“It was an awkward, stressful few months”: Simon Mayo reveals what went wrong at BBC Radio 2

The former Drivetime presenter opens up about his ill-fated partnership with Jo Whiley, and what the future holds on new station Scala Radio

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - AUGUST 18:  English radio presenter and author Simon Mayo attends a photocall during the annual Edinburgh International Book Festival at Charlotte Square Gardens on August 18, 2018 in Edinburgh, Scotland.  (Photo by Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images)

Simon Mayo has a favourite word. It’s a compound German word, but then he’s a smart fellow, with a degree in history and politics.

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For him, this word encapsulates everything that went wrong in 2018 and turned it into the worst year of his otherwise charmed and illustrious professional life.

He reveals it over coffee and biscuits in a hotel that sits in the  shadow of New Broadcasting House in London: the word is Verschlimmbesserung.

“Splendidly, it means an improvement that makes things worse,” he explains.

Not quite in full Confessions mode but keen to clear the air, the broadcaster, whose modest ambition is to be “the friend behind the mic”, is in a much happier place now than he was last May when Radio 2 management made the “improvement” of merging his popular show with another popular show, thereby poisoning both and throwing the network into turmoil.

The nightmare began last January, when Radio 2 controller Lewis Carnie announced that Mayo’s Sony award-winning Drivetime show would in future be co-hosted with Jo Whiley, another cherished fixture, who’d be uprooted from the bright evening show she’d presented since 2011. “It was an awkward, stressful few months,” Mayo now admits, finally putting his spiky hair above the parapet.

The change was belatedly intended to address the gender imbalance of daytime Radio 2, whose weekdays had been fronted exclusively by white, middle-aged men since Sarah Kennedy’s early show was pushed back to before 7am in 2010. But it was executed with a blunt instrument, and drove one of its favourite faces to resign after 36 years at the BBC. That it made things worse is not just my personal take; as soon as the new format was rolled out, angry letters from listeners started pouring in to Radio Times.

People despaired that “the magic of the show has disappeared”, that Whiley had been “shoehorned in”, and that Mayo’s long-running Confessions feature was “nowhere near as entertaining” without sports reporter Matt Williams. Reader Charlotte Fitzgerald in Ilford spoke for millions when she wrote, “Why fix something that wasn’t broken?”

Bob Shennan, former Radio 2 controller and now BBC’s Director of Radio and Music, responded to the biggest Radio Times postbag since the indecipherable dialogue in Jamaica Inn with the airless statement: “I’m delighted that two of Radio 2’s most popular presenters are now presenting a brand new show each weekday, which I’m confident will become one of the network’s most listened to shows.” On the contrary, it drove listeners away. Mayo announced his departure on 22 October. A valedictory solo All-Request Friday ended his 17-year tenure at Radio 2 on 21 December. His own, loaded, first request was Born to Run.

There’s now a light at the end of the tunnel. On 4th March, Mayo will be a high-profile cog in the launch line-up of a new digital station, Scala (the brainchild of German publisher-turned-broadcaster Bauer).

It threatens, according to the press release, to “break the mould of classical music in the UK”, by aiming at 40- to 60-year olds as keen to hear A Star is Born as Swan Lake, Herbie Hancock as Handel. Mayo will host a 10am-to-1pm show, interactive, topical and feature-led. It’s his chance, he says, to “get back on the radio and be a part of people’s lives again”.

If five helpings of Mayo isn’t enough, his Friday afternoon Film Review with Mark Kermode on BBC Radio 5 Live will continue as if nothing has happened. Mayo will straddle the commercial and public sectors. Management can bend when it wants to.

