Turbulent 1 

1 January 2004 tbs.pm/3201

Yet another chapter in the turbulent recent history of BBC Radio 1 has begun to unfold. Chris Moyles has replaced Sara Cox as host of the much-coveted Breakfast Show slot, and this was interpreted by media newshounds as a knee-jerk reaction to recent figures, showing the station dipping below 10 million listeners per week for the first time.

But what has put the station in this position? As with many things in broadcasting, a bit of historical context adds weight to any theories.

It’s well documented that in 1993, under the control of Matthew Bannister, Radio 1 began to embark on a series of changes to make it actually appeal to the nation’s youth, rather than their parents as was increasingly the case at the time.

There have, however been fewer column inches written about the second era of change, under Bannister’s successor Andy Parfitt. The histories tend to end with the appointment of Zoë Ball in September 1997, and there’s definitely an air of “and they all lived happily ever after” to these records.

Whilst it’s true that, for a while, Radio 1 basked in the glory of its reinvention and was genuinely popular, this didn’t last. Changes continued to happen and audience figures were, if not falling then distinctly wobbly.

So it remains somewhat of a mystery as to why there was so much surprise when Radio 1’s figures fell under 10 million for the first time. The whole point of the strategy of the previous ten years was to lose the older sections of the audiences, and it is somewhat of a surprise that it has taken so long.

In particular some of the rather sneery comments about BBC Radio 2 overtaking Radio 1 in terms of listeners for the first time seemed to miss the whole point about Radio 1’s changes. They also failed to spot that Radio 2’s current mass appeal format could run into just as much trouble as Radio 1’s did in the early nineties, and could nurture just as many egos.

It’s worth mentioning that Radio 1’s weekly reach among the target audience of 15-24 year olds is a rather healthy 50%, and RAJAR doesn’t record those under that age.

The last year in particular has seen many changes to Radio 1 to try to refresh the audience, whether or not the programmes are out of date. A big surprise to many was the axing of The Evening Session after twelve years.

As you’d expect with such a (relatively) long-running programme, protests were extremely vocal. Even an enthusiast for change against complacency like myself was a little taken aback.

But anyone who listened to the three special programmes in the final week looking at the three distinct eras of the show – Goodier, Lamacq & Whiley and Lamacq solo – must have realised that the show was long past its sell-by-date and belonged firmly in the Britpop era of the early-late 90s.

The final track to be played – “Alright” by Supergrass – summed this up neatly. If Radio 1 was to avoid the complacency of the early 90s then it had take steps like this sooner rather than later.

But what of the replacement? The desired successor, XFM’s Zane Lowe, was contractually bound away from Radio 1 until June, so Session In The Nations and RI:SE presenter Colin Murray got the job until then.

Whilst the readers of the likes of MediaGuardian would be well aware he was a fill-in listeners to Radio 1 were, perhaps understandably, lead to believe that Murray was the long-term replacement for the slot, complete with a barrage of trailers for the new show in January and February.

So when, a few months later, Lowe was confirmed as the replacement from July, it must have seemed like a crisis of confidence in Murray. Whilst Lowe has personality by the bucket-load it remains to be seen whether he will prove durable in the slot – maybe even for “ten-frigging-years” as he predicted in his opening link.

Around the same time as the Evening Session bit the dust, Mark Goodier also signed off from The Official UK Top 40 for the final time. Whilst it was said that Goodier was keen to move on, it seems a rather large coincidence that it happened at exactly the same time as many other major changes.

Whatever the reason, it certainly wasn’t before time. Goodier’s presentation of the chart, whilst slick, was sounding tired and repetitive. He hadn’t had another regular Radio 1 show other than the chart for three years prior to his departure and wasn’t filling in for other DJs – indeed he had begun filling in on Radio 2 – and so stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the rest of the line-up. Finally, whilst age should never be a factor alone, the fact that he was hurtling into his forties didn’t help matters.

So he departed on 17 November 2002 in a show marking the 50th anniversary of the British single chart. Following this was a rare thing on Radio 1 since the mid-90s – a bit of self-indulgence.

For the next few weeks other established Radio 1 DJs had a go at presenting the chart, including Jo Whiley, Chris Moyles and, particularly memorably, Mark Radcliffe. Breakfast Show host Sara Cox naturally hosted the Christmas rundown.

It then got even more ridiculous – Tim Westwood and John Peel were booked in to host the show in the New Year. However, we never got to enjoy these aural feasts (although the previous summer Westwood introducing Will Young and Gareth Gates at One Big Sunday gave an idea of what we might have expected).

