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Try as she might, BBC legend Liz Kershaw just can't help speaking out on prejudice

Liz Kershaw

Liz Kershaw ought for a change of culture and more female solo presenters on BBC radio. (Image: Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images)

By her own admission, Liz Kershaw has always felt like an interloper at the BBC, an outspoken anomaly of the airwaves with strong views and a broad Lancashire accent. And despite working for the corporation for 38 years, she has also been something of a thorn in its side, since back in 1987 when, as a solo female DJ on Radio 1’s Backchat and, later, the evening show, she first noticed that she was in a minority.

“I went on to be the only woman in the country, out of about 50 BBC stations, presenting a breakfast show,” says Liz.

“And I kept thinking, ‘This is odd because 51 per cent of the population is female’. But when I asked about it, I was told, ‘You can’t have women on air during the day on Radio 1 because most of the listeners are housewives and they want a male friend’.

“That was the policy that persisted on Radio 2 until about 2009 when Zoe Ball took over the breakfast show.”

Over a number of years, using BBC schedules, Liz compiled a report for then directorgeneral Mark Thompson – “before he b*****ed off to the New York Times” – which she called Just 17, based on the teen magazine of the same name.

“I drew a pie chart, with slices showing male presenters in blue and women presenters in pink, which equated to just 17 per cent of the 168 hours of BBC radio a week,” she explains. “Back then it was pretty much me, Sarah Kennedy, Vanessa Feltz, Janice Long, Annie Nightingale and, in the 1990s, Jo Whiley but we were never on air in the day.”

Following a conversation with Nadine Dorries, now Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, at a Christmas party, Liz persuaded her to take up the cause. Dorries asked questions in the House of Commons and went to the BBC’s headquarters in London to speak to Thompson about the lack of women DJs.

Radio DJ Liz Kershaw

Radio DJ Liz Kershaw in 1988. (Image: Graham Tucker/Redferns via Getty Images)

When Lord Tony Hall took over as DG in 2013, he vowed that women would account for 50 per cent of daytime presenters, and the situation started to improve. “We’re not fully there yet but a lot has changed for the better and so I have achieved something,” says Liz. “It took a while but I feel that.”

So, she must be doubly infuriated at having just been sidelined again, this time from BBC Radio 6.

She was one of the original presenters on the digital-only music station when it launched in 2002 and battled to save it when it was threatened with closure by Thompson.

The Saturday afternoon show Liz, 63, had presented for 17 years was taken away from her and given to BBC Radio 1Xtra presenter Jamz Supernova, who is 25.

Two older male presenters were also dropped. So was it an age thing? There is a long pause as she considers her response.

“You judge for yourself. I can’t say. You just set out the facts: these people were dropped, these people are aged.You can see who’s replaced us, so you can make a comment. I can’t… I daren’t.

Liz Kershaw

Liz was a DJ on Radio 1’s Backchat. (Image: Ian Spratt/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

“I’m not a shrinking violet but I do enjoy doing it. I’m questioning the judgment, the trend within the BBC but I can’t, publicy…” her voice trails off and she looks out of the window. Then she comes back with: “Listen, you don’t do yourself any favours [by speaking out] either because people just think we’re all massively overpaid and we’ve all got a charmed life and we’re all just whingeing. So who’s going to feel sorry for you?

“But I also think if you don’t speak out it’s not just got implications for people on the radio, it’s got implications for wider society.”

Is she worried about the personal ramifications?

“No. I don’t need work like I’m just starting out. I don’t need work like somebody who’s got a mortgage, and a young family,” says Liz, who lives on the Kent coast.

“But I want to still be involved. It’s my passion, my job’s been my social life, which I was always thrilled about. So I do enjoy the fact I can still interview people, meet people on a professional basis.” She laughs: “So, let’s try and keep it that way, shall we?”

It was in 2000 that Liz became the first woman to host a solo breakfast show on the network, at BBC Radio Northampton (she and partner Paul moved there to raise their sons). She went on to work at BBC Coventry & Warwickshire until 2011 – all the time presenting on Radio 6 at the weekends.

