Radio One at 40: an appraisal 

3 October 2007

Radio 1 was the ‘Big Change’ in 1967. While the other BBC stations arguably metamorphosed into numbered variants of their old selves, Radio 1 was the exciting newcomer, intended to replace the role of the pirates. How well are they doing today?

It’s indicative of the position that Radio 1 finds itself in today that the official title for the station’s anniversary celebrations, “Established 1967”, doesn’t mention the actual age the station is going to be. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that avoiding overplaying the “40th” aspect of the celebration is more likely to keep the target audience interested, but it’s also a mark of how far the station has come in the past few years that it is able to celebrate the anniversary at all and appears to be achieving it in a very credible fashion indeed.

The last time I wrote for Transdiffusion about Radio 1 the station was in a very different position. Having successfully shaken off the ghosts of the “1FM” era, reinvented the station as the home of new music and taken the average age of those listening back down below the age of the station itself, Radio 1 was once again appearing to become stagnant. The daytime line-up had remained more or less unchanged for around five or six years and once again a number of the regular DJs were approaching the wrong side of 40.

A couple of years of change followed, resulting in Chris Moyles being placed on the flagship Breakfast Show, Sara Cox on drivetime, Wes presenting the Top 40, Scott Mills on weekends and Zane Lowe in the old “Session” slot. It’s a mark of the difference in approach of controller Andy Parfitt and his team that this wasn’t the end of the change – indeed a reshuffle of some sorts (often with an unusual headline-generating appointment somewhere) is now almost an annual occurrence.

But before all that, we return to 2003. Before she even presented her last breakfast show, Sara Cox announced she was pregnant. This meant that her appointment to drivetime would most likely be temporary, and when she left to go on extended maternity leave in May 2004 many could be excused for thinking she’d never return (with her “I will be back” closing link tempting fate).

Her replacement was Scott Mills, who was announced as if he was permanent for the slot (with all evidence of Cox removed from the website – unlike when Jo Whiley had her children). For Mills it was a long-overdue appointment, having toiled on Early Breakfast for five years and filled in on virtually every slot on the station. He’d successfully managed to buck the trend of the 1990s where Clive Warren and Kevin Greening – also witty, solo male DJs – were perpetually being touted as the next big thing at the station, being eventually being marginalised to a graveyard shift and quitting.

Mills – along with Mark Chapman (aka “Chappers”), a sports newsreader he inherited from Sara Cox’s period presenting drivetime – has made the slot his own in a way few could have predicted, and would seem to be secure there for some time to come. He has a very good relationship with his listeners, with virtually every feature an interaction with the audience, often conducted via Radio 1’s website. Fittingly the show won a bronze Sony Award for Interactive Programme in April 2007.

Sara Cox – to the surprise of many – did eventually return, in February 2005. She took up the weekend afternoon slot and interestingly, given the revulsion she attracted towards the end of her time on the Breakfast Show, has proved popular in the slot. This is perhaps down to a more casual and laid-back style than she had in the morning, and her working quite well on her own without a team whooping and hollering in the background.

Back to 2004 and a departure that had been anticipated for almost as long as they had been presenting their afternoon show. In early 2004 it was announced that Mark Radcliffe’s programme – more commonly known as Mark and Lard – could be coming to an end. Whilst they certainly had a following the move could not really be described as premature. The show was sounding tired and repetitive, and the continual criticism of the playlist that was originally cheeky and mischievous had become distinctly off-message.

It can’t be said they were shuffled off without some fanfare though – Radio 1 was dominated by trails and tributes in their final week, and the last show was not only completely playlist-free but also overran by around seven minutes, taking the station off-air in the process and knocking the emergency tape on. Well, if you’re going to go out with a bang…! Their replacements were Colin Murray and Edith Bowman.

Whilst daytime programming had had a big shake-up – with only Jo Whiley’s morning show surviving unchanged during the whole period – specialist DJs had their own revamp around the corner in July 2004. Many aspects of this part of the schedule had survived even longer than the over-familiar daytime line-up. Virtually no stone was left unturned as the evening and night-time schedules were rebuilt from scratch. Monday and Tuesday would be devoted to rock, indie and live music, Wednesday to urban, Thursday to dance and Friday and Saturday the usual mix of dance and rap. Sunday nights had more of an experimental of “chill out” feel.

There was also an unusual experiment in the form of the daily one-hour magazine show called “OneClick”, airing nightly at 3am. Each programme was dedicated to a different subject, such as comedy, film or just a straight magazine programme. The ungodly hour of broadcast was justified by the majority of the programme’s promotion pointing to listening to the show online, hence the name. It was Radio 1’s first attempt at standalone speech programming since around 1997, and despite being an interesting concept came to an end in summer 2006, replaced by Lamacq Live documentary repeats and podcast replays.

