Bates was raised in Suffolk and Shropshire and educated at Adams' Grammar School before working for radio stations in New Zealand and Australia. Bates returned to the UK in 1971 to join the BBC, initially working for BBC Radio 4 and then joining BBC Radio 2 in 1973 presenting the Late Night show, before presenting the Early Morning show in 1975. Bates left BBC Radio 2 in January 1976 and joined BBC Radio 1 in May the same year standing in for Tom Browne to host the Sunday Top 20 show before presenting the Sunday morning show two months later.
Initially a weekend presenter playing new pop records, Bates took over the weekday mid-morning programme in November 1977 and remained for 16 years, with up to 11 million listeners. His voice — essentially a sped-up, slightly Americanised version of the standard Received Pronunciation associated with BBC Radio 4 — was unusual in that most Radio 1 DJs had a more informal 'DJ' voice.
Two long-running features of his programme were "The Golden Hour" and "Our Tune". Bates inherited "The Golden Hour" from Tony Blackburn. Listeners had to guess the year from records played and clues given by Bates.
"Our Tune" ran from 1980 at 11am. Over Nino Rota's theme to Franco Zeffirelli's film Romeo and Juliet (1968), Bates read a sentimental story sent by a listener, ending with a record chosen by the correspondent. In "The Birthday File" Bates played music by stars celebrating a birthday.
Bates' programme featured Jonathan King to comment about music and interviewed stars at the BRIT Awards. In 1989 his summer series "Round The World" was broadcast from a different country each day. He went round the world in 67 days and raised £300,000 for Oxfam. Cynics said he did it to avoid presenting the BBC Radio 1 roadshow, a claim he effectively confirmed. Bates presented the Sunday afternoon Top 40 from 2 April 1978 to 26 August 1979 and from 8 January 1984 to 23 September 1984. He presented BBC TV's Top of the Pops regularly from 1980 to 1988. He presented the station's roadshow before retiring from the duties after his round-the-world trip in 1989.
Bates worked mid-morning until 1993. He was not the most popular presenter at Radio 1. John Peel said he formed a posse with David Jensen and Paul Burnett to attack him in the car park but admitted they never confronted him.
When Matthew Bannister arrived to modernise Radio 1, Bates was thought to be under threat. Bannister says in The Nation's Favourite that he feared Bates's supposed subversive influence rather than his broadcasting style. Bates resigned in summer 1993 before the station could sack him, playing "Life Is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me)" by Reunion as his last record .
Bates was on all five national BBC stations — apart from his stint at BBC Radio 1 and his broadcasts for BBC Radio 2 and BBC Radio 4, he also presented a Prom concert on BBC Radio 3 in 1987 and presented a digest of the daily papers on the original BBC Radio 5 (now BBC Radio Five Live) in 1990.
After leaving Radio 1 he worked for Irish-based long wave station Atlantic 252, reviving "Our Tune" and then presented a TV version of the feature daily for BBC1's Good Morning with Anne and Nick in 1994-95 and later for Sky One.
During these few years he also became the face of the VSC often seen before films that had come out on rental video, describing the classification of the movie. This was lampooned by comedians such as Harry Enfield and Ben Elton.
From September 1995 - April 1996, Bates broadcast for Talk Radio UK (now TalkSport) as the breakfast show presenter. He was then heard on London's Liberty Radio as mid-morning presenter until 1997.
In 1997, Bates joined Classic FM, presenting the weekly Classic Romance programme and was also heard on BBC Southern Counties Radio presenting a Sunday morning show until late 1998. In addition, between 1996 and 1998, Bates presented a show on the Classic Gold Network on weekday evenings. He then moved to London's LBC as breakfast host from 1999–2002.
Bates originally appeared on Classic FM in 1997, presenting the weekly Classic Romance show. In mid-2002 he was offered his first daily slot, presenting the drivetime show. From June 2003 he hosted the Classic FM weekday breakfast show and the one-hour "Classic FM at the Movies" programme, discussing films and film music on Sunday evening. In September 2006, his programme's hours changed from 7-11am to 8am-noon. In 2010 Bates was moved to mid morning (9am to 1pm) and shortly afterwards it was announced he would be leaving the station in January 2011 to present a show on Smooth Radio.
As well as his daily show for Classic FM, Bates could also be heard on the Gold Radio Network every Sunday morning from 8am-noon.
On 17 August 2010, it was announced that from January 2011 Simon Bates would take over as host of the Breakfast Show on Smooth Radio, leaving Classic FM after 13 years. Bates' show replaced local programming on a number of regional radio stations and began on 4 January 2011, except for Scottish stations which continued with locally produced shows. He brought back both "The Golden Hour" and "Our Tune" to the show. "The Golden Hour" airs every day from 9-10am as it did originally, while Our Tune airs each morning at 8:40. Other features in the show include the Thousand Pound Minute, where listeners must answer ten questions correctly within 60 seconds to win £1,000.
In September 2012 the radio industry news website Radio Today reported that Bates had started to present a separate breakfast show for Smooth Radio's sister station, Smooth 70s. Smooth Radio did not publicise the show, but confirmed Bates was providing "a little content" when asked about the programme. The content is "voice tracked" from the main breakfast show.
Bates left Smooth Radio on 21 March 2014.
Bates, who as of 2014 lives on a farm in mid-Devon, started hosting the BBC Radio Devon breakfast show from 6:30am to 10am on weekdays from 12 January 2015. He also featured the Golden Hour from 9.00- 10.00, the years ranged from 1956 to 2004 . As of January 8, 2017 it was announced that Bates has left BBC Radio Devon to "move on to other things."
In 2017 Simon presentes a TV Version of The Golden Hour on Now 80s and Chilled 90s.