Friday, 14 September 2012

The Saviour of Radio 1? Yeah, probably

Farewell then Moylesy.  It can't have escaped your attention that Chris Moyles finally left the Radio 1 Breakfast Show today (after a typically modest three week celebration of his eight year reign in the role).  It's also fair to say that the man polarised opinions somewhat.  As a long-term listener who's had a love/hate relationship with his show I thought I'd have a go at looking where it's gone right and wrong over the years, as it seems to me much of the derision the programme has received comes from people who have never really listened to it properly, taking much of their hatred from the press.

I started listening to Chris at the start of 1999.  I think I'd got hold of a pocket FM radio from somewhere and decided that I'd pass the time on the school bus by listening to what Radio 1 had to offer.  Our school kicked out at 3.45pm so I'd normally hear Mark and Lard's final link before Moyles's show started at 4. At the time Radcliffe had a feature called "The Cheesily Cheerful Chart Challenge" at the end of his show where listeners would suggest songs to accompany a news story of the day, so when I switched on it would normally be some sort of classic track.  For a while I genuinely assumed Mark and Lard's entire show was oldie songs, and given that the Mystery Years began at 9 as I arrived at school I also thought Simon Mayo had a similar playlist.  But over the following months I'd come to love listening to Chris - who was then just 25 - as I headed home. I loved the cheeky, rebellious nature of his show.  It's easy to forget that Radio 1 was quite humorourlessly wedded to beard-strokingly earnest new music at this point, being just a few years after the mid-90s clearout, and Moyles was a good respite from that, coming across as someone you could have a chat about TV in the pub with rather than having to enthuse about the latest release from an obscure indie act with.

He'd started at Radio 1 in July 1997.  It's fair to say that the young Moyles was far more arrogant than he is today.  The title "saviour of Radio 1" he applied to himself speaks volumes but many forget it came in that period shortly after Chris Evans quit, and his replacements Mark and Lard were struggling on the breakfast show, and the station was looking once again for a new star.  For someone placed on early breakfast it was basically part of a campaign to get noticed.  It worked, and by late 1997 he was already filling in for Kevin Greening and Zoe Ball on the breakfast show.  October 1998 brought the move to afternoons and a greatest profile, but from early 2000 onwards it's arguable he was starting to become a little lazier, with fewer regular features and edited song/ad parodies on his show in favour of simply chatting to his team.  The timing of this would seem to coincide with him not being awarded the breakfast show when Zoe Ball quit, and indeed a general falling out of favour at Radio 1.

The "new music first" approach was in the ascendency in the early noughties at Radio 1, culminating excruciatingly in a compilation of live music highlights being scheduled on Christmas Day (mmm, festive) and appeals for "credible" Valentine's Day track dedications across the network - presumably for that special person in your life that only tolerates achingly hip slushy gestures.  As a self-styled "bloke" Moyles, lacking the musical credibility that the likes of Mark Radcliffe could offer instead, looked very out of step with the station.  2001's "Radio 1 TV" series on BBC Choice ignored him entirely, despite featuring virtually every other DJ at the station.  He would later admit at a Radio Academy talk I attended that there were people openly "out to get him" in management, and that he had to resist attempts to split him up with his long-term on-air partner "Comedy" Dave Vitty.  But throughout all this he continued to have a huge appeal with listeners, particularly younger ones, and it is presumably this that kept him on board.

By 2003 Radio 1's listening figures were in free-fall, and with the daytime lineup largely unchanged for five years, the specialist output even longer and the weekend schedule stagnating, huge changes were required. A BBC Trust report gave the green light for a new approach which recognised that huge parts of the audience had children and responsibilities and were unable to identify with the sometimes hedonistic and "relentlessly single" approach to life the station seemed to recommend.  To this end older songs were gradually introduced to parts of the schedule - Moyles's Tedious Link being joined by the drivetime "Wonder Years" and Sunday morning's "Lie-In", all of which were a breath of fresh air at the time after years of finger-wagging at anything over a few years old.  This change helped Moyles immensely.  Sara Cox had fallen out of favour at breakfast, and through heavy promotion and unexpected deputising in the slot her successors were quite clearly being signposted as Colin and Edith - the duo recreating the "dream ticket" of serious music DJ and tabloid-friendly female that Kevin and Zoe had done six years earlier.  However with the change in the focus and tone of the station there was clearly a quite serious rethink internally, as Murray and Bowman were unlikely to be able to reverse any of the image problems that Radio 1 had acquired.

It's so easy to forget how unexpected Moyles's appointment to the breakfast show was when it was announced in October 2003.  It flew in the complete opposite direction of everything the station had done at breakfast for the previous few years - indeed, the man had virtually no tabloid profile at that point.  What he did have was what had sustained him in the slight wilderness of the previous few years - immense popularity with younger listeners and a down-to-earth quality that people could identify with.  His appointment signalled a real change of approach for the station, but there was no guarantee at the time that it would succeed - after all, Mark and Lard were popular too, but just didn't work at that time of the day.  It was also a strange move at the time given his afternoon show was far past it's best, and the prospect of a straight transfer to breakfast didn't seem that appetising.

