Derek Chinnery: Controller of Radio 1 who nurtured talented DJs but later regretted not investigating Jimmy Savile more forcefully

A lifelong BBC man remembered for his horn-rimmed glasses and suit and tie

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When Derek Chinnery was offered the role of controller of BBC Radio 1 in 1978, it was in typically understated fashion. “We can’t think of anyone else,” Aubrey Singer, the managing director of BBC Radio, told him.

A decade on from its launch in 1967 as the BBC’s answer to the pirates, the national pop station had grown too big to be overseen by the same executive as Radio 2, the middle-of-the-road network which had evolved out of the Light Programme, even if they shared some programming. Chinnery followed Robin Scott, the pioneer behind Radio 1’s launch, his successor Douglas Muggeridge, and the last joint controller, Charles McLelland, who focused solely on Radio 2 from 1978.

A lifelong BBC man remembered for his horn-rimmed glasses and always wearing a suit and tie, Chinnery proved a safe pair of hands, the ideal appointment to helm what he considered a “personality station” and handle the big egos of presenters such as Simon Bates, Noel Edmonds and Dave Lee Travis. “If the general public out there enjoy having a background of popular music presented by friendly voices, not remote figures like the traditional broadcasters, I think that’s a form of public service the BBC can be proud of,” he said.

He could be sniffy about Radio 1’s target audience but understood the need to remain distinctive and serve different needs at different times, from the mainstream-friendly breakfast show hosted by Mike Read to John Peel’s alternative approach in the evening. His tenure coincided with the high watermarks when more than 10m listeners tuned into “the nation’s favourite” on a daily basis and thousands flocked to the Radio 1 Roadshow, a concept developed by Johnny Beerling, the producer who replaced him as Controller when he retired in 1985.

Sixteen when he joined the BBC straight from school in 1941, Chinnery returned after serving in the RAF between 1943-47, and retained the demeanour of an officer. His vocabulary – he used “gramophone records” when referring to vinyl during playlist meetings – belied his training and steady rise from engineer via producer to Chief Light Programme Producer. He worked with presenters Keith Fordyce, Alan “Fluff’ Freeman and David Jacobs on Pop In and Pick Of The Pops, programmes whose formats could be translated wholesale or adapted from the Light Programme to the “exciting new sound of Radio 1”, as Blackburn had put it when launching the new network.

Having risen through the ranks as a hands-on producer, he was adept at dealing with the expectations of the music industry, the listeners and the other pressure groups Radio 1 had to contend with, as well as the budget requirements resulting from needle-time restrictions and the need to keep the Musicians Union on side with specially recorded sessions. He also took the occasional defection of big-name DJs like Freeman to commercial Capital Radio in his stride: it wasn’t all one-way traffic, and he brought Tommy Vance back from Capital to Radio 1 to present the Friday Rock Show.

His ears finely tuned to emerging talent, Chinnery brought local presenters such as Janice Long, Gary Davies and Bruno Brookes to national prominence and made the most of Radio 1’s expanding FM transmission at weekends with Saturday Live, a specialist music magazine programme presented by Richard Skinner and Andy Batten-Foster, and Robbie Vincent’s Soul Show. He had the popular touch and nurtured Read and Steve Wright, transfers from Radio Luxembourg who became two of the most popular broadcasters of the early to mid-1980s. In 1979, Chinnery brought back the record review programme Roundtable.

Always pragmatic, he realised that things had changed since 1970 when the BBC insisted on the Kinks replacing the Coca-Cola reference with cherry cola in order to secure airplay for “Lola”, and he allowed records that mentioned specific products to be aired on Radio 1. However, swearing remained beyond the pale. In 1982, the synth-pop duo Blancmange had to replace the lyric “Up the bloody tree” with “Up the cuckoo tree” to secure airplay for “Living On The Ceiling”, their introductory hit.

Under his watch, tracks dealing with difficult topics were not so much banned outright as restricted to a few plays in the evening, as happened with “The Boiler”, the haunting 1982 single about date rape by Rhoda & The Special AKA. “If you believe that the record has some value as a warning, then it has no meaning unless you leave all that screaming in,” he said, “and if you leave that in, then it’s bloody unpleasant to listen to.”

In January 1984, Read’s refusal to play “Relax” by Frankie Goes To Hollywood prompted Radio 1 to ban the single. In hindsight, Chinnery felt that “in today’s society, probably we wouldn’t have made the same decision, but we were a bit slow at catching up with what was happening. At the same time, we were trying to keep up some sort of standard.”

Chinnery and Read didn’t see eye to eye when it came to pranks on-air or off it. The controller gave the disc jockey a dressing-down when he and his colleague Peter Powell made the tabloids after their speedboat sank off Plymouth. He was convinced the presenters had engineered the stunt to publicise the Roadshow and refused to believe they had been involved in a genuine emergency.

Chinnery was back in the news in October 2012 when he was interviewed about Jimmy Savile on the Radio 4 programme Broadcasting House. He recalled that in the 1970s Muggeridge had asked him to investigate rumours of inappropriate behaviour which Savile vigorously denied. “It’s easy now to say: ‘how could you just believe him, just like that,” said Chinnery, who regretted he hadn’t been more forceful in his inquiries. “But there was no reason to disbelieve him. He was the sort of man that attracted rumours after all, because he was single, he was always on the move, he was always going around the country.”

Paying tribute on Twitter, Read said, “Derek Chinnery was a principled leader who ran a tight ship with a kind heart.”

Charles Derek Chinnery, radio executive and producer: born London 27 April 1925; married 1953 Doreen Clarke; died London 22 March 2015.