Before asking about the upcoming TV incarnation of PopMaster, I feel duty-bound to ask Ken Bruce if he’s enjoying his current Greatest Hits Radio gig. After all, it’s been quite the tumultuous time for the former Radio 2 DJ.


We speak just after a particularly entertaining show, with one PopMaster contestant cleaning up with 39 points and the other getting a disastrous nil points bar a final sympathetic three-pointer all but answered by Bruce himself.

He informs me that the winner was a last-minute replacement for a no-show, while the loser had auditioned really strongly, which just goes to show that live radio still has the power to surprise.

“I'm really, really happy,” he tells me. “Everybody's being super nice and letting me just be myself which is good, and open to suggestions that I make.”

He’s clearly in his element and is speaking to many of the fans he always has, plus new like-minded listeners who are tuning in for familiar hits and Bruce’s reassuringly laid-back style.

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“These are the people who are remembering their best years, which tend to be when they were 16,” he observes. “That’s in the '70s, or maybe the '80s. I feel very comfortable – I know who the audience is, and that they now know me, even if they didn't before.”

Ken Bruce on his last BBC Radio 2 show in March 2023.
Ken Bruce on his last BBC Radio 2 show in March 2023. James Watkins

There are, he assures me, some young listeners too – despite being of the record-collecting, chart position-watching generation, he marvels at how the likes of Spotify offer instant access to pop’s back catalogue.

Greatest Hits Radio plays “songs that have stood the test of time”, and his playlist is peppered with numbers that the DJ suggests in occasional lists to his producers. He might not be spinning the latest hits, but insists he still enjoys discovering new music “by osmosis”; he first encountered a current favourite, Tom Grennan, on Strictly.

But everything stops at 10:30am for PopMaster, which has had music fans shouting the answers at their radios for 25 years now.

Bruce is as surprised as anyone that he’s suddenly fronting a TV version. He long ago trademarked the name but apart from a board game and the odd corporate or hotel gig, he has just ploughed on with the quiz on radio. Occasional musings about taking it to screen came to naught as Bruce reckoned “they would probably want some slick young 27-year-olds do it”.

Ken Bruce on PopMaster
Ken Bruce on PopMaster with contestant Kimmie. Jamie Simpson / Channel 4

It was PopMaster uberfan Jo Street, Channel 4’s head of daytime, who approached the DJ about bringing it to TV, pairing him with Eggheads producers 12 Yard Productions. Bruce’s typically laconic response was, ‘Why not?’

Diehards will be relieved to hear that despite extending the format to an hour, More4’s show – now with five contestants per episode, and winners pitted against each other in a final – remains reassuringly cosy. There’s no studio audience, and Ken’s presenting style amounts to “just trying to be myself - doing it as radio, apart from looking at the camera every so often”.

He adds: “It still has the kind of relaxed, intimate feel of radio, so I think the contestants all seem very calm with the whole thing - as soon as we got through the first round, I thought, ‘This is going to work’.”

Nevertheless, what we know as PopMaster is now the climax of the quiz rather than the whole thing, with a silver disc up for grabs for the winner that can be traded up to a gold one if they master the ‘three in 10’ challenge.

Building up to that are six brand new rounds that easily fit the PopMaster mould. There’s a links round, a beat-the-buzzer question featuring intros, middle and ends of songs; questions on every song in a top 10 from yesteryear; a name-that-year round; and a lyrics round (with Bruce reading out the words in a deadpan tone rather than attempting to sing them).

The one visual addition is Video Gaga, in which contestants must guess a music video from as few images as possible – five points for guessing it from the first, all the way down to one point if they need picture five. “A lot of the contestants get it from the second picture quite often,” he says. “I was really impressed with their knowledge.”

Ken Bruce on PopMaster
Ken Bruce on PopMaster. Jamie Simpson / Channel 4

Bruce hopes viewers will play along just as his listeners do, and he’s pleased that the series’ 25 contestants range in age from 20 to 60-somethings. After all these years on air, he maintains that pop is the great unifier – and that while a quiz about its minutiae risks inherently attracting a certain type of anorak, he and his producers are looking for people to have fun first and foremost.

“There always is, and was, a preponderance of record-collecting men who take part,” he concedes. “But several years ago, we actively started making sure that there was an equal representation of women. And it's like priming a pump – other women see them and realise they could do it too. Women know just as much about pop music.”

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He’s proud that PopMaster has now achieved gender parity. “Everybody knows about pop music, everybody loves pop music from their teens and for many years on from there. There is always the kind of possibility that there are going to be more people who know every detail of every pop song ever - but they're not necessarily gonna be very entertaining radio or television people.”

‘Playalong-ability’ remains the main trick up PopMaster’s sleeve. On radio or TV, Bruce is adamant it will always work if he and co-creator Phil Swern keep it stripped back to its bare bones.

“Just make a good quiz where people can show off what they know about pop - and the answers are unassailable,” he says. “The rules are not difficult, you just have to answer the questions within the timeframe that we have.” He smiles. “It's not simple - but it is straightforward.”

PopMaster TV begins on Monday 26th June at 8pm on More 4.

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