Stephen Rhodes Obituary
By MARCUS STEAD
Stephen Rhodes, who has died aged 66 following a battle with motor neurone disease, was a journalist and broadcaster who became a household name in the 1990s as a regular cover presenter on ITV’s ‘This Morning’, but it was his feisty, belligerent, yet good-humoured handling of consumer affairs during his long spell as presenter of the mid-morning show on BBC Three Counties Radio that brought out the best in him as a campaigning hack.
Born in Dublin and the son of a dentist, Rhodes, whose real name was Tommy Keenan, was a restless, noisy child, who frequently irritated his parents by arguing and challenging everything from a young age.
Shortly before his mother’s death, she said to him: “The trouble is, we just didn’t have a name for it when you were little.” He never found out what she was talking about, but he assumed she was referring to his hyperactivity.
Rhodes was educated at St Conleth’s College, a fee-paying Catholic school in Dublin, and the Irish Retail Management Institute, after which he worked for six years in sales and marketing at Mackey’s Seeds in Dublin.
In 1978, Rhodes sent a showreel to Alternative Radio Dublin (colloquially known as ARD), a pirate station that had a strong following in the city, as well as along the west coast of Great Britain, where the 1161 MW signal could be received at night, and his radio career was born.
He rose through the ranks quickly to become station manager, and supplemented his income by lending his voice to TV and radio commercials.
A migration across the water to Birmingham station BRMB followed in 1980, where his ‘Yes-No Quiz’ quickly became a hit with listeners, and by in middle of the decade he moved up the M6 to Beacon Radio in Wolverhampton.
Rhodes’s Irish lilt and intense delivery meant he was much in-demand as a voiceover artist, which led to many TV commercials, and his relationship with Central Television saw him being given the chance to become the voice of ‘Family Fortunes’ in 1987, a role he continued for the next 12 years, spanning most of Les Dennis’s reign as host of the programme.
During the early 1990s, Rhodes migrated to Beacon’s ‘oldies’ sister station WABC, and within a few years he had moved on to BBC Radio Shropshire as the breakfast show presenter, where he won the first of seven Sony Radio Academy Awards.
It was around this period that Rhodes’s career in front of the TV cameras began to take off. He presented a number of editions of audience debate show ‘Central Weekend Live’ in the Midlands, where the adversarial nature of the programme was an excellent fit for Rhodes’s tenacious personality.
Rhodes’s talents gained the attention of Granada TV, who made him and his then-wife Alison Keenan the main cover presenters for Richard and Judy on ‘This Morning’ between 1994 and 1998, a role in which he appeared at ease, but years later, he said of it: “I never really liked being on television. I didn’t enjoy This Morning because I hated cooking – there were lots of things I just didn’t like about it. But I enjoyed the money – it paid off the mortgage! I much prefer the spontaneity of radio.”
In mid-1995, Rhodes began his 15-year association with BBC Three Counties Radio, then based in Luton. Following a brief spell on the drivetime show, he began his long stint as presenter of the mid-morning consumer affairs programme, as well as hosting topical phone-ins.
From the outset, Rhodes was determined to bring his own style of championing consumer journalism to the show, where he would open the phone lines to listeners in need of help, and take on all manner of wrongdoers from individual rogue traders to major corporations on their behalf.
Challenging and forthright, yet personable and possessing a mischievous sense of humour, Rhodes was perhaps at his best when making special in-depth reports for the programme, which led to many memorable moments.
With his reputation as a skilled interrogator firmly established, Rhodes became the face of the BBC’s regional political and current affairs TV programmes in the East of England, where he presented ‘Inside Out East’ and the region’s Sunday politics slot, though he claimed he was forced to step down from the latter when he found that he couldn’t get into political meetings because he’d rubbed too many local politicians up the wrong way.
In 2008, Rhodes moved to the breakfast show on BBC Three Counties, but his tenure came to an abrupt end on the afternoon of 16 March 2010 when in characteristically maverick style, he announced to the press that he was resigning from his radio job with immediate effect to stand as a candidate in Luton South in the general election due to the expenses controversies surrounding the constituency’s outgoing Labour MP, Margaret Moran.
The subsequent contest saw Rhodes face a challenge from another media personality, Esther Rantzen, and they gave vastly differing accounts to the media as to what motivated the other to stand. It was not to be either of their finest hours. Neither candidate fared well, with Rhodes receiving a paltry 463 votes to Rantzen’s 1,872, both falling massively short of the 14,725 of the successful Labour candidate, Gavin Shuker.
Rhodes quickly bounced back from this embarrassing episode with typical dynamism by setting up Bullet Point Media, a company specialising in making marketing videos, and he continued to be an active campaigner on local issues in Eaton Bray near Dunstable, where he lived with his Filipino wife Greggy, who he married in 2012.
Having suffered with back problems for some years, a water skiing accident in 2013 left Rhodes requiring an operation to repair two vertebrae. In the months that followed, he found himself becoming increasingly weak in his legs, and in October 2014 he received the devastating diagnosis of motor neurone disease.
After coming to terms with the bleak prognosis, Rhodes threw himself into campaigning tirelessly, to be, in his own words a ‘noisy old geezer’ for better support and treatment for MND sufferers, and leant his name to fundraising efforts for research into the condition.
By late 2015, Rhodes was dependant on a motorised wheelchair and his voice was already weakening, but on 28 December that year, he returned to BBC Three Counties for a farewell show, where he looked back on some of the most memorable moments from his long spell at the station.
Rhodes continued his work with characteristic vigour for much of 2016 despite increasing physical frailty, which included a meeting with MND Association patron Princess Anne, and on Twitter, he kept followers entertained with his blunt assessments of leading politicians in a turbulent year. He also managed one final trip to Ireland to see family and friends.
Away from work, his hobbies included tennis, cycling, water skiing, and buying beaten up old Land Rovers, which had a habit of breaking down at inopportune moments, much to the amusement of his colleagues.
Tommy Keenan, known professionally as Stephen Rhodes.
Married broadcaster Alison Keenan, divorced.
Married Greggy Lluz, 2012.
Sons: Nick, 37, Sam, 27, Jack, 24.
Daughter: Beck, 35.