So, I say to Ken Bruce, what’s the secret? The 66-year-old broadcaster has parlayed warm, witty affability into a 40-year career, nearly 32 of those as host of Radio 2’s 9.30am weekday slot, where he gets a “fairly consistent” audience of 8.3 million and a 21.7 per cent share of all listeners.
He is the station’s longest serving male broadcaster, and last year signed a new contract that will take him up to 2019 (he earns between £250,000 and £300,00, according to a report in July).
“There’s no secret,” he says in that treacle-and-malt Glaswegian purr. “I just come on and am roughly myself – or a slightly better version – and hope that’s what people like. I don’t do laugh-out-loud stuff: wry smiles are what I like to get. A lot of it is luck: being in the right place, doing a good job, in the right slot. Mornings suit me, I’m sharper. And in terms of survival it’s probably that there is always a bigger problem than me to deal with.”
This downplays his rapport with the Radio 2 audience, which rivals that of Terry Wogan. “I’ll take that as a compliment,” says Bruce. “The Radio 2 audience is a very giving group. It really is a dialogue. People have a feeling of ownership about the station.” On his first day at Radio 2, sitting in for Ray Moore in 1982, he was handed a box of records to play and a pile of cards from Moore’s listeners, welcoming him to the show. But you mess with this audience’s expectations at your peril. When Davina McCall stood in for Bruce in 2007, there were 150 complaints.
Maybe Davina lacked his common touch. “You have to remember the broad sweep of the audience,” says Bruce. “Would something that works for someone my age work for someone of 15 who is listening in the car with their mum, or someone who is 35? Broadly speaking, I do normal life: things going wrong with your washing machine, children not cleaning their bedrooms. I don’t go to showbiz parties, but I wouldn’t talk about it if I did. If you talk about digging the garden – not everyone’s got a garden. Not everyone can afford a car. You have to not say things that’ll make people think, ‘He doesn’t begin to understand my life’.”
Regular features of his show include the PopMaster quiz and Tracks of My Years, in which a guest chooses two personally significant songs each day for a week. Bruce has been cheerfully bickering with traffic reporter Lynn Bowles – “like a radio husband and wife” – for 15 years and every day takes the mickey out of Jeremy Vine, who takes over the airwaves at midday.
There’s been one major change: the live sessions from the Radio 2 Piano Room found a permanent home on Bruce’s show in June. Christine McVie, Neil Sedaka, Benny Andersson and Gary Barlow are among those who have played two of their own compositions plus a cover version on the piano that Elton John gave to the station in 2010. “It’s brought a wonderful quality of live music to the show, which is what Radio 2 does best,” says Bruce. “When it’s a legend [performing], you get the old shivers down your spine.” A Piano Room album of the best tracks from Bruce’s show and previous sessions has just been released.
Sedaka’s appearance was a highlight for Bruce, on a par with the time when James Taylor played Happy Birthday to him on his guitar. Lowlights include some unnamed rockers who wore sunglasses indoors, gave monosyllabic answers and lit up spliffs, and “a member of a girl group – well, it’s Geri Halliwell – who was not helpful, shall we say. She brought in somebody she had met on the street, and this was just after a major terrorism incident. And a dog that farted.”
Behind the scenes, of course, much has changed in radio, and not just the exchange of physical records for digital tracks and of letters and cards for tweets and emails. When he started as a continuity announcer for the BBC in Scotland, Bruce spoke in received pronunciation and only reverted to his natural accent when he started presenting (a producer friend tells me this contributes hugely to his everyman appeal).
Songwriter James Taylor played Happy Birthday to Ken Bruce on air
“We used to smoke in the studio,” says Bruce, “and the drinking culture – God, it was massive.” But some things never change: “In 1978 I went to a meeting and was told radio was a dying medium and TV was going to be everything now. But television audiences have declined. Radio has seen a massive number of stations join in and the radio audience appears to have grown. People will download podcasts and the iPlayer is successful, but it’s not going to replace hearing something live, in its own time, on radio.”
Similarly, Bruce sees the current attempts to restrict or reduce the BBC by government and commercial rivals as just the latest in a series of threats that the corporation always sees off, “sometimes by luck, sometimes by accident, sometimes by intention”.
He abstains from internal BBC politics and never goes to meetings, but thinks it is “part of what makes Britain British and – without getting into any politics – it’s what makes the individual countries in Britain British. It is an organisation we would sorely miss if it were to disappear or be stripped back. It needs to be the gold standard of British broadcasting: it keeps the opposition honest, as they used to say in politics.”
Bruce was the fourth and least extrovert child of a Glasgow businessman, which contributed to his appreciation of the well-timed quip. He attended grammar school and trained as an accountant then worked for a car-hire firm, until his voluntary work for hospital radio led him to the BBC. He’s done some television but prefers the intimacy, spontaneity and “lack of paraphernalia” of radio. He commutes in by train each morning from Oxfordshire, where he lives with his third wife Kerith, who was a broadcast assistant on his annual gig presenting the Eurovision Song Contest. He has three adult children from his first two marriages and three – the eldest of whom, 15-year-old Murray, is autistic – with Kerith.
Does having young children keep him young? “It keeps me working,” he retorts. But after 32 years, aren’t there days when he can’t face the 6am alarm, the commute, bantering with Lynn Bowles, Jeremy Vine, a celeb in the Piano Room and a selection of joshing listeners? He looks at me as if I’m mad. “What’s not to like?” he says.
Ken Bruce’s show is on Monday – Friday at 9.30am on BBC Radio 2