Terry Wogan with Sara Cox, Phill Jupitus, Liz Kershaw, Andrew Collins, Chris Hawkins, Gary Burton, Stuart Maconie, Tracey Macleod, Clare McDonnell and Bob Harris launching the new BBC 6 music radio station

Liz with fellow DJs at the launch of BBC Radio 6 in 2002. (Image: James Avery /EMPICS Entertainment)

Management at Radio 6 has salvaged one segment of Liz’s old show called “Legends In Their Own Lunchtime” and she will produce and present that in a new hour-long format, which starts tomorrow. In the first programme she interviews Darlene Love, the 80-year-old Grammy-winning member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, who sang on Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You album.

Next Sunday, she celebrates The Stranglers’ 45 years in the music industry.

But try as she might, Liz cannot keep her head beneath the parapet for long. Explaining how she avoids meeting her musical heroes, “because invariably they turn out to be dickheads”, she once turned down an invitation to a backstage party hosted by her number one idol, Bruce Springsteen, for that very reason. Then she recalls turning to a bloke next to her at a London bar to discover it was another hero, David Bowie, who was ordering a beer (Liz does a hilarious impression of herself thanking Bowie for the pleasure his music has given her while cringing at the memory).

But conversation swiftly returns to the BBC. She complains: “I’ve said so many times to the BBC, ‘Can I interview Bruce?’ And it’s been a ‘no’ and then I’ve sat there and watched somebody, not a fan, someone pretending to be a fan, all sycophantic, coming out with all the cliched stuff.”

Liz and her younger brother – Old Grey Whistle Test presenter and DJ Andy – were raised by their school headteacher parents in Lancashire. Weekends and holidays entailed educational visits to castles and museums and instead of watching TV in the evenings, the Kershaw children were expected to sit at the table and write up what they had learnt.

DJ Liz Kershaw speaks to fans during protests

DJ Liz Kershaw speaks to fans of the BBC 6 Music radio station. (Image: Gareth Fuller/PA Archive/PA Images)

“We had a touring caravan and we’d drive around so we had a great education about the British Isles. It was a bit hard sometimes but I really enjoyed it,” says Liz.

‘I fact I interview on a basis, and keep “We’ve still got those postcards we wrote with the pictures stuck on and we look at them from time to time.”

The siblings both studied in Leeds, where Andy was the university student union’s entertainments secretary in the 1980s, helping to kick-start the careers of a host of future stars including Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Dire Straits,The Clash, Elvis Costello, Iggy Pop and Duran Duran.

Both worked in BBC news journalism, Andy on the Today programme and doing geopolitical TV documentaries, and Liz on her all-speech breakfast show and on Radio 5 Live.

“It’s very hard to be taken seriously in news,” she says. “I presented live for several hours on 9/11 but there was a feeling like, ‘Can she do this because she likes pop?’ Andy never got accepted by the BBC news mafia because he didn’t go to Oxford. I had that as well, I suffered the most awful prejudice in the newsroom.”

Liz laments the streaming services that dictate single and album releases these days.

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“My fear, with lockdown as well, is that young bands with guitars, keyboards and drums in the back of a smelly old Transit won’t get any airplay. So many live gig venues have closed and it’s so much easier to sit in your bedroom with a computer and record your voice.We will end up with more solo singer/songwriters and no performers.”

Liz was horrified by what has become of the famous Leeds University bar where she, her brother and the bands hung out. “There doesn’t seem to be the whole culture of escapism and anarchy, protest and rebellion. We were always chanting about something – Palestine, women’s rights, apartheid… now they have cancel culture.

“I’ve been invited back and I could not believe how dressed up students are, the girls walking around with designer handbags. In my day if your parents had a few bob, it was a badge of honour to look scruffy.”

The bar looks, says Liz, wincing at the memory, “like a museum”, displaying framed gig posters her brother drew in the 1980s as if time has stood still.

Does she worry for the future of music in the hands of mega solo artists like Adele?

“I think she’s really talented. I think she’s really ballsy,” says Liz slowly. “I liked a few of her songs so I listened to the new single because the world’s gone mad for it. I thought ‘bloody hell that’s dismal and formulaic, I’m not going to wake up singing that in the bath in two years time’.”

  • Legends In Their Own Lunchtime is on every Sunday, 1-2pm, on BBC Radio 6


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