Andy Parfitt: It helps that I'm not 25, actually

With an audience approaching the 10 million mark and an armful of Sony gongs, Andy Parfitt's biggest challenge as Radio 1's controller is keeping Chris Moyles tasteful and retaining the Robbie Williams fans. Ian Burrell reports
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The Independent Online

When Andy Parfitt climbs aboard his 600cc Yamaha motorcycle this morning and thunders through the London traffic before brushing shoulders with rock stars and famous DJs as he walks into the office, the controller of BBC Radio 1 will have much on his mind.

When Andy Parfitt climbs aboard his 600cc Yamaha motorcycle this morning and thunders through the London traffic before brushing shoulders with rock stars and famous DJs as he walks into the office, the controller of BBC Radio 1 will have much on his mind.

For this is a critical time in the history of the station which, in its earlier days, brashly branded itself "the nation's favourite" but has since been obliged to undergo a succession of courses of emergency treatment aimed at identifying its role in the world.

During his seven years in charge, Parfitt , 46, has ordered follow-up therapy, cutting out more big-name presenters and trying to introduce a new energy and sense of purpose.

Finally, there are signs that the treatment is working. Radio 1 collected five Sony Golds at the British radio industry's premier awards ceremony last week, more than any other station. Four days earlier it had posted encouraging new ratings figures which showed that its audience share had risen from 7.6 per cent to 8.4 per cent and its listenership had climbed to 9.96 million, back in touching distance of the 10 million figure that it feared had slipped from its grasp for ever.

The station has also been credited with playing a pivotal role in the resurgence of British music, reflected in the presence of bands such as Kasabian, The Subways and The Futureheads before the frenzied masses who gathered in Sunderland for the recent Radio 1 Big Weekend.

But despite all this, Parfitt knows he has to steel himself to administer some very bitter medicine to a network that was just starting to feel good about itself again. "We are going to make 15 per cent efficiencies," he reveals. "It's the way of the world that not only do we have to re-energise our strategy and reinforce, but also it's a time of internal change at the radio station as we deliver our efficiencies for the future of the BBC."

Sitting on a green couch, beneath a poster depicting breakfast show presenter Chris Moyles as Superman, Parfitt appears to regret having mentioned these cuts. Savings made will be reinvested at a later date, he says, trying to emphasise the positive.

But it is clear that these "efficiencies" cannot be delivered without considerable pain to the station's 92 employees. "It means we have to look closely at the way we staff the radio station and whether we have the right sorts of jobs, and look at our expensive contracts and ask ourselves some tough questions about the value we get from them," he says. "It's a tough financial time and at the same time I'm absolutely determined that we are going to improve quality for our listeners."

Parfitt describes the 15 per cent figure as "a stretching target" but says the cuts are "deliverable ... and I want to deliver them". He signs up to BBC director general Mark Thompson's claim that the planned bloodletting across the corporation is "a down payment on the future of the BBC".

If Radio 1 really is pointed in the right direction again, then Parfitt has every right to take a large share of the credit. The station's apparent resurgence is linked to a strategy that he has put in place to overhaul first the daytime schedule and then the specialist music programmes.

The former meant replacing breakfast presenter Sara Cox with Moyles, who Parfitt acknowledges is "enormously important to the success of Radio 1". Moyles has been an unqualified success, adding 150,000 listeners in the past three months alone.

When Parfitt speaks about Moyles he talks about "dedication" and "hard work". He is irritated by the lingering view that Moyles is a loudmouth shock jock. "Anybody who has listened over the past 18 months will know that he manages himself pretty carefully. That's important at breakfast because you don't want the Moyles show to be banned from the kitchen."

The controller says he didn't have to clamp down on Moyles (who has previously been censured by the radio authorities). "It wasn't as explicit as me wagging my finger at Chris. I do have a good relationship with him and we talked about what a step it would be for him to become a good national radio breakfast show presenter. We understood each other."

Other notable Parfitt successes have been Colin Murray and Edith Bowman, who were brought in to replace the popular afternoon pairing of Mark Radcliffe and Marc "Lard" Riley. Parfitt says he was braced for a backlash from Mark and Lard listeners who might think the station had "dumbed down" in terms of music content.

"Colin and Edith have got that intelligence and wit and sense of humour. It's in the same country as Mark and Lard, not a million miles away. They didn't alienate but brought in some female listeners who we weren't serving so well in the afternoons," he says.

