of Sound and Hrishikesh Hirway’s Song Exploder go some way to exploring why we love the music we do. The New York Times’s Popcast prowls expertly through musical trends, releases and tittle-tattle. Dissect, Bandsplain, Lost Notes and Questlove Supreme are similarly intricate, long-form examinations of the artform. But the medium has yet to find anything that feels like mandatory listening.

Meanwhile, we are not short of homes for new music—you can get lost for hours in Mixcloud and Soundcloud, follow the gospel of NTS, or Radio 3’s Night Waves. On 6 Music, the personal recommendations made by Huey, or Stuart Maconie, or Huw Stephens (among others) feel like treasures. Still, I often find myself listening to these shows at odd hours, their news bulletins and shout-outs no longer relevant, and no great sense of occasion or event or collective. I am just a woman with headphones, tuning in six hours after broadcast, as she crosses her city alone.

There used to be no greater affirmation of the wideness of the world than the radio dial

It wasn’t always this way. When I was just coming into adolescence, there was no greater affirmation of the wideness of the world than the radio dial. Wright was a part of that, and Nightingale, and the long-gone John Peel. But there were other sources, too. Most nights, as we sat doing our homework, my brother and I would shout through the adjoining wall of our bedrooms encouraging one another to re-tune whenever a song came on that we liked: “Evening Session! Rock FM! Piccadilly! Wave!”

It wasn’t just the magic of the songs themselves, beamed out into the ether, nor even the idea that there were other people out there who liked this music too. It was the fact that it seemed to enforce the belief that the world contained such possibility of people and sound, and that it was carried by such beautiful urgency.

You had to tune in, and tune in right now. You had to hear John in Kent or Sally with the traffic. You had to feel that, even on a midweek afternoon, there was “something happening somewhere”, as Bruce Springsteen once put it. “Baby, I just know that there is.”