Bannister is new number two to Birt

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The Independent Online
MATTHEW BANNISTER yesterday became the strongest internal contender to be the next director-general of the BBC, with the announcement that he is to move from director of radio to become chief executive of BBC Production.

Mr Bannister, a man of impeccable Birtian credentials, becomes second in the hierarchy to Sir John Birt, jointly with Will Wyatt, the chief executive of BBC Broadcast. Mr Wyatt, though, is nearing the end of a long career, while Mr Bannister is only 41. His promotion is also his first proper job in television. "I've never actually made a television programme," he confirms, but says he brings "clear strategic thinking" to the job.

His move gives him an edge over other BBC insiders with an eye on the top job, such as BBC News's Tony Hall, 47, and Regional Broadcasting's Mark Byford, 40. The latter was also promoted yesterday, to become boss of the World Service.

External contenders for the post, which becomes available when Sir John steps down in 2000, include Channel 4's Michael Jackson, 40, Greg Dyke, 50 and Channel 5's David Elstein, 53.

Mr Bannister's new job puts him in charge of a pounds 720m programme budget, and 4,500 people. He said his first priority was to "develop new talent, and use the BBC's ability to take risks with new ideas, talent and formats".

Mr Bannister is best known as the controller of Radio 1 who sacked most of the middle-aged DJs, and tried to reinvent the station for a younger audience. During that time the audience fell from 18 million to 11 million - a collapse which did not owe everything to Mr Bannister's strategy, since it coincided with the explosion of commercial radio stations aimed at younger listeners.

As director of radio, he has been accused of sidelining the hard-core of Radio 3 and Radio 4 in his continued mission to secure younger listeners for Radio 1 and 5 Live.

Mr Bannister, throughout his rapid rise in the world of radio, has been a staunch promoter of the management-consultant inspired reforms introduced by Sir John. He has been influential on the Corporation's "Programme Strategy Review", as well as serving terms on the boards of BBC Broadcast and BBC Production.

Eyes will now turn to who might succeed him in radio. Contenders include Radio 4 boss James Boyle, as well as Continuous News supremo Jenny Abramsky. Radio 2's Jim Moir, and 5 Live's Roger Mosey, a former editor of the Today programme, are outside bets.

At the World Service, Mark Byford takes over from Sam Younger, and faces the task of persuading the workers at Bush House to take up the Birtist attitudes to efficiency and streamlining that now pervade the rest of the BBC.