Farewell Scott Mills: the Cristiano Ronaldo of pop radio

<span>Photograph: The MS Society/PA</span>
Photograph: The MS Society/PA

When Scott Mills greeted listeners for his first show on BBC Radio 1, less than 10% of UK households had the internet, Mark Zuckerberg was only 14 and the Radio 1 playlist contained Rollercoaster by B*Witched, Girlfriend by Billie Piper and Would You (Go to Bed With Me) by Touch & Go.

Mills wrote in his autobiography about his 1998 debut that he had “no personality” and spent most of the time between songs reading out the station phone number over and over again. Even so, no one phoned in and he expected to be sacked within a few months.

Instead, he has had one of the longest tenures in Radio 1’s history. At a station obsessed with youth, where presenters are generally moved on every few years – Mills, 48, is the Cristiano Ronaldo of pop radio, staying in peak fitness long after his old teammates have moved on to oldies local stations or jobs in management.

But you can’t dodge the grasping hand of Radio 2 for ever and Mills’s final show on Radio 1, alongside co-host Chris Stark, airs today before he takes over from Steve Wright on the sister station next month (he says it’s his decision and that Radio 1 were willing to offer him another two-year contract).

He arrived a decade after Howard Stern invented the zoo radio format, where producers and other staff become characters on the air, which was brought to British radio by Chris Evans and Chris Moyles. But all those hosts hogged the limelight, using a supporting cast of sidekicks mostly to reinforce that they were the star of the show. Mills flipped it round, playing the straight man to a cast of weirdos, making stars of his team: the sardonic Chappers (now known as Mark Chapman, the host of Match of the Day 2), and assistant producer Laura, who became the centre of a nationwide X-Factor-style search to find a partner.

In 2012, Mills met an enthusiastic fan of the show called Chris Stark who was DJ-ing on Southampton student radio. Stark couldn’t be more different from Mills – a jack-the-lad who loved UK garage nights, most of whose family were in the army. But Mills recognised that he was a flavour the station was missing and fought with bosses to get him on the show. The show slowly evolved from a zoo to a presenting duo, with Stark becoming the perfect foil.

The show they created together is an endless well of creativity in a genre of entertainment that is known for lack of imagination (how many shows on the air basically boil down to a pop quiz, guess the year or requests?). They created a “flirt divert” telephone number which listeners could give out to anyone making leering advances over the weekend – with the resulting voicemails played on Mondays. Mills staged a musical of his life at the Edinburgh festival. A personal favourite was relationship transfer deadline day, based on the idea that it’s too cruel to dump someone close to Christmas; they turned 10 December into the day to jettison an unwanted partner, featuring a full-blown spoof of Sky Sports News coverage of the football transfer deadline, with celebrity correspondents following last minute dumpings.

Their biggest success, “innuendo bingo” – where celebrities fill their mouths with water, are played rude-sounding clips of BBC radio and have to try not to giggle – has become a global success on YouTube. Movie star guests such as Will Ferrell, Hugh Jackman and Daniel Radcliffe have all played.

Mills came out as gay in 2001 in an interview with the Guardian, which reflects the nervousness around the announcement at that time. We wrote that it was “better to manage it than be forced by tabloid hounding” and Mills suggested “the climate has changed, even in the past five years” so he felt listeners wouldn’t be too fazed, but promised not to be too noisy about his sexuality by wearing “pink shirts”.

Mills wasn’t the first openly gay DJ on the station, the late Kevin Greening was a trailblazer in that respect. But Greening’s route into the station was hosting segments on Gay Pride events while Mills was quietly revolutionary for being open about his sexuality, but not being defined as a gay DJ. Or, as he put it, “accepted as a normal bloke who is gay and is on the radio”. This was not always easy: Chris Moyles used to impersonate Mills with a high effeminate voice, although he stopped when Mills asked. But years later, when Mills was joined by Nick Grimshaw and Adele Roberts – so that half the daytime lineup on Radio 1 was LGBT+ – it had become the norm and was never remarked upon.

Being a radio DJ is quite easy to do adequately and extremely hard to do brilliantly. Mills on his own is not achingly funny or intoxicatingly charismatic, but what he has built is greater than the sum of its parts. Unusually for a DJ, he is a great listener – immediately picking up on what his team or listeners are saying with a quick remark or a sharp question. This week the show has been inundated with teary messages about how much the show meant to people who have gone to school and university, got married, lost parents and been through hard times all while listening to the show. I have to put myself in that camp – in moments of feeling alone and disconnected, particularly during the pandemic, it was a place that felt like home. It will be missed.