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Legendary broadcaster Ken Bruce stunned his listeners when, in January, he announced his decision to quit his Radio 2 show after 31 years. He’s now happily installed in a new mid-morning slot at commercial station Greatest Hits Radio (GHR), providing living proof you can successfully rise to a new career challenge at the age of 72.
‘One of the things I wanted to show is that you can, over 70, take on a whole new way of life, a way of work,’ he tells me. ‘You’re not on the scrapheap. Of course it’s very easy just to stay, it’s comfy. Someone once described the BBC as a fur-lined rut.’
No doubt his many listeners, and perhaps the BBC, assumed he would see out his time at Radio 2. Was he taken for granted? ‘I think there were moments when I thought, “Hello, I’m here. You do notice that I’ve got this big audience?” But it was never really talked about.’ That audience of 8.5 million made him the most listened-to broadcaster in Europe.
‘You can, over 70, take on a whole new way of life, a way of work. You’re not on the scrapheap’
‘I think you would struggle to find a BBC press release that said that, put it that way,’ laughs Bruce, who hosted his last Radio 2 show on 3 March before starting in his new job exactly one month later.
‘My vision looking back over the years is totally affectionate. But when you’ve been doing something for so long then the choice is, “Do I challenge myself a bit?” I’ve reached the summit, there’s no mountain left to climb. So I thought, “Leave at the top.” This is a totally new adventure.’
It was very much his decision, but was ageism involved? ‘Look at Tony Blackburn,’ Bruce says. ‘He’s 80, so I don’t honestly think there is. But there’s a natural wish to refresh. Radio 2 must evolve, and has evolved over the years, and I’ve moved with it. But you get to the point where you think, “Right, if I stay, will I feel out of place in two or three years?”
‘I’ve still been playing the music I like to a large extent but when you listen to the rest of the station do I start to feel that it’s moving in a direction I might feel uncomfortable with? And I don’t want to get to that stage.’
He admits that the enforced departure of Steve Wright, 68, from his afternoon slot on Radio 2 last year came as a bit of a shock. ‘That did feel wrong, or untimely to me,’ admits Bruce.
‘No, I didn’t feel that the writing was on the wall, but I thought, “Some day it will come to that.” And I did want to go at a time of my choosing.’
He didn’t want to be the old git then? He grins. ‘One of the other things I don’t like is being the oldest person in the room. For years I was the youngest person on Radio 2 and regarded as the up-and-coming youngster. And overnight I became a veteran and didn’t even notice it happening.’ He roars with laughter. ‘Suddenly it was, “The veteran broadcaster said…” and I thought, “What? I’m not the veteran broadcaster. I’m the young guy!”’
His final show had listeners up and down the country snuffling but was nevertheless as no-fuss as he could make it. ‘A daily radio show is a continuing conversation,’ says Bruce, who worked at the BBC for a total of 46 years. ‘So you never say goodbye and you just pick up where you left off.’
Warm, self-deprecating and charming, his quick and subtle, sometimes subversive, wit is as disarming in real life as it is on air. Either way, Bruce’s company is a joy. We are meeting at a studio at his new working home in London’s Soho. On his part there are no regrets.
But won’t he miss Eurovision? He’s been a stalwart since 1988. ‘I thought I would, but last year when we came second I thought, “It’s a good point to give up.’”
It was at Eurovision in 1998 that he met his wife, Kerith, 12 years his junior. He had been married twice before. ‘It was the last time we hosted Eurovision,’ he recalls.
‘She was a researcher and we were stuck in this little studio box together in Birmingham – not the most romantic of venues – but we had a nice chat and found we liked the same things. We had a little dance at the after party, and then went out to dinner after that. And that was it.’
They married in 2000 and live in Oxfordshire with their three children, Murray, 21, Verity, 18, and Charlie, 15. ‘And then I’ve got the older kids – Campbell is 43, Douglas is 41 and Kate is 30,’ he adds. Bruce also now has three grandchildren.
To his listeners’ relief, PopMaster, his iconic daily phone quiz, has arrived at GHR with him – he was smart enough to register it and retains the rights. During lockdown, he broadcast from his home and his show was a comforting, stable lifeline to many.
‘I was broadcasting from an upstairs room for 14 months and I loved it,’ he admits. ‘I’d get a cup of coffee and a biscuit when somebody was in the house, usually a KitKat. A bit naughty as I’m diabetic, type 2.
‘I rattle with tablets but it’s OK, I’m not someone who is massively overweight.’ he says. ‘It’s something in the family, we tend to suffer from it in later life and it’s a bit difficult for me as I’ve got a Scottish sweetie mouth. I’m not drinking as much as I used to. I’ve got a lovely local pub so I’ll pop over and have a Guinness. It’s a health drink, isn’t it? It’s got iron in it!’
He doesn’t take formal exercise, but walks a lot. ‘And we have an autistic son, so I do a lot of stairs,’ he says. Murray is non-speaking. ‘He’s on the top floor, so I’m up and down. It keeps the weight off.’
The painful irony of the fact that the top broadcaster in Europe has a son who cannot communicate verbally is not lost on Bruce, as witnessed in Chris Packham’s BBC documentary Inside Our Autistic Mind, broadcast in February.
It featured Murray and the family and was both moving and uplifting, exposing the struggles and heartache without being mawkish or intrusive. ‘Chris is a top person and it was beautifully done,’ says Bruce.
‘I’ve never come off air feeling worse than I did coming on. I always feel better. It’s free therapy’
It’s heartwarming to see the way they cope. ‘What we’ve done is to say, “This is the hand we’ve been dealt, so you play it.” You don’t say, “If only”. It’s “Right, we’ll see what we can do to make this better”.
In autism, there are quite a lot of broken families because one or other partner just can’t cope. Usually it’s the man. So we’ve taken a conscious decision that we’d work on this together and do the best we can and Murray is a huge part of the family.’
How did Murray react to the film when it was broadcast? ‘Chris saw him afterwards and said that Murray had just given him a big hug,’ Bruce says.
‘He is a hugger, but not to everybody. Chris doesn’t hug, but he said it was a lovely moment. Murray’s very, very grateful for the chance and eager to be an advocate for non-speaking people.’
Wisely, Bruce has not listened to his old show on Radio 2, which is being hosted by Gary Davies until Vernon Kay starts later this month. ‘Gary’s a great friend and I wish him nothing but the best,’ he says. ‘And Vernon is a lovely man and I wish him nothing but the best as well.’
For himself? ‘I’d love to be at GHR for several years doing daily broadcasting, in touch with the people I’ve been in touch with as listeners. And some new ones, I hope. I just want to continue having fun.
‘I’ve never come off air feeling worse than I did coming on. I always feel better. It’s free therapy. It’s a lovely job, a two-way conversation, there’s a lot coming back. That’s the really special thing about radio.’
Listen to Ken Bruce on Greatest Hits Radio on weekday mornings from 10am-1pm.
*Answers to PopMaster 1 Haddaway 2 Baby One More Time 3 You’re the Voice 4 Del Amitri 5 Brontosaurus 6 The Drifters 7 You’ve Got A Friend 8 I Don’t Want to Talk About It 9 Cerys Matthews 10 Deniece Williams