Ken Bruce never wanted to be famous. And in some ways (as he’d be the first to contend) he sort of still isn’t. Which sounds like an extraordinary claim to make about Britain’s most popular broadcaster – but, through some strange act of quantum trickery, the 72-year-old has somehow managed to become a fully-fledged national treasure, while also flying slightly below the radar.
Or, to put it another way: during his near half-century at the BBC, Ken has been in our ears, but not in our faces. To the point where you suspect even many of his eight-and-a-half-million devoted listeners – by some margin, the biggest radio audience in the country – wouldn’t be able to pick him out of a police line-up. And that’s just how he likes it.
“Whenever I hear anyone saying, ‘I want to be famous’, I always think, ‘well why’?” Ken tells Weekend in his instantly familiar soft Scottish brogue. “Being famous isn’t a thing. Being good at what do you is a thing. And I’ve always just wanted to be good at what I do. That’s the great advantage of radio: you’re not instantly recognised, but you are still impacting on people’s lives in a very personal way. Which is great for me, because I don’t want to live a public life.”
As the long-serving host of Radio 2’s mid-morning show, Ken has been impacting on people’s lives in a very personal way for an incredible 31 years now. (When I tell my mum I’m interviewing him, she insists I thank him for “getting her through lockdown” – about which he is simultaneously gracious and self-effacing.) But from this week, members of The Ken Bruce Preservation Society, as his more ardent fans call themselves, will need to retune their radios as, after 45 years as a BBC man, Ken has found a new home on the commercial station Greatest Hits Radio.
It must have been a huge decision to leave? “To be honest, it wasn’t,” he says. “It was just a natural conclusion. It seemed like the right time. I can’t explain it any better than that. I just felt like I’d done everything at the BBC that I could do, and the ratings were doing very well, and I just thought: ‘What do you do now? Do you try something new, or do you sit there and wait for things to go wrong – and then for the inevitable chop to come?’”
Ken’s talking over Zoom from Greatest Hits Radio’s London HQ. Is it strange to be in a new office, after all these years? “It is and it isn’t,” he says. “It’s a different place, but it’s still very much somewhere I recognise. It’s the sort of place you can walk in and feel at home.” It’s got all the same buttons to press, basically? “Well not quite all the same buttons. So I’m going to have to learn that.”
Ken’s move is the latest in a series of high-profile defections from the BBC, which has recently lost the likes of Andrew Marr, Emily Maitlis and John Sopel to commercial rivals, while fellow Radio 2 mainstay Steve Wright was eased out of his afternoon show last year. As the station’s biggest beast, though, it was Ken’s departure that blew up into a major news story, accompanied by an avalanche of hand-wringing commentary about the ravens leaving Wogan House.
“I was quite surprised,” he admits. “Because ’72-year-old man decides to leave job’ is not exactly the strangest thing that’s ever happened in the world. I knew there’d be a certain bubble of interest, just because I’d been there such a long time – but I honestly didn’t think it would be as big a story as it was. I think people have seen it as more of a statement than it actually was. So I was very grateful to Gary Lineker for coming along and taking the heat off me…” he adds, of the row surrounding the Match of the Day host’s comments about government asylum policy.
The story was given added fuel when Ken revealed on Twitter that, having handed in his notice, the BBC had asked him to leave three weeks earlier than planned. It was a messy end to such a long and distinguished career with the Corporation – and one that clearly irked him. “Yeah, it wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for,” he says. “But, you know, as time goes on and it fades into the distance, it becomes really not very important at all. At the time, it was a bit annoying, but I’ve got no complaints. I’ve had a very lovely time at the BBC and worked with some fantastic people.”
Signing off from his final Radio 2 show in early March, Ken claimed that, “despite the occasional vagary”, the BBC was still “the finest broadcasting institution in the world”. Won’t his new bosses at [GHR owner] Bauer Media have something to say about that?
“Well, I think there are big differences between the BBC and Bauer,” he says. “I mean, the BBC does a fantastic job. It does get itself into some spectacular messes occasionally, but most of the time, it is a great thing. It keeps the rest of the business honest. Bauer is a very different media organisation, but a fantastic one, and I couldn’t be happier to be here.”
Simon Mayo, another ex-BBC man on Greatest Hits Radio’s books, has likened poaching Ken to “signing Messi”. “Well, Simon was always give to hyperbole,” smiles Ken. “If I’m Messi, he can be Ronaldo.”
Fans will be relieved to know their man hasn’t reinvented the wheel for his new show, which kicked off on Monday. “It’s roughly 80% what I used to do, with 20% that’s perhaps a little different,” he says (the biggest difference being the playlist, which eschews new music in favour of classic hits from the 60s, 70s and 80s). “It will be a very familiar programme. I won’t be changing my personality in any way – and PopMaster will still be there at 10.30.”
