At Talk Radio, the small hours lay bare the state of the station: new audience figures are poor ... is anybody listening?
In those dark, guilty hours before dawn, the presenters at Talk Radio UK have found a whole new way of dealing with sleepless young women. At 4.30am on Tuesday, after the Elvis-lives-and-works-as-a-chauffeur story from Anita and the coverage of that poor young Brit who maybe gonna fry, hosts Chad Benson and Mike Hanson say they want line seven, want to talk to Helen from Bradford.

Mike: Hi, Helen, you want to flirt with somebody?

Helen: With Chad.

Chad: Helen, how are you? Do you like me? Then I'm coming to Bradford! What do you look like?

Helen: I've got dark brown hair ...

Chad: Excellent!

Helen: Just past my shoulders.

Chad: Yes!

Helen: Blue eyes.

Chad: Blue eyes!

Helen: I'm tall, 5ft 6.

Chad: Oooh! You got long legs!

Helen: I've got long fingernails.

Chad: What else? Are you in shape?

Helen: Yuh.

Chad. Excellent! You got a boyfriend?

Helen: No.

Chad: How old are you?

Helen: 18.

Chad: You wanna be my girlfriend? I'm coming up!

Mike: How much do you weigh, Helen? Are you petite? Slender?

Helen: Yeah. I go to aerobics.

Chad: Oooh! Excellent! Are you at school? What do you want to do when you grow up?

Helen: I'd like to be a radio presenter, actually.

Chad: No you don't. It's a crappy job. I don't think I'm going to do it after this week. I'm serious.

He is serious. Chad is off, not entirely of his own free will, to be replaced at the beginning of next week by another presenter who may also be looking for a girlfriend in the small hours.

Chad, 24, a Californian, was there at the birth of Talk Radio UK in mid- February, that hype time when the talk was all of "shock jocks" and radio like it's never been. Now, like much of the station, Chad is being reconsidered.

The news from 76 Oxford Street has not been good this week: audience figures were reported to be lower than hoped for, much lower, so low that some programmes didn't even register on the scale. The top show came in at about 70,000 listeners; Chad's night-time endeavours have not been classified. The management says that these figures account for only two weeks' ratings, not the normal 12, and are anyway notoriously unreliable. This could mean, of course, that the true figures are even lower.

One can get all snooty about the sort of dumb gabbling that accounts for this uncertain start. Clearly, many of the issues considered in the daytime are not quite as banal as the length of a Bradford schoolgirl's legs. During the day we get the phone-in classics - capital punishment, health problems, the end of the corner grocer's shop - and presenters and callers treat many topics with good humour and respect. One may learn some detailed things about current affairs: for instance, Nick Ingram would not just die in the electric chair, but would receive 2,000 volts for five seconds, 1,000 volts for eight seconds, 250 volts for two minutes. As one attentive caller said, "Ouch!" You just don't get that on Call Nick Ross.

But it is the small hours that lay bare the state of the station. On Tuesday at around 5am it was the spelling quiz. Spell "publicate", Chad said to a caller. The caller went P-U-B-L-I ... and Chad went, "Well you failed because there's no such word!"

Caller: I can spell Virgo!

Chad: Spell "vibrant".

Caller: V-I-B-E-R

Chad: Do you want us to flirt with you?

Caller: Not really.

Chad: We got to go to Matt!

Matt: I was that sad case who rang up on Thursday about not being able to fall in love.

Chad: That was Thursday, and now it's Tuesday. And you've fallen in love?

Matt: No I haven't unfortunately. There's no happy ending yet. I think Audrey Hepburn is the epitome of beauty. Can you spell epitome, Chad?

It is good listening to this between the sheets: it is certainly difficult not to feel intellectually superior, powerful even. But it is something else to see it happening in the flesh, on a third floor that overlooks a Sock Shop.

On air, Chad has described himself as extremely skinny. He's built like a fridge, of course. He wears a Nike baseball cap backwards. He has an American soccer T-shirt, dark shorts, trainers. He has cropped gingerish hair. You think: marine.

At 4.50am he assumes the shock jock pose: on his feet, sucking warm Pepsi, barking about how poor old Nick Campbell is about to fry, Campbell or Ingram or whatever his name is, he's just toast, an electrifying guy, and to show what he means he reaches for a shrieking sample from a Prince record that may or may not sound like a torched cat.

He tells his audience: "I want to talk to you about anything. Anything at all. Just give us a ring, ding ding. Mike's still quitting smoking. We're the talk of the nation. I want to talk to you. This is Talk Radio UK!"

Around him, the pine panelling still buzzes from the chainsaw; it's a charmless place, bereft even of coffee stains. It's the same when we move to a smaller studio at 5am so that the breakfast show can prepare its items on cash-for-questions MPs and the police using helicopters to catch a boy who stole a pastie.

Who calls at 5am? Flirty girls, night workers, the lonely and anxious, people who know they will never ever get their poetry heard elsewhere. You need to be numerate: the phone number, 0345 105389, has some connection with the station's medium-wave frequency, but otherwise ranks as the least catchy sequence of numbers in the world.

But the lines are busy all the time. A green screen shows how long they've been waiting: Chris from Croydon, listed on the computer as "does Beavis", has been waiting for 20 minutes; Jan, who is a "Chad bye-bye", for about 10. Occasionally, Chad will place his own calls, tonight applying on air for a job in a Californian McDonald's.

There are six people in the studio at various times: Chad and Mike, their producer, Kev, a man who wears an Eric Cantona shirt but says nothing, a teenager flat on the floor in a Nirvana shirt, also silent, and myself.

I would like to remain silent too, but it is the nature of such "zoo"- type environments that it is hard not to be lassoed in. And so Simon, Chad said at one stage, what do you think about this Nick Ingram? I said he's just gotta fry. I hoped this would make listeners feel a little less alone.

That's what Chad and Mike seemed to believe about their operation: people liked it, they had a lot of fun doing it, it was, Chad said, "real talk for common people", the sort we once only heard down the pub, the sort we seldom thought would build a radio station.

The mood at their company is fine, they say, although the station won't find its true voice for another six months. The British don't like new things, Mike says. The British didn't like commercial radio at first, or satellite, and now look.

"Our advertising is already solid. We have a couple of ads per hour overnight, and you have to believe me when I say that that's good for a station in its first weeks." The two yesterday morning were for the Lord's Taverners charity and ear wax removal.

Chad was not the first person to run the graveyard show. He joined the station as a production man, but was yanked from obscurity when "Wild Al Kelly" proved just too much for the board after three weeks.

What did he say? Mike refused to repeat it, but let slip it was something about fish. "That's all passed now. He was scatalogical. It's taking the management a while to realise just what the boundaries of controversial talk can be."

Chad has promised a studio barbecue on his last shift tomorrow. He is genuinely sad to be going back to production, and yesterday it was clear that his audience, whatever its size, shares his grief. The last call was from Caroline.

Chad: Hi, Caroline.

Caroline: I'll miss you so much.

Chad: Say "I love you, Chad".

Caroline: I love you, Chad.