In the hot seat: Radio 1's newest DJ is a product of the BBC's equal opportunities programme. But do new voices guarantee new music? James Style reports

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The Independent Culture
Out with the old and in with the new. These are exciting times at Radio 1, especially for new boy Mark Tonderai. Brought in to fill a gaping hole in the Big One's schedule, Tonderai plays black music . . . classic soul, US swing, reggae and ragga, even hip-hop. The live-wire 23-year-old former architecture student, taken on for one month as a trainee in July last year, now has two regular late-night shows a week.

Tonderai is not your typical smooth jock. Born in Hammersmith, raised in Africa, to a Zimbabwean mother and English father, he is the product of the BBC's equal opportunities programme. Slightly eccentric, he is a ball of energy. Minutes before his show, nerves become apparent as he feverishly discusses records with his producer, writes scripts and takes his shirt off. 'It's so hot in here I always have to strip off.'

His musical taste is catholic: 'I don't want to be pigeon-holed, I'm a broadcaster, not a narrow- caster.' He is well aware that the pirate-radio slammin', pumpin' style of DJ-ing will not work on national radio. His job is to showcase the very best in black music, drawing in and educating an overwhelmingly white audience. So far it seems to be working. The audience-approval figures give him a massive 77 per cent compared to Danny Baker's paltry 38.

Before joining the Beeb, he worked for North Carolina- based R&B station Kiss 102 FM. 'At Radio 1, I've tried to draw on my American experience. At Kiss we played a huge selection of different music, all jumbled together. I do this on my show, mix together soul classics, a bit of rap, reggae and anything else that takes my fancy.'

He spends most of his week preparing for the show. 'Everyone at the station has been very helpful. You can't ask for better teachers than Simon Bates and Alan Freeman, but I take a lot of inspiration from Steve Wright.' Wright was the first person to bring the 'zoo' formula to British radio - an anchor man holding together a riot of contributors. In the small hours Mark provides his own zoo. 'I have a couple of very funny regular contributors, Peter and Damian D. I write scripts and we pre-record little comedy sketches to make the show more entertaining.'

A compulsive record collector from an early age, his natural enthusiasm flows across the airwaves. His biggest worry comes from the records themselves. Rap and reggae form a large part of what he plays and he has to be ever mindful of the lyrical content. 'It's sad when you get a tune with wicked beats, but the lyrics are so obnoxious you can't play it.'

It is a difficult balancing act: maintaining your credibility, yet remaining accessible. He also has to get on in the procedural strait-jacket of the BBC, where things always have to be done 'the right way'. Halfway through his show, Tonderai brings in two of London's best known club DJs, the Rampage boys, to play live. Everything is ready to go when an engineer steps in and tells him that he should have booked this earlier, notified the producers, filled in eight forms in triplicate and it's all far more than his job's worth. The mixing and scratching is abandoned.

Matthew Bannister, the new Controller, is trying to bring the station kicking and screaming into the Nineties and Tonderai's appointment is an encouraging sign. But there's little point changing the faces and not the playlist policy. Cliff Richard and Elton John still hold sway. If One FM is serious about attracting a younger audience, then DJs like Tonderai and house jock Pete Tong need an input. The playlist needs to get funky.

The Mark Tonderai Show, 1am- 4am Fri, Sat, Radio One

(Photograph omitted)

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