Wilson was the man behind some of Manchester's most successful bands. He was one of the five co-founders of Factory Records and the founder and manager of the Haçienda nightclub. Wilson was known as "Mr Manchester", dubbed as such for his work in promoting the culture of Manchester throughout his career.
Wilson was born 20 February 1950 in Hope Hospital in the Hope area of Pendleton, Salford 6, Lancashire, to Sydney Wilson and Doris Knupfer, and moved to Marple, near Stockport in Cheshire, at the age of five. His maternal grandfather was a German immigrant. After passing his Eleven plus exam, Wilson attended De La Salle Grammar School in Weaste Lane, Pendleton, Salford. He developed a love of literature and language, ignited by a performance of Hamlet at Stratford upon Avon. Wilson started his professional career in 1968 at the age of 17, working as an English and Drama teacher at Blue Coat School in Oldham. He later graduated with a degree in English from Jesus College, Cambridge.
After his graduation in 1971, Wilson began as a trainee news reporter for ITN, before moving to Manchester in 1973, where he secured a post at Granada Television. He went on to present Granada's culture, music and events programme, So It Goes. Through the 1970s and 1980s he was one of the main anchors on Granada Reports, a regional evening news programme, where he worked with Richard and Judy among others. He continued in this line of work even at the height of his success in the music industry.
In 1989, Wilson hosted The Other Side of Midnight, another Granada weekly regional culture slot, covering music, literature and the arts in general. Its Sunday night slot made it one of the UK's first experiments in late night weekend TV. He reported for ITV's celebrated current affairs series, World in Action in the early 1980s and also hosted Channel 4's After Dark, the UK's first open-ended, late night chat show, in which he chaired loose discussions in a darkened studio between intellectuals and celebrities of various descriptions. Wilson co-presented the BBC's coverage of The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at Wembley Stadium with Lisa I'Anson in 1992. He hosted the short-lived TV quiz shows Topranko! and MTV Europe's Remote Control in the 1990s, as well as the Manchester United themed quiz, Masterfan, for MUTV.