He’s as pleasant in person as he is on air. So when Eric Smith picks up the phone for a half-hour chat, he starts with a joke. Of course he does. He’s been cracking them in Shropshire for 26 years, why change the habit of a lifetime.
How are you Eric? I ask, as the prelude to our interview about his impending retirement.
“I’m fine,” says the BBC Radio Shropshire Breakfast Show host. Then there’s a pause. “But I’ll be even better when the alarm stops going off at 4.30am every morning.”
Ahh, Eric Smith. Mornings won’t be the same when he takes his leave from the county’s broadcaster and ventures into pastures new. He wasn’t necessarily planning to stand down just before Christmas – his final show is December 22 – but, like so many things, Covid has changed his plans. Many people will know him not only as the man who entertains their mornings but also as the panto star who brings a smile to their face in the annual Theatre Severn production. And so at the start of this year, pre-Covid, he sat down and spoke to his bosses.
“Look,” he said, and then started to explain how knackered he got each December by trying to combine a 4.30am start, a three-hour breakfast show and two full-length performances at Theatre Severn every day. His bosses scratched their chin. Fair point, they probably thought.
Even fairer, you might think, when you factor in that Eric’s show has been extended from three hours to four during Covid. And so they agreed that he could take some time off in December, before heading off on a cruise in January to recharge the batteries and get back to it.
Except the pandemic happened. And Eric started to think. His beloved wife, Linda, was retiring. He wanted to spend more time with her. He’d always been a night owl, rather than a morning person, and the 4.30am starts were starting to drag. So, if he was going to take time off in December, why not draw a line and end on a high. After all, his show continues to thrill, entertain and inform, he remains at the top of his game, he’s just spent nine months broadcasting about the biggest story of his life and there’s a whole world out there, waiting to be discovered.
“I’m 69 and I’ve done breakfast for a long time. I was initially going to take some time off for panto, anyway. So at the beginning of the year, I’d agreed I’d take some time off, just to do panto. So, if anything, my decision has been hastened by Covid. We’re all under a lot more pressure because of Covid and we’re doing four-hour shows. I’ve done nine months of the Covid stuff and we talk about it every day.”
Soon, he can have a lie-in, you know, until, let’s say 7.30am. Ahh, bliss. It’s mixed emotions, of course. You don’t spend 49 years in radio because it pays the bills, it’s the sort of gig you choose for the love, not the money. And Eric has loved every moment. Still does.
“I genuinely still enjoy the job that I do. I enjoy every single day and all its challenges. It’s fabulous. I don’t like a 4.30am alarm clock in the morning. I’ve never been brilliant in the morning.” Which is funny, given that he’s a Breakfast Show host.
“I’ve got a mug here at work and it says ‘not a morning person’. Naturally, I’m not. Years and years ago when I was younger, I used to work for Mecca, doing nightclubs until 2am-3am. That’s my natural time.” These days he gets up 90 minutes after he would once have come home. He’ll be sorry to drive away from Shrewsbury for one last time on December 22. “I’ve adored it and enjoyed it. I’ve done 49 years in radio.”
They’ll sell their house, probably, so that they can downsize. They’ll travel a bit, too. Previously, Eric and Linda had gone on a cruise each new year, then off to the Greek islands each May and September. From January, or, rather, once the world is Covid-free, the world will be their oyster.
He’s not from round ‘ere, of course. Eric is from off. But he’s been broadcasting in Shropshire for so long that he’s become part of the furniture. He’s as loved by his listeners as they are by him. It’s a reciprocal thing. They trust, respect and admire the endearing old fool – and he adores them too. You hear that every morning; a sense of oneness, a fabulous relationship between consummate broadcaster and eager audience.
“We came to Shropshire to have a look and like so many people we just fell in love with the place. That was 33-34 years ago. We just came to have a look round, saw this beautiful county and it was fabulous. We had three youngsters under five. I came here in January 1988 and our youngest was born in March 1988. We got locked into village life here, the kids went to the local school…” One thing led to another, they never left.
“Like everyone, we were swept away by the beauty of the county. It may be a cliché, but it’s really incredible. You’ve got your old towns like Shrewsbury, then 10 minutes later you’re on Lyth Hill, where I walk the dog. I love it up there. You can go up there any day of the week. Then 10 minutes later and you’re into Carding Mill Valley and Church Stretton. The Long Mynd is breathtaking. We climbed Caradoc a while ago and I remember standing on the top and thinking it was amazing. Then you go round and there’s history in Ironbridge and Wenlock, then the big new town of Telford. There’s a lot of history and contrast.
"My philosophy is generally that people live here because they want to live here, not because they have to. You have radio stations in the Thames Valley, too, but those are dormitory places, where people commute to London, they have no choice.”
It was all different, of course, back in the day. When Eric started, Radio Shropshire was a young station in a relative backwater. He remembers a writer, called David Everington, who’d written a book about places called Standingstillsbury and Concertehardening. Those were, of course, Shrewsbury and Telford.
“When I first came here, for the first 10 years, nothing happened. Nothing moved. We didn’t go forward. It was becoming a backwater. In some areas, that’s quite nice. But you need to move with the times. After 10 years, it started moving forward. Telford was racing away. Telford was the brash new kid on the block and expanding. It’s more equal now.”
