Absolute Radio's Russ Williams on 20 years at the same station
The enduring presenter talks about his career, being snubbed by Claudia Schiffer and why he's better than Jeremy Vine
On 30 April 1993 Russ Williams stood outside the One Golden Square building in London's West End alongside Richard Branson at the launch of Virgin Radio, little realising that 20 years later he would still be broadcasting from the same building – an unmatched tenure in commercial radio.
Perhaps his longevity can be attributed to not only his ability as a broadcaster but also to his adaptability. In his time at One Golden Square Williams has co-presented the breakfast show with Jonathan Coleman, taken charge of drivetime and his current mid-morning slot. As well as hosting documentaries and interviews with big names such as the Rolling Stones and Bon Jovi, he also gets to indulge the other great passion outside of music – sport – by presenting Absolute's live Premier League coverage alongside Ian Wright and Jim Proudfoot.
In hindsight the fact that he would be at the same station two decades later was not evident to Williams back in 1993:
“If you'd done an interview with me then, there's no way I would have said 'In 20 years time I will be here,' because it doesn't happen very often, if at all in commercial radio.”
But then if you'd asked Williams anything on that first day of Virgin Radio you may not have got much of a considered response. He was too busy co-presenting the first programme with Richard Skinner. It may not sound like much, but while Skinner held the fort in the studio Williams was accompanying Richard Branson in a helicopter dash around the country. It's a day he describes as one of the greatest moments of his career.
“It was brilliant. It was once in a lifetime, to be honest.”
Despite the unforgettable experience of that exhilarating day, it was tinged with sadness. Williams's father had died just weeks before the launch date and though he was obviously affected, having wanted to share with his next rung on the broadcasting ladder. He'd worked at Southern Sound and Mercury in Brighton, Metro in Newcastle, and deputised for Chris Tarrant on Capital in London, but this was a chance to have his own daily show on a national music station.
It seems there was a particular reason for wanting to have his father there. After leaving school, Williams had taken a job at NatWest bank as a trust and income tax adviser, while also keeping up the hospital radio job he had had since the tender age of 11. When he saw an advert for a job at Southern Sound, he sent in a tape and was offered a job. His father was dismayed by the direction Williams's career was taking.
“I couldn't resist the lure of the crystal set, so I left the bank, much to the displeasure of my father, who said that the bank was a job for life. God rest his soul.”
It shouldn't have come as too much of a surprise to Williams Sr that young Russ was going to pursue a career on the airwaves. After all he had been enraptured with the idea of radio broadcasting since he was six, when he first hid under the bedclothes to listen to Radio Caroline. It was Pete Murray who really sparked his interest.
“I remember listening to him as a really young kid and thinking, this sounds fun, I'd like to do this.”
Playing records may have sounded like an entertaining way to make a living but an early experience at Southern Sound showed the young Williams – he was in his early 20s at the time – that there was an altogether more serious side to broadcasting. In the early hours of 12 October 1984 Williams was woken by his boss standing in the street in his pyjamas and a raincoat. The IRA had just bombed Brighton's Grand Hotel, targeting Margaret Thatcher and the rest of the Cabinet staying there. Williams was rushed into the studio where he stayed on-air for four hours, keeping local people up to date on an event of such national importance.
“It's called in at the deep end. It stood me in very good stead, because it was such a monumental event, you felt at the very centre of it. I really enjoyed it. I know it sounds morbid. Someone once said to me that journalists are the parasites of the world, feeding off the misfortunes of others, but they misunderstood what journalism is about. It's about reacting and reporting what is happening then, now and in the future. You get a buzz out of a great story. Clearly nobody wants to reports on these things, because it would be better if they didn't happen.”
It seems to be something that has become something of a recurring motif throughout Williams's career, being on-air during terrible atrocities or times of great national importance. He was broadcasting the day Princess Diana died, he was broadcasting on 11 September 2001 and he was on-air during the 7/7 bombings in London.
“I remember 7/7 so clearly, I heard the bomb on the bus go off. It was such a hot day that the windows were open and there was a dull thud, then we started to get reports of the bombings. It was sickening.”
The journalistic rigour that Williams learnt on that first fateful day in 1984 was inculcated early on by Southern Sound. They had taken him on as a general dogsbody, but had also put him through a music and journalism course at the National Broadcasting School where he shared a classroom with Jeremy Vine. He's magnanimous in his praise of Vine's successful career, but also points out what the course's end-of-year results were.
“I came out with the Student of the Course award. I like to remind Jeremy of that from time to time.”
This is a typical sort of Williams story: gently self-deprecating but with a generous dollop of famous names plopped on top. It may sound like a case of terrible name-dropping but you can tell that the enthusiasm with which it is done comes not from rampant egotism but more from a sense of wonder at encountering so many of his own heroes.