What happened in the event is that the show was completely re-thought for the new slot.  Previously the afternoon show had been largely confined to Chris, Dave and occasional interjections from his producer and broadcast assistant.  A much larger cast of voices was brought in for the breakfast show, with the two staff roles amplified and news and sport readers brought into the studio, along with other appearances from "day" members of the team.  The song parodies that had more or less died away were brought back in greater numbers to a positive reception and the show aimed to visit a different UK city every month on an outside broadcast, in addition to more entertaining features such as trying to get Comedy Dave's awful game show idea commissioned (it was - for 10 minutes - by Challenge TV) and the entertaining quiz Car Park Catchphrase.  All of this made Sara Cox's show seem positively antique, and in that first year on air The Chris Moyles Show was a breath of fresh air, hugely entertaining and - most importantly - massively popular.

Sadly the positive vibe didn't last, and within a couple of years the show was attracting publicity for all the wrong reasons.  2006 was a particularly bad year for the programme, with mini-scandals surrounding swearing, alleged homophobia and racism and Moyles's own salary making the show less of a cheery listen in the morning.  Whilst each incident was blown out of proportion and in some cases completely mis-represented, as a whole they contributed to an image of the show to those who didn't listen that wasn't very appealing.  Also, rather than seeking to chastise Moyles, Radio 1 took a peculiar approach of defending him at every turn.  The greatest example of this was the infamous "that ringtone is so gay" incident, when Moyles used the word "gay" to mean rubbish (interestingly shortly after the unreported incident of Russell T Davies scripting Rose Tyler to say much the same thing in an episode of Doctor Who).  Radio 1 said in a statement that the meaning of the word had changed, and Moyles was simply reflecting that.  This wasn't entirely untrue.  However - unless things have changed radically since I was at school - the change arose from the assertion that being gay is also rubbish.  In truth, it was a lazy use of language by a presenter trying to get a laugh and something that should have been apologised for and moved on from.  By defending him and not eliciting an apology it simply made things look worse.  This single incident was used by the press to confirm Moyles's apparently homophobia at every turn for the rest of his time on the show, all the more frustrating given that anyone who has listened to the programme will know that Moyles is simply not homophobic, having worked closely with a gay producer for a decade and more recently having launched into a passionate argument on air against the Catholic Church's approach to gay marriage.  His weakness has always been to be somewhat clumsy with issues such as this when trying to be humourous.

It was during this period that the jingles got longer and more self-indulgent.  The unexpected five-minute epic that opened the first show in 2004 was hilarious; opening every single show with one of a similar length from 2007 onwards was somewhat less so.  Similarly the amount of music played on the show started to decrease, and the links getting longer and longer.  Initially, the programme would get through about twenty songs during it's three hour running time.  A few years in and it was struggling to get the post-news double bill of songs out in amongst all the chat - meaning any more than two tracks in half an hour was fairly unusual.  A great example of this is the start of the show.  For the first three years, the programme would open at 6.55am (I know, odd) with a quick link and a track, followed by the 7am Newsbeat.  By 2007, when Moyles's start time was amended to 6.30am (with the preceding Newsbeat starting at 6.27 to allow the show to start bang on), the entire first half hour of the show would be one elongated link without any music at all.  A tedious link, if you will.  For a music station this was unprecedented, and Moyles even came up with the phrase the phrase "speech radio with music" to describe this new genre he claimed to have invented.

It would be a lie to say the copious amounts of chat were never entertaining, in fact in later years many of the online fans of the show claimed to prefer as little music as possible, with attempts to introduce a song before 7am leading to a lengthy and often heated debate on the website between fans and the show's producer.  The move to introduce music to the half hour apparently came direct from controller Ben Cooper and executive producer Rhys Hughes - both former producers of Moyles's show, which speaks volumes.  However, it was also true to say that it could frequently be a bit too much, and the show became far too wedded to the idea of it's own greatness towards the end.  The lack of music also sat very, very awkwardly on a music station and was difficult to defend.  People used to laugh at memories of DLT talking for 15 minutes without playing a song, without realising we would come full circle.  Some argued that playing music was no way to attract an audience that could get it from more sources than ever before.  In truth, over time, the lack of music was driving the age of the audience of the show up.  Think about it: if you're middle-aged, and not a fan of the playlist, the amount of music Moyles played was unlikely to act as a turn-off.

The nadir of the show was when Chris used the 6.30 half hour to rant at length about apparently not being paid for a couple of months.  It was the absolute worse example of a talented, funny broadcaster succumbing to ego and using his show as a mouthpiece.  There were huge echoes of Chris Evans ranting against Matthew Bannister and Trevor Dann shortly before his departure.  It seemed as if Chris Moyles had followed the same route of self-destruction as his ginger namesake and would soon be reaching the end of the road.  Radio 1's tolerance of this episode was later explained somewhat when it transpired his long-term relationship had recently come to an end, also resulting in an unplanned week off the show, perhaps not leaving him in the best frame of mind.