The revamp coincided with the promotion of Zane Lowe to four nights a week, after a successful first year on air. The intention of Lowe’s placing in the 7pm slot would be to provide a bridge between the daytime playlisting and the more eclectic offerings later at night by attempting to introduce new listeners to what would be heard, and in this vein a new overall brand for the specialist output was created – “In New Music We Trust” – which continues to this day, as does Lowe. His show has been an incredible success and is a regular award winner, including Music Broadcaster of the Year at the 2006 Sony Awards.

The attempts to bring the two sides of Radio 1 closer together were interesting given that since the early 1990s the formula the station had worked to was “ratings by day, credibility by night”. The implication was the DJs in the day would keep the punters listening and give the station the ratings it needed to maintain its position, whilst specialist presenters after dark would give the public service angle it needed to again justify the licence fee funding.

The bringing together of the two strands was perfectly encapsulated by what is now an incredibly overused phrase but was relatively new back then – the “iPod generation”. Rather than a lazy tabloid catch-all for any young person who owns something more advanced than an Amiga 1200 as it is now, this referred specifically to how young people were now assembling their entire music collections on their MP3 players and setting them to random or shuffle, meaning that hearing different genres and artists next to each other was no longer unthinkable. This coincided with the re-emergence of guitar-driven pop in early 2004, symbolised by bands such as Franz Ferdinand, Snow Patrol and Razorlight who could be championed by the specialist DJs at night and make their way onto the daytime playlist, just as the Britpop bands had done a decade previously. The combination of these two factors handed Radio 1 the lifeline and mission statement it so badly needed.

The new approach was working. Every set of RAJARs brought good news for the station, and almost as importantly the PR was good, with the media talking about Radio 1 in terms other than derision once again. Chris Moyles on breakfast was also an unqualified success – the gamble had paid off. The new specialist line-up was finely tuned to what the audience wanted, and the genre-specific schedule meant you could tune in whenever you wanted and know what sort of thing you were going to hear. In fact the only anomaly in this was the programme airing between 11pm and 1am, sitting in the middle of the genre strands and with a host playing whatever he wanted.

John Peel died on 25th October 2004. There isn’t anything left unwritten about the man’s career and legacy, so I won’t attempt to do so. As soon as the death was announced the station went into mourning, with a playlist usually reserved for a royal death. Critics questioned whether “Little By Little” by Oasis would really have been requested by Peel to be played in the aftermath of his passing, although in truth there was little else the daytime DJs could do in tribute such was the shock at his passing. Steve Lamacq presented that night’s tribute programme, whilst Rob da Bank – standing in for Peel at the time of his death on holiday in Peru – became the host of the 11pm show until a replacement could be decided upon.

In the event, somewhat predictably, it was announced that a single presenter could not replace Peel. From February 2005, the slot would be filled by “One Music”, a rotating line-up of three DJs – the aforementioned Rob da Bank (from the weekend Blue Room chill-out programme), Ras Kwame (from 1Xtra) and Huw Stephens (from the Welsh opt-out of Zane Lowe), conveniently fitting into the genres that had originally been designated for the weeknights. This somewhat awkward arrangement lasted only around eighteen months, with the slot eventually filled by Colin Murray, returning to his specialist roots. So one person has indeed effectively replaced Peel – and that one person seems to be doing rather well, winning the gold Music Broadcaster of the Year Sony Award in 2007.

This change was part of another re-jig of the station’s schedules. Lamacq Live was axed after eight years, although Lamacq survived on Radio 1 as one of the hosts of In New Music We Trust, a new one-hour 9pm magazine show. This must make him the only person ever to have regular shows on Radio 1, 6 Music and Radio 2 – a considerable achievement. Another achievement in recent years is the way the station has managed to embrace some of the more frivolous aspects of decades gone by whilst maintaining its commitment to new music.

The BBC Annual Report, published in summer 2003, hinted at a new strategy for Radio 1, based upon research that showed the station was seen as pursuing a “relentlessly single” image whereas much of the audience were in fact parents unable to take part in the hedonism it appeared to promote. The new approach featured more classic tracks (in slots such as The Wonder Years and The Lie-In on Sunday mornings) and more traditional audience interaction features such as sending pop stars to young listeners’ schools, trying to find a boyfriend for one of Scott Mills’ team and each daytime DJ visiting their home town.

