Shooting from the lip

With the coming of Chris Evans, it's pistols at dawn for London's smutty breakfast DJs. Michael Leapman chokes on his cornflakes
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The Independent Culture
after the opening skirmishes of the breakfast radio wars this week, all sides were claiming victory. Well they would, but we shall have to wait some months for reliable figures to tell us whether the bubbling energy of the ginger-haired Chris on Radio 1 FM has seduced morning music fans from the more laid-back Chris on Capital FM and the surrealistic Russ and Jono on Virgin.

Programme planners have ordained that what used to be called drive-time on radio should be renamed drive-you-nuts time. Zany and leeringly suggestive are the qualities most in demand for the folks who provide the talking bits linking the pop records. If you are devoted to embarrassing contests, doubles entendres, silly stories culled from the morning papers and, especially, the size and uses of the male organ, these programmes are for you.

Monday's debut of Chris Evans, from TV's The Big Breakfast and Don't Forget Your Toothbrush, was lavishly covered in the broadsheet and tabloid papers. Reporters crammed into the control room and lovingly wrote down every one of Evans's ad-libs, including the compulsory rude joke about Elizabeth Hurley and his welcome back to the listeners who have deserted Radio 1 in their millions over the last two years for its commercial rivals.

"People are smiling again on Radio 1," he announced. "All the miserable people have been dumped in a skip." The BBC is said to be paying Evans £1m in the hope that defectors will be lured back by his reputation, combined with a £2m advertising blitz.

The press made much of the show's multiple orgasmic traffic reports ("It's so hu-u-u-uge. Oh my Ga-a-a-awd"), the Honk Your Horn spot for motorists and, especially, the item called "I'm in bed with my boyfriend". This is the one where women - at least only women so far - are invited to recite a poem between the sheets while sucking a lollipop; don't turn in without one. The stern critic of the Daily Telegraph made herself a prime candidate for the Evans skip by ruling that the show "needs a mindstretch and a mouthwash".

Most of the critics were kinder, and thought the programme would halt the decline in the Radio 1 breakfast audience - down to about 7 million nationally from over 10 million a few years ago. It will be a struggle, though, especially in London, where Chris Tarrant on Capital FM has for nine years dominated the breakfast ratings, with some two million listeners a week compared with Radio 1's 700,000 or so.

Tarrant's position and morale were boosted on Wednesday when he and Radio 2's Sarah Kennedy were jointly awarded the Sony Award for the best (music- based) breakfast programme. Capital tried to steal some radio thunder this week by launching a London-wide search for a new sidekick for Tarrant.

Among the other nominees for the Sony award were Virgin's Russ and Jono, the Australian Russ Williams and the Englishman Jonathan Coleman, who have built up a following of about half a million in London in their two years on air, despite their being only on AM - and poor quality AM at that - until they were given a London-only FM frequency early this month.

Russ and Jono have been engaging in a little on-air sniping at their new competitor. On the day the death of Fred Astaire's old dancing partner was announced, they proclaimed in their daily cod news bulletin: "Ginger dies after just two shows on Radio 1."

But Trevor White, Russ and Jono's producer, claims he is not worried. "I don't think Chris Evans will damage us at all once the publicity dies down," he says. "All the publicity was ridiculous - you'd think it was a royal wedding."

He believes that Capital will be the chief victim of the combined effect of the change at Radio 1 and Virgin's move to FM. "People will be trying us for the first time and trying Chris Evans, which will all be to the detriment of Tarrant."

Naturally, this view is not shared by Clive Dickens, Group Head of Programmes at Capital. "The strength of Chris Tarrant's show is the London focus with the personality that Chris is. The pressure from outside is less. Early indications are that Russ and Jono are very strong competition for Chris Evans and vice versa. They appear to be fighting out the same ground in this rude awakening, slightly male-biased humour. Chris Tarrant is more family-orientated humour." (Yet even he does not eschew early sexual allusions - such as his "dangly bit", a trick question.)

Dickens oozes confidence: "Chris Evans managed to mention Chris Tarrant on each of his first three programmes. I don't think you'll find Chris Tarrant giving Chris Evans that sort of aircheck. He does what he does."

Chris Evans's producer, John Revell, hails from Virgin, where he claims to have invented Russ and Jono. He hopes that Radio 1 can poach listeners from all its rivals, while admitting that Capital's hold on the London audiences will be hard to crack.

"I'm very happy with the show and it's going to get better," he said. "All our 16 phone lines are constantly busy with volunteers for Honk Your Horn and The Kids are All Right (a quiz for youngsters). I'm in Bed with my Boyfriend will take longer to build but it's a wonderful chance for Chris to talk to people, which he's very good at."

Revell has made significant changes to the musical menu, dropping some of the experimental stuff by which Matthew Bannister, Controller of Radio 1, sets so much store.

"From day one I wanted to make the music more familiar," he says. "People are less tolerant at breakfast. It isn't the time of day you should be hitting them with new and unfamiliar music. It's a surefire way of scaring people off. But we're still playing lots of music at breakfast that other people aren't."

Trevor White agrees: "Virgin doesn't play dance music. I don't think we play anything that would make people want to turn off, as Radio 1 does sometimes. It's the difference between what the music industry wants and what the public wants."

Revell is convinced that what the public will eventually want is Chris Evans, and that his powerful presence will override any lingering reservations about the playlist.

"It's all in an evolutionary phase. For instance, on Honk Your Horn on Wednesday we had someone up Ben Nevis blowing a whistle. Soon people will start ringing to say: `I haven't got my car to honk, but my dog can bark'."

If that sounds more like That's Life than the cutting edge of Don't Forget Your Toothbrush, Evans's style has always been eclectic. In any event, what with honking dogs, dangly bits and metaphorical lollipops, today's breakfast radio is all very different from Housewives' Choice.