WWhen Scott Mills welcomed listeners to his first show on BBC Radio 1, less than 10% of UK households had internet, Mark Zuckerberg was just 14 and Radio 1’s playlist included Rollercoaster by B*Witched, Girlfriend by Billie Piper and Would You ( Go to bed with me) by Touch & Go.
Mills wrote in his autobiography of his 1998 debut that he had “no personality” and spent most of his time between songs reading the station’s phone number over and over again. Still, no one came forward and he expected to be released within months.
Instead, he enjoyed one of the longest tenures in Radio 1 history. At a station obsessed with youth and where hosts generally rotate every few years, Mills, 48, is pop radio’s Cristiano Ronaldo, who is still long in the making in top form after his old teammates left for old local stations or management jobs.
But you can’t dodge Radio 2’s gripping hand forever, and Mill’s final show on Radio 1, along with co-host Chris Stark, airs today before taking over Steve Wright on the sister station next month (he says it’s his Decision). and that Radio 1 was willing to offer him another two-year contract).
It came a decade after Howard Stern invented the Zoo radio format, in which producers and other staff become on-air characters brought to British radio by Chris Evans and Chris Moyles. But all of these hosts took the spotlight and utilized a supporting cast of sidekicks, mostly to underscore that they were the star of the show. Mills flipped it, playing the straight man in front of a bunch of weirdos and star-starring his team: the sardonic Chappers (now known as Match of the Day 2 host Mark Chapman) and assistant producer Laura, who became the center of one nationwide dating X-Factor style.
In 2012, Mills met an avid fan of the show named Chris Stark, who was DJing on Southampton student radio. Stark couldn’t be more different than Mills – a jack-the-lad who loved British garage nights and whose family was mostly in the army. But Mills realized he was a flavor the network lacked and battled bosses to get him on the show. The show slowly evolved from a zoo to a presentation duo, with Stark becoming the perfect match.
The show they created together is an endless source of creativity in an entertainment genre notorious for lacking in imagination (how many shows basically boil down to a pop quiz, guess the year, or requests?). They created a “flirt diversion” phone number that listeners could give to anyone who made racy advances over the weekend – with the resulting voicemails playing on Mondays. Mills directed a musical of his life at the Edinburgh Festival. A personal favorite was Deadline Day for relationship transfers, based on the idea that it’s too cruel to fire someone just before Christmas; They turned December 10 into the day to jettison an unwanted partner with a full-blown parody of Sky Sports News’ football transfer deadline coverage, featuring prominent correspondents after last-minute dumping.
Her biggest hit, Innuendo Bingo – in which celebrities fill their mouths with water, are played rude-sounding clips from BBC radio and have to try not to giggle – has become a global hit on YouTube. Movie stars such as Will Ferrell, Hugh Jackman and Daniel Radcliffe have all played.
Mills came out as gay in a 2001 interview with The Guardian, reflecting the nervousness surrounding the announcement at the time. We wrote that it’s “better to deal with than being coerced by the tabloids,” and Mills suggested “the climate has changed even in the last five years,” so he believed listeners didn’t would be overly concerned, but vowed not to be too vocal about his sexuality by wearing “pink shirts,” either.
Mills wasn’t the first openly gay DJ on the station, the late Kevin Greening being a pioneer in this regard. But Greening’s path into the network was hosting segments on gay pride events, while Mills was quietly revolutionary in being open about his sexuality but not being defined as a gay DJ. Or, as he put it, “accepted as a regular guy who’s gay and on the radio.” It wasn’t always easy: Chris Moyles portrayed Mills in a high-pitched, feminine voice, although he stopped when Mills asked him. But years later, by the time Mills was joined by Nick Grimshaw and Adele Roberts – so that half of the daytime programming on Radio 1 was LGBT+ – it had become the norm and was never mentioned.
Being a radio DJ is fairly easy to do appropriately and extremely difficult to do brilliantly. Mills alone is neither painfully funny nor intoxicatingly charismatic, but what he has built is greater than the sum of its parts. Unusually for a DJ, he’s a great listener – he immediately picks up on what his team or audience is saying, with a quick remark or a sharp question. This week, the show was inundated with tearful messages about how much the show meant to people who went to school and college, got married, lost parents and went through hard times while listening to the show. I have to put myself in that camp – at moments when I felt alone and disconnected, especially during the pandemic, it was a place that made me feel at home. It will be missing.