Media on Monday: Teen Tsar who became BBC 'suit' bows out on a high after 13 years

 

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Andy Parfitt leaps to his feet and rushes to the window as a crescendo of shrieking voices threatens to shatter the glass. The fan mania is not in his honour, even if he is finally bowing out of BBC Radio 1 after 13 years, the longest-serving controller in the history of a network devoted to entertaining British youth.

"Oh, here they are," he says, looking down from the first floor at the Radio 1 entrance and acknowledging that the screaming fans are camped out for the boy band JLS, not for a 52-year-old broadcasting executive, even one with a thick head of blond hair who wears trainers and curls his legs up beneath him on the chair when he talks, just like a teenager.

After 32 years at the organisation, Parfitt is still a BBC "suit" – albeit its former "Teen Tsar". If anyone was tearful and emotional when Parfitt departed the station on Friday, it was more likely to have been middle-aged men like himself. Someone like Chris Moyles, the 37-year-old breakfast presenter who has been loyally protected by his controller as he has built an audience of 8 million. Or Tim Westwood, another fifty-something, who – with Parfitt's backing – has ensured that Radio 1 remains the first port of call in Britain for Hip Hop's royalty.

Even Parfitt's most jealous rivals in the commercial sector of the industry would find it hard to argue that he is not going out on a high. A couple of years after he took up the post, he was shown graphs that projected that the station's falling audience of 9.44m was facing further inevitable decline. Internally the BBC was wrestling with the notion of what Radio 1's role might be when it had only 4m listeners. But as Parfitt leaves, the revitalised network has a record audience of 11.8m despite young people turning their backs on traditional media platforms in favour of other pursuits such as computer gaming and social networking.

If there are criticisms of Radio 1, they tend to be that it is too mainstream and attracts an audience beyond the 15-29 age group that is its remit. The median age of the audience is 30 and the figure is "a very difficult measure to move", partly because – rather like Moyles, Westwood and another Radio 1 stalwart Annie Nightingale – the listeners are reluctant to move on. "An interest in popular culture... is a prevailing interest of everybody," he says. "It's not hard to understand why people don't reach their 30th birthday and hit the off button on Radio 1."

Parfitt arrived at Radio 1 as an assistant to Matthew Bannister, the controller who culled the Smashie & Nicey presenters who built the station into the "nation's favourite" but overstayed their welcome. As controller from 1998, he made his own changes, at first with limited success. He has been radical, putting Moyles into the breakfast slot in place of Sara Cox and giving a platform to specialists such as Pete Tong, who credits him with establishing dance music on Radio 1.

In 2006 he added the title of "Teen Tsar" to a business card that already recorded his controllership of Radio 1, 1Xtra and Asian Network, plus responsibility for the BBC's Popular Music across all media.

The digital revolution may have been frightening for a then 40-something but Parfitt benefited from being at a publicly funded organisation with a licence to experiment. "When the web came along it was an opportunity to show pictures of the DJs and artists and to get information out there. The Radio 1 audience has never on the whole read the Radio Times. Technology has felt like an opportunity rather than an ominous doom and gloom threat."

Parfitt is not leaving the BBC altogether. He will take these insights into a part-time role working for Tim Davie, the BBC's Director of Audio & Music. He will work for Comic Relief and hopes to pick up other offers from the commercial sector.

For all the screaming fans and famous rock stars who pass through the building, he doesn't drop names or spin yarns. His biggest memory is not from a VIP area but visiting Westwood after he had been shot in 1999. "That was a tough thing," he says. "I was quite new as a controller, and I found him under armed guard and had to deal with the conclusions that people immediately leapt to about a rap DJ."

More happily he recalls the smiling teenagers who flocked to Radio 1's Big Weekend events in unlikely corners of the United Kingdom and Lady Gaga performing at this year's free show in Carlisle.

Parfitt – who has two daughters aged ten and 13 who both play music – will no longer play Peter Pan at Radio 1 but he's not about to turn into a grumpy old man. "Young people are blamed for everything these days from easy exams to smoking, obesity and taking drugs," he says. "At Radio 1 we celebrate the great things about being young – the music, the events, the energy and optimism."

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