Stephen Foster reflects on a dazzling career behind the microphone
- Credit: Archant
Suffolk broadcasting legend Stephen Foster has announced his departure from BBC Radio Suffolk. As he takes voluntary redundancy, he promises more broadcasts in the future but for the time being takes a trip down memory lane revisiting heroes and highlights
Talk to Stephen Foster for more than five minutes and you realise very quickly that he is one of life’s great enthusiasts – he loves music, he loves football (Ipswich Town in particular) and he loves Speedway (he’s a long-term supporter of Ipswich Witches) and during a two hour discussion this trio of long-time loves get referred to many times.
It is clear that Stephen Foster – or Foz as his many listeners on BBC Radio Suffolk will know him – loves to share his passions. He is a great communicator. Broadcasting is his world. He loves to share his enthusiasms.
Over the years he got to meet and form lasting friendships with some of his heroes including John Peel, Sir Bobby Robson, Rick Wakeman and Ed Sheeran and being instrumental in his support of homegrown music events like the legendary Ipswich Music Day – the biggest free music festival in Britain – and FolkEast at Glemham Hall.
He’s also forged close links with Ipswich Town providing commentary for Radio Suffolk as well as stadium announcements at Portman Road itself and also being a huge cheerleader for Ipswich Witches.
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These passions can all be traced back to his days as a teenage student at Copleston High School in Ipswich listening to Andy Archer on Radio Orwell during the day, then listening to the last transmissions of Radio Caroline in the evening before tuning in to John Peel late at night on Radio One.
This was his real education. “I have been really lucky, if truth be told, but right from the beginning I knew I wanted to work in radio – there has always been something magical about it.”
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Young Foz first got his break at the age of 16 when he landed a slot on hospital radio. He was a natural and this boosted his confidence. Leaving school he got himself a job in the ‘real world’ as a trainee at Willis, Faber and Dumas (as it was then) but it was his extra-curricular activities that were the real driving force in his life.
Bolstered by his hospital radio show, he made friends with the team at Radio Orwell, becoming a contributor to their evening teenage magazine programme Platform and he also made contact with legendary Gaumont manager David Lowe.
Under David’s stewardship the Gaumont had become one of the leading concert venues in the country and thanks to David Lowe, the young Foz gained his first backstage passes and all the review tickets he could possibly want.
“It was wonderful for a youngster just starting out. I owe David Lowe such a debt of gratitude – without him, it would have been so much harder to gain a foothold in this rarefied world. But, David was a master showman, one of the best PR men I have ever met. He knew that I would be talking about the Gaumont on Platform, playing the backstage interviews and keeping his theatre in the limelight. We both benefitted.”
It wasn’t long before Foz was no longer just a contributor to Platform, it was his baby. He was given the show to run and taken on staff at Radio Orwell, joining the newsroom under the watchful eye of head journalist Chris Opperman.
“I first joined Radio Orwell in 1979 at the age of 20, before joining the permanent staff in 1981. In those days, there was still such a thing as a job for life, and my parents were more than a little nervous at my pursuing my dream to be on the radio. In their eyes insurance was a much safer bet but I knew that if I didn’t give it a shot, then I would always regret it.”
For the people of Suffolk, it was a good thing that Foz did follow his dream because he immediately felt at home in a radio studio and the news team at Radio Orwell trained and shaped their raw recruit creating a versatile radio presenter who could turn his hand at anything.
Foz admits he enjoys the news aspects of his job but it is the music and the sport that cause his eyes to glow and his shows to catch fire. This was true even in his early days. “One of the strengths of the Radio Orwell team was that they allowed people to pursue their passions because they knew it would make good radio.
“I have always been music mad. I even ran my own disco as a teenager called The Magic Mushroom – I had no idea what a magic mushroom was in those days it just sounded good – and I have always just followed my interests.”
Foz spent eight years at Radio Orwell, working in the newsroom mostly but also making programmes before moving to Radio Suffolk as a business producer.
“I started off doing business stories, then started a blues show, got a weekend presenting slot before landing the drive-time slot which I kept for 15 years – that only came to an end this year. The show was a dream because it allowed me to indulge all my interests – current affairs, music, Ipswich Town, speedway… and to share those interests with the listeners. I like to think I keep my finger on the pulse of most things and my show allowed me to keep my finger on the pulse.
“I wouldn’t say that I’ve modelled myself on anyone as a presenter but John Peel and Andy Archer were definite heroes and they were both very knowledgeable and versatile and I think it’s their versatility that I have taken from them. Neither of them were ‘Smashy and Nicey’ they were radio broadcasters who had a deep love of their subject – which for John and Andy was music first and foremost.”
Likewise Foz is passionate about the music he plays and will not cut tracks short and always remembers to tell listeners who is singing and what the title of the song is called. He acknowledges there’s nothing more annoying if you are playing a piece of music that will strike a chord with listeners and the presenter doesn’t tell what is playing.
“For me it is an insult when presenters or DJs cut records short or talk all over them. Also I never mind playing long tracks either.”
Foz’s passion for music has meant that over the years he has also been a music promoter bringing some of his favourite bands to the town, including personal faves Nine Below Zero and Dr Feelgood, but his personal favourite actually cost him money.”
“My most memorable promotion was bringing Jimmy Rogers to Ipswich. Jimmy Rogers was one of the legendary blues guitarists and songwriters who had played alongside Muddy Waters at the height of his fame and seeing a genuine Chicago blues band playing in Ipswich was something special. Strangely we didn’t have a full house that night and me and co-promoter John Butters had to make a couple of trips to the cash machine to make sure we could pay Jimmy but it was worth it.”
So what would Foz say were some of his highlights of his career so far? “Getting to know Sir Bobby Robson was special, Ipswich Music Day has a special place in my heart, hearing Ed Sheeran and getting to know Ed early in his career was a real joy. I knew he was going to be famous because he had that extra something but I had no idea he was as big as he has become. But, an indication of how he could command an audience. When I first saw he was playing to about 30 teenage girls who sat absolutely enraptured. He had them in the palm of his hand and you can’t teach those skills and he can do that to 30 people or 30,000 people. He is something special.
“I suppose one of my most enduring memories related to me and John Peel sitting on a wall in Bury St Edmunds bitching about the fact that we weren’t at Wembley watching Ipswich Town play in the play-off final in 2000.
“I couldn’t go because I was doing a live music show from Bury St Edmunds – it was a big BBC Music Live event – it was also being covered nationally and John Peel was there. Like me he was an Ipswich Town season ticket holder and we sat together on a wall moaning our heads off that we were stuck in Bury instead of being at Wembley. We really bonded that day.”
Now that Stephen is taking voluntary redundancy from Radio Suffolk what does the future hold? “I hope there’s more broadcasting. I feel I still have a lot to offer. Maybe there’s a book in me, maybe some more music promotion – although the time is not good for live performances at the moment, I am hoping that will change before too long – whatever happens I want to be as involved in the life of Suffolk as I have always been.
“I’m not going anywhere. I’m just taking some time to take a breather and take a step back and have a think about what I want to do next. I have been going full tilt for the last 40 years and this just seems to me to be a good just to slow down, have a look at the world around me and work out exactly what I want to do next.”