RADIO / Next up - the Matthew Bannister show: Everybody's got something against Radio 1 - except the 19 million people who tune in. Giles Smith considers the state of the nation's most popular pop station and its new controller's plans

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IT'S a popular practice now, questioning the health of Radio 1. Most doctors diagnose an identity crisis and an outbreak of bother from John Birt, linked to terminal spoofing by Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse's DJ skit, Smashey and Nicey. 25 million people tuned in in the Seventies - only 19 million can be bothered now. (And watch for the new figures on Monday, which will measure the impact of Virgin for the first time. The word is that they will announce an audience of three million.) Last week a replacement was found for Johnny Beerling, 56, the controller of Radio 1 for the last eight years, who handed in his resignation in June. Inevitably, press coverage of the appointment portrayed Radio 1 as pale-faced, feverish, refusing solids.

But over at 'the nation's most popular music station', they prefer to spin the statistics around until they're positively stat-tastic. Nineteen million] That's more than double the combined circulation of all this country's tabloid newspapers, and a couple of million up on the norm for a top-rating television show. 300 new radio stations have come on air since the 1970s, when Radio 1 had a kind of monopoly - and they've only snipped away a measly 6 million listeners. Any other radio station would kill to be in health as poor as this.

Nevertheless, John Birt, the BBC's director general, has pronounced the station 'rooted too far in the past'. Now, like the rest of the BBC, it must join Birt in the quest for the 'distinctive', the 'innovative', the 'different'. So in comes the new controller, Matthew Bannister, represented by some to be charged with the treatment of a dying dog, but possibly wondering to himself how he dare tamper with a successful formula.

Given the oddity of continuous music programming, there's a limit to the alterations he can make. Radio 1 doesn't offer programmes, so much as a seamless succession of personalities, most of them men, most of them called Simon, all given a bunch of records and a block of time to fill. Significant re-organisation under this arrangement is pretty well out of the question. What would you do? Put one of the Simons ahead of one of the other Simons? Move a Simon over to Saturday morning? Maybe (most radical of all) sack a Simon and bring in a Steve?

What do we know about the man faced with knitting an exciting new garment from these few strands of rather un-pliable wool? Matthew Bannister is 36. He's a former Radio Nottingham man. He helped Birt write Extending Choice, the blueprint for the BBC's future. According to Simon Mayo, presenter of Radio 1's breakfast show, 'He calls John Birt 'John' '. And while at GLR, he had the guts to sack Tony Blackburn - though only two days before Blackburn was due to leave anyway, according to the disk jockey.

Again at GLR, he was chiefly responsible for starting off Chris Evans - now a well-liked presenter on Channel 4's Big Breakfast - and Danny Baker whom one radio pundit referred to as 'the broadcaster of his generation' and whose breakfast shows for Radio 5 are by a streak, the funniest examples of the format currently on offer. Some tip Baker for a big morning slot on Radio 1, in which event we would all do well to fall admiringly at Bannister's feet, arrange to clean his company car on a rota system and generally pamper him as a boon to the nation.

Radio 1's biggest problems these days are demographic. The station was set up in 1967 to match the appeal of the pirate stations. It was music and games for teenagers with trannies. But the teenagers grew up and currently there's a significant wedge of people in their 30s and 40s who still want to hear pop on the radio, but don't necessarily want to play 'Bits N Pieces' or win a Gary Davies car sponge. Honouring them while keeping the kiddies happy, Radio 1 is forced to chase from side to side, and you can hardly blame it for occasionally looking slightly giddy.

There's talk about more talk. Extending Choice recommends that Radio 1 should have 'a higher speech content than commercial radio'. But Radio 1 already fulfills this demand. Increasing the speech content is not, then, automatically on Bannister's agenda. In fact, Liz Forgan promised at the press conference which accompanied Beerling's departure, 'There will be no reduction in music on Radio 1 - the proportion of speech to music won't change.'

What is set to come under scrutiny is the quality rather than the quantity: 'more informed and intelligent' are the Extending Choice buzz-words. John Birt has said the station's speech content could be 'more demanding'. He's got a point. Listening to a daytime Radio 1 DJ interfacing with the listeners is, by and large, like eavesdropping on a heart-sinkingly unimaginative nightclub chat-up.

'Where you from, Janet?'

'Portsmouth.'

'Really? I've been there.'

'Have you?'

'By the sea.'

'That's right.'

'You married, Janet, or single?'

Thus the personnel thought to be most at risk are those guilty of old- style DJ inanity, those now out of touch with the music, who think PJ Harvey is the fly-fishing guy from the Yellow Pages ads. Step up Dave Lee Travis ('the great communicator'), Gary Davies (catch-phrase: 'oooh Gary Davies') and Simon 'friend of the stars' Bates, whose mid-morning show is a zone of near-legendary crassness. 'That was the year we lost Sir Ralph Richardson and gained this from Kajagoogoo.'

Bannister may well dust out the backrooms too. Tony Blackburn, who was in at the launch of the station and now works for London's oldies station, Capital Gold, says, 'Radio 1 is a gigantic machine that doesn't realise we've all modernised. Take the BBC Producer, which is a job invented by the BBC. With all respect, we don't have those any more. When I first had my programme, Johnny Beerling was my producer and it was pretty pointless him being there. In fact, I asked to have him taken out of the studio because it was like having someone looking over your shoulder the whole time, not contributing anything. The BBC has hundreds of producers, all doing absolutely nothing.'

But it's in the music the station plays that Bannister could make a difference. 'There is a core argument,' says Simon Mayo, 'that has to be won. We have to be able to argue that a presenter, a friendly voice behind the microphone like Johnny Walker, playing two hours of music, with minimum intrusion, satisfies the criteria of difference and distinctiveness, because of the variety of the music being played. Now, some of the BBC governors perhaps do not recognise that there are different types of pop music. To some of them it all sounds thump thump thump. But that is the message Bannister has to get across.'

So we're playing this one for Matthew Bannister. Save the nation's favourite music station - make it a patron for pop. And hello to anyone else who knows him.

(Photograph omitted)

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