Bob's passion for new music has helped him to forge a career that has taken in two BBC networks, as well as 'The Old Grey Whistle Test'. He insists that the most exciting music is the latest release to hit his doormat, but in terms of interviews nothing can top John Lennon in 1975...
- On leaving school Bob didn't know what to do for a career and joined the police cadets on the recommendation of his father. The deal being that if he gave it his all and it didn't work out, he could do something else and his father would back him 100%.
- At 19, he left the police cadets, and Northamption, to move to London. There he was exposed to psychedelia and the pirate radio ships. On hearing John Peel, Bob was certain that he wanted to make his mark in broadcasting. He spent the next four years plotting to get himself noticed.
- Bob started writing to earn a living in London and met Tony Elliott (later to co-found 'Time Out' with Bob) who ran the University of Keele's student magazine. Tony gave Bob the chance to interview John Peel, and John and Bob subsequently became friends. John introduced him to Radio 1 producer Jeff Griffin and that led to Bob being offered four shows filling in for John Peel on Radio 1 in 1970. Soon after one of Radio 1's 'Sounds of the Seventies' presenters, David Simons, resigned and the BBC offered the Monday night slot to Bob.
- Less than 18 months later the BBC signed Bob up to host 'The Old Grey Whistle Test' on television.
- When Derek Chinnery was appointed the new Controller of Radio 1 in 1975, he axed 'Sounds of the Seventies' and Bob left Radio 1. At this stage he was still doing Whistle Test, and Radio Luxembourg offered him a job. But Bob felt disconnected from the station whilst pre-recording his programmes in London, so after nearly two years that came to an end.
- He then joined Radio 210 in Berkshire initially to present a Saturday sports show. He started doing more for the station, and in his four years spent a while as Head of Presentation and Music.
- In 1981 Bob moved to Oxfordshire and knowing that he had moved close by, Radio Oxford got in touch. Bob subsequently presented drive on the station until 1984.
- Bob had a book published in 1985, and whilst on a promotional tour met Charles Foster of BFBS. Their meeting began an association that was to see Bob host a show on BFBS between 1986 and 1998.
- In 1986 he joined LBC to present a weekly half hour music review programme. He was soon contributing to other programmes on the station, and was then offered the Weekend Nightline phone-in, which he hosted until 1989.
- Still dreaming of a return to Radio 1 Bob allowed his old friend Jeff Griffin to bring him to the attention of the network's management, and Controller Johnny Beerling offered him some cover work in 1990. Liking what he heard, Bob was soon back full time. Within three months he was hosting Monday-Thursday midnight-2am and then later overnights midnight-4am.
- His run on Radio 1 came to an end when Matthew Bannister set about re-profiling the station. But he joined BBC GLR where his show featured early sessions from the likes of David Gray, Ryan Adams and Dave Matthews.
- When the call came from Jim Moir, Bob couldn't resist the draw of Radio 2. He now presents 10pm-1am Saturday nights and Bob Harris Country on Thursdays at 7pm. He also hosts Sundays 4pm-7pm on BBC 6 Music.
WERE YOU INTERESTED IN RADIO WHEN YOU WERE GROWING UP?
My mum is a big radio fan, and when I was four or five we would gather around the radio for 'Listen With Mother'. The old-fashioned radiogram was always on and my mother always listened to The Light Programme, so radio just seeped into my life. Then by the time I was 12 I got my first Dansette record player, then a Decca stereogram and a Grundig tape machine. I'd also started collecting records and marking off the records in the Top 20 that I'd got, and I was beginning to make up my own shows. By the time I was 13 or 14 I was seriously making radio programmes in my mum and dad's back room onto my Grundig tape machine.
DID YOU LISTEN TO ANYONE IN PARTICULAR AS YOU GREW UP?
The first person I began to register was David Jacobs because he did 'Pick of the Pops' on Saturday night. It was the one time that you could hear the Top 20, certainly on the BBC. David was my gateway into pop and the current rock and roll records as a ten or 11 year old, and then when he started doing Jukebox Jury, that was it - David Jacobs was the figure that one aspired to. In fact, my mother has corresponded with David through the years, and my first ever mention on British radio was on my 15th birthday when David did a dedication for me. My mum still has the old handwritten letters from David stretching back 30 years, but he was never aware that that she was the mother of this chap who was doing Whistle Test and was on Radio 1. But when I joined Radio 2, I came out and told him. My mum met David for the first time recently at the 'This Is Your Life' recording, and he was just charming and absolutely lovely. David was part of my early marriage to radio.