The bridge between the day and evening schedules - and Parfitt's masterstroke - is the Zane Lowe show, in which the New Zealand-born presenter not only blends music styles from rock to hip-hop but also somehow keeps everybody happy - from casual listeners to the bands themselves - with his effervescent presenting style. Lowe scooped the two main musical awards at the Sonys, at which Radio 1 also won three speech radio prizes, most notably the news award (traditionally the preserve of Radio 4) for a piece presented by dance music DJ Bobby Friction on the British National Party election campaign in Burnley.

Parfitt says: "This audience consumes very little traditional news so we are [their] only serious source of news and issue based output."

There was a moment at the Sonys when Christian O'Connell from the indie music station Xfm went up to collect the second of his three individual gold awards and took the opportunity to take a dig at Radio 1, saying his idea for getting kids in school bands to perform rock classics live on air was something the BBC should have done but "couldn't be fucking bothered".

Parfitt is not apparently bothered by the remarks, suggesting the Xfm presenter had "had a few beers and was having a laugh" but there was no foundation to his claims in any case.

Would there be a role for O'Connell, who is consistently lauded by the radio industry, at Parfitt's station? "He's a talented presenter," acknowledges Parfitt. "But I think the next phase of our development is not about changing the schedule. I think it's done and it's solid for the foreseeable future." When he later reveals the 15 per cent cuts it's clear there will be no big-name hiring for some time.

But Parfitt is very upbeat. "I feel that the station is really strong at the moment and I think that's a realistic assessment," he says. "We've had 18 months now of really quite rapid evolutionary change. Ninety-odd per cent of the schedule has changed. Observers have mentioned that there's a confidence about the station and a real tangible sense of teamwork. It's pretty powerful stuff but I put all that in the context that it's absolutely rooted in the reality that we are in a tough market and interest rates go down as well as up. How could you as controller of Radio 1 be resting on your laurels? But right now we're much, much stronger than we were 18 months ago."

Parfitt says that the problem with Radio 1 was that, having divested itself of the Smashie and Nicey image in the early 1990s, it had gone too far the other way in attempting to be at the musical cutting edge. "The 15-24s were saying 'You're too cool for school, you're a bit of an exclusive club that we find difficult to join'. Even core listeners who were in the Radio 1 bubble were saying the same thing," he says.

Parfitt hatched a plan to make the station more accessible, "to really broaden the station, warm it up a little".

The changes he has introduced extend to the decor of the building itself, Yalding House, only a minute and a half's walk from Broadcasting House in Regent Street but far enough away to allow it to have a separate identity. Parfitt is anxious that the security turnstiles that are a feature of other corporation sites are not introduced to Radio 1 - "it's just not the culture of the place". The building is decorated with wallpaper made from pictures of young people at music festivals and on the streets (the same individuals who - via media company Sparkler - Parfitt has used to track the changing public view of Radio 1).

The Sparkler research found there are three groups of listeners among the 15-24-year-old audience. The majority, according to Parfitt, are the "contended grouping" who might go to a Robbie Williams show but don't buy music magazines. The second group, "Radio 1 heartland", are active gig goers and downloaders, and then there are the "scenesters" who are making music themselves or are DJs.

If Parfitt is to get back to the 10 million audience figure (by which the station's success is often judged by media commentators) he knows he has to connect "probably more to the first group than the last one". The station now has a "far more sophisticated understanding" of the audience that is being targeted and producers have been made fully aware of this strategy.

Unless Radio 1 peppers the new British music that it is the station's remit to provide with popular anthems and an inclusive presenting style, the "contended" listeners will head off to hit radio formats such as Capital, Magic, Galaxy and Heart.

While trying to appeal to these "contendeds", Parfitt is acutely conscious that Radio 1 operates in the "very fast-moving market" in which media suppliers compete for the attentions of the nation's youth. "We need to get our output on to our audience's devices, whether a headphone or an iPod. We need to get into that world as fast as we can."

Latest figures show that the number of unique users listening to Radio 1 online has increased by 50 per cent in the past year. "You cannot just talk about the analogue radio station now - you have to talk about the performance in the round," says Parfitt.

In fact, he points out, some Radio 1 productions - such as the dance music show Essential Mix - have as many online listeners as those who tune in to the programme itself.

