Last year I became a staunch Radio 1 listener again for the first time since my teens. I needed the ceaselessly refreshing joy of pop music during the pandemic, but also the pastoral bump on the shoulder from its presenters looking out for audiences considerably younger than me: the pure, giddy fun of phone-ins and running jokes, the gentle mood-guardrails and circumspect parcelling out of the day’s events on Newsbeat. It frequently made me sentimental, and still does: just this week I had a moment at a sunny roundabout as Greg James played the new Wolf Alice song. Its entire presenter cohort deserves to join the national role call of pandemic heroes – and in particular Annie Mac, who yesterday announced that she was leaving the station after 17 years.
With no commute to divide work from home and no evening activity bar a couple of hours watching The Sopranos, the architecture of Mac’s show held millions of us up. She has been the perfect accompaniment to these weird times: tender but never saccharine during the calming Power Down playlist, and forever invigorated by that day’s Hottest Record in the World, as she provided an antidote to Covid with brilliant new music. During Friday’s night’s surrogate club night, Dance Anthems, she was as pumped as any human has ever been. Just a drop of energy transmuting from her to you via the radio perched behind your kitchen sink could take the tragedy and tedium out of an evening spent at home eating reheated spaghetti.
Mac, of course, has been great since long before last March. She joined Radio 1 in 2004, and took over from Zane Lowe on the evening show in 2015. Matthew Bannister’s reinvention of the station in the early 90s is well-remembered – clearing out the dead wood to affirm its youth focus – but it has undergone subtler shifts in the years since. There was the uneasy contrast of shock jocks and kids’ TV exiles in the early 2000s; the sense of eavesdropping on an exclusive club in the early 2010s, whether it was Nick Grimshaw broadcasting through a hangover or Zane Lowe gatekeeping with aplomb in the evening. Halfway through that decade, Mac, Clara Amfo and James quietly dismantled those exclusionary barriers and pointed the focus towards listeners and the artists making the music that gives the station its purpose. Once Mac took over from Lowe, 7pm was no longer a personality-led indie ghetto, but an all-comers haven.
Her stamp quickly became apparent: playful enthusiasm; heavy knowledge about music handled lightly; uncynical wonder at music’s magic undimmed, while mercifully never drippy or breathless. Every show she did added new songs to my running “best tracks” playlist. Mac was also a great listener: unlike some name DJs, her interviews weren’t cod therapy sessions that were really all about them, but about trying to understand an artist’s intentions and make sense of them to the listener. You heard her break deep personal ground with the likes of Robyn and Christine and the Queens; cut through the cryptic miasma surrounding the last Arctic Monkeys’ album to get straight answers from Alex Turner; show admirable equanimity during a freewheeling conversation with Lana Del Rey in January, avoiding the easy route of agreeing with the singer’s controversial statements about politics and her own victimisation, but not rising to them either.
Despite the BBC’s strict impartiality rules, Mac knew when to take a stand. She never let up on lazy festival bookers promoting male-heavy line-ups, and aired the double standards facing women working in music production. In 2019, she and James rebuked white listeners who took offence at UK rapper Dave’s song Black. “It’s a real issue that a song so intelligent, so thought-provoking, so excellently put together can actually offend you,” she tweeted at the time. Her own events outside of the BBC, festivals and conferences under the Annie Mac Presents umbrella, are principled correctives to those flaws in the music industry.
When I interviewed her for the Observer Magazine last year, Mac shrugged off any idea that she was influential, and said that any power she represented belonged to her radio show – and that it would go to whoever would present it next. I think she’s wrong, at least about the former. Her compassion and zeal have shaped a generation of pop fans and stoked mutual appreciation among a vast array of musicians. Foals, Disclosure and AJ Tracey were among those paying tribute yesterday to one of the greats of British broadcasting.
Mac has said she is leaving Radio 1 to spend more time with her kids and focus on other creative pursuits. Her excellent debut novel, Mother Mother, is out in May (unsurprisingly for such a great listener, she has a real sense of voice as an author), and her podcast, Changes, is a cut above the usual celeb interview vehicle fare. Radio 1 couldn’t have chosen a better successor to her show than candid, cool Clara Amfo. But I hope it’s not the last time we get to enjoy Annie Mac throwing her arms around pop, and pulling us closer to listen for whatever salvation or wonder might lie therein. A great pop song is self-evident. But a catalyst like her can make it transcendent.