Curiously, this incident seemed to be a bit of a turning point, with the final couple of years of Moyles on the breakfast show the most entertaining since he started back in 2004 as he relaxed somewhat, toned down the needless offence and became a warmer presence on the radio.  The 52-hour marathon broadcast for Comic Relief was a case in point.  Not only did Moyles and Comedy Dave broadcast for over two days continuously - in Moyles's case standing up - but he managed to remain hugely entertaining throughout.  It was a captivating and era-defining broadcast, with an incredible £2.4m donated by listeners over the course of the two days.  Moyles's ability to not only manage the feat but to competently present with numerous other DJs throughout, including specialist presenters with which you'd expect him to find little common ground, brought much-deserved respect from peers and listeners alike.

The question of succession dogged the breakfast show for a number of years, as it was noticed that Moyles's audience was dragging Radio 1's average listener age up.  It's debatable as to how important this is - after all, if young people are still listening then does it matter if older ones are reluctant to leave? However, there were signs that this has started to become an issue, with long-running "classic track" feature Tedious Link axed and Moyles apparently told to reign in his references to eighties and nineties TV (Andi Peters discussing BBC1 Northern Ireland's 5.30 opt-out from Children's BBC may have entertained us geeks but was unlikely to pull in fans of The Wanted and JLS to the station).  Even the revived weekly Golden Hour was seemingly forbidden from going back any earlier than 2002.  It is also fair to say that former controller Andy Parfitt avoided the issue of succession, leaving successor Ben Cooper to seemingly rush these changes in.  Confirming the problem, audience tickets to the penultimate show at the BBC Radio Theatre were given out randomly to listeners, with the Red Button cameras capturing an embarrassing number attendees over the age of forty.

And so, today, it came to an end.  Nick Grimshaw has a very tough act to follow, and will certainly get a rough ride from the hardcore Moyles fans, but he shows signs of being a very good choice.  He's a radio natural, and clearly a funny guy.  He has always communicated very well with a young audience - specifically as the face of the teen BBC Switch initiative - and gets on well with teen idols, often being photographed with One Direction, Pixie Geldof and their ilk.  This is one area that needs to be reigned in a little in my opinion., as despite being comprehensively part of the media establishment by the end, Chris Moyles always managed to at least remain in appearance an outsider from the celeb world - the old "funny mate in the pub" stereotype.  If Grimshaw has an Achilles' heel it's that he could appear too unobtainable for the audience.

And as for Chris Moyles?  It is yet to be confirmed where he'll end up next on Radio 1, other than that he is contracted to the station until 2014.  It has been rumoured he was do a straight swap with Grimshaw and take up the 2200 slot on the station, much to the howls of derision from John Peel's former fans.  In truth, this slot has been taken progressively more mainstream over the past few years, from the Colin Murray years onwards.  Despite this, Moyles's presence in the middle of the specialist zone would be a little unusual, but it is perhaps the one slot on the station that wouldn't be a massive demotion.  A late night slot would perhaps allow him to move further towards the American Howard Stern-style show he has clearly always craved and based on his Comic Relief marathon would probably be a good listen, if not exactly what is traditional at that time of night.

A huge amount of Moyles's full shows are available to listen to on and it's fascinating to see how his style has changed over the years, especially listening back to those darker periods in the early noughties and mid-breakfast show period.  But the most fascinating clip I've found is from the day Moyles was announced as breakfast show host in October 2003.  On Newsbeat, Ben Cooper - then part of Radio 1 management - did a short piece describing Chris as one of the most exciting young broadcasters in the UK and perfect for the breakfast show.  Nearly nine years later, now controller of the station, he again appeared on Newsbeat announcing Nick Grimshaw as Chris's replacement, using the same script almost word-for-word.  You can hardly accuse him of being inconsistent.

And for me? The slightly scary thing is that, turning 29 next year, I'm dangerously close to the age group Radio 1 is trying to get rid of.  Is it time to move on? 6 Music, 5 Live, maybe even...shudder...Radio 2? (no, don't be stupid...) But I've come to the conclusion that Radio 1 can't get rid of me that easily.  Every departure of a long-term, much-loved presenter, whether it be Mark Radcliffe, Simon Mayo or Kevin Greening leads to an avalanche of harrumphing from people in their late-20s and early-30s about how the station is no longer for them.  But I take great inspiration from my future Mother and Father-in-law insistence on still listening to Radio 1 well into their fifties, only recently switching to Radio 2. Whilst yes, Fearne Cotton, Matt Edmondson and Dev do very little for me, I still enjoy many of the relative newcomers such as Greg James and Gemma Cairney.  I don't want to be one of the harrumphers.  It's important for Radio 1 to be able to have a clear-out and get rid of the dead wood every so often.  Bowman, I'm looking at you.  And I'm sure the day will come when we move away from 97-99FM for the final time (not literally - we've been DAB for years). But for now, the last thing I wanted to do is become a young fogie who listens to Magic to get away from all the noisy rapping, or Radio 2 because the presenters don't have music beds underneath them when they talk.  So, Radio 1, you have a challenge.  In two years I shall be outside of your target audience.  By 2014 you need to have convinced me I am the old fart I will be by then.  Best of luck!