First Morning: Dawn chorus

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The breakfast radio war is waking up to a head-to-head between Chris Evans and Zoe Ball. But this battle of the personalities disguises a more important political struggle for the BBC to maintain its independence

By the time you read this, the balloon will have gone up. Assuming all went to plan, at 6.30 this morning plucky little Kevin Greening and Zoe Ball went over the top, spearheading the BBC's latest offensive in the Breakfast Wars. And at seven, Chris Evans - himself a man who knows a thing or two about going over the top - led a counter-attack. Dear God, will this madness never end?

Breakfast radio seems to attract an enormous amount of attention these days. Partly that's because anything Chris Evans does attracts attention, and his sudden signing to Virgin Radio, accompanied as it was by the sudden sacking of his Sony Award-winning predecessors Russ 'n' Jono, had a certain brutal drama. (There is a happy ending: Russ 'n' Jono have agreed to stay on and present an afternoon show on Virgin. Aaaah.)

Surely what's most newsworthy about the current argy-bargy is the fact that it's considered newsworthy at all: another sign of the relentless trivialisation of culture, another nail in the coffin of the Western tradition. If the fuss in the media demonstrates anything, it's how far we are in thrall to the cult of celebrity, and especially television celebrity.

You could read Radio 1's recent progress, from Chris Evans to Mark Radcliffe to Zoe Ball, as a demonstration of this. Celebrity was the reason Evans was brought in to Radio 1 - it was hoped that the fame he earned from television would help to rescue Radio 1's ratings, falling in the face of new commercial competition from, among others, Virgin Radio. Celebrity helped explain his success, too. He played constantly on his own wealth and importance, the fact that his shoulders were constantly sore from rubbing with the rich and famous - a line he played at first with a certain irony and charm, later more and more bumptiously. But a success he undoubtedly was: when he arrived at Radio 1, in April 1995, daily audiences had fallen to six million; Evans took them up to seven million.

After his departure in February this year, after a quarrel which seems to have been the product both of fierce pressure from the press - especially the Daily Mail, which seemed to regard Evans as a personal affront - and of his own swelling ego, Radio 1 tried the opposite tack. Evans was replaced by the resolutely unceleb Mark Radcliffe, a radio man through and through, whose shtick was mostly about how crap he and his partner Lard were, how shoddy the show was, how nobody wanted to listen. This turned out to be a little too close to the truth for the BBC's comfort - the last quarterly ratings showed a drop to 5.3 million listeners a day.

And so Radio 1 has turned to celebrity again, in the person of Zoe Ball. Her short-lived stint on The Big Breakfast demonstrated that she can fake cheerfulness early in the morning, which may be the single most useful talent a breakfast time DJ can possess. Otherwise, her projected partnership with the talented Kevin Greening looks set to be one of the most unequal marriages since Elizabeth Taylor and Larry Fortensky: he provides the wit, the intelligence, the technical know-how and the musical expertise; she provides... well, the fact that she's been on television.

So yes, it all looks terribly trivial. But all war is the continuation of politics by other means, and that includes Breakfast Wars. The brouhaha about personalities disguises a more important political struggle: the one for the BBC's continued existence as an independent national broadcaster. The question of how the BBC should be funded has never been settled, only set aside for the time being; and with a government committed to "thinking the unthinkable" in so many other areas of national life, the licence fee can never be regarded as safe.

At present, even in its diminished state, the Radio 1 breakfast show is the most popular radio programme in the country, and as such it provides one of the best justifications for the BBC's claim to speak to the nation. Those parts of BBC Radio which cannot be justified in terms of popularity or blindingly obvious utility - Radio 3 and all those orchestras, John Peel, GLR, plays and documentaries, the World Service - all of them shelter in its shadow. If Zoe and Kevin don't bring home the bacon, some of the finest flowers of British culture will be under threat. Tune in, pop pickers.

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