Steve Wright, zany BBC Radio 1 and Radio 2 DJ who won huge audiences with his ‘zoo’ format – obituary

Steve Wright (1994): widely held to be the sharpest operator at the microphone since his idol Kenny Everett
Steve Wright (1994): widely held to be the sharpest operator at the microphone since his idol Kenny Everett - Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy
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Steve Wright, who has died aged 69, hosted the anarchic breakfast show on Radio 1 for a year before switching to Radio 2, where he became a garrulous fixture on weekday afternoons with middle-of-the-road pop hits, interviews and features mixed with interjections from his regular on-air posse of equally mouthy subordinates, a format that became known as “zoo” radio.

When he suddenly quit Radio 1 in January 1995, Wright was said to be bound for Talk Radio, Britain’s first national all-speech commercial station, and was widely expected to be followed out of the door by the BBC pop network’s controller Matthew Bannister, whose station had shed 4.5 million listeners in the previous year.

Wright’s unhappy year on the breakfast show was reckoned to be a casualty of the changes to Radio 1 wrought by Bannister when he took over the station in 1993 and, at the behest of the ascetic director-general John Birt, introduced more speech content.

Steve Wright in 1979
Steve Wright in 1979 - Evening Standard

While Bannister survived, Wright’s abrupt leave-taking sent a shock through Radio 1. He had been installed on the breakfast show at the start of 1994 to help revive flagging ratings following the removal of the station’s ageing disc-jockeys such as Dave Lee Travis and Simon Bates.

Having ceded his berth on the breakfast show to Chris Evans after little more than a year, Wright did indeed decamp to Talk Radio, but listeners did not take to him and he left after a few months, returning to the BBC in 1996 with two weekend shows on Radio 2 featuring “amazing” facts (later rebranded as “factoids”), celebrity gossip, royal tittle-tattle, television soap stars, horoscopes and travel news.

His hugely popular Sunday-morning show, Steve Wright’s Sunday Love Songs, featured classics from the genre, dedications and real-life stories of romance.

In 1985 with Janice Long, Bruno Brookes, front, and Simon Bates
In 1985 with Janice Long, Bruno Brookes, front, and Simon Bates - Rogers/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1999 he took over from Ed “Stewpot” Stewart on the weekday-afternoon slot which was relaunched under the title The Big Show. With him went his zoo-crew, and a galère of characters played by Wright himself, notably Mr Angry, ranting on the phone from Purley.

Like Kenny Everett, Wright had an abiding obsession with radio, and he assiduously tuned in to other shows in search of ideas. In the pre-internet age he would think nothing of taking a flight to New York to ensconce himself in a hotel room for a weekend tuning round the radio dial.

At the height of his success he lived with his American-born wife and their two children in a mansion at Henley-on-Thames. But when his wife suddenly left him, Wright became known as something of an eccentric loner, sleeping during the week in a small flat round the corner from Broadcasting House and living meagrely, despite a reported salary in excess of £500,000, on a diet of microwave TV dinners, mini bottles of white wine, crisps and chocolates.

Occasionally he would instruct staff to book him into the luxury hotel across the road for the night. In the office he would send a minion to queue for his rail ticket to Surrey for weekend visits to his mother, while other underlings were dispatched to fetch sandwiches and junk food from local cafés. Over the years he struggled to control his weight, which at times ballooned to 18 stone.

Wright with his posse in 1990
Wright with his posse in 1990 - Goddard Archive Portraits/Alamy

The elder son of a tailor who ran Burton’s outfitters in Trafalgar Square, Stephen Richard Wright was born on August 26 1954 in Greenwich and brought up in New Cross. When the family moved out to Essex, he attended Eastwood High School, near Southend-on­-Sea, leaving with only three O-levels, but after working in marine insurance and as a local newspaper reporter he fulfilled an ambition to join the BBC by landing a job in the gramophone library at Radio 2.

His first outing behind the microphone came in 1976 at Radio 210 in Reading (now Heart Thames Valley) alongside Mike Read in The Read and Wright Show.

After a spell at Radio Luxembourg, he joined Radio 1 in 1980, presenting a Saturday-evening show, then taking a Saturday-morning slot, before moving to the afternoon from 1981. He launched a Sunday-morning show in 1984 and two years later returned to weekdays with Steve Wright in the Afternoon.

The show became something of an institution, known for its madcap cast of telephone characters, but these were later dumped in favour of a “zoo” format, new to British radio, with spoof guests and comedy sketches, a “posse” of producers and radio staff joining in the banter.

As well as Mr Angry, Wright’s on-air retinue included Gervase the hairdresser, Damian the social worker and Barry, the elderly lifestyle guru from Watford, mostly played by actors.

In 1990 with his production assistant Dianne Oxberry and Paul McCartney, after the former Beatle dropped in unexpectedly
In 1990 with his production assistant Dianne Oxberry and Paul McCartney, after the former Beatle dropped in unexpectedly - PA/Alamy

In 1994, having been persuaded by Radio 1’s controller Matthew Bannister over breakfast at the Savoy, Wright and his posse moved to the breakfast show. It soon became clear that the format was not working for the time of day; Wright sounded stale and habitually ignored the computer-generated music playlist. With the listening figures in free fall, he feared for his own reputation and told Bannister he wanted to quit.

His afternoon show on Radio 2 featured a sequence of non-stop oldies, celebrity interviews (usually a television or film personality, or an author plugging a new book) and assorted nuggets of information he preferred to call “factoids”.

Wright prerecorded Sunday Love Songs on a Friday, featuring traditional dedications, requests for partners in both same-­sex and heterosexual relationships and assorted letters or emails from listeners, invariably including the mantra “Love the show, Steve”.

He announced his retirement from his weekday show at the age of 67 in July 2022, the slot being taken over by Scott Mills, formerly of Radio 1, then in October last year he took over as host of Pick of the Pops from Paul Gambaccini.

Bespectacled and nerdy in appearance, Wright looked uncomfortable on television, but hosted Home Truths, The Steve Wright People Show (both 1994) and Auntie’s TV Favourites (1997), as well as Top of the Pops and the retro TOTP2 (1997-2009).

He was appointed MBE for services to radio in the 2024 New Year Honours.

Steve Wright married Cyndi Robinson in 1985; they had a daughter and son but divorced in 1999.

Steve Wright, born August 26 1954, died February 12 2024

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