Radio 2 has seen a fair few departures in recent years – and saying farewell to 71-year-old Ken Bruce, who has been the constant face of mid-mornings since 1992, will hit harder than most. Earlier this week the legendary broadcaster confirmed he’d be heading up his mid-morning slot on commercial station Greatest Hits Radio instead, the place other Beeb alumni including Simon Mayo now call home.
It’s his music quiz, Popmaster, that many listeners were most immediately concerned about. The segment was introduced to Bruce’s program in 1998 and airs at around 10.30am each week day, resulting in millions of listeners stopping what they’re doing. Popmaster sees two music fans pitted against each other to try and display the most impressive amount of knowledge about songs and artists from across the years – some much more obscure than others.
The winner gets a so-called smart speaker, and the loser? The coveted One Year Out T-shirt, a catchphrase Bruce often exclaims when listeners incorrectly guess questions involving years. Oh, and there’s even a Champions League in December, reserved for the big guns who managed a high score of 39 points (or near enough) throughout the year. Celebrities have taken part in various all-star versions too.
Bruce eased some listeners’ worries by confirming he would be taking the format with him when he leaves in the spring, sharing in a statement about his new role: “I say [the show is] brand-new but there will still be Popmaster, me and my musings and all the great records you know and love from the 70s, 80s and 90s.”
So how did this little music quiz gain such a hardcore fanbase? Music fan Danny Apple, 43, still remembers the date he went on the airwaves: “It was 4 June 2015. I was absolutely bricking it!” he says. “I’d been trying for around five years, nearly every day. I was ringing up, back in the day when you had to use the phone – it’s all email now. Then you get through and they give you three questions, then if you get two out of the three, you get broken down into a few people. It was really hard to get on!”
When Apple got the nod, he felt it was a completely different ballgame: “Your heart’s racing. Then someone will ring and say: ‘Right, Ken’s gonna ring it in about 10 minutes. Do not worry. It’s all okay.’”
Apple managed to come out on top in a tie break, and recalls his wild reaction: “It was like I’d won the World Cup. I went, ‘YESSSS,’ completely going out of my brain because I knew I’d won. Everybody heard it all over the country – all my mates were ringing me.”
For some, it’s not their first rodeo. Polly Birkbeck, 56, has been on the coveted quiz twice, getting the maximum score both times and making it to the Champions League edition. Her first time was around 20 years ago, and she appeared again in 2015. “It wasn’t very different. As far as I remember, the original prize was a wind-up radio, which should tell you how long ago it was!”
There are at least two huge Facebook groups dedicated to Popmaster and Ken Bruce, each with thousands of members, and a dedicated Popmaster Twitter hashtag. “Social media has helped [it stay popular], people all play it together,” says Birkbeck. “They post their scores, and they post funny stuff.”
To train Radio 2 producer who screened contestants for Popmaster told us the way people would get chosen, which wasn’t all down to knowledge: “There were a lot of calls. The lines were always full. Contestants needed to be able to answer the screening questions in advance so they’d be a decent competitor. Then, it was mainly a non-scientific combination of somebody who had a really clear phone line, and a personality that would kind of do well on radio.”
There were some dedicated fans who’d try and get on the quiz every day with no joy: “For whatever reason, they might not be quite right. They might not be the sort of voice or personality that would be easy for the listener to enjoy. It was about finding somebody who knew their stuff and would also give people that spring in their step early in the morning.”
The producer had some thoughts on why the show has endured: “For so many people, it’s become part of their routine. There were other people who called and said that they worked in factories or in offices, where everybody stopped work for those few minutes to listen to Popmaster.” It’s not for nothing that the popular phrase runs “everything stops for Popmaster”.
Ronke Chalmers, 50, who flew through to the Champions League after an appearance in February 2019, admitted the spin-off was “terrifying”, adding: “I got through in February and the Champions League wasn’t until December. You’ve got months and months to think about it. At first I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll revise for it, try to cram topics like 1960s music or Eurovision.’ Then I thought, ‘No, stop it, you either know the answers, or you don’t.’”
When December rolled along, Chalmers took the morning off work, appearing on the show from home. “I was nervous because you’re up against the big ones. These are people who really know about music, and I knew a few of them from Twitter. You’ve got people who are in record shops, you’ve got people who are real serious music collectors, they’ve been digging through secondhand music shops for all of their lives and people who just have photographic memories.”
Such is the quiz show’s importance to some people that there’s even been Popmaster proposals. Shar Doherty, 40, decided to use her appearance in 2021 to propose to her partner Matthew. She said: “Matthew and I used to save the Popmaster podcast to listen to in the car. I joked with friends that if I ever wanted to marry him, I’d propose on Popmaster, so he wouldn’t know until we got to that episode. Then, when working from home started, I began to listen to it live. I applied one day and got on and thought should I do it? The song in between rounds that day was ‘I’m Getting Married In The Morning’ and that made the decision for me!” The couple even played the iconic proposal clip on their wedding day for all their guests to listen to.
For now, Bruce’s listeners seem determined to follow him away from the BBC with the promise of continued Popmaster. As Birkbeck concludes: “It’s just become a bit of an institution.”