Mayo retains a deep debt to 5 Live. Joining the news and sport network from Radio 1 in 2001 made him the broadcaster he is today. Like a kid who had his lunch money stolen, he recalls the sneers when he – a tour-jacketed pop-adoodle-doo-type jock! – followed Nicky Campbell into the cut-and-thrust of current affairs. “There was a bit of ‘Who does he think he is?’ It was a sceptical environment.” But the naysaying stopped the day the planes hit the Twin Towers in 2001 while Mayo was on air and he held it together consummately. “I remember looking through the glass and seeing the director of BBC radio, the head of 5 Live and director general Greg Dyke all there, staring at the screens, thinking, ‘Should we evacuate?’”

Bros in the Radio 1 studios with DJ Simon Mayo, London, circa 1990 (Getty)
Bros in the Radio 1 studios with DJ Simon Mayo, London, circa 1990 (Getty)

He describes his nine years on 5 Live as “absolutely the most full-on work I’ve ever done”, especially after having grown used to the radio backstop of being able to “go to a record”, a luxury not open to the speech radio presenter. “I was aware that people thought I couldn’t do it, so I had to be the most prepared person in the room. OK, we’re going to do a 20-minute piece about the periodic table, then your next guest disappears and a 20-minute slot becomes 40. So what are you gonna do? I always think in every interview I’m one question away from disaster.”

Switching to Radio 2 in January 2010 was a relief: “Drivetime was the show I’d always wanted.” Having turned 50, he was able to “go to a record” and do as his theme tune by Prince Buster instructed: “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.”

Last year was his annus horribilis. I can attest to the stress it put on him. I first met Mayo in 1993 at Radio 1 when Mark Goodier recruited Stuart Maconie and me as breakfast-show sidekicks while he was on paternity leave. Last June, a few weeks into the new Drivetime format, he and I appeared at an event where authors are quizzed about their new books, down the road from where he lives in north London with his wife Hilary, two sons and a daughter.

Having turned his hand to writing, Mayo was promoting his fifth novel, Mad Blood Stirring – his first aimed at adults rather than young adults. Our host, RT’s David Hepworth, broached the subject of reaction to the new Radio 2 show but Mayo refused to be drawn.

Afterwards, he asked if I fancied meeting to discuss the differences between commercial and public-service broadcasting. (I had experience of both, whereas he’d been a BBC man exclusively since joining Radio Nottingham in 1982.)

We started to meet regularly in the same Soho tea-room. Our conversations were necessarily private but he won’t mind if I report that his demeanour moved between disappointment, reflection and anger at the way he was being treated. Still preceded by his career-long reputation as one of the good guys, it seemed that pastures new beckoned.

This new atmosphere of flux at BBC Radio recalled the tenure of future-facing Radio 1 controller Matthew Bannister, who arguably made things better by making them worse when his generational spring-clean shed five million listeners but modernised Radio 1 for a younger audience. Mayo remembers with a shudder DJ Dave Lee Travis’s infamously pompous on-air resignation (“Changes are being made that go against my principles”). In contrast, his own in 2018 would be long and drawn out.

Fans have been less than impressed with Radio 2's pairing of Simon Mayo and Jo Whiley (BBC Pictures)
Fans were less than impressed with Radio 2’s pairing of Simon Mayo and Jo Whiley (BBC Pictures)

Does he remember the meeting when management proposed the change to Drivetime? “It wasn’t a meeting, it was a phone call from my agent saying she’d had a visit from Lewis Carnie who’d said, ‘Co-presenting is the future.’”

So, it was sold to you as something positive? “I wasn’t sure how positive, but yeah. I was concerned that they’d pluck a co-presenter out of a bag somewhere, and I said it needed to be Jo. I’ve known her for a long time, and our families had been on holiday together.”

Does Radio 2 really think co-hosting is the future? “No. My guess is that there was genuine pressure from the top about improving the number of women in daytime. And they looked at the radio I do and the fact I’ve worked with Mark [Kermode] for many years, and thought, ‘He might at least give it a go.’ Because if you suggested it to… some of my former colleagues, they know it wouldn’t have worked.”

Was there any sense of “if it doesn’t work, we’ll reverse it”? “No. Never, ever any question. They’d invested too much political capital in the change.”

