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Simon Mayo interview: ‘We all get told our time is up, but not always with respect and decency’

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 04/03/2021 Chris Harvey
Simon Mayo sitting on a chair: DJ and broadcaster Simon Mayo; January, 2019 - Marco Vittur/Scala © Marco Vittur/Scala DJ and broadcaster Simon Mayo; January, 2019 - Marco Vittur/Scala

“I knew the Mood Mums would come up,” laughs Simon Mayo. “I haven’t heard the concept mentioned for three years and I’m very happy about that.” I’ve just asked the former Radio 1 and Radio 2 DJ what he makes of the BBC’s drive to win listeners among “family-oriented women aged 35 to 44”, who are big fans of commercial stations with familiar, reassuring playlists like Heart, Smooth and Magic FM.

“Look, marketing executives and all those people talk in that language, and the whole thing leaves me cold,” he says. “Here’s the way I approach every show I do, and it’s very kind of old fashioned: I want everyone to listen.”

We’re chatting via video call. Mayo’s talking into a professional microphone in a calm room at his London home, from where he has been broadcasting throughout the pandemic. There are framed posters of the band Travis and of Alfred Hitchcock on the wall behind him, neatly balancing his love of film and music. He’s upbeat but operating a briary defence against questions about the BBC. “I’m just not interested… I don’t feel a part of that as an institution,” he says.

Mayo, of course, quit Radio 2 in October 2018, after his bosses insisted his very popular Drivetime show become more gender-balanced, with the imposition of a co-presenter – his friend Jo Whiley – and the chemistry-less result went down like a lead balloon with the show’s regular audience of more than six million listeners. Mayo won’t talk about it, except to say that “what happened in 2018 wasn’t a whole lot of fun”. But it led directly to his decision to leave the station, if not quite the BBC entirely, as he continues to host Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review once a week on Radio 5 Live.

For the past two years, he has been hosting a daily classical show from 10am to 1pm on Scala Radio – owned by the British arm of the German media giant Bauer – but from March 15, he’s back in the afternoon “Drivetime” slot on Bauer’s Greatest Hits Radio, the home of other “legendary” DJs including Mark Goodier, Pat Sharp, Paul Gambaccini and Janice Long.

“You know that Drivetime show I did before? It’s gonna be kind of like that,” says the 62-year-old.

Simon Mayo holding a laptop and smiling at the camera: Simon Mayo completing his first broadcast on Scala Radio; March, 2019 - Julian Simmonds © Provided by The Telegraph Simon Mayo completing his first broadcast on Scala Radio; March, 2019 - Julian Simmonds

It’s clear that his departure still rankles. “I feel as though I have unfinished business on the show, and I intend to go back and do something about that.” He’s getting the gang back together, he says. “We’re going to take the elements that worked on the Radio 2 show – Matt Williams is going to be doing the sport, Nigel Barden is doing the food. There will be some features that are familiar, ‘All Request Friday’ will be back.”

This popular “Drivetime” feature is still part of his Radio 2 successor Sara Cox’s show. He’s also bringing back “Confessions” – in which listeners call in to admit to their often humorous “Sins” – a feature which he devised in the early Nineties for his Radio 1 Breakfast Show. Does he anticipate any calls telling him that he can’t reproduce elements of his shows for the Corporation? “I think everyone’s being grown up about it,” he says. Does he get paid more on commercial radio? “The delightful thing about being on commercial radio is that I don’t have to answer that question,” he returns. Mayo made the top 20 of BBC earners back in 2018, at around £350,000. “I’m very happy to not be part of the annual turkey shoot, which is what it was,” he says, with perhaps the only glint of anger he has shown so far.

He doesn’t want to comment on his “fellow turkeys” either. I ask him about them, though. Does he think the forces which led to his exit will eventually do for the older white male line-up that dominates Radio 2’s daytime schedule? Ken Bruce, Jeremy Vine and Steve Wright are buttressed by their popularity, but is it all that is protecting them?

“All the people that you’re talking about are great broadcasters. I think they’ll probably go on for another 20 years, at least,” he says. I detect an Aikido master’s redirection of force.

Are older listeners being ignored? “There’s always a youth drive,” he says, “And it’s probably fair enough.”

Nicky Campbell, John Peel posing for a photo in front of a building: The Radio 1 broadcasting team pose to celebrate 25 years of the channel being on air - Neville Marriner/ANL/REX/Shutterstock © Provided by The Telegraph The Radio 1 broadcasting team pose to celebrate 25 years of the channel being on air - Neville Marriner/ANL/REX/Shutterstock

He remembers posing for a Radio 1 photograph outside Broadcasting House on the steps of All Souls Church – “where my parents got married” – and the next day, he recalls, “The Sun added up all our ages, and it came to like, 1,000, some ridiculous number, and everyone was saying, they’re too old, you need to do something about it.” It must have been 1992, Mayo was the most fresh-faced of them all, having arrived as a 28-year-old in 1986 from Radio Nottingham, after getting a start in hospital radio.

His parents were both teachers, and he had moved around a lot growing up, from Croydon to the West Midlands to Worthing in West Sussex. He seemed like an embodiment of a new breed, less egotistical, nicer. In later years, he would talk about his Christian faith, and complain in a 2010 interview with The Daily Telegraph that the Corporation was driving religion to the margins, and that television comedians were at the forefront of a new atheism. He won’t talk about it today, though. (“I don’t feel in a position to comment.”)

Did he arrive at the exact point where radio DJs had ceased to be bigger than the artists they played? “Certainly, when I joined, the era of the DJ turning up on the roadshow without any bands, without any guests, where the thrill was just seeing the presenter put some records on, that was starting to wane.”

Simon Mayo standing posing for the camera: Mayo is excited to begin broadcasting on Drivetime slot - Leigh Keily © Provided by The Telegraph Mayo is excited to begin broadcasting on Drivetime slot - Leigh Keily

He recalls sitting in the studio in London for six hours at a time as cover if the line went down on a broadcast from the Radio 1 “Week Out” in Aberdeen, and was struck by how “incredibly patronising” the jokes were. It was all “haggis, whisky and kilts”, and the result was lost listeners in Scotland. It felt like a generational thing, “and I’m aware as I’m saying this that I was responsible for [the success of Andy Stewart’s 1989 hit single] Donald Where’s Your Troosers?,” he grins.

He came across another photograph the other day, he tells me, of himself with U2 at Maida Vale for a live session in 2000.

“I remember being completely, utterly miserable, because I was leaving Radio 1,” he says. “We all get told our time is up, and hopefully, when that time comes, it’s done with respect and decency, which clearly doesn’t always happen.”

There it is again, just below the surface.

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Since 2010, Mayo has been building himself an alternative career as a novelist, beginning with a young adult trilogy about Itch, a 14-year-old who discovers an entirely new element.

“I started writing because my youngest was 10, and he was interested in science,” he says.

That 10-year-old is now 21, and one of three children Mayo has with his wife, Hilary Bird. His family commitments mean he is particularly aware of the sacrifices young people have made during the pandemic, and the DJ hopes they will not be disadvantaged by their position at the back of the queue for the vaccine.

“My kids made a sacrifice. They stayed in, they did what they were told to do,” he says. Proposed vaccine passports may be the way forward, if it means he can go to cinemas and concerts again.

But they should only kick in, he insists, “when every adult has been offered both jabs”.

Simon Mayo’s new Drivetime show begins on Greatest Hits Radio on March 15 at 4pm      

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