In his time he has shared an office with Kenny Everett, been made cups of tea by Alan “Fluff” Freeman, worked with Chris Evans, hosted press conferences for the Rolling Stones – and been snubbed by Claudia Schiffer and David Copperfield.
That happened at the opening of the Space Mountain ride at EuroDisney when he was working alongside Jonathan Coleman on Virgin's breakfast show. He and Jono had arranged that they could get a few words with Schiffer and Copperfield on the red carpet, but as the famous couple approached them and the two Djs called out a greeting they were met with a dismissive wave as the couple breezed right past them with only the briefest of “Hellos”.
“Naturally we plugged this 'great interview' to death, promising in-depth revelations and more. The once we'd played the 'Hello', we kept playing it over and over. We had to get something out of it.”
It was also while he was working on the Russ and Jono show that the seeds were sown for what he considers one of his best. During the three years of filling the breakfast slot he was cabbed to the station every day by the same driver. One day the driver said he'd been playing golf with his brother, who he mentioned just happened to be Pink Floyd's Roger Waters. When Williams interviewed the notoriously prickly Waters in 2012, he was able to break the ice with the driver connected to them both.
“I always try to do that in big interviews. Have a moment of humanity before you get down to what essentially is the job, for the interviewer and the interviewee.”
Sometimes those moments of humanity can land you in hot water. In what he describes as one of the worst moments of his career, last November during a pre-recorded show on Absolute Classic Rock, offensive off-mic comments by Williams about the state of the studio were broadcast, “This is a f***ing s**t studio”. Ofcom found the station to be in breach of its rules and standards. Williams is quite stoic about the whole affair.
“It's the first time I've ever fallen foul of Ofcom. I got a slap on the wrists. You have to learn your lesson and move on.”
If you took his blunt opinion of his studio to heart, his praise for One Golden Square would strike you as a bit incongruous.
“I just love the place. I think it's an iconic radio building, it does the sort of radio that I like. It's almost a magical place. I think the whole concept of a pop and rock station in the middle of Soho is really rather nice.”
That concept almost didn't happen. Before launch the headquarters of the nascent Virgin Radio were mooted to be located out in Surrey in Woking.
“Thank god that didn't happen. No disrespect to Paul Weller, he's a great musician, but I wouldn't place a radio station in his home town.”
Thinking of the long time that Williams has spent at both Virgin and Absolute you have to wonder whether he feels that he could have had more fame if either of the stations had won a national FM licence and consequently a larger audience. It is something he claims has never bothered him.
“I've never chased fame. I had a taste of it when doing the Russ and Jono show, but I'm content to being broadcasting. Don't get me wrong, I've had opportunities to move on but I feel that the building [One Golden Sqaure] is really part of me. I just felt really comfortable and at home in this place.”
He claims that most of his real friends are either plumbers or builders; he has a few acquaintances from the business but outside of work he feels like a regular kind of bloke. His contented nature is obviously something that has helped him stay in the same place for so long, and the lack of any burning desire to push himself to the forefront in the face of the vicissitudes of commercial radio.
“I think you have to be adaptable. Some people are not prepared to be adaptable and they either move on or it's their downfall.”
That easy-going nature that has led Williams to working with so many of his heroes doesn't mean that he always gets what he wants. When asked if there was anyone he would want to interview who he hasn't been able to get hold of yet, he mentions Jeff Lynne of ELO and Don Henley of the Eagles.
“In fact, Don Henley was over in London the other day promoting a new Eagles DVD and nobody here got him in. Shame on them.”
Beside classic rock music, Williams's abiding passion is for his beloved Tottenham Hotspur, about whom he's written a number of books. So it's odd to hear that he shares his life with a woman who is a committed Arsenal fan. There are also two step-daughters in what he jokingly calls “the house of hormones”. Classic rock and football may sound like typically blokey interests but there is an unexpected side to Williams: he has a keen interest in Japanese ornamental gardens.
Though naturally there is a celebrity-based story as to how his interest was first piqued. He had been sent by Sky Sports to cover a Frank Bruno v Mike Tyson boxing bout in Las Vegas. On the way home he found himself with five hours to kill in San Francisco and asked a cab driver to take him somewhere he hadn't been before. He was taken to the Golden Gate Park with its Japanese gardens and an enduring relationship was born.
It's one of many, varied stories of which he seems to have an inexhaustible supply just ready to roll off his tongue, but he admits that picking out highlights from his career is something he finds difficult to do.
“You know, it all becomes a bit of a blur. It sounds awful to say it.”
One can hope that he will be able to come up with some great stories when he speaks to Christian O'Connell on his Absolute Radio show on Sunday 5 May, which kicks off an evening dedicated to Williams, including a Bon Jovi special in which he speaks to the band after the announcement of their UK tour dates, and a classic interview with Mick Jagger.
Listen to Russ Williams for the No Repeat Guarantee every weekday morning from 10am www.absoluteradio.co.uk/listen