Radio Gold: Annie Nightingale
After 50 years on the air, we speak to the pioneering presenter about breaking into broadcasting and not settling for society's expectations
In 1969, Annie Nightingale became the first female DJ on BBC Radio 1. Since then, she has been attracting listeners – young and old – to her eclectic mix of current and sometimes undiscovered music.
As I make my way to her hotel I'm still buzzing from her age-defying set at the Oh Yeah Centre the night before, which helped to launch the Women's Work Festival. With everyone up on their feet dancing following her sit-down with station colleague Phil Taggart, it was an experience I'll not forget in a hurry.
On meeting Nightingale (75), who is currently celebrating 50 years in broadcasting, I wonder what energy she will have left after such a busy evening. But like a true pro she looks up from her laptop, on which she has been mixing her new setlist, and gives me her full attention...
What inspired you to get into journalism, then radio?
Being a journalist wasn’t fashionable at the time. In my school it was very academic and they weren’t very supportive. If you weren’t Oxbridge material they really weren’t interested. The idea was that you would be a secretary, or get married and have kids... I knew straight away that was not what I wanted. I knew there was a big world out there for me.
When I got into radio, it was really pirate radio that inspired me. I was living along the seafront in Brighton and I had the radio on one day and there on the horizon was the radio station I was listening to: Radio Caroline... You really thought you could do anything in those days.
In the '60s, young people had started to do more of what they wanted to instead of following in their parent’s footsteps. They had that confidence to break out and that is what was significant. There were obviously people like The Beatles and Mary Quant, who made you feel like you could do anything… And that is what I want people to know now – that their lives aren’t limited, they can do anything they want.
Who in particular inspired you in the beginning?
As the first female DJ, there weren’t many women I aspired to be but I was inspired by David Frost because he was funny and surrounded by brilliant people, and had a great TV show.
What are some memorable moments in your career?
In 1985, I was invited to be involved in Live Aid, which had David Bowie, The Stones and Queen playing at it. I was covering the event in Philadelphia, starting at five in the morning and working until the early hours. I remember complaining about the hours to Chrissie Hynde and she said, "Well, who said life is going to be easy. If you’re a milkmaid, you would have to do these sort of hours every day". That made me laugh.
During the concert, I was interviewing all these big stars and it turned out to be a bit of a media nightmare as you needed security passes to get everywhere. I made friends with this girl who was really helpful – you would really clinged together at these type of things. I remember us sitting at the edge of the stage and two guys came to chat to us who had headsets on. It turned out they had hitchhiked all the way to Philadelphia and threw on these headsets pretending they were stage managers. They walked through the whole lot of security checks without a problem. [She laughs] Those are the funny stories you remember.
What would be your message to someone starting off in their career?
I would say do not settle. That is a big message I want to get across, especially to girls. Not to accept anything less than what you want. My parent’s response to me going into journalism was "you better take a secretarial job so you have something to fall back on" but I would respond with "well, I’m not going to fall back". I then had to make my career work because I had turned down that opportunity of taking the safe option. I’m not saying that that is for everybody but it did make me very determined.
When I was going into journalism, I went on a course which was so bad that everyone said not to do it as I’d never get a job from it. I then when on to work at a new agency which was a bit dubious... I should have originally taken the more traditional route of working for a local newspaper, which I eventually did go on to to do in Brighton. What I think got me that job was going on a pub crawl with the staff who were all blokes…I really think it was because I fitted in so well that they hired me.
So I would say to someone going for a job to be the person you would like to work with. Be a reasonable person as that’s just as important as any skills. You could be brilliant at something but if you’re a complete nightmare then no one will want to work with you.
With journalism, I would say be persistent but be pleasantly persistent. Do not take no for an answer. You might not get into it straight away but keep hovering on the outside of it until there is a moment when you will get an opportunity. If you are doing an interview and all you’re getting is a “no” then keep persisting.
Sometimes it would take me a year to get in touch with someone and I remember one particular rockstar who never did interviews that I did eventually interview. You would find out who was making those decisions and often, it wasn’t the record company making those decisions, it was the manager. When you get past the manager you finally get to the person. You have to be a bit cheeky sometimes.
How have you achieved such a long-standing career?
I needed to live on my wits because I didn’t have a safe option to fall back on. I knew that meant the rest of my life being a bit of a gamble. I didn’t have a pension or anything like that … You just have to keep going.
It is moments like last night when I think, "What else would I rather be doing?" There is nothing like that feeling and I’d much rather be doing something I love than sitting around. I also love it because I love people and working with stimulating, brilliant people. I have learnt a lot from watching others.
If you want to succeed it is possible but you will have to work very hard for it and if you find something you love doing then you won’t mind working so hard at it.
We spoke with Annie as part of Creativity Month, a celebration of creativity and the creative industries in Northern Ireland throughout March. To view the full programme of events visit www.creativityni.org/events.