The week in radio

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS high tea as the outlaw took up the drivetime reins and got those Radio 2 turntables rolling again. Johnny Walker was back. Having suspended him at the first sniff of scandal eight months ago, the BBC wasted no time in bringing him back just as soon as he'd been properly convicted. And so, at 5 o'clock last Monday, we got our first fix of his "new organic" show (Johnny Walker, 5-7pm. Monday to Friday BBC Radio 2).

In April Johnny was accused by the News of the World of a range of naughtiness involving rolled-up fivers and totty by the hour. Nobody who knows him was shocked by the claims, but they were disturbed by the prospect of losing of one of our best broadcasters, and by the destruction of a really good bloke.

There were whispers that a rival jock had called in the News of the World to set him up, see him off and pinch his slot. To someone like me, who'd worked at Radio 1, that seemed entirely plausible. When I arrived at the "Fun Factory", I'd been a listener since day one, and couldn't wait to meet all those Great Mates. I imagined them rolling up in their open-top sports cars, draped with giggling models, leaping over the side and dashing towards their turntables clutching the latest pile of hot vinyl.

What confronted me was a bunch of portly blokes with briefcases who would use the time when records were playing to ring their accountants.

Only one guy lived the life. Only one guy failed to disappoint. He's the one I'd see getting stuck in at gigs and getting off on the music he was playing for his listeners. Johnny Walker is the real rock'n'roll article. As for sex and drugs, well, he's been fined a couple of grand for possessing 0.11 grammes of cocaine, worth a tenner. Hardly enough to get your hamster high.

So has he been saved from himself by the Wapping morality police? He now says he's off drugs. And booze. And fags. Having taken the pledge to toe the line instead of sniffing it, is he repentant?

Johnny said it with music, opening his comeback show with a song by Tod Snider from Austin, Texas: "I think I'm an alright guy. I just wanna live until I die. I know I'm not perfect but God knows I try."

He said that it was great to be back. He thanked listeners for their messages of support (he's being bombarded by 150 emails a day), but had trouble remembering the phone-in number. Nothing to do with illicit refreshment, or with his age (at 54 he's just a trainee compared to colleagues Jimmy Young and Hubert Gregg), but rather to six months' enforced absence, the prospect of prison, and having been publicly bullied into conforming and calming down.

Actually, there is no evidence at all that his public (3.5 million listeners every week) want him to do anything of the kind. And if the BBC management have any sense, neither should they. Indeed, they should be extremely grateful to a presenter who, as well as consolidating his own position with the listeners, has singlehandedly done more to rid the network of its "Radio Cardigan" image than a whole host of management consultants ever could. And at no cost to the license payer.

He certainly didn't sound too sheepish as he flirted outrageously with Sally Bowsman during her travel bulletins. Sally got a big bouquet of flowers from Johnny as she listed calls from the likes of Mattress Man and Love Muscle. I don't know about organic. There was more sexual chemistry here than in a Viagra factory. It's not PC, but it is funny.

A middle-aged lady called the competition and exchanged views on Buddhism, astrology and good karma. A retired restaurateur was next, telling us that he was going to be spending Christmas in Madeira, and then New Year with his grandchildren at the family hotel in Oxfordshire. Aren't these sorts of people supposed to be outraged by the likes of Johnny Walker? Weren't they in the least bit bothered that here they were on national radio - the BBC, for goodness' sake - openly chatting to a convicted drug felon? Clearly not. Wapping please take note.

There was more music with a message from The Travelling Wilburys, ("It's Alright"), Ben E King, ("Stand By Me"), and from the Spice Girls' Melanie C: "They build you up so they can bring you down. Who is next? Who's going to steal your crown? I have learnt my lesson well. The truth is out there, I can tell. Don't look back and don't succumb to their lies and goodbyes. Live your life without regret. Don't be someone they forget."

And then (yes ,yes, yes, oh God yes), "Tougher Than the Rest" from Bruce Springsteen: a hero who wears his jeans a little too tight for everyone else's comfort; who still dons leather and rides a bloody big motorbike; a man who goes at everything full throttle.

A bit like Johnny Walker, really.

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