Movements in the world of charts meant that Pepsi were no longer sponsoring the ILR network chart show, and the rapidly-expanding EMAP decided to opt their shows out of the network chart, instead airing a new programme based on the Smash Hits brand and hosted by someone called Mark Goodier.

The relaunched network chart (now sponsored by Woolworth’s, scraping the bottom of the barrel with the new name Hit40UK and sadly still presented by Neil “Dr” Fox) and the new Smash Hits chart both debuted on Sunday 5 January 2003, and Radio 1 were unwilling to be decidedly uncompetitive with these two new beasts by letting a hip hop DJ and a man in his sixties host the Official UK Top 40 on the first two Sundays of the new shows.

So stalwart of the fill-in Scott Mills was parachuted in for five weeks (probably much to his own dismay, since he was already presenting six days a week at the time) until the arrival of the new host.

Radio 1 perhaps hadn’t needed to worry though – the commercial chart market was now fragmented, with the bizarre occurrence in many areas of a direct switch of presenter from BBC to ILR. It was also a little disappointing to hear Goodier’s voice endorsing the Smash Hits chart’s apparent authenticity because it included text voting from music channels after years of him extolling the virtues of the truly official chart on the BBC.

So on 9th February 2003 the new chart show began on Radio 1, presented by 23-year-old Wes Butters. The appointment of such a young and relatively inexperienced voice caused surprise, but once he began all doubt disappeared.

Wes – as he is known on air – is an extremely competent performer, with a fantastic radio voice combining authority and enthusiasm, a perfect combination for the chart programme.

The show was also renamed The Official Chart Show and substantially revamped to include a hefty segment on the album chart, more listener interaction and even occasional live performances.

The new ultra-competitive environment also meant that more references than ever were being made to the competition – with comments such as “the only chart where you don’t need a widescreen web cam to see the presenter” and “the only chart where 40 isn’t the age of the DJ” seeming a little out of place when Radio 1 was quite happy with Goodier for so long.

One controversial change was that now only the top twenty records were played in full – only selected tracks from 40-21, such as new entries and Radio 1 A-listers would get full airings, otherwise a small clip would play.

Some claimed that this was a step backwards, because since the early 90s one of the Radio 1 chart’s selling points had been that every track was played in full. However, the chart had changed substantially since then, with most songs entering high and falling quickly down, with the lower placings tending to be purely free falling former-hits.

Whatever the content, The Official Chart Show is by far the best chart show available and a shining example of the direction that Radio 1 should be taking. It’s now guaranteed to have the highest ratings because of the fragmented commercial market. Wes has been filling in for other Radio 1 DJs on a regular basis and he’ll hopefully get another slot at some point in the future.

There have been a number of questionable decisions over the station’s extra curricular, for want of a better word, activities in recent months.

The much-hyped replacement for the Radio 1 Roadshow, One Big Sunday, only had one broadcast in the summer of 2003. Much more attention was focussed on other big events such as whole weekends of programming broadcast from Manchester, Leeds, Cardiff and most recently an entire week in Brighton.

However, these lack the genuine “come and see the show” aspect of One Big Sunday and its predecessor. Many of the events (known as One Big Weekend and Radio 1 on the Road) are accessible by a limited number of free tickets only, meaning that ridiculous numbers of people turn up to try and get a finite number of tickets from a Radio 1 caravan in the city centre and the whole thing is covered live on the Breakfast Show as if it were some kind of event.

The problem with this shift in focus is that it means that one-off events are given incredible amounts of publicity, doing in everyone’s heads for absolutely ages, and then there’s nothing for weeks.

The genius of One Big Sunday (and the Roadshows before them) was that there was a regular drip-feed of events throughout the summer. Now events like Eminem live in Milton Keynes were blasted down the nation’s ears for weeks when really it amounted to very little – a couple of interviews with the man himself and the honour of coming “backstage” from The National Bowl, but sadly no music.

Even when live music was involved the subject matter was somewhat questionable. It was undoubtedly a huge coup to broadcast one of Robbie Williams’s gigs from Knebworth live on the network, but given the man’s patchy and rather unadventurous work of late, is he really the sort of person Radio 1 should be devoting weeks of publicity and endless shows to?

The sycophancy of the live broadcast reached previously unpurged levels when, prior to the concert itself, the station broadcast “Robbie Williams: Ten Years in Ten Minutes”.

Apart from being more like twelve years in fifteen minutes, it raised the question why he was being so revered in the first place, given that he’s an ex-boyband member who’s done a few decent solo songs but nothing else of note.

Plus there’s the small fact that everyone watched it on Channel 4 the night before, leaving the broadcast with little use.

