Andy Kershaw: Radio head

Andy Kershaw on the river Niger in Mali in 1988.
Andy Kershaw on the river Niger in Mali in 1988.
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Andy Kershaw is an author, journalist and radio DJ. He talks to Chris Bond about his time in Leeds, working with John Peel and travelling to North Korea.

ANDY Kershaw leans forward in his seat. “I used to come here if I wanted to impress a girl,” he says, with a cheeky smile.

We’re in Whitelocks, one of Leeds’s best known and most venerable watering holes, and an old stomping ground of Kershaw’s back in his university days.

That was some 30 years ago, since when he’s helped present Live Aid, worked alongside the legendary John Peel and travelled to 97 countries, reporting from some of the world’s most perilous places including Iraq, Sierra Leone, North Korea, Angola and Haiti.

He’s back living in West Yorkshire after moving to Todmorden last December and next Thursday he takes his popular one-man show – The Adventures of Andy Kershaw – to The Trades Club, in Hebden Bridge. It is, he says, an illustrated talk with bits of music and tales from his colourful, and widely praised, autobiography No Off Switch.

Kershaw’s passion for music was forged after going to watch Rory Gallagher as a teenager and his “calling”, as he puts it, led him to Leeds University. “I noticed that whenever bands came to Leeds they played at the university and when I found out the gigs were actually booked by a student volunteer officer, I thought ‘that’s where I’m going, I want that job.’”

The subsequent story is well-thumbed. He came to Leeds University in 1978 and got the job he craved early in his second year, running a team of up to 200 volunteers and booking acts like Ian Dury and the Blockheads and Iggy Pop. “In my last term in the spring of 82, my programme ran thus – The Pretenders, The Boomtown Rats, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Rory Gallagher, Black Uhuru and The Clash,” he says, proudly.

He left university having failed his politics degree (in 2005 he was awarded an honorary doctorate) but now a seasoned concert promoter. Then in January 1984 he moved to London.

“Our Elizabeth [sister and fellow DJ Liz Kershaw] put me on the bus at Wellington Street bus station because I was going to London at the invitation of Billy Bragg to be his driver, roadie and tour manager. As I stepped on to the coach I said to her ‘I’m going to London for 10 days to see if I like it and if I don’t I’m coming straight back.’ Well, I stayed 24 years.”

It was while working for Bragg that he was offered the chance to be a presenter on the Whistle Test and within a few months he’d been talent spotted and was working as a Radio One DJ. The following year he was one of the BBC’s Live Aid presenters, in what was his first ever outside broadcast.

“I didn’t grasp how big it was until we got to Wembley,” he says.

“It was chaos and yes we were making it up as we went along, but because of my inexperience I was Mr Serenity and I remember thinking ‘this is a bit of a caper, this must be what outside broadcasts are like.’”

Almost overnight he had established himself as one of the nation’s most in-demand broadcasters and for 12 years he had the pleasure of working with John Peel. “He was great, he could be a grumpy old Eeyore but I do miss him. He was hugely important to me, not only as a soul brother of Radio One, but along with Bob Dylan and the Whistle Test, the Peel Show was the other main component in broadening my musical tastes, because he played things you wouldn’t normally hear.”

As well as being a radio presenter, Kershaw has carved out a niche reporting from some of the world’s most far flung places. He followed the firefighting teams of Red Adair and Boots Hansen to the burning oil well-heads of Kuwait after the first Gulf War in 1991, and reported from Rwanda during the genocide in the mid-90s.

He’s also been to North Korea four times. “I’ve always been fascinated with the world’s more impenetrable, secretive and least visited countries and North Korea was the biggest magnet of all for me because it had all those characteristics.”

It took several years of pestering the North Korean authorities before they finally let him in. “I always played a straight bat and told them who I was and what I did, I wasn’t trying to sneak in. I would routinely apply to be allowed in and they would routinely say ‘no’ and then in 1995 they said ‘yes’ and what’s more they let me bring in a film crew.”

He says North Korea is unlike anywhere on earth. “There are no common cultural reference points and there so many things you see that are extraordinary and absurd,” he says. “Pyongyang is set out on this grid system with huge boulevards and no traffic whatsoever, just a few bicycles and the odd tram. The streets are by and large silent, but at the junctions of those boulevards you had these traffic policewomen standing on a pedestal frantically directing traffic that doesn’t exist.”

In 2000, he went back with Christopher Hitchens. “One afternoon my phone rang and booming down the line was this plummy voice saying ‘I gather, Kershaw dear boy, that you have an understanding with the North Koreans?’ and he asked if I could get him in. How the hell we got him in I don’t know, but we did.” The subsequent trip was suitably surreal and included “a trip to the zoo on a bus with a group of minders,” he says, chuckling at the thought.

Kershaw has packed a lot in to his 53 years but after all his adventures he still regards Leeds as a spiritual home. “One of the periods about which I feel luckiest is my time in Leeds and if it was possible I’d be the ents secretary at Leeds University again tomorrow. I mean what an experience for a 20 year-old music nut, and what a nice place to be doing it.”

• Andy Kershaw appears at The Trades Club, Hebden Bridge, April 18.