PopMaster, of course, being the iconic music quiz for which a large swathe of the country downs tools every morning. Is that why Britain has such chronically low productivity, Ken? “Yes, I take full responsibility for that,” he grins. “I’m afraid I have insisted the nation stops at 10.30. The fact that the nation doesn’t start up again at 10.50, though, is not my fault…”
When did he realise it had become such a phenomenon? “It was very gradual,” he says. “We started hearing about offices and building sites grinding to a halt, or dentists not taking appointments at 10.30. I think that came organically from the listeners – the idea that ‘everything stops for PopMaster’. And lockdown, of course, was a particularly focused moment.”
“I was quite surprised. Because ’72-year-old man decides to leave job’ is not the strangest thing that’s ever happened.”Ken Bruce
The pandemic – part of which Ken spent broadcasting from his home in Oxfordshire – “proved the power of radio” all over again, he says. “People are always asking, ‘who needs radio, now that we’ve got podcasts, and you can make your own playlists on Spotify?’ They’ve been saying something similar for as long as I’ve worked in radio. But there’s nothing like someone communicating with you in the moment, as it happens.”
That’s particularly true of Ken who, with his quick but gentle wit, listeners really do see as a friend. “And I see the listeners as friends,” he says. ”I often say radio is like talking to someone you know really well – with whom you’ve got a some shared understanding, and jokes, but who you might not have seen for a while.”
He puts his gift of the gab, in part, down to being the youngest of four. “My other siblings talked a lot, so when I did get a word in, it had to be quite on point. I think that’s helped me in my radio life, because I don’t waffle. I try to keep things short and impactful, and that’s partly to do with my upbringing, no doubt about it.”
He enjoyed a “happy, lower middle-class, suburban upbringing” in Glasgow. “We weren’t particularly rich, but we weren’t short of anything. My dad had two little business [a newsagent’s and a shoe wholesaler’s] which did okay. He was able to buy new car every 10 or 15 years or so. I think my childhood has made me quite contented, as a person,” he reflects. “I haven’t been kicking against anything, or desperately trying to put things right.”
When his early attempts to break into radio were knocked back, he worked as an accountant (“which I was terrible at”) and took a job at a car-hire firm while earning his broadcasting spurs on hospital radio. Eventually, he was offered a three-month contract as an announcer on BBC Scotland, which led to his own mid-morning show and, in 1984, an offer to join Radio 2.
For a long time, Ken had managed to persuade himself that we wasn’t particularly ambitious – until, in his mid-40s, he found himself staring down the barrel of his second divorce. “I used to say, ‘I’m not ambitious – but I want to do that. And that’s ambition. When I was on BBC Scotland, I wanted to be on a national network. And if I heard someone else was being given a tryout, I’d be like ‘sod that, I want a tryout’. So there was a kind of bloody-mindedness. And getting to that point – to a daily show on Radio 2 – did affect my marriage at the time, that’s for sure. Because I was just working all the time.”
After his second marriage collapsed, he went into therapy – for four whole sessions. After which, presumably, he felt he was fixed? “Yeah. Therapy is a great thing,” he says. “Because I wasn’t very happy, and I was boring all my friends about it, it seemed better that I went off and bored a therapist about it instead. So I went and got that off my chest. It didn’t take that long, but it was very helpful.”
It certainly seems to have done the trick, if his third union – to Kerith, a researcher he met while covering Eurovision for Radio 2 – is anything to go by. “Well yes – Kerith and I have been married for 23 this year, so it seems to be working. It’s great. I’m entirely settled and happy with who I am.”
The couple have three children (Ken also has two sons from his first marriage and a daughter from his second), the eldest of whom, Murray, has autism, and is non-verbal. Recently, the family appeared on Chris Packham’s BBC documentary Inside Our Autistic Minds, during which Murray made a film – voiced by an actor – in which he spoke movingly and eloquently about “being a voice for non-speaking people” and his happiness that “the world can [finally] see the real me”. For Ken and Kerith, it was “a beautiful moment. It was very, very moving,” he says.
The irony of his own voice being his fortune is something that’s not lost on Ken – or, he says, on Murray. “It’s a massive frustration for him that he’s got these thoughts he wants to express. Until he was nine, he wasn’t able to get anything at all out. Nobody knew – though we suspected – that this great intelligence was in there. But when he started being able to type out his thoughts [on an iPad], it just opened up a whole new world for him. He still finds it difficult – it’s a lot of work, and quite slow, but he’s keen to let everyone know that people need to look beyond first impressions. Because what’s going on on the outside is no clue to what’s going on on the inside.”
As someone beloved by the nation for his genial, easygoing nature, I ask if Ken he ever loses his cool. “Oh, if you stand next to me in a pub and get me started on certain subjects, I will bore and grump for Britain,” he insists. “I can get angry and swear. But nobody wants to hear that that when I’m working. Well, I suppose if you listen to certain talk radio stations, you’ll find plenty of people being grumpy all day for a living,” he says, with that trademark Ken Bruce chuckle. “But that’s not really me.”
Listen to Ken Bruce on Greatest Hits Radio, weekdays from 10am-1pm.
This article appeared in the issue of Waitrose Weekend published 6 April, 2023