Annie Nightingale is a survivor. The veteran radio DJ, TV presenter, and festival jock has been on the British airwaves for 45 years and counting, the longest run in BBC history. Along the way, she's palled around with everyone from John Peel, Keith Moon, and a little known outfit called The Beatles, fought to become the first female DJ to host her own radio show, partied like a rock star (one legendary house party bender lasting the better part of a week), and even recently quit smoking—a habit she nursed for decades. Somehow, she hasn't skipped a beat.
"At the end of that new documentary about Amy Winehouse, there is a line [from Tony Bennett] that's relevant to my survival: 'Life teaches you how to live if you can live long enough,'" Nightingale says. "It kind of made me think, if you can survive all the hazards that happen when you're younger, you've got a better chance of survival. But I've seen the loss of a lot of great people along the way."
This month, Nightingale's legacy is being celebrated in a major way, with two documentaries about her career airing on BBC Radio 2, and a three-disc Masterpiece compilation released on Ministry of Sound. (Listen to exclusive streams of Masterpiece mini-mixes here on THUMP.) The compilation's conceit is mixtape as autobiography: spanning six decades, it serves as a keyhole into her life on the air, going everywhere from British Invasion to Manchester in the 80s, 90s house, big beat, drum and bass, indie rock, trap, and everything in between. Even though listening to it feels like a history lesson on modern British music, the cuts she selected are never the most obvious hits. Many artists, such as the Rolling Stones, have never been on a compilation before—and certainly never next to each other.
Annie Nightingale and John Peel
Nightingale's dedication to championing unconventional sounds started right when she broke into the BBC in 1970 as the station's first female DJ. She immediately formed a bond with John Peel, arguably the most significant radio broadcaster ever, who shared her fear of getting canned for playing stuff too left of center.
"Peel seemed to pick up on everything. He'd be very worried that the radio station would say, 'This is too weird, and we're not going to keep you on air.' Even though the BBC is not a commercial station, we still need to deliver good listening figures. And John always did. But he wouldn't compromise, and that is what I really admire about him," she recalls.
Another heavyweight friend of hers, Zane Lowe, is now making waves at the recently launched Beats 1. I ask Nightingale to weigh in on the ambitious new radio station's future. "We're all very interested. On the first day I listened, I heard Zane playing some very uncompromising, very London music. I want to hear a whole day, so I can get a feel for what the shows from London, the shows from LA, the shows from NY sound like. But the first day it sounded very much like the BBC, and in a way, I think that's very cool."
As for whether on-demand streaming services like Spotify and SoundCloud will kill off radio, Nightingale thinks they can co-exist, "provided the content and curation are strong." "Everyone thought that radio was over when the internet came. And it's survived so many platforms," she says. "I still think people want a voice. I actually don't like to be told 'if you like this, you'll like that.' I want people to make up their own mind." Her approach is more of a two-way street: "Here's what I found this week. What do you think?"
Nightingale knows that a radio DJ's main asset is keeping up with the fickle winds of change—which is why, in the last decade, she's found herself increasingly becoming a sort of... trap queen.
"I like the energy in trap, and the fact that they all sound like they're having a great time in the studio. It's like you want to be in the studio with them. And it's quite international now: LA, Chicago, Atlanta, Amsterdam, Ukraine. It's music that will adapt." Sure, a lot of Brits look down on the mainstream appeal of American dance music. "People are very rude about EDM [and] trap," she acknowledges. But at the end of the day (or 45 years), Nightingale knows what works for her. "I think a lot of people are too worried about what is cool to like. People should just enjoy what they enjoy."
Annie Nightingale's Masterpiece compilation is out now on Ministry of Sound