Music sounds better with Huw – a tribute to a Welsh broadcasting icon

Huw Stephens in Anorac. Picture by Boom Cymru/S4C

David Owens

When it was announced on Friday that Huw Stephens was leaving Radio 1, after a shake-up at the station, there was an understandable outpouring of love for the broadcaster.

The warmth with which he is regarded and the esteem in which he is held is understandable.

It’s unquantifiable the seismic effect he has had on music from these shores.

The most passionate advocate of new sounds and an indomitable champion of the grassroots, he is also one of the genuinely good guys.

All glowing attributes that no doubt account for the fact that at 39 years old, he’s managed to amass 21 years at Radio 1. It’s not quite the 37 years service that his hero John Peel achieved, but given the rapid turnover of presenters in recent decades, it’s nevertheless a remarkable stint.

Closer to home, it’s hard to imagine anyone who has done so much for music and culture in Wales.

Ever the varied creative, his list of musical endeavours saw him founding the Boobytrap and Am record labels, as well as Swn Festival and the Welsh Music Prize. In addition he presented the Bandit music TV show on S4C, and created the award-winning, part Welsh music documentary, part Welsh travelogue, Anorac.

 

‘Fell in love’

Currently, Huw presents the BBC Introducing show on Sunday evenings on Radio 1 – which he will depart at the end of 2020.

He will continue to present his long-running show every Thursday evening on Radio Cymru, as well as covering for various presenters on BBC 6 Music.

Born at the University Hospital Wales in Cardiff on May 25, 1981, it appears the young Huw Stephens was destined for a career in the communications industry from an early age.

“I was really interested in chatting to people growing up,” he remembers. “I would chat for ages with the bus driver going to school every day. I loved it. I’ve always enjoyed talking to people and finding out their stories.

One of four children it was his sisters who fired his musical education.

“Like everyone I heard music and fell in love with bands and pop music and Top Of The Pops, radio and CDs.

“I’ve got three older sisters, so I listened to their record collections as well – stuff like U2 and The Cure as well as great Welsh language bands that I head through them.

“I fell in love with going to gigs and going to the Eisteddfod, I’d go to Maes B. I’ve been to every Eisteddfod since I was born.

“Although I think my first gig was actually Bon Jovi playing the bandstand in Queen Street in Cardiff in 1995.”

The Cofiwch Dryweryn mural. Picture by Ifan Morgan Jones (CC BY 2.0)

His dad, the late writer and campaigner, Meic Stephens, a former Western Mail journalist famed for painting the words of the Cofiwch Dryweryn (Remember Tryweryn) monument, was a major influence on his life.

“My dad had a keen interest in the Welsh language music scene and he would help singers like Geraint Jarman and Meic Stevens when they were starting off, so there were always interesting records at home,” he says. “My dad was interested in minority languages. He learned to speak Welsh when he was 21. He’d left uni and he met my mum, so he learned Welsh for love.

“Dad is from Pontypridd and my mum from Aberystwyth. They moved to Cardiff together because my dad got a job at the Western Mail.”

The nascent broadcaster started out as a hospital radio DJ, aged 15, at the Cardiff-based Rookwood Hospital.

This year will herald something of a landmark for the DJ. It’s the 21st anniversary of him starting out  on his eventful BBC broadcasting career alongside radio partner-in-crime, Bethan Elfyn, on the Radio 1 Session in Wales.

Ascendancy

Then, at 17, he became the youngest presenter to appear on Radio 1 at a time Welsh music was in the ascendancy.

“I grew up listening to late night radio – Steve Lamacq and Jo Whiley that got me into music and later John Peel – and thinking ‘wow this is brilliant’,” he recalls. “It was around the time of the great Welsh bands breaking through in the mid-90s. So you had Catatonia, Stereophonics and the rest on our doorstep.

“At the same time I started a Welsh language fanzine called Caws Heb Dos (Cheese Without Toast), but don’t ask me why I called it that, I couldn’t tell you,” he laughs.

“It felt like I was in the right place at the right time, but I’ve always had an interest in local music. I think that would have been the same if I had been born anywhere.

“I met Bethan Elfyn through going to gigs and she was a producer for the BBC. She heard me and got me in to do some pilots for a new show they were starting. I felt very lucky that I was there at the right time.  We could reflect a particularly exciting time for Welsh music with the Session in Wales.”

That show was the launch pad for what has been a memorable and long-lasting career on Radio 1.

“After Session in Wales I went on to start the One Music show,” he says running through his Radio 1 resume. “Then I started to do weekends. I did a daytime show for a long time. Then I did night times and now the BBC Introducing Show.”

Enthusiasm

His love of new music and championing of emerging artists, has seen many people refer to him as ‘our generation’s Peel’, and just like the legendary DJ his enthusiasm has always shone through like a constant beacon, illuminating the latest breaking artists.

“I’ve always felt a huge responsibility and just embraced it,” he says. “I listened to everything and I tried to reflect on the interesting music that was being made. Some of the artists I supported are famous now. Most of them aren’t but they’re still great records. I was going to a gig practically every night for years. I loved it. It was a real golden period for me. I was given this opportunity, so I just ran with it and made sure I made it count.”

A true champion of new music throughout his career, he’s constantly shown his commitment to music from his homeland in particular, co-founding the ever-popular multi-venue Swn Festival (launched in 2007) held in Cardiff, as well as the Welsh Music Prize, now into its 10th year – both founded with creative partner John Rostron.

“There has always been loads going on in Wales and that’s why we set up Swn Festival,” he says, of the annual music gathering, which is now staged by Clwb ifor Bach. “Cardiff needed it and Wales needed it. We wanted to reflect the supportive, warm music scene in the city.

“We wanted to keep that scene buzzing through a festival which was a big celebration of what was going on in Wales but also inviting international artists to play. It caught people’s imaginations. It became really well loved. We are thrilled that Clwb Ifor Bach now runs it and that the festival will grow in the future.”

Passion

His support for the grassroots in his homeland is unquestionable, while his passion for Welsh music in both languages burns as brightly as ever.

“We’ve come to realise how important and great music is in Cardiff and Wales,” he says. “It’s important that we realise the effects that not supporting something properly has.

“We launched Welsh Music Prize to throw the spotlight on the  amazing albums being made in Wales by Welsh artists.

“We were hearing great Welsh albums in both languages all the time, so we wanted a platform to celebrate them, and that’s why we started the Welsh Music Prize to bring everyone together and to make a big impact in getting people talking about Welsh music.

“Now that collective goodwill is being translated into something special. I happened to be born in an amazing country that has so much culture and so much amazing talent. I’ve had the best job of being able to document it.”

In a statement issued by Radio 1 on his departure from the station, he said: “Thanks Radio 1 for letting me be a part of your story, for letting me play new music and introduce new artists to a lovely audience. I’ve always tried to give music the respect it deserves, and I’ve loved every minute of my 21 years broadcasting on Radio 1.”

For those about to rock, we salute Huw. Here’s to the next 21 years.

The Welsh Music Prize winner will be announced on November 19. Find out more at: https://welshmusicprize.com

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