Bruce admitted he was “surprised and disappointed” to be told in a meeting that his final mid-morning show after 31 years will be this Friday.
The 72-year-old, who announced he is moving to commercial rival Bauer’s Greatest Hits Radio (GHR) to present a new mid-morning show from April, had wanted to complete his BBC contract by staying on air until the end of March.
Bruce said he had been given “no explanation” for his early departure. His younger replacement Vernon Kay will not take over the slot until May.
A furious Bruce abruptly ended a meeting with Radio 2 boss Helen Thomas last Friday when told the news, i understands.
“What a thoroughly shabby way to treat someone after over 30 years of service,” said former Radio 1 and 6 Music presenter Liz Kershaw, reflecting the views expressed online of many of Bruce’s loyal listeners.
There was a noticeable outpouring of love for Bruce when he returned to the airwaves on Monday morning.
Handing over to Bruce at 9.30am, Radio 2 Breakfast Show presenter Zoe Ball told him: “Five more days of Ken Bruce. We’re going to make such a fuss of you. You’ll be desperate to leave the building.”
A deadpan Bruce replied: “Please don’t. It’ll be a life sentence to you having to listen to this for another five days.”
Giving his first interview since securing the role, Kay, the former Family Fortunes host, told Ball: “Ken Bruce IS mid-mornings. You don’t think of any other DJ when you think of that spot.”
Kay added: “He’s an absolute legend of broadcasting and to be asked to step into those big shoes, it was a big deep breath – I’ll be honest with you, I’m over the moon and so are my parents and Tess (Daly, his Strictly-presenter wife) and the kids but it’s the Ken Bruce show – you know what I mean?”
With a weekly audience of 8.2m, Bruce hosts the most popular show on UK radio.
He is taking the popular PopMaster quiz with him to GHR, which is already using Bruce prominently in its marketing and has made no secret of its intent to poach Radio 2’s listeners.
BBC insiders say it was not practical to allow Bruce the “long goodbye” he wanted.
“Helen has huge respect for Ken and did not want to upset him,” an insider said. “They should have agreed the departure plan earlier.”
“But he couldn’t be say goodbye to Radio 2 listeners on Friday March 31 and start at GHR on Monday April 3. It would be an invitation to take his audience directly with him.”
Dan Cocker, a radio producer who makes programmes for the BBC and commercial stations, defended Radio 2’s decision.
“He’s (Ken) already in Greatest Hits mode, posters featuring his image advertising a rival network are all over the place, no current employer would want that,” Cocker told Kershaw in a tweet.
“It’s very normal practice to put an employee on gardening leave, Liz, and not shabby in the least.”
However, there was also anger within the BBC that Bruce had not been allowed the departure he wanted.
“Ken is a loved figure who has been hugely loyal,” said one figure. “How you treat people is more important than strategy and marketing.”
BBC bosses believe Kay, 48, will win the younger audiences Radio 2 is seeking, after losing a host of older presenters including Simon Mayo, Vanessa Feltz, Paul O’Grady, and Steve Wright, who lost his afternoon show.
An insider said: “Radio 2’s target listeners – 35 to 55 year-old ‘mood mums’ – grew up with Vernon when he was a Radio 1 DJ a decade ago. He presents the 90s Ibiza dance classics show and he likes the music Ken didn’t enjoy playing. He is warm and witty on air and has a good TV profile.”
Kay had deputised for Ball when she was away and had been seeking a prominent Radio 2 role, i understands.
Kay said he had been moved to tears when reflecting on all the support he has received since he was announced as the new host, claiming “every single person on Radio 2 has messaged me.”
Some are now calling Radio 2 “Radio 1 and a half” because with the exception of Jeremy Vine, the weekday line-up now consists of former Radio 1 DJs, from Ball and Kay, through to Scott Mills, Sara Cox and Jo Whiley in the evening.
Industry insiders warn that Kay will struggle to maintain Bruce’s 8.2m listeners.
“Ken’s numbers fell by 400,000 in the last Rajars but that wasn’t his fault,” one said. “Zoe Ball lost listeners so his inheritance was smaller. Radio 2’s audience has probably peaked.”
“There won’t be a huge number that defect to GHR just because of Ken but there are more commercial rivals and people are moving to podcasts. That’s why its essential Radio 2 replenishes its older audience with younger listeners.”
Kay will introduce a new daily game to replace Popmaster when he takes over the show in May. Gary Davies is to fill in as presenter for two months after Bruce’s final show on Friday.
Bruce appears determined to have some fun ahead of his final BBC bow. Reading out a message on Monday from a listener seeking “someone with a bit of time on their hands” to help plant some tomato seeds, Bruce said: “Hmm…I could.”