You were the victims of a bad decision. “I think victim’s the wrong word. Jo and I worked very hard to make that show as good as it could be.”

It’s at this point that Spurs fan Mayo plays his football analogy joker: “When Gary Lineker went to Barcelona in 1986 under manager Terry Venables, he was a huge hit. [He scored 21 goals in 41 games that first season, including a hat-trick against rivals Real Madrid.] Then Johan Cruyff took over and played him out of position, moving him to the right of midfield, and he wasn’t very happy. And he ended up moving to Spurs.”

Whether Scala will provide Mayo with the equivalent of winning the 1991 FA Cup remains to be seen, but he’ll be happier. “Jo and I were both still playing for the team,” he insists. “But we were being played out of position. Scala offers me the chance to play in position. Among the thousands of tweets and emails, one guy said that Drivetime was ‘the easiest and happiest radio he’d ever listened to’. He didn’t mind where I went next, he just wanted me to be me again.”

Chris Evans, whose departure from Radio 2 helped clear the gender deadlock, offered Mayo a job at Virgin. “He rang me and said, ‘Do you want to work here?’ I said, ‘I’m already spoken for.’ He said, ‘I’ve got an audience of 8.7 million.’ I said, ‘Where I’m going we haven’t got any listeners at all. We’re starting from zero!’”

The cards seem to have landed well. Evans has a new playground, Zoe Ball’s at breakfast, Sara Cox is at Drivetime and Radio 2 is finally feminised. But it was a grim transition.

“Yeah,” Mayo nods, considering his words as carefully as a diplomat. “It’s not the way I’d have designed it. The show that Drivetime became was the most perfect reflection of who I was as a person and gave Radio 2 the highest listening figures it ever had. I don’t think enough thought had gone into the impact that change would have.”

Was it harder on Jo Whiley than you? (She later told The Mail on Sunday, the agony was “relentless, every hour of every day”.) “It was difficult for both of us, but for different reasons. Jo got the stick online because she was taking the blame for the new format. It was totally unfair. I said to management, ‘Never do that again.’ My wife said I was far more outspoken on air when I was presenting with Jo than on my own. It brought out a different side to me. Radio is very personal. It revolves around atmosphere and mood, and I don’t think there’s any doubt that we were asked to do things that we’d not intended to do. And it showed on air, and that inevitably makes work harder. No question. It was stressful. I went to the gym more often.”

He shows me the Happy Playlist he works out to in times of strife – it includes When the Ship Goes Down by Cypress Hill, I Love LA by Randy Newman, Working on the Highway by Bruce Springsteen and Bach’s Partita No 1 in B flat – but he magnanimously concludes, “The overwhelming gratitude I have after 36 years eclipses the difficulties of the last months.”

He admits that he won’t miss having his salary revealed in the press every year (£340,000- £349,000 at the last count in July, more than Vanessa Feltz, less than Nick Grimshaw), nor the Corporation’s historic failure to communicate with talent. Mayo tells me that in 1998, he learned that his BBC1 Confessions show hadn’t been recommissioned when he was commiserated with by an ice-cream seller on Dartmoor.

Although at 60 he admits to not dealing that well with ageing (“That’s why Kermode always says I dress like a teenager”), he can take heart from having established himself as a published author, whose third young-adult novel Blame is being adapted into a screenplay by Harry Potter and the Cursed Child scribe Jack Thorne, and he’s off to Perth this month to see his first children’s book turned into a drama for ABC in Australia. “I considered just concentrating on the writing,” he admits, “but radio is what I do.”

After two hours of setting the record straight, we notice that it’s later than we think. As we pack up to leave, he ruefully considers his legacy: “I’ll be remembered as one who sacrificed himself for a noble cause – for better daytime radio!” After another thoughtful pause and with an enigmatic smile: “I hope they’re grateful.”


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Simon Mayo’s Scala radio show begins on 4th March 2019