Bacon, banter and the Virgin boys

Bleary-eyed early morning listeners have tuned in to Russ 'n' Jono's breakfast show on Virgin Radio in droves. Is it the rudeness that attracts them, or the bribery?
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The talk at Virgin Radio these days is of awards. Russell Johnson and Jonathan Coleman, otherwise known as Russ 'n' Jono, the station's breakfast show presenters, cannot stop winning them. After the Sony Radio gong for Best Breakfast Show in Britain (in which, much to his chagrin, they beat Chris Evans) the pair have just heard they have won the silver medal for the Best Breakfast Show in the World, organised by the New York Radio Society. Which isn't bad since the winner is the mad-haired king of morning radio, the American shock-jock Howard Stern. Oddly, though, the two have yet to hear from Richard Branson, owner of the mega-store, airline, media and cola conglomerate and their employer, the man who pays for the unfeasible quantity of bacon sandwiches they consume every morning.

"Oh, have I not passed on the crate of champagne and the first-class tickets to Necker Island to you?" said Trevor White, Russ and Jono's producer, sarcastically, as the pair mused about the lack of contact from the biggest of Virgin cheeses one morning last week. "How remiss of me. Actually I heard what he said was: 'Those boys must be good to win the award, we'd better hire them'."

It is an inexact science estimating the radio audience, but one thing is for sure, more people tune in first thing in the morning than at any other time. The pursuit of the bleary-eyed, teeth-cleaning, car-commuting audience has turned the breakfast radio market into the most competitive in all media. In London alone the listener can choose from more than 50 stations, including Chris Tarrant, the highest-paid jock in Britain, the brilliant Fi Glover on GLR and several dozen minority operations ("Wake up with the Lord!"). Get it right, and advertisers flock to your wave- band anxious to tap in to a captive audience; get it wrong and you end up with Viva.

In less than three years, from a standing start on a new station, Russ and Jono appear to have got it so right that advertisers don't simply pay to have their product promoted in the commercial breaks on their show, they actually turn up in the studio to watch the boys in action. Last week, as the pair engaged in the louche banter that is their early morning trademark, they were watched by a group of marketing executives from Guinness, invited in by Virgin's sales team. The Guinness folk stood at the back of the studio giggling like star-struck teenagers every time the two presenters insulted their product on air.

"We've got some people from Guinness in the studio," announced Jono. "Are we allowed to say Guinness on air?"

"As long as we say we prefer Carling Black Label," replied Russ.

"Well, we do, Carling give us more freebies," concluded Jono.

Russ and Jono spend a lot of time taking the mickey out of people. In fact, apart from playing records, that is the entire content of their show. No target is too small for their sharp appraisal: listeners, politicians, Anthea Turner.

"The most frequent comment we get from listeners is: 'I can't believe you got away with that'," says Jono. "I think people like to happen upon us and then tell their mates at work some outrageous thing they've just heard. There are limits though. We do a slot where we ask couples to detail their partners' most embarrassing habit and we had this woman on yesterday who told me before we went on air that her husband's embarrassing habit was that he constantly asks her to find the erogenous zones up his anus. I mean we don't mind our listeners to be sexual, but in a family way."

The pair started their show in 1993 when Russ arrived at Virgin from Capital and Jono from GLR, where he had stood in for Danny Baker - still, despite his television series, the modernist king of disc jockeying. Their act found an audience from the start.

"The conventional format at the time was the zoo approach," says Jono. "A lead jock with the weather woman, a travel bloke and anyone else who was passing, chipping in with comments