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'The Heartbeat of the British Psyche' – RIP Steve Wright

The legendary DJ 'swooped and soared with the medium' – and fans included Ian Broudie and the KLF.

steve wright bbc
Source: BBC

Steve Wright: 'Viewed from a certain angle the man is a genius.'

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In 1988, anarcho-art-rock-dance-iconoclasts The KLF published The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way), their exhaustive and only slightly disingenuous guide to cracking the pop charts. Among the advice included was the following commandment, delivered in typically uncompromising style:

“Switch on Radio One and listen to ‘Steve Wright In The Afternoon’. Viewed from a certain angle the man is a genius. Find that angle and view. He is the most popular DJ in the country. He has been the heartbeat of the British psyche since 1985. You don’t even have to like him to be awed by him.

“This above paragraph is not an attempt at obvious irony, it is for real. If you can’t find that angle then I am afraid you have wasted your money in buying this manual.”

Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty knew what they were talking about. Within three years The KLF would become the biggest selling singles act in the world. And Steve Wright was still the biggest DJ in the country.

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Wright, who died on Monday February 12 aged 69, was a giant of British radio. The KLF knew this – and so did anyone who understood and cared about pop music. His connection to his millions of listeners was unique, intimate and instinctive… and often very funny.

Fellow presenter, author, and one-time NME journalist Danny Baker described his impact in a tweet after his death:

“95% of the people you hear on the radio are just that – ‘on the radio’,” he wrote. “No more. To work the radio, to master and elevate radio, play with and extend the possibilities of radio, swoop and soar with the medium. That's the trick. Steve Wright knew that. Steve Wright did that.”

As the news broke in the afternoon of February 13, colleagues Sara Cox and Bobbie Pryor, presenting live on Radio 2, were reduced to tears on air. Throughout the night and following day, DJs across the BBC presented their own emotional tributes.

Source: x / zoemuriel
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But if Wright was loved for his sense of humor, his warmth, and the controlled chaos of his presenting style, he was also a – sometimes underacknowledged – champion of great music. In 1989 he was the first DJ to play the Lightning Seeds’ debut single “Pure”, the first song that former producer Ian Broudie, by his own admission, had “completely written and sung, ever”.

After the song finished, he immediately played it another time, telling listeners that it was so good he wanted to hear it again from the start. Broudie later said: “He played it twice, which was unheard of… It changed my life. It validated me going from being a producer to a songwriter.”

For Wright, a great song was a great song, regardless of whether it was deemed “cool” or not. He loved Take That – but he also named The Associates’ “Party Fears Two” as one of his all-time favorite singles.

Even the apparent schamltz of his weekly Sunday Love Songs show would showcase the democracy of his tastes. His final show, a prerecord broadcast the day before his death, included tracks by Roger Daltrey, Bob Marley, Dusty Springfield… and Taylor Swift, Harry Styles and Ed Sheeran. The final song played was Terence Trent D’Arby and Des’ree’s 1993 hit “Delicate”.

steve wright elton john
Source: mega

Steve Wright with Elton John in 1990 - a great song was a great song, regardless.

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Behind the twinkly, homespun chaos of his presenting style, there also lay an ever-so-slightly subversive edge. Music critic and rock biographer Simon Price tweeted one anecdote that illustrated that unique marriage of professionalism, love of pop music, and hint of anarchy.

“So the story goes, Steve Wright followed the announcement of the Chernobyl disaster on Radio 1 by playing ‘I'm Your Man’ by Wham!, which caused The Smiths to write ‘Panic’ (‘hang the DJ’ and all that). But I've been thinking about this,” he wrote.

“What, in the absence of a directive from BBC top brass, was Steve MEANT to do, in the middle of a weekday afternoon on the national pop station? Start playing Goth records? Switch to sombre classical?

“In many ways, given that the whole vibe of the Eighties was ‘We're all going to die, so let's go down partying’, there couldn't have been a more perfect response than playing an upbeat Wham! single.”

Wright was born in London in 1954 and showed a passion for broadcasting even as a child, setting up a radio show in a stock cupboard at his high school. His professional career began in 1976 with Radio 210 in Reading, before making his name at the now-legendary Radio Luxembourg.

