Remembering the day everything stopped for Popmaster – then Popmaster and Ken Bruce stopped

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They say everything stops for Popmaster, and I certainly do. Don’t tell the boss, but at 10.30am every weekday for the past three years I’ve had a little coffee break to play along with the nation’s favourite quiz as it’s overseen by the inimitable Ken Bruce.

But today (Friday March 3), Popmaster will be heard on BBC Radio 2 for the final time.

Ken announced a few weeks ago he was quitting Radio 2 to move to Greatest Hits Radio – and taking his quiz with him. It was a bombshell. It felt like the end of days to some of us, well almost. But there was worse to come. He was supposed to stay at Radio 2 until the very end of March, then start at GHR the following Monday. So no awkward break for Popmaster fans.

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Then a week ago he informed us that the BBC had asked him to leave four weeks earlier than planned (the theory being that they were unhappy with how heavily his new employers were promoting his imminent arrival). And that is why today marks the end of a radio era.

It also means we will have to suffer a month without Popmaster. It will be tough but we might just get through as we count down to the excitement of the new start.

Ken has been the mid-morning voice of Radio 2 since 1992. He was 40 when he took over the post-breakfast slot – he has now just turned 72. To put that into context, if Ken plays something by Ed Sheeran today, we will be listening to a singer who was 11 months old when Ken started on this show. A tune from Taylor Swift? She’d just turned two. Harry Styles? He didn’t pop along until Ken had been doing the show for two years.

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Add in the fact that Ken did other radio shows for the BBC and Radio 2 for some years before his current one and you have a very long and distinguished stint, which is why Radio 2’s inability to keep him – it is reported that he is leaving because the station’s bosses were too slow to offer him a new contract even though they intended to – is a failure by them and a gamble for them.

Ken Bruce leaves Radio 2 today (March 3) - and takes the much-loved Popmaster with him (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)Ken Bruce leaves Radio 2 today (March 3) - and takes the much-loved Popmaster with him (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Ken Bruce leaves Radio 2 today (March 3) - and takes the much-loved Popmaster with him (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

It is a compliment, and hopefully not a back-handed one, to the Scottish master of the mic that you only really notice how good he is at his craft when you are listening to someone else doing his job.

I am fortunate to be able to say I have been a Popmaster contestant on air.

Before March 2020, I worked in an office and only listened to Ken and to Popmaster occasionally but, like most who listen, would always play along to see how many points I could get. A colleague – Blaise Tapp – had taken the plunge and applied, and got on. Of course I tuned in to hear how he got on (he had some tough questions but I must remind him again here that he got a question about The Clash wrong), and then it felt like my turn next.

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When Boris Johnson ordered us all to work from home in March 2020 that’s exactly what I started to do and, never one able to work in silence, I started tuning into Popmaster and playing along every day. In fact I could bore you with my highs, lows, averages and occasional full houses from every single day it’s been on since March 19, 2020.

The huge success of Popmaster has spawned books and all sort of spin-offsThe huge success of Popmaster has spawned books and all sort of spin-offs
The huge success of Popmaster has spawned books and all sort of spin-offs

After six or seven months of playing, I noticed my average score was going up so sent in the email. No reply. No phone call to say ‘you’re on’. I was quite relieved – no need to embarrass myself to an audience of millions. Then, against my better judgement, after I’d been playing for a year, I applied again. And this time they did phone back.

I got through ‘qualifying’ – the researcher asks you a few test questions to make sure you have some idea of pop history. But then a few more days passed and nothing. I was taking it personally so sent another email reminding them I was waiting in the wings – then came another phone call back, another set of qualifying questions, and then the news that I was in line to go live to the nation. And so I did on the morning of Friday, March 26, 2021.

The nerves of the couple of hours leading up to the big moment disappeared when the call came and I was put through to Phil McGarvey, the producer, for a quick pep talk and a handy reminder not to swear. Then you're just listening to the show down a phone line and don’t even know if you’ll be first or second. A nice lady from Sunderland was in fact that day’s first contestant and when she only got three questions right, for nine points, the pressure was off a little.

