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The man behind the microphone: Eric Smith celebrates 25 years as Shropshire breakfast radio host

By Thom Kennedy | Entertainment | Published:

Eric Smith can't be certain of the exact anniversary of his introduction to bleary-eyed Salopians fumbling about the kitchen for the kettle, but he has at least narrowed it down to a month.

It was in September 1994 that he took to the breakfast airwaves for the first time – so this month marks quarter of a century as the host of BBC Radio Shropshire's breakfast programme.

The Yorkshire-born presenter arrived in Shropshire in 1988 as a programme organiser – a behind-the-scenes administrative job – until the then-breakfast show host Stephen Rhodes, seemingly fed up with the dawn chorus, moved into the mid-morning slot.

"I discovered that I enjoyed broadcasting more than paperwork," says Eric. The slot was his to keep.

Eric took to the airwaves for the first time in 1994 as the host of BBC Radio Shropshire’s breakfast show

What followed has become a 25-year relationship with the weary workers of Shropshire, easing them into the day as they munch their corn flakes and complete their commute.

And inevitably that period has encompassed some of the county's most significant moments.

"In that time we've had a fire at MOD Donnington, we have had the death of Diana while I was in Shropshire, and we had the Twin Towers on 9/11, and while some of those things are not local we always find they have a local impact.

"For example, one of the people who died in the Twin Towers plane, his parents lived in Shropshire, just round the corner.

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"But even beyond that tragic local angles, people wanted to talk about the story, and that changed the way that news worked from then onwards."

It has, quite naturally, been a varied career, with highs and lows.

Eric Smith

"For the Queen's 50th anniversary in 2002, there was a concert at the International Centre. The Queen came, and I hosted it – that was very nerve-racking, but it's good to scare yourself sometimes.

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There have also been stickier moments – including the times he may have wished he still had the "kill switch" from his days in commercial radio in Yorkshire that delayed a broadcast to prevent any bad language.

"Going back many years, we were doing something about teachers coming under stress in the classroom," he says. "I got a call at about 10 to eight in the morning from somebody who had been a teacher, and who was very well spoken.

"She was talking about this point and that point, and you build up a picture in your head of what callers are like. Then she suddently came out with the worst expletive you have ever heard in your life about what she had been called in the classroom.

Eric Smith

"I should have just shut it down and moved on, but we were so shocked and it was so sudden, that she stayed on the line, then about 30 seconds later she said it again.

"We then had a full-blown row on the radio. That rocked me to the core for the rest of the day. I just did not see it coming. It was unbelievable."

Eric's career began as a record librarian on commercial radio in Sheffield at the age of 20, and he spent the subsequent years grabbing every opportunity to get on the airwaves.

He would volunteer to be the one who would stalk the city's streets interviewing shoppers, or undertaking menial tasks that would get him in front of an audience.

And within four years he had his first breakfast show – on BBC Sheffield.

Eric Smith

"You get some mornings where it doesn't seem to be holding together very well, but a lot of it is in your own head," he says of his long-standing early-morning routine.

"If you're not feeling well one morning you can't let the listeners know that. That's the same with any kind of performance."

He continues: "Sometimes the most banal comments can end up being the things that people want to talk about. It's not necessarily the serious business of the day.

"I've talked about Brexit every day for the last three years – but we have to try not to be all about Brexit."

While he and his fellow broadcasters at Mount Pleasant in Shrewsbury say they are inspired by their connection to the county, they are part of one of the world's biggest broadcasting organisations.

"We have got the resources of the BBC to the greatest extent," Eric says.

"We have expertise in Westminster, finance experts in London doing Wake Up To Money on Five Live, you have got studios round the country. The BBC's resources are not to be sniffed at.

"Sometimes when we have the big story here – like the bombing of Shrewsbury Castle (by the IRA in 1992) or the Tern Hill bombing (in 1989) sometimes we become the centre of attention and the BBC want stuff from us – and they want it now.

"When they bombed the castle we had a radio car as close as we could get it so we become mother – we were the one feeding the rest."

Naturally, a career in radio has meant Eric has interviewed some well-known public figures.

"One of the nicest I ever had was Terry Waite," he says. "I didn't have to do a great deal – just push the right button and away he goes. He's the most generous and loving man.

"The other was Peter Ustinov, you just sit and listen to him.

Eric Smith

"Some people who are in the public eye just go through the motions, but people like Peter Ustinov and Terry Waite give you all the time in the world."

He adds: "In Sheffield, on the other hand, I dealt with Freddie Starr – and you simply did not know what he was going to do. He was scary.

"If you were to interview Freddie Star you wuold do it somewhere else – I don't think you'd let him near the station."

The show, which he co-hosts with Clare Ashford, continues to attract listeners.

"We had a debate here a few years ago where we said if we hit certain audience figures in five years we would be doing well – but we are doing better than that figure," says Eric.

"Breakfast more than any other show has a rolling audience. People are joining and leaving every few minutes, and when people leave, others take their place. They reckon we have 20 to 25,000 listeners at any given time, but it does rotate."

Eric Smith

Now aged 67, Eric has no particular desire to hang up his microphone.

"People say that to me all the time – including members of my own family," he says. "I detest the early morning alarm clock, but once my feet hit the floor I'm up for it.

"Every day is different. There are different challenges, different people to talk to, and in that respect I don't see it as work. My dad worked in a factory in shifts to pay the bills – and I've never had to do that.

"Touch wood I am healthy, I have quite a deal of energy – as is evidenced by the pantomime at Christmas time – and I still enjoy what I do.

"The listener figures are very good so there's no pressure from the management. So why would I want to retire if I still enjoy doing it?

"I'm not grumpy at work as what would be the point? I'd rather get on with it and make the county smile."

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