Celebrating cutting edge female DJ Annie Nightingale

Annie Nightingale was the first female presenter on Radio One. It took another 12 years for a second woman to take up a presenting role.  

In the 2020 New Years Honours List, legendary broadcaster Annie Nightingale was awarded a CBE for her services to radio.  Already awarded an OBE in 2002 it was one of many awards and plaudits that the radio pioneer who started her career in Brighton has won in her long and game-changing career.  Nightingale, who was born in Middlesex, was the first female presenter on BBC Radio One.  She still presents a regular show for the station and is this year celebrating fifty years there, a milestone no other broadcaster has received.  She also created TV history in 1978 by becoming the first woman to present former iconic BBC2 music show, ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’, must-see viewing for serious music fans in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Nightingale’s career began on the now defunct Brighton and Hove Gazette.  She later moved to The Argus, then called the ‘Evening Argus’ where she started as a news reporter, eventually moving to writing about the arts, music and film.  In an interview with the Argus in July 2015 she remembers her experiences on the city’s ever dynamic music scene, interviewing musical legends such as Dusty Springfield, The Who and Jimmy Page, to whom she remarked that his new band, Led Zeppelin probably wouldn’t go far.  She met and befriended the Beatles when they played The Hippodrome in Brighton’s Middle Street, and started an interview with them by looking at John Lennon and saying ‘so you’re the difficult one?’

Going on to write for national titles such as the Daily Express and Cosmopolitan, and making occasional radio appearances on shows such as Juke Box Jury and Woman’s Hour, Nightingale made the leap to Radio One in 1970.  It wasn’t plain sailing. Initially she was turned down for a presenting job because she was a woman. In an interview with The Observer in July 2015 she explained ‘They said that disc jockeys were husband substitutes, so they didn’t need any women. They also believed women’s voices didn’t have enough authority to be on the radio.’

She has spoken about early hostility from her fellow broadcasters who saw her as the token woman.  However, in the heavily male dominated radioscape populated by gimmick-heavy, ego driven star DJs she stood her ground and stood out.  People in their fifties and above will remember Nightingale’s Sunday Request Show and how refreshing it was, in an era where there were few choices of radio station, to listen to someone who sounded a bit quieter and genuine, and who really cared for the music she played.  Preferring to avoid the standard playlist of chart hits Nightingale always plumped for shows on late night where she had freedom to explore and share work coming from the more creative and experimental fringes of the music scene.

Nightingale’s tenure at The Old Grey Whistle Test from 1978 to 1982 gave the show a new popularity by her embrace of punk and new-wave rather than the traditional genres of country, prog and blues it had prioritised previously.

Nightingale has remained on the cutting edge of the British music scene for almost five decades and, earlier Led Zeppelin remark excepted, is respected as an authority on music.  She’s shown an uncanny knack of finding out obscure acts who later become internationally successful. In the 1970s she was an early champion of prog rock and in the 1990s house music.  More recently she has championed the British urban music revolution years before it found commercial success.

Regularly DJ-ing at clubs and festivals around the UK and Europe, she is still open to discovering and supporting new music.  Nightingale has made several music documentaries, published two autobiographical books ‘Chase the Fade’ and ‘Wicked Speed’ and curated three music compilations, the most recent ‘Masterpiece’ in 2015.  Today she can be heard on BBC Radio 2 and BBC 6 Music as well as taking the helm on her regular Radio One show between 3.00 am and 5.00 am on Friday mornings.

Despite the influx in recent years of a plethora of women performers and presenters the music industry is still often accused of playing by men’s rules.  Women like Annie Nightingale who pushed open the door and challenged the status quo continue to be inspiring role models.  It took twelve years after her bumpy ride to becoming Radio One’s first female presenter, for her to be joined in 1982 by Janice Long, and later by names such as Jo Whiley, Sara Cox, Edith Bowman, and Annie Mac, not forgetting, of course, Brighton’s Zoe Ball who made history herself by becoming the first woman to host a breakfast show when she took over the BBC Radio Two’s morning slot in October 2018.

Janice Long features in the exhibition 100 First Women Portraits, by Anita Corbin as the First Woman to present the seminal BBC show Top of the Pops.

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