He was poached from Radio Luxembourg by the BBC in 1980, and the following year found huge popularity with Steve Wright in the Afternoon on Radio 1, which would run until 1993. It was on that show that he pioneered the U.S. style of "zoo radio", establishing what he called a “posse” of producers, sports, weather and travel presenters and other sidekicks who would chip in to his shows. TV presenter and best-selling author Richard Osman summed up how it felt listening to this radical new form of radio: “As a teenager the job I wanted most in the world was to be part of Steve Wright's posse. He made radio seem so joyous.”

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Source: x / richardosman

After a brief stint presenting the Radio 1 Breakfast Show, he joined Radio 2 in 1996, where he revived Steve Wright in the Afternoon as “The Big Show” for over 7 million daily listeners from 1999 to 2022. He also presented Sunday Love Songs, and from August 2023, took over the Saturday afternoon “oldies” show Pick of the Pops from Paul Gambaccini.

He signed off from the Big Show in 2022 saying: “I want to say thank you to you for listening from the bottom of my heart. If you've listened any time over the past 23 years, me and the team don’t really quite know how to thank you enough. And it goes without saying that I love you.”

As the tributes poured in following the news of his death, BBC director general Tim Davie said: “All of us at the BBC are heartbroken to hear this terribly sad news. Steve was a truly wonderful broadcaster who has been a huge part of so many of our lives over many decades.

“He was the ultimate professional – passionate about the craft of radio and deeply in touch with his listeners. This was deservedly recognized in the New Year Honors list with his MBE for services to radio.

“No-one had more energy to deliver shows that put a smile on audiences’ faces. They loved him deeply. We are thinking of Steve and his family and will miss him terribly.”

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steve wright
Source: mega

Steve Wright was the most popular DJ in the country.

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But amidst the flood of anecdotes and accolades for a man who, for over 40 years, not only entertained but soundtracked generations of music lovers, perhaps the most fitting tribute came from writer and comedian Danny Wallace, who, in his own way, echoed the insight the KLF first nailed back in 1988.

“STEVE WRIGHT: a short, adoring thread from a radio nerd. I actually wrote this a few weeks ago, before I could have known, but...” he began, on a long Twitter thread.

“...if you want to look at something at the BBC which is unashamedly for you, look at Steve Wright. Everything that man does is for you. Doesn’t even matter who you are. It’s a show that includes. Every day, he turns up.

“Steve Wright is a pro. He is a jock. Focused, efficient, affable, practised. Knows when to talk, knows when to shut up. He knows the power of laughter and how to get there. He knows how to end a link, and if he’d only stop singing over some of the songs, he’d be God’s own DJ.

“He is influenced by the American greats, but he is British, he is ours. I once saw him standing in the side doorway of a British Home Stores in the rain. He was wearing a long brown trench coat and smoking a cigar. ‘Yes,’ I thought. ‘That is how I want him to spend his downtime.’

steve wright studio
Source: mega

Steve Wright: 'He knows the power of laughter and how to get there.'

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“Steve Wright’s Big Show unites the in-between radio audience. The ones who can’t commit to afternoon documentaries about jam on Radio 4, folk-rock sessions on 6, or people who think nurses are overpaid and aren’t afraid to make themselves look ridiculous on Talk about it.

“Steve’s show is not audio wallpaper. It’s not supposed to just be in the background. He brings on guests, celebrates them, nails his regular features. It’s comfort radio. It’s not supposed to be cool, it’s supposed to be fun. Which is cool.

“He turns up when you need him. Won’t batter you with opinions, unless those opinions are generally positive, and won’t make you feel like an outsider, standing in a queue somewhere, hoping you’re allowed in. It’s like being on a party boat with an affable host.

“It’s the thing you hear in the cab from the airport after your holiday that says you’re back home. It’s welcoming, whether you listen all the time or last listened ten years ago.

“Sometimes the coolest things are the things not trying to be cool at all. Sometimes they’re the guy in the trench coat standing in the doorway of BHS smoking a cigar, not bothered about whether you recognise him or not. But back on air tomorrow at 2 as he always has been.

“So to Steve Wright, I say: thanks. You turned up every day. We could always rely on you. You made stuff fun. You turned up. X”


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