Two contestants play against each other for the chance to win a DAB digital radio. Each contestant is given 10 questions based on popular music from the 1950s right through to the present day. All the questions are worth 3 points except the three "bonus questions" (questions 3, 6 and 9) on a topic chosen (from two choices) by the contestant. These bonus questions involve listening to a snippet of music, and if answered correctly are worth 6 points. There is therefore a maximum total of 39 points on offer.
The winning contestant then goes on to play "3 in 10". In this part, they have 10 seconds to name three UK Singles Chart hits for a particular artist or group named by Ken Bruce. If they successfully manage this, they win the DAB digital radio; if they fail, they won an MP3 player. As of early 2015, the prize for failing '3 in 10' has been changed to a Bluetooth speaker. However, if a contestant scores 39 points in the main round, they win the Digital Radio anyway, and the other contestant would play "3 in 10" instead. Should both contestants score the same number of points (and the score is less than the maximum), a tie-break is used to decide who will play "3 in 10". The losing contestant wins a Radio 2 "One Year Out" t-shirt. The t-shirt is so-designed because when answering "Name the Year" type questions, contestants are very often just one year out, causing Ken to exclaim "One year out!". Previously, the losing contestant would receive a consolation prize of a Radio 2 CD wallet.
At the end of the year, the best contestants (those who score 39 or 36 and also get the "three-in-ten") return for a "Champions League PopMaster", the structure of which is different; the contestants start with their original score from their first appearance, i.e. 36 or 39, and then proceed to answer 10 questions which are worth their ordinal values i.e. question 1 is worth one point, question 2 is worth two points and so on. The contestants still choose a bonus subject, but this is only worth its value in the order of the questions. The score is then added to their original score, and the highest-scoring two contestants return for a final to determine the year's champion.
When Ken Bruce is on holiday, PopMaster continues with the stand-in presenters; these include Alex Lester, Stuart Maconie, Michael Ball, Claudia Winkleman, Richard Allinson, Aled Jones, Zoë Ball, Fearne Cotton, Sara Cox and Trevor Nelson.
2007 suspension and celebrity version
PopMaster was suspended for one day on 19 July 2007 in line with the BBC's blanket ban on television and radio competitions following several phone-in scandals (although Popmaster or other competitions on Radio 2 were never implicated). The day after, PopMaster was brought back but without prizes or public entry; the contestants selected from celebrities and BBC staff.
Between 20 July 2007 and 18 January 2008, when the quiz was played with celebrity contestants, the prizes were not given away, and the final "3 in 10" round was not played by the winner.
It was rumoured that members of the public would be able to play again before Christmas 2007, though this did not happen. On 30 December 2007 it was announced that the quiz would be one of the first BBC phone-in competitions to return in January 2008. The quiz returned on Monday, 21 January 2008. New background music and dramatic, orchestral and guitar based jingles for the quiz were introduced on the same day. The contestant application procedure reverted to the original write-in method, but now prospective contestants are invited on the day.
On 28 May 2010, Bruce hosted a special Eurovision celebrity edition of the quiz, live from Oslo, Norway. Eurovision Song Contest commentator for BBC Three, Paddy O'Connell, took on the author of The Eurovision Song Contest - The Official History, John Kennedy O'Connor, to answer questions on the contest, with O'Connor winning. On 25 May 2012, a second Eurovision celebrity edition of the quiz was hosted live from Baku, Azerbaijan. The BBC's Moscow Correspondent, Steve Rosenberg, narrowly lost to O'Connor.
A third "Eurovision Popmaster" was held live on 17 May 2013 from Malmo, Sweden, on the eve of the Eurovision Song Contest 2013 during Bruce's regular Radio 2 morning show, with Bruce competing against Paddy O'Connell and John Kennedy O'Connor chairing the quiz.
An interactive version of PopMaster was launched on Monday 1 March 2010. The game can now be played on the BBC Radio 2 web and mobile sites, or in a Facebook application. The game features text, image, sound and video questions, and scores are determined by how quickly the player answers correctly. A voiceover from Ken Bruce features throughout the game. Players can also challenge friends to beat their high scores. The maximum score possible is 390.
PopMaster was parodied by comedian and BBC 6 Music presenter Jon Holmes on his weekend show in the game Ken Bruce Master. The game is described thus: "On Popmaster listeners have to answer questions about pop stars. On Ken Bruce Master pop stars have to answer questions about Ken Bruce." Very surreal questions then follow, in the style of Chuck Norris facts. Many pop and rock stars have played the game for "no prizes whatsover due to current compliance guidelines." At Christmas 2007 Ken Bruce himself played, and lost.
The format of PopMaster, which began in 1998, is similar to that of David Hamilton's Music Game which ran on his Radio 2 show in the late 1970s and early to mid-1980s. For the intervening period, there was no such phone competition on Radio 2 largely owing to the impact of Frances Line on the station's music policy.
- BBC suspends phone competitions BBC.co.uk
- The Guardian - BBC phone-in contests return - with new rules
- Petersfield Post Archived 2009-02-07 at the Wayback Machine. - Phone-ins to resume after scandals
- Radio 2 website - Celebrity PopMaster
- News.BBC.co.uk - BBC news story
- BBC - Radio 2 - Ken Bruce - PopMaster - Radio How to apply for PopMaster on the radio
- BBC - Radio 2 - Ken Bruce - PopMaster PopMaster Online Game