Simon Mayo talks return to drivetime on Greatest Hits Radio after leaving BBC Radio 2

Simon Mayo departed his BBC Radio 2 show in 2018 amid sudden ‘psychodrama’. The presenter now talks to John Blow about his return to drivetime, confessions - and an inspirational typo.

Simon Mayo is now presenting for Greatest Hits Radio.
Simon Mayo is now presenting for Greatest Hits Radio.

Listening to Simon Mayo down the line is slightly surreal.

He’s felt so ubiquitous in broadcasting for the last decade or more, and so familiar are his phone-ins with all manner of subjects, that him being the one answering the questions seems like an ultimate role reversal.

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Nevertheless, despite his 4am start - “I dream of being woken up by an alarm clock” - his trademark disarming charm is delivered in abundance as he speaks to The Yorkshire Post about returning to drivetime on Greatest Hits Radio, leaving BBC Radio 2 and the paperback release of his latest book, Knife Edge.

Simon Mayo in 2019.

And it is that “instant familiarity” he will be striving for when the father-of-three hosts his first slot from 4pm to 7pm today for the new channel, one which he’ll deliver each week day while remaining a presenter on classical station Scala at weekends .

It comes after a departure from his old Radio 2 show, which he latterly hosted with friend and fellow broadcaster Jo Whiley, in 2018 following a sudden format change.

Speaking from his spare room in London, he says: “When I was doing drivetime Radio 2, it was the most fun I’d had, it was the most enjoyable programme that I’d done, it was the happiest that I’ve been doing a radio show. And so when it was kind of stopped unceremoniously, it felt like it was the wrong decision.

“And it had been the most successful drivetime show Radio 2 had ever had. So it was all a bit clunky. And I’m sure some of your readers will remember the psychodrama in 2018.

“So when Bauer said would you want to do drivetime again, the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. And I thought yes, actually, there is still some fuel in this tank.”

He continues: “It just works for me and we built a very successful programme. So the chance to be able to just fire it all up again is fantastic. And we can’t wait to start and I think it’ll be a new version - it’ll be drivetime 2.0. It won’t be the same.

“It’s on a different station. We’ve got an extra hour. You know, it’s four till seven. So it will feel different. But I think what I’m hoping is it will have that instant familiarity. That the listeners who remember the drivetime show from Radio 2 think yeah, that’s exactly what we want - I want to hear this music, I want to hear these voices, Matt to do the sport, I want to hear Nigel do the food. I want these features I remember. But I want some new stuff as well. So it’s not a copy.”

Confessions, in which listeners got all manner of bizarre, outrageous, hilarious and downright abominable stories from their pasts off their chests by sending them into Mayo and his crew at the BBC, was one of his most popular features. Will that make a return too?

“Well, that’s a very interesting question. You know, there’s a there’s an ongoing production conversation about that. And the answer to that is possibly. It would be nice to do it again. It depends whether people confess. And if they do, then I will and if they don’t, then I won’t.

“I mean we’ve got loads of ideas to fill the three-hour programme. And it might be that Confessions returns. I know it’s very popular...”

This, along with his All Request Friday feature in which his listeners effectively sort the playlist, are the two things people always want to speak to Mayo about. The latter of which, he can confirm, will definitely return.

“It all depends what the postbag is like, you know,” he says.

Mayo previously said in an interview with The Guardian that the departure from Radio 2 - he still works with the BBC doing the film show with Mark Kermode - was one of his biggest disappointments.

“I think I’ve learned not to plan too far ahead,” Mayo, 62, says.

He adds that “radio is a very graceful place to grow old in a way that television certainly isn’t. So I think, as far as this show is concerned, it’s fantastic to be back. I’m really, really looking forward to it. I’m going to give it everything. And it will just take one show at a time, one year at a time, and see where it goes. And hopefully everybody loves it. But I’ve given up trying to plan for the future. Because it sounds like a fool’s game to me.”

Mayo does have something up his sleeve, though, having developed quite the writing career in recent years. Previous books include Mad Blood Stirring, Blame and the Itch trilogy and his latest,the thriller Knife Edge, was released last summer but has just been published in paperback.

The story centres on journalist Famie Madden, who discovers that seven colleagues have been murdered within the same half an hour.

Women that Mayo worked with in the early noughties at Radio 5 Live influenced the protagonist’s character, though the original spark for the story itself shows how inspiration can occur in even the most mundane places.

“It did start with a weird typo. I was trying to type CNN into a document. I can’t remember why I was typing CNN, but it came out as CNX. And it was in a large font, as I recall. And it was just the three letters CNX. And I thought, wow, I quite like that. That sounds like it should stand for something, maybe it’s a title for a book. And then underneath CNX I just wrote ‘when television goes bad’, just because it sounded as though it went, and so the original idea was to write a story about television newsroom with a catastrophe happening. I didn’t really know what the catastrophe was but I thought that would be quite interesting setting.

“And then over a period of time in conversations with my editor, he’d suggested making it more international by putting it into a news agency like Reuters, or Bloomberg or one of those.”

For Mayo, although the book has already been released in hardback, the nerves return when it comes to the latest publication.

He says: “The hardback is like the launch when the story turns up in the public domain for the first time. But the paperback is what a lot of people wait for just because it’s affordable.

“This is the first time they’re going to get a chance to get a handle on the story and find out what the fuss is all about. So the paperback launch is actually a very big deal. But I’m very happy and very proud of the story.”

Given that Greatest Hits Radio has effectively superseded a number of Yorkshire’s cherished stations such as Minster FM, Mayo is careful not to bluff potential listeners.

“I am not claiming any links at all to Yorkshire because your readers would find me out,” he says.

“So I tend to spend almost all of my time, apart from being in my bedroom, either in London or in Suffolk. But without wanting to sound too cheesy, if radio works - particularly this kind of format that we’re talking about - I could be presenting the show from Reykjavik and it would still hopefully be of interest to listeners in Yorkshire.”

Such are the benefits, perhaps, of being instantly familiar.

DJ 'understands' concerns

In May last year, Bauer Media Group announced an integration of regional brands such as York’s Minster FM and Ridings FM in Wakefield to become Greatest Hits Radio.

After his Radio 2 show was reformatted, Mayo left and has been presenting The Album Show on Sundays for Bauer’s Greatest Hits Radio.

Mayo was not part of the process and adds that “the only bit that I can offer is that we will, while acknowledging people might be annoyed about what’s happened...endeavour to make the very best drivetime show that I possibly can...”