Media: They're playing our tune again

Chris Evans boasted that Radio 1 wouldn't survive without him. He clearly hadn't reckoned on Andy Parfitt.
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The Independent Culture
Radio 1's central London office is a bit of a dump. The reception is dingy, cramped and packed with pluggers (the record industry's equivalent of door-to-door salesmen); the walls are covered in an unwelcoming shade of grey.

Not very rock'n'roll - and a good thing too. First, because it means the corporation is clearly not wasting licence payers' money on trips to Habitat. Second, and more important, Radio 1 itself is no longer very rock'n'roll. These days, it is more about indie or dance or rap or pop, particularly pop. If there is a charge being levelled against the network and Andy Parfitt, its controller of 11 months, it is that Radio 1 has become a just little too pop.

Since taking over from Matthew Bannister, Parfitt has changed more than three-quarters of the schedule: John Peel has been restored to the 10pm slot, Zoe Ball has taken sole charge of the breakfast show and put on half a million listeners, while the network's rising star Chris Moyles has transferred from dawn to drive-time. Parfitt's prints are all over the place, not least in his office where the seemingly ubiquitous battleship grey has been replaced by sunflower yellow. In the last three months of 1998 (the first full quarter of his new line-up), Radio 1 added 200,000 listeners and registered its highest share of listening for two years.

But there is a feeling among some that ratings success has come at the expense of the cutting-edge sound that transformed tired old, sad old Fab FM into the vibrant, youthful driving force of Britpop. Specialist programmes across the evenings and weekends still play the latest in dance, indie and rap but, in the daytime, when the big numbers tune in and radio outperforms television, you are just as likely to hear the more populist strains of Steps, 911 or Billie as Pulp, Blur or Mercury Rev. An articulated lorry could scarcely make a more dramatic U-turn.

"Most people in the music industry would acknowledge that it's one of those cyclical things," counters Parfitt. "Steve Lamacq [Radio 1's indie guru] said the tide has gone out on Britpop and what replaced it for a while was pop music. Not just cheesy boy or girl bands, but also Natalie Imbruglia and Robbie Williams, both examples of really great songwriting quality.

"We're not judgemental about what makes valuable new music and nor are our listeners. They say they are as happy to sing along to "Angels" as to listen to Pete Tong stretching new European dance music. There's a less tribal view, more acceptance of different strands of music."

Until as recently as 1993, the idea of Radio 1 paying much attention to either new music or a 15-to-24-year-old target audience was frankly about as bizarre as most of the stuff you hear on John Peel's show. In fact, Peel recalls the old days at Radio 1 as a time when "you did have to keep your interest in music very much to yourself".

This all changed in late 1993 with the arrival of Bannister, who, with Parfitt as his trusted assistant, administered the broadcasting equivalent of an enema. Dave Lee Travis, Simon Bates, Gary Davies and Bruno Brookes jumped or were jettisoned, signalling a step-change in output that in turn precipitated the defection of about half its audience.

Bannister later admitted that these changes were set in motion without necessarily having the clearest idea of where the network would go. It was Parfitt who crystallised the strategic thinking. He presented a template for the station called "Wire Free", a youth-centred, new music- driven service that would wrap its programming around a young person's every recreational and social need. Music would be the entry point, but it also had to be about cinema, clubbing, gigs, advice on drugs and coping with exams, and finding ways to package news.

The ideas hold today. Addressing the 15-to-24-year-old age group served Radio 1's needs perfectly - it gives the station a point of difference to compete with the exponential growth in commercial radio and fulfil its public service obligations. "Radio 1 has to be central to young lives in the UK," Parfitt says. "That's who I care about most. I'm not trying to sell them anything, to shove a sponsor's name down their throats or deliver them to advertisers.

Parfitt is as evangelical about his audience's needs as he is about the power of radio, a medium to which he has devoted his entire working life. He started out as a BBC trainee studio manager, ran a station in the Falklands for the British Forces Broadcasting Service, then became breakfast editor on the then Radio 5. "I'm a radio devotee," he says. "There isn't a room in my house that hasn't got one or even two radios. Radio gets under the radar and into people's lives in a beautifully subtle way. For our audience, it's the soundtrack to their lives."

The arrival of Britpop in 1995 was like manna from heaven. It leant Radio 1 the credibility its revamp desperately needed, but in reality the relationship was symbiotic. It was Steve Lamacq's and Jo Whiley's aggressive championing of Oasis (the Evening Session was the first to play the 12-inch of "Columbia" months before the band had a hit), and Blur validated Britpop as a new movement and encouraged labels desperate to get on the playlist to sign up guitar bands.

There was more to Radio 1 than Britpop, of course. Danny Rampling joined Pete Tong to boost the network's presence in dance music, while Tim Westwood did the same with rap. Then there was Chris Evans. He often describes himself as the saviour of Radio 1, when in fact the massive audience decline was arrested before his arrival. True, he added 1.2 million listeners to the breakfast show, but his chief significance was as a mascot for the network's transformation. "Chris shone a spotlight on a radio station that had radically changed," says Parfitt. "When the light was shone, it was found to be new, young and credible."

But then Evans resigned amid acrimony and the whole enterprise threatened to unravel. The presenter's other legacy was to turn the breakfast show into a tabloid side-show and ensure a disproportionate amount of media attention was focused on its two-hour segment.

When his successors Mark Radcliffe and Mark "Lard" Riley failed to hold Evans's audiences, the setback was telescoped into a crisis for the whole network. Harsh, because Mark and Lard are hugely original DJs who were unfortunate to be placed in a slot wholly inappropriate for their style, but also because the rest of the network was unchanged.

With breakfast show losses running close to 2 million listeners in seven months, Radio 1 then gambled on the unusual pairing of Kevin Greening and radio virgin Zoe Ball. After an initial increase, audiences remained flat, so Parfitt placed Ball in sole charge last September. The half- million listeners she has added means that her show outguns Evans on Virgin Radio by two to one, which delights Parfitt. When Evans left, he promised his rival offering would "kill" Radio 1. "He declared war on us," says Parfitt. "He said he would smash us and he hasn't.

"The radio station today is so different from his days here. When you've got one individual who's the focus of all the attention, teamwork can be difficult to achieve. There are no separate programme agendas any more; we're united in what we're trying to do."

One lesson Parfitt has learnt is the need for stability - he has just signed up Ball for a further three years. He also foresees no more immediate changes to the schedule. "When the rest of our listeners' lives are changing and becoming more difficult, they want to switch on and hear familiar voices. Successful schedules take years to establish. The longer they are on, the more embedded they become in people's lives."