Liz Kershaw: Radio Queen makes waves

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As she marks 30 years with the BBC, Liz Kershaw talks to Sarah Freeman about her love of Leeds, ageism and what she really thought of Jimmy Savile.

IF Leeds is ever looking to adopt a champion, someone who will sing the praises of the city until there’s not a breath left in their body, it could do worse than appoint Liz Kershaw. True, she was born in Rochdale and her accent remains shaped by the years she spent on the other side of the Pennines, but it was Leeds where her career began and where her heart still lies.

“I love Leeds, absolutely love it,” says the 55 year-old broadcaster. We’re here to chat about her new autobiography The Bird and the Beeb, but you get the impression she’d happily talk about nothing else but Leeds.

Kershaw arrived in Yorkshire in the 1980s shortly followed by her brother and fellow broadcaster Andy. He dropped out of a politics degree and while she stayed the course at Leeds University, academic pursuits weren’t exactly a priority. “It was an incredible city if you were young and into music. It felt like there were venues on every corner and the student union just was a really vibrant place to be. From day one I fell in love with place and never wanted to leave. I owe Leeds a lot.”

Not least her career. Kershaw’s break into journalism came when she bumped into the music critic for the Yorkshire Post at a gig and successfully secured a weekly column for £25 a week. “That felt like a fortune to me, those really were the golden days of journalism. But the biggest buzz was seeing my words in print. I wrote under the pseudonym Dawn Chorus and that column was my ticket to the rest of my life.”

Kershaw says she never set out with any great ambition to work on radio and that she more or less fell into presenting at Radio Leeds having been spotted by veteran broadcaster Martin Kelner. “He asked me to do a weekly gig guide. I honestly had no idea about radio, I never thought it was the sort of thing someone from my background could ever aspire to. However, for some reason he was prepared to take a chance on me. If it hadn’t been for Martin who knows whether I would ever have ended up in radio.”

It turned out that she was a natural and in On the Rocks with Liz Kershaw she indulged her love affair with pop music started years earlier when her parents had bought her a red leatherette covered record player. However, broadcasting didn’t yet pay the bills. During the week, she worked for BT and when the company transferred her to London it meant severing her ties, at least for a while, with Leeds.

“I was heart broken. Everyone else thought it was a great opportunity, but I really didn’t want to go. In Leeds I knew so many people and in London no one knew who I was. I went from being a bit of a big fish in a small band, to a nobody and for a while that was really difficult to deal with.”

Kershaw, who had kept the flat she’d bought in Headingley for £38,000, told herself that if she still felt the same way after Christmas she would pack her bags and head back north. By the then, however, Kershaw had joined Radio 1. It was the era of Bruno Brooks, Dave Lee Travis and Mark Goodyear, all big personalities who dominated the airwaves, yet Kershaw held her own and has worked in radio ever since.

“I’ve been lucky in that whenever someone has decided they don’t want me any more there has been someone else who’s said, ‘Well, we’ll have you’.” Some might have viewed a move from Radio 5 Live to local radio as a step down, but Kershaw never did.

“When people have grown up knowing you as a pop DJ they tend to think that you are a bit lightweight, but I’ve always been a news junkie and I think I did surprise a few people when I showed I could do both.” She returned to national radio with BBC 6 Music where she still presents a show on Saturday afternoons.

It proved a natural home, but her 30 year relationship with the Beeb hasn’t been all hearts and flowers. Two of the most difficult parts of the book concern her involvement in the fakery scandal and the accusations which flew following the suicide of Russell Joslin.

Kershaw was temporarily exiled from the Beeb in 2007 after it was revealed her show had faked the results of competitions on a handful of pre-recorded shows with production staff posing as prize winners. She was brought back into the fold a few months later, but the period was a chastening one.

Far more of an ordeal, though, was the death of Joslin who she became close to while working for in the Midlands in 2005. Seven years later he claimed he had been sexually harassed by Kershaw and while undergoing psychiatric treatment in 2012 killed himself. “Of course that part of the book was difficult to write, but I wanted to be candid about what had happened. Too many autobiographies end up being sanitised PR exercises. I didn’t want that. I wanted to be honest.”

Kershaw says the friendship turned sour when Joslin began behaving oddly. “When I learned he’d ended his life in a psychiatric unit, it was devastating. I understand why a grieving family looks for someone to blame. But their troubled son’s problems were not caused by me.”

Jimmy Savile is another difficult subject. While Kershaw had only interviewed him once and had no hard evidence of his grooming of young, vulnerable girls she had a hunch that all was not as it seemed. “He never forgot his roots. He’d been born dirt-poor and dragged himself up,” she began, but added, “I worked at Radio 1 and some very queer things happened during his time. Now’s not the time but one day the stories will come out.

“I felt I had stuck my head above the parapet. Everyone who worked in the media in Leeds knew that there was something dodgy about him and that he had some pretty odious friends. I understand why people have asked if everyone knew why did the BBC do nothing. I don’t know, but it wasn’t just the BBC, there were plenty of others who did nothing.”

She is still fiercely protective of the organisation. “In the early days the management was just a group of benevolent toffs. That’s certainly changed, but do I think they can spend their money better? Yes, but the Beeb is often given a hard time, by those who have a vested interest to see it go down the pan.”

Kershaw is now the third longest serving female DJ ever on BBC radio, just behind Janice Long and Annie Nightingale.

While she has never taken any job for granted, equally she insists that she has never experienced ageism within the organisation.

“It’s only me who has a problem with getting older. For the launch of the book it was really hot in the room, but I refused to take my jacket off until a friend had assured me that I wouldn’t be exposing my bingo wings.”

And should it all go wrong, she could always return to where it all started. “If my old flat in Headingley ever came on the market again, I’d be tempted. But I’m not sure I could afford it. It went up for sale about five years ago for 10 times what I’d paid for it.”