He shouldn’t be on the phone now, of course. He should be driving from the radio station to the theatre to put on the slap and entertain people of all ages. Covid’s put a hole in that, of course, though the tone of voice changes when he starts to discuss panto. There’s no stress or strain with that; it’s a love-love thing.
“I can’t tell you how much joy it brings. It’s so difficult to describe it for those who haven’t done it. We do two shows so it’s exhausting. We have 10 days rehearsal, then we do it. While we’re rehearsing the stuff, they are putting the lights and the sets in. We literally have a day-and-a-half to rehearse the thing under lights before it starts. It’s knackering but it’s amazing fun. I’ve done 16 shows, this would have been my 17th year. I love it, love it, love it. Brad Fit, incidentally, the pantomime dame, is one of the nicest guys I’ve met in my life.” Oh yes he is.
Eric fell in love as a kid. A child of the 1950s, he lived through the greatest decade of the 21st century, the swinging 60s. Rock’n’roll had changed the musical landscape and The Beatles and The Stones were about to sweep all before them. Eric was in his teens, the perfect age for the greatest era in contemporary culture. The world was changing right before his eyes. Little wonder he got into music and broadcasting. Who wouldn’t when the greatest show on earth was unfurling.
He listened to Radio Caroline and Radio 270 initially, as well as Luxembourg. Then Radio One came along, around 1967, and the pirates were outlawed. “My interest in radio had been kindled then. By the time I was 16, in 1967, I was doing hospital radio in Yorkshire and was desperate to work in radio.”
That that his entry into radio was straightforward. Some things never are. He’d left school at 17 and gone to work in a solicitors office, doing law. He hated it. Dull, grey and lifeless, each monotonous day was followed by a soul-destroying evening at night school. He was desperate to get out.
“A friend of mine dropped an advert on my desk saying Radio Sheffield was looking for a record librarian, to file records for producers who wouldn’t be bothered to put them away.” He jumped at it. In January 1972, he left the law behind and started his new career. He was in. The office gofer, who was simply filing records for lazy producers, he was onto something. He felt as though he was breaking through walls.
“It was fabulous. My dad said, are you sure you know what you are doing? Forty nine years later, bless him, I can say that I did.”
He met Linda around that time. They were at the local youth club. He was the DJ, she was the belle of the ball. They took a shine and that light never went out. “She’s been fabulous. She’s been the most tolerant person on earth. Wherever work has taken me, she’s been happy to follow. We’re still together and I’m very lucky. It’s great.”
After working in Sheffield, he became a studio assistant, twiddling the knobs to make sure everything worked. Then he got into presenting, each time inching closing to the broadcasting hot seat. “This sounds crazy, but I was 23 or 24. The breakfast show presenter left and they asked if I’d like to audition.” He jumped at it, got the gig and never looked back. For a while, he was nervous about interviewing guests live on air. Then he interviewed a doctor, who, himself was nervous. “I looked and he was as nervous as a kitten about being on air. From that moment, something changed.” Eric realised he belonged. He found his voice. The studio became his territory.
He did breakfast in Sheffield for a while then got a producers job in Stoke-on-Trent, around 1978. There were stints back in Sheffield, then commercial radio in Leeds before heading off to Humberside and doing a little bit of telly in the north east.
It was a different time. “I remember being in Leeds and having to drive to the top of a big hill to hear the radio. The signal wasn’t as good back then. Now, you can hear every radio station in the world. It’s all online. The competition is far greater. You can wake up in the morning and listen to anything from anywhere.” He quite likes it like that. “I do. We have to be sharper, more on the ball, more entertaining – if you are going to keep people listening, you have to be that. Back in the day, people didn’t change the dial. People would dial us in on their transitory and leave it. Now, it’s DAB, it’s all labelled for you. If we’re not on our game, they’ll click on something else and listen to that.”
He loves playing devil’s advocate. Perhaps he’d have made a good lawyer after all.
“We had Danny Kawczynski on this morning and he was talking about Brexit. He just wants to leave. My job is not to sit there and let him, or anyone, just have free air time. I have to challenge, that’s the job. I have to ask ‘why’ and I have to ask that question in a variety of different ways.”
He got flack afterwards, of course, from people who imagined Eric was pro-Remain. “It’s funny. Tomorrow, I might interview a remainer and then people will accuse me of being pro-Leave. I genuinely had an email about three months ago from somebody who said it’s obvious which way you think. A month later, he sent me another email saying he was wrong. He apologised. People don’t get it sometimes, that’s the job we have to do.”
Or, it was. The Breakfast Show host who describes himself as "a nosy sod" is about to take his leave. He’ll miss not being able to hold people to account. He’ll miss being at the cutting edge of controversy, of taking people to task over health, business, council finance and the rest.
“My job is to find out what the reasoning is for the people, not just for me. If I can ask the right questions, then those people can articulate their argument. If their argument holds water, bang on, well done. If not, I’ll poke a few holes in it.”
There’s time for one last hurrah, this coming Monday and Tuesday. And then he’ll throw away the alarm clock, make a cup of tea for his beloved wife and forget the idea of ever rising at 4.30am again. Forty nine years is a long old stretch and he’s earned his retirement. Funny thing is, he’ll miss it as much as we’ll miss him.