Parfitt frequently harks back to his market research. "One of the things that screams out," he says, "is that, more and more, our audiences don't distinguish between a radio station, the online offering, and most importantly the visual look of it. When you are all broadbanded-up and can download or stream a high-quality video, I think there are fantastic opportunities for Radio 1."

The Sunderland Big Weekend event provided Radio 1 with 56 hours of footage featuring international artists such as Foo Fighters and cutting-edge British acts. "There's huge potential," says Parfitt. "I'm not talking about a visual channel but a visual representation of the Radio 1 experience. We are going to have to up our game in terms of our visual offering. That's the exciting area."

Parfitt might have to implement 15 per cent cuts to his £15.1m annual budget but he is already looking at new challenges for Radio 1 and new rivals to take on. "I don't see our competitors as necessarily local commercial radio," he says. "I see our competitors as MTV, Viacom and Channel 4 - that's where we are."

His relationship with Radio 1 goes back more than a decade. He was assistant then deputy to Matthew Bannister, the radical controller who drove out the likes of Dave Lee Travis and Simon Bates in favour of a more youthful generation of presenters.

The position of controller is a job Parfitt might of dreamed of, growing up in Bristol with a love of music, an interest in theatre and a talent for sound engineering that drew him towards a career in radio. He dabbled in making music, buying a guitar and amp and playing in a "really bad covers band" that practised in his friend's basement. When the bassist left to join a punk outfit called The Glaxo Babies, Parfitt remembers being "sick with jealousy" when they landed a session on the John Peel show on Radio 1. Parfitt turned his attentions to the trumpet and nurtured his interest in genres such as soul and jazz.

He had previously left school to join the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, where he acquired skills in lighting, sound and stage production. "I didn't get on well with the theatre," he admits. "But I guess that early experience teaches you there are disciplines. The show has to have a beginning and an end and people have to walk on at the right times."

After he arrived at the BBC as a trainee studio manager he found himself working in the corporation's education and features departments, including a stint on Radio 4's Book Programme. He remembers the excitement when he first pitched up at the BBC. "There was the hint that if it all went the right way you could get involved in the recording of sessions for Radio 1 at the studios at Maida Vale, or Maida Vegas as Zane Lowe calls it," says Parfitt.

"That was my ambition and I achieved it. I was the tape op. I got to be the assistant setting up the tape machine."

Which sessions did he record?

"This was the mid-1980s," he says, surprisingly uncertain, before recalling a session by Nick Drake, which he later corrects to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. He also recorded the likes of Spear of Destiny and "a lot of reggae artists that John (Peel) had in session. It was great, fantastic", he says. Peel's death last October traumatised the station with which he was synonymous. Parfitt says: "John made a unique contribution that has been fully recorded - we all miss him a lot. His was an impossible act to follow which is why we never sought to directly replace him or recreate the programme - I think everyone understands that would have been a mistake."

Parfitt's own only radio presenting work came on British forces radio in the Falkland Islands, shortly after the end of the 1982 war. He says the experience gave him enough technical know-how to communicate with his presenters and earn their respect.

Even so, with all his talk of "efficiencies" and "strategies" and "targets", the only scratching DJ Parfitt is likely to do is when he is trying to calculate a change to his budgets. He is by training a technician who was a respected producer in the Radio4 features department. But he is also a people person, a bright and respected manager who was briefly linked last year to the Radio 4 controller's job. (He promptly ruled himself out.)

He dresses fashionably with the jacket of a pinstriped suit worn over a T-shirt and with jeans and sandals, but Parfitt is a very long way outside the station's target audience of 16-24-year-olds. He argues that it is entirely right that such an important part of Britain's broadcasting heritage is in the safe hands of an experienced manager with a passion for and understanding of what Radio 1 can provide. "I really do believe that I've got better at my job in recent years. I think that's because, as I say, I've learned to take a more objective and more mature view of the audience and its different segments and tastes. I have been prepared to confront the brutal facts of what's happening," he says. "Leading the team of DJs it helps that I'm not 25 actually, frankly."

He pauses and, to reiterate that he is at the station for the foreseeable future, adds: "I'm completely committed to Radio 1 in a really deep way."

Andy Parfitt's iPod Top 10

Mylo - Destroy Rock and Roll

Kasabian - Together We Build

Do Me Bad Things - Yes

Radiohead - OK Computer

Free - Free Live

Future Sound of London - ISDN

The White Stripes - Blue Orchid

Doves - Some Cities

Chemical Brothers - Believe

Bloc Party - Silent Alarm