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My five minutes or so live on the phone to Ken passed by in a bit of a blur. It was just like having a chat with him really; there’s something about his manner that makes you relax – one of the reasons he has had such a successful radio career, I guess. I got five questions right for 15 points – but no six-point bonuses, despite choosing 80s groups as my bonus theme. I still say to this day those bonus questions were obscure.

I’d won, and was through to ‘3 In 10’, where you have 10 seconds to name three hits by a named artist. It was Wet Wet Wet and it took me most of the time slot to recall the name of ‘that one that was in Four Weddings and a Funeral and was No1 for four months’ – Love Is All Around came to me in the nick of time and a couple of weeks later a very nice Popmaster-branded DAB radio arrived in the post.

After being on, I had contact from so many people who’d heard me, I could barely believe it. People I’d not heard from for years got in touch.

To this day, some still remind me I got an Osmonds question right and a Smiths question wrong, It’s a good job I didn’t have any street cred before I went on. Oh and failing on a question about Billie Piper had a couple of my ex- News sports desk colleagues singing ‘Because We Want To’ down the phone at me the following day.

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Since my five minutes of fame, I’ve carried on playing. Of course. Every day, live or on catch-up. I have a couple of ‘Popmaster pals’ whose scores I compare mine to – both of whom have been urged many times by me to get their application in. Listen out for them in due course, they might give me a namecheck in their 30-second shoutout bit.

The fact Ken is taking Popmaster with him to his new station, and the fact it will be on in its traditional 10.30am slot, is a huge relief to fans of the quiz – and I imagine will be a massive boost to Greatest Hit Radio’s morning audience figures. It’s impossible to predict what percentage of the veteran’s R2 audience will go with him but my guess is it will be significant, not least because of the quiz.

Vernon Kay is taking over from Ken on Radio 2 in due course and they are launching a new daily quiz with interim host Gary Davies on Monday.

But Ken’s departure from the station comes at a time when it is under heavy criticism for getting rid of names and shows the listeners love. Steve Wright was effectively forced out of his afternoon show last year and it wasn’t so long ago Simon Mayo felt he had no choice but to quit the teatime show after bosses messed around with it to no-one’s benefit. And don’t get me started on how they ripped up their Friday night fun schedule of old school tunes and replaced it with a load of stuff you can hear on Capital or Heart.

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My own view is that Radio 2 – like much of the BBC – is obsessed with trying to cater for people who don’t use its services, and never mind the people who do. While I can appreciate their need to attract new and younger listeners, I can’t see any sense whatsoever in the way they’re doing it. They’re alienating huge swathes of their followers without many new ones being ready or willing to replace them.

You worry about whether the likes of Johnnie Walker, Paul Gambaccini, Tony Blackburn and Bob Harris – who all present terrific, popular shows on R2 – will be at the station much longer. If they’re not, other outlets will be quick to snap them up, you can be sure. At least we’ll still have young Jo Whiley to keep us sane on weekday evenings.

What the BBC are doing to local radio is even worse. They’re trying to gett rid of huge numbers of great, much-loved local shows and presenters and making half the output more regional, all so they can put more resources into their online offering. And they’ll have the cheek still to call it local radio.

So today is a symbolic day for those of us unimpressed with the direction Radio 2 is going in – and although Popmaster will live on and Ken will broadcast on, it won’t be quite the same elsewhere and will take some getting used to.

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But, in time, get used to it we will – and as someone who already listens to Greatest Hits Radio a fair bit (and on that note I recommend Simon Mayo’s Album Show, Mark Goodier’s Smash Hits Chart Show and Andy Crane’s evening Top Ten at 10) I’d urge Ken's huge fan club not to be too wary about the new era.

It’s true what they say. Everything does stop for Popmaster, and today it will probably have an even bigger audience than usual. But at least Popmaster itself is not stopping forever.

April 3 can’t come soon enough and the first time Ken’s dulcet tones bring us an anguished cry of ‘Oh you’re one year out’ in his new home, it will be very comforting indeed.

@stevebone1 on Twitter