The “6 Weeks of Summer” feature is certainly a distant descendant of the Radio 1 Roadshow, a strand spanning the whole summer holiday period centred around club trips abroad and music festivals closer to home. The station’s trip to Magaluf was possibly the naffest thing heard on BBC Radio this year, but seemed to connect with the target audience. It featured Scott Mills and Jo Whiley throwing condoms into the crowd – well, it’s only one step away from a branded t-shirt. All this is a welcome change from the earnest beard-strokingly cool features of the early 2000s. The nadir of this was scheduling a programme of live music highlights as the centre piece of Christmas Day 2001, and also appeals for “credible Valentine’s Day dedications” such as Missy Elliott’s Get Ur Freak On, a track that is many things but not particularly romantic.

All of which brings us right up to the present day. Yet another line-up reshuffle has been announced, with Chris Moyles getting an extra half hour, coming on air at 6.30am. Whilst the listening figures have never been better (currently residing at 7.26m), it remains to be seen whether this is a good move. Moyles’ show has become rather complacent and dull to listen to in the last couple of years, with the same dull features and chat repeated daily. Time-keeping, an important part of any breakfast show, and previously a strength of Moyles, has gone completely by the wayside, and any of Moyles’ celebrity mates such as Vernon Kay and Andi Peters can expect to be put straight on air should they happen to ring in for a tedious conversation. Despite this he has a very good connection with the teenage audience, and management appear happy to let him play only five or six records in an whole hour (half the usual daytime Radio 1 figure). However as long as his RAJAR figures keep rising little is likely to change on his programme.

In other changes a couple of previous hosts of the experimental (and rather hit-and-miss) Friday Early Breakfast “guest DJ” slot have earned regular slots on the station. Dick and Dom will present on Sunday mornings, and student radio graduate Greg James will present Early Breakfast. This represents a huge gamble for the station – at 21 and having only presented a few stand-in slots on Radio 1, BBC Radio Norfolk and Galaxy he is largely untested. However on his appearances he has proved likeable and refreshingly honest, so it’s hopeful he will be a regular face at Radio 1 for many years to come.

Somewhat ironically, his arrival on earlies coincides with the departure of the station’s previous “next big things” JK and Joel after three years at Radio 1, who in turn replaced Wes as presenters of the chart show in 2005. The consecutive departure of well-liked, talented DJs is a worrying factor, especially when Radio 1 continues to push the likes of Vernon Kay, Edith Bowman and – amazingly – Kelly Osbourne into big slots. For all his chameleon-like qualities in his decade controlling Radio 1, one thing Andy Parfitt has never grown tired of is hiring television presenters and celebrities over radio talent (indeed the current weekend daytime line-up consists entirely of presenters who began in television). In this writer’s view, it has rarely resulted in good radio, only generating headlines in the press.

It does however bring more DJs to the station’s tally – since 2001 the number of weekday mainstream shows had decreased from 8 to 5, and the weekend has seen the same DJs on both days, leaving Radio 1 relying on occasional presenters (anyone remember Miquita Oliver? Thought not) and sidekicks (such as Chappers and Dave) to provide holiday cover. This resulted in an unprecedented amount of Radio 1’s output over Christmas 2006 being pre-recorded, with predictable technical cockups aplenty (including the same track skipping backwards and forwards for half an hour on one occasion). The new influx should mean that this problem is easily solved.

So as Radio 1 reaches the age at which life apparently begins, is the future rosy? The listening figures appear to suggest management at the station have played a careful balancing act and come out on top. Radio 1’s weekly reach is up to 10.87m, a rise of nearly half a million listeners on the previous quarter. This is a considerable achievement in the current broadcasting climate, and show that there is still a place for the station in the nation’s affections.

The 40th anniversary – sorry, Established 1967 – has been marked with an album of current artists covering hits from years gone by, a series of one-hour “Radio 1 Legends” programmes, old jingles making appearances, the return of the Golden Hour and on the day of the anniversary itself by the return of Tony Blackburn and other previous breakfast show presenters, the revival of Annie Nightingale’s Request Show and Mark Goodier and Bruno Brookes back on the top 40. That amount of reference to and indeed celebration of the past would have been inconceivable just five years ago.

Andy Parfitt will have been in charge of Radio 1 for ten years in February 2008, and it’s hard to see him staying much longer than that. Apart from the danger of being around too long at a “youth” station, it probably won’t get any better for him in terms of the station’s appeal, credibility and overall balance of schedule as it is in Autumn 2007. I ended my previous article on Radio 1 by saying that we’d all still be debating how to format the station for years to come. That is still the case – but it’s reassuring that, at the moment of the big 40, it seems to have got the formula pretty much right.

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