Sometimes, when I’m bored, I try to work out which radio DJs could conceivably lead their own cult. Scott Mills? Nope. Rylan? There’s potential. Petroc Trelawny? Wouldn’t be a massive surprise.
There is really only one answer though. If Ken Bruce started whipping up oil drums of Kool Aid, millions around the country would gladly chug it down.
Bruce starts his new show on Greatest Hits Radio on Monday, having left Radio 2 after 31 years on 3 March. His exit was part of a changing of the guard on one of the country’s most popular radio stations: Bruce followed Simon Mayo and Steve Wright out of the door.
The jewel in the crown of Bruce’s Radio 2 morning show was PopMaster, the pop quiz which sent the country scurrying to the kettle at 10.30am every weekday. It had a loyal fanbase and an array of catchphrases: guess that Charles & Eddie’s “Would I Lie To You” was a hit in 1991 not 1992, for instance, and Bruce would cry, “Oh, one year out!”. It was part trivia, part panto, and all good fun.
While researching a piece about the 25th anniversary of PopMaster for i, I spent a lot of time in Facebook groups celebrating the nation’s favourite weekday pop quiz. The biggest, called “PopMaster with Ken Bruce – Radio 2”, was home to 42,000 Popmaster fans.
It was nice in the PopMaster group. The clientele tended to be older, and used the internet like it was still 2007: very earnest, very inane, and likely holding their phone at arm’s length while typing with one index finger.
This was a corner of social media where there was little cynicism or sourness, and where the only point-scoring was over who had a number one in 1971 with “Mouldy Old Dough”.
Then in January Ken announced that he was leaving Radio 2, and all hell broke loose.
“Gutted,” read one post. “Irreplaceable.”
“That’s Radio 2 finished with then!!!!!” said one commenter.
“The worst news ever today,” sobbed another.
“Calm down guys,” pleaded a moderator.
For a couple of weeks, the place was in full meltdown. Actual poems were composed in Bruce’s honour. Some people railed against the BBC for apparently treating the prince of mid-morning chat shabbily; others pointed out that Bruce was 72 and claimed he had jumped ship for a last payday; yet others raged at “wokery”, at ageism, at everything and nothing.
“The new host will be black or wonen [sic] or gay or mixture all three [sic],” said one member, drawing nine likes.
For a particular tranche of the UK – the tranche which really likes ELO – it was the end times. Naturally, I got the popcorn out. I’m used to my generation being dismissed as “snowflakes” by some particularly embittered and strange older people, so seeing so many “Boomers” sent into a tailspin over having to change their radio station for 20 minutes each morning was delicious.
The four weeks between Ken’s exit and his arrival on commercial radio have been scarcely less fractious. As the interregnum wore on, though, I started feeling quite bad about how amusing I’d found the outpouring of emotion.
The more posts I read, the clearer it was that the tantrum was, like all tantrums, about something deeper than the issue at hand. One listener, Shaun, put it best: “BBC Radio 2 is no longer interested in the middles! I started to notice the tide turning with the ever-increasing [Radio 1 playlist] overlap, I am in my 50s and like to hear sounds from my era, not my kids’. They have their space to get it on, now what do I have? What national unity/friendship do I have now?”
With Bruce’s departure, fans had suddenly lost the reassuring feeling that they were still orbiting a cultural mainstream. A totem of their youth had gone, their grip on relevance loosened.
Here was a sliver of the culture wars in Britain: older people wondering why things have to change, and younger people finding their impotent rage funny. It’s hard not to. You guys had free uni and reasonable house prices; please, let us have our snark.
But we only make the sense of dislocation worse when culture’s tectonic plates shift and react without empathy. And anyway, the same thing will happen to us whippersnappers.
Other staging posts along the way from youth to middle age can come and go without you noticing: the last club night, the final pre-drinks, the ultimate house party.
Moments like a beloved DJ leaving a radio station starkly remind you that while you were busy doing other things, you’ve drifted and it’s suddenly much later than you thought. When Greg James leaves Radio 1, I know I’ll have my own meltdown.
So, let’s not laugh too hard. A time will come when all of us realise we’re one year out.
Tom Nicholson is a freelance culture writer