In September 2003 the weekend schedules were also given a reshuffle. Saturdays and Sundays had long been criticised as being a weak area of the station, and this was rectified by promoting Spoony from the Dreem Teem to his own show and giving Colin and Edith a Sunday show to complement their Saturday one.

However, around this time there was another crisis brewing.

Sara Cox’s listening figures had been in free fall for some time, losing nearly half a million listeners in one quarter at one point, and questions were being asked as to why she was being given unequivocal support from management.

Whilst Zoë Ball had been a fantastic host and had quit while she was ahead, Cox was now in her fourth year and was showing a distinct lack of ideas on the programme.

This appeared to culminate with the introduction of “Coxy’s Big Ones” where the final hour of the show was given over to number ones from the past and present.

Quite apart from effectively bringing back The Golden Hour, which the station had quite ceremoniously dumped two years before, it was also a fairly flimsy concept – in order to get a decent range of tracks to play the “number one” idea extended to all tracks from number one albums, and also American number ones.

It was the sort of thing a local radio station would do, not Radio 1. It also meant that after every track Cox would have to explain where and when it had been number one, so as to justify the airing it had just received.

This meant that the last hour became a rather slavishly nerdy chart-followers heaven, not exactly the sort of thing you want to wake up to. Indeed, the quality of songs are rarely determined by their chart position – as demonstrate when Colin and Edith filled in and used the last hour to play number twos. So it was with no surprise that Cox was announced as leaving the Breakfast Show early in October.

Her replacement, however, did arouse controversy. Chris Moyles polarises opinion – you either think he’s a great DJ or worse than the bubonic plague. There is no middle ground.

There is, however, no doubting the fact that his best years were on Early Breakfast and not in the afternoons as he has been for the past five years.

This was proved when he was called in at short notice to fill in for Zoë Ball in February 2000 and was quite superb, and unbelievably enthusiastic for the slot.

This turned out to be the last time he presented the show until the near future. He was, however, a regular fill-in for Zoë in his first two years at Radio 1, and the Breakfast Show is said to be the only thing he has ever wanted to do.

Whether you love or hate him, Radio 1 deserves credit for promoting talent from within the station, rather than the attention-gathering TV celebs that have been placed on the show for the past few years.

In particular, Colin and Edith were looking depressingly predictable for getting the slot – the dream ticket of serious music DJ coupled with tabloid-friendly celebrity female mirroring the Zoë and Kevin line-up from 1997.

What is less easy to understand is why Cox has been moved to drive time. She is clearly out of favour with listeners at large, and a more expected outcome would be a temporary move to a weekend slot to fill out her contract or leaving the station altogether.

It remains to be seen whether she survives in a slot that has been made Moyles’s own for the past few years. In particular Radio 1 shouldn’t be afraid of trying out new talent on daytime – the line-up of Cox, Whiley, Radcliffe and Moyles is beginning to sound as over-familiar as Mayo, Bates, Davies and Wright.

In particular, Scott Mills is crying out for a promotion to weekday daytimes after five years toiling away on Early Breakfast. His time may soon come – recently he has been standing in admirably for Mark and Lard, whose afternoon show has been sounding incredibly tired lately, and is also shortly to move to weekend lunchtimes.

Whilst some criticism of the playlist is always healthy, they sound like two moaning old men complaining about everything they play.

The station sound needs sorting out too. In 1998 Vibe Music Imaging started producing the jingles, introducing some rather funky sung jingles after years of look-we’re-trendy spoken idents.

These continued, with modifications every few months, until the start of 2002, when a set of truly awful jingles with no singing was introduced – mirroring the 1995 changes. In most cases they seemed to consist of DJs such as Cox and Radcliffe saying the slogan “One Love, One Station, Radio 1” whilst an almost unrecognisable version of the previous sung “Ra-di-o 1” tune rattled away in the background. They’ve been improved since then but, but nearly two years on they really spoil the sound of the station.

So, ten years on from the Bannister revolution, Radio 1 is still facing challenges about how to adapt to serve an ever-changing audience.

The scarily fast growth of digital radio – featuring quick-fix non-stop-pop stations such as Core and Smash Hits – is another threat to Radio 1’s traditional stronghold of teenyboppers, and it must work out how to entertain these just as much as the serious music fans.

One recent success story is 1Xtra, the Black music station launched from Radio 1’s headquarters in August 2002, which is was recently announced is the BBC’s most listened to digital-only radio station.

But for the moment the station has enough problems of its own to tackle – and I’m sure we’ll still be sitting here in 2013 wondering if it’ll ever all settle down.

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