Annie Nightingale – respect to Radio 1’s first female DJ, still going strong 40 years on

These days, the 73-year-old DJ plays plays “dubstep, urban and all things bassotronic” - but for the radio pioneer it's always been about taking the underground into the mainstream

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Annie Nightingale’s Friday-night show on Radio 1 plays “dubstep, urban and all things bassotronic” according to the station’s website. The hipster night owls who enjoy it probably have no idea that she has been a fixture on Radio 1 for 43 years – and was its first female DJ.

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Nightingale finally receives her due respect in Radio 4’s Getting on Air: the Female Pioneers, in which Jane Garvey unpicks the slow arrival of female broadcasters – including Barbara Mandell, the first woman newsreader in 1955, and Jacqui Oatley, the first female football commentator on Match of the Day. Bang in the middle of things there’s Nightingale, with her low, late-night voice and infectious enthusiasm, still keen to party at the age of 73. Brought up in Twickenham, south west London, she fell in love with the blues at the legendary Eel Pie Club and worked up through local newspapers until the late 60s, when she freelanced on Cosmopolitan, the Daily Express, and even TV.

“I hadn’t experienced any sexism in papers or magazines,” she says, “so when Radio 1 launched without any female DJs I thought it was a bit strange.”

When BBC bosses told her it was because DJs were “husband substitutes” for the housewives in the audience and a female voice would wreck that, she launched her own outraged campaign until the station offered her a job.

“It was quite a strange place,” she remembers. “At the first Radio 1 meeting I went to, the head of the station’s wife told me I had to use my femininity. On my first show I hit stop on the record that was going out live – giving eight seconds of dead air. I thought that’s going to be the end of me… I kept the job but on the technical side it was all male. It felt like I was the woman driver and they were waiting for me to make mistakes.” She pauses, then adds, “I think it might have helped me get away with one or two things as well.”

In 1973 she returned from a holiday to find Goats Head Soup, the new Rolling Stones album, on her desk. She played Star Star on her show that night. The following day she bumped into Mick Jagger and told him she loved the song. “You played it on the radio?” he seemed shocked – originally the track had been called Starf **ker and that was the key word in the chorus. “Somehow the row blew over my head but my producer was reduced to playing the song to people and asking if they could hear the swear words,” she remembers. “No one could – he kept his job…”

She’s keen to point out that, despite recent lurid headlines about the station in the 1970s, she was never mistreated. “Once I was in, they pretty much ignored me – apart from Johnnie Walker, who was great,” she says. “The other DJs wouldn’t hang around between shows. They were off to do personal appearances and gigs where the big money was – playing the records was a minor aspect of what they were doing.”

With almost 16 million listeners, the likes of Noel Edmonds, Dave Lee Travis and Tony Blackburn would be headlining roadshows and appearing at packed nightclubs. Nightingale was given more mundane chances. “In those days, Top Shop was opening all over the country, and I would go and do the openings, because I was the only female DJ,” she explains. “I’d do gigs, too; I’d turn up and they’d give me a mic and say, ‘Just talk into that, love.’ I’d say, ‘Hang on, I’m on Radio 1 and I’ve bought my records with me…’ But they’d say, ‘We’ll play the records.’ And there would be a Miss Wet T-shirt contest going on.”

It was 12 years before another woman (Janice Long) arrived at the station: “Once I kicked the door down I thought there would be an influx but there was nothing,” she says, still sounding puzzled. In an internal BBC report in 1973 the head of light entertainment wrote that women didn’t have the aptidude or the interest to present sport, politics or music. And yet Nightingale was proving him wrong every week. She still sounds like a fan. “I was in it because I loved music. I was going to live events and gigs and hanging out with Keith Moon and the Who rather than with Radio 1 DJs. I went round the world with the Police and to Montserrat with Duran Duran. But you have to be very careful not to gloat because then the audience will hate you,” she pauses, “and I would have hated me as well.”

By 1978, TV bosses realised her worth. She was hired to host The Old Grey Whistle Test, where she opened up the show to punk and new wave. Of course, she didn’t get the credit – that went to co-presenter and prog rock fan Bob Harris. She doesn’t care: “My philosophy is, I want to hear what is developing in the underground and bring that through. When that becomes mainstream, you hand it over and that job is done. Then you go back to the underground and find what’s coming next. As long as I can play what I like, I’m happy.”

Getting on Air: the Female Pioneers is on Monday-Friday at 1:45pm on Radio 4


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