Dale Winton. Illustration: Ian Stewart
So, how did a nice lad from London end up in Nottingham in the late seventies?
What happened was independent radio. Every city was getting its own radio station in the early seventies so all the DJs were firing off tapes. I sent a tape to Radio Trent but I didn’t get the job - Len Groat got it - but Dennis Maitland the managing director said, “Look, you haven’t got the job but we like you. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” And he did. I was invited to do a weekend show and it went very well. I was promised the next job that became available, which was the afternoon shift. I rented a small place on Sherwood Rise and used to spend Monday to Friday in Nottingham and go back to London at the weekends. Then they said that they wanted me to do more and be involved in the community, and to live up here.
Before that, of course, you famously DJed at a biscuit factory.
I was working at United Biscuits Network. It was a bit like doing rep in the theatre; it was the only other place that had proper radio facilities. It was the hardest job to get, to be honest; all the club DJs at the time knew the independent stations were coming, and we needed the experience to get the demo tapes together. Everybody wanted to get into United Biscuits Network.
Trent in its prime has been described as one of the best British stations in radio history…
I agree. They had an extremely successful pool of talent, David ‘Kid’ Jensen, I got his job when he went to Radio 1. The career strategy would be Trent, then BRMB, then Radio 1, or even Luxembourg. But the talent line-up at Trent was that strong, and people seemed to fit very well. In those days people would kill for the audience share figures Trent were pulling down. It’s hard to believe now because there’s so much media, but we were doing a 45% share of the audience, and on a bad year we’d do 39-40%.
It must have been really alpha at Trent in those days – everyone jockeying for position with their eye on the nationals…
Almost everyone was trying to get the next big gig because if you got to Radio 1 you got television. Radio DJs fall into two categories: there are those who just love the whole concept of radio, the technical side of things. John Peters is a perfect example of that. I fell into the other category; being an entertainer. I viewed it as a very good platform to experiment and become a personality, I believed in personality radio. At the time you could only play so much music an hour, so you’d sit there with a stack of cards talking about anything from a jumble sale in Nuthall to a charity fundraiser for the Scouts, and you had to read so many of these per hour to keep your license.
Your fellow Trent DJ David Lloyd wrote the following about you: “I remember him outlining to me the life he aspired to, and in an almost eerie fashion he’s achieved every detail of that vision. And like many with a clear vision, he behaved back then as if his vision was already true - and that is maybe the secret.” Does that sound like you back then?
It does. I’ve always believed in – even though I hate to use the word - the ‘celebrity system’. You’ve got to give the public what they want. You’re not to go out looking like a scruff - if you want to be a star you’ve got to live like one, you’ve got to look like one.
Dale Winton in his days at Radio Trent
What did “looking like a star” entail in late seventies and early eighties Notts?
I don’t know, but I tried. You’re not paid for the three hours you’re on the radio - you’re paid for the 24 hours you live your life. I’ve always viewed myself as a product, in other words, when you go to Tesco’s or the corner shop, you’ve got to be that person. You can never disappoint people.
Where did you go for a night out in Nottingham?
I was quite low-key because I was never a nightclubby or bar scene person. I’d go to the Trattoria on Trent Bridge as it was the best Italian in town, or a curry house near the Broadmarsh. I’d occasionally go to gigs – Haircut 100 at Rock City, Dionne Warwick at the Royal Concert Hall. But I’ve always been a quiet stay-at-home person. I like my television.
You came out after you left Nottingham. Were you ever worried about being outed while at Trent?
I think everybody knew. I believed in protecting my image and I was always aware of the ambiguity of my show, if you listened you’d probably think… hmm. These days you can talk about it, but bringing attention to yourself being gay on air - that would have been career death. I based a lot of my career on innuendo.
The general impression back then was that you were never the most macho broadcaster. But then again, everyone sounded effeminate next to John Peters.
There was a wonderful quote from someone in management at BRMB, “When I listen to Dale Winton, I start to question my own sexuality.” I thought, “Great!” It’s expected for people in showbusiness to be a bit fluid when it came to their sexuality anyway, but Radio Trent back then was very heterosexual - I was the exception to the rule. But it wasn’t a problem.
You were definitely a Housewives’ Choice DJ – did you ever get offers?
I had a great following with women - gay guys always do. And yes, a lot of women try to convert gay men.
Did you ever get into trouble for anything you said? I remember the day after the riots in Hyson Green in 1981 you said something to the effect of, “Isn’t it terrible? If you were out there rioting last night, I hope you die.”
I said that? Oh my God, I don’t know why I said that. I’m amazed I still kept my job! I don’t know what was wrong with me that day.
How did it end with Trent?
Acrimoniously. My contract wasn’t renewed. I went into litigation against them, I thought that my career was over; radio stations wanted me, but not until I’d resolved my problems with Trent. In hindsight, I should have ignored the litigation and bit the bullet. But I didn’t. I ended up at Beacon Radio in the Black Country, and then Blue Danube Radio in Vienna. But overall my memories of Trent were good, and I love Nottingham. It’s strange that when I did Supermarket Sweep in 1993 I did it at the Lenton Lane studios. Of all the places I’d go to get my TV break, it was Nottingham. I have to say this; without Nottingham people I would not have a career. And that is the truth. The people of Nottingham made it happen for me.
The role of the local independent DJ has rather diminished over the years…
Yes, and that’s a shame because radio has proved to be the perfect grounding for a career in television or print. You learn all aspects of the industry - it taught me how to write, how to prepare. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now had it not been for radio. In my day – I sound really old now – you had more free choice in terms of music. Nowadays, everything is predetermined on surveys and how certain records perform with focus groups. I mean, what would my audience from those days be listening to now?
Certainly not Trent. It got taken over by Capital FM a few years back...
Really? I didn’t realise that. I’m out of touch because I’ve not been in Nottingham for years but I’m sad about that. I thought they’d still be operating from Castle Gate. The catchment area for Nottingham is quite big; there must be a section of the audience that aren’t being catered for.
When was the last time you were in a supermarket?
Yesterday. I still shop every day, and I still love supermarkets. I live in London, it’s not a problem here because people are used to seeing people off the telly all the time.
Dale Winton currently hosts the National Lottery gameshow In It To Win It on BBC 1.