HOW DID YOU LAND YOUR FIRST RADIO JOB?
When I moved to London I started writing for magazines to earn a living, and I met a guy called Tony Elliott who was editing the University of Keele student magazine. He needed somebody to correspond from London and commissioned me to write an article. Once that was published he asked what I wanted to do next. I told him I wanted to meet John Peel, so he fixed it. I met John and Marc Bolan on the same day; I did the interview with John, we became friends and he began to introduce me to people. One of those people was a producer at Radio 1 called Jeff Griffin. Jeff took me in, did a pilot and submitted it to Radio 1. They accepted it and gave me my first radio gig, straight onto Radio 1 sitting in for John Peel in 1970. I just sat there thinking: 'I don't believe this is happening'. I was able to go on-air playing all my favourite records from day one, and that's what I've done ever since.
HOW DID YOU COME TO PRESENT A RADIO PHONE-IN?
I'd been doing a half hour music review programme on LBC and doing a once-a-month pop phone-in with Brian Hayes. After the third or fourth programme, Brian - who was also Head of Presentation - took me to one side and asked if I'd be interested in taking over Weekend Nightline. I wasn't sure because I was so used to having records under my arm, but I thought it would be something new and it would be a learning curve...which it was! I was nearly three years doing that job and God, did I learn!
OW DID YOU STAGE YOUR RADIO 1 COMEBACK?
I'd sent a tape of one of my BFBS shows to Jeff Griffin, who was still at Radio 1, so he could hear what I was up to. I'd spent the last seven years of my life thinking how much I'd love to be back on Radio 1, so when he asked if he should submit it to Radio 1 management I thought it was worth a try. But when they heard it they said words to the effect of: "Oh My God, we can't have Bob back, he's just going to sit there and say 'Wow, listen to the colours'"! So it took a bit of persuading, but in the end, Johnny Beerling gave be a couple of weeks sitting in for Richard Skinner in September 1989 because I was a reasonably safe pair of hands. So I went on-air and here's another sensational piece of luck for me - Johnny was in Spain during that time and he was close enough to pick up the Gibraltar signal of BFBS. He heard my Sunday afternoon programme and really liked it. So when he came back the following week he made a special effort to tune in and see how I was sounding on Radio 1. At the end of the run I was picking up my stuff, I looked up and there was Johnny in the doorway with his hands overstretched. He walked up to me and said: 'Welcome back'. It happened in unfortunate circumstances though, in that I replaced Roger Scott when he died. And for me Roger Scott was the best DJ who ever walked the planet.
WHAT HAPPENED WHEN MATTHEW BANNISTER STARTED THE RE-PROFILING OF RADIO 1?
I knew I'd be one of the big targets and Matthew called me in and said "I hate to have to tell you, but we're taking you off. We want to widen the scope of the music on overnights". I looked at him and I said: "You''ve never listened to my programme. If you'd listened you wouldn't say that because it's very eclectic." It was a devastating blow, but I understood what he had to do. I truly didn't take it personally. Then about ten days later he invited me out for a drink and said: "I've listened to your programmes and they're terrific. You must know it wasn't personal." As it happened we got on really well. I thought it was fantastic that he'd taken the trouble. He also promised to back me in the future and I know he recommended me to Frances Line, who was then running Radio 2. I went in to do a pilot, but she thought I was a rock jock and that was it.
HOW DID YOU LAND YOUR JOB AT RADIO 2 IN 1997?
Jim Moir arrived on the scene at Radio 2, and I didn't know, but he had been a big fan of mine when I was on Whistle Test and he was the BBC's Head of Light Entertainment. And apparently when he joined Radio 2 the first three calls he made were to Alan Freeman, Steve Wright and myself. I was so happy at GLR, but they couldn't really afford to pay very much money. In return you got complete freedom, which was a good deal as far as I was concerned, but you do eventually have to pay the bills. I started at Radio 2 in April 1997, 11pm-1am Saturday nights and then Jim came up with the idea of me doing the country show, which has brought in a whole new experience that I never dreamed of. I now feel, with the way that radio has gone in this country , if I didn't have my slots at Radio 2 I honestly don't know where I would be on British radio.
WHAT'S THE BEST LIVE PERFORMANCE YOU'VE EVER BEEN WITNESS TO?
One of the most memorable moments since I've been with Radio 2 was Gretchen Peters in Nashville. I went to her home and we recorded the conversation and session there, and it was my first live session in Nashville. But there have been a lot over the last few years: Ryan Adams at GLR, Nickle Creek in Nashville, John Hiatt at GLR, and Richard Thompson...
WHAT'S BEEN YOUR MOST MEMORABLE INTERVIEW?
[Without hesitation] John Lennon in 1975 for Whistle Test. We'd been trying to get him for absolutely ages and he phoned from his office in New York and invited us over. We spent pretty much a day together, and it was the day that they discovered that Yoko was pregnant with Sean, so he was in a fantastically wonderful mood. He saw it as a great opportunity to send a postcard to the Uk, basically because he couldn't leave America due to the green card problems, so we got him at the best time. He and I got on like a house on fire - it happens with some people - and I think the interview reflects that.
WHAT DRIVES YOU TO MAKE YOUR PROGRAMMES?
It's about being the conduit. It's about saying 'new artist - audience, audience - new artist', and then sitting back and letting it happen. the most exciting CDs in my collection are the ones that have just dropped through the letterbox because that's where all the new energy is. One of the things I really enjoy doing at the moment is my show on BBC 6 Music, which is my opportunity to play The Delays, The Strokes, Superdray, and all the sharper, edgier stuff. The lid has come off Radio 2 more and more, but at the same time there are certain tracks that just don't sit right on Radio 2, but are absolutely right on 6 Music.
DO YOU EVER DOUBT YOUR ABILITIES?
I panic a bit about the building of a programme sometimes, because in my own mind I've set a very high standard for the shows, in terms of the music base I'm trying to reflect. I want to be constantly introducing new artists, but at the same time you want to reassure people that they're not excluded - so the blend of old and new is very important to get right. So if I've ever got any doubts it's about whether a segway workied or whether the pulse of the programme was right. Having said that, my confidence lies in my ear and my ability to pick tracks. Once that box is absolutely packed with great tracks, on-air I don't really have to do very much, other than give as much information about that music as I can possibly give in the time available.
DO YOU LISTEN TO MUCH RADIO NOW?
I'm still like I was with my mum, I love the radio. I spend a lot of time listening to Radio 2 and when I'm in London I like XFM. I'll also flick to Radio 4 and Five Live. I'm a big Five Live fan. Nicky Campbell's really good and I'm an Inverdale fan. John Inverdale is about as close as you can come to the perfect broadcaster because he's so loose on-air. If you listen to John Inverdale on-air and you talk to him off-air, the two are identical - it's fantastic.
IF YOU COULD CHANGE ONE THING ABOUT RADIO, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
I'd nuke Selector!
DO YOU HAVE ANY UNFULFILLED MEDIA AMBITIONS?
I've done programmes from Britain to the States - we did a rock show in the 70s called 'Hands Across The Water' and we did a rock date show in the 80's called 'The British Wax Museum' - but I've always loved the idea of having a run on American radio. Maybe ten years ago it was a very hot, burning ambition; now I'm much more philosophical abou the fact that I haven't achieved it and probably won't. Anyway, now, with things as they are, my great ambition is to continue what I'm doing. To stay with Radio 2 - doing my programmes the way I do them now - is what I want more than anything.
HOW DID IT FEEL TO BE AWARDED THE RADIO ACADEMY'S OUTSTANDING CONTRIBUTION TO MUSIC RADIO AWARD FOR 2003?
Part of the reason for an award like that is that you've survived - 33 years I've been playing records on the radio now. And in my own mind, I feel that award represents a determination to stick with the music I believe in. For my first show on Radio 1 I went in and I chose all my own music and with Whistle Test the drive of the programme was to discover new bands. Now the engine for my two shows on Radio 2 and the show on BBC 6 Music is new music. I've always believed in the music and the music's been very good to me. That's what the award represents to me, that unwillingness to compromise and to let down in any way this music that I really believe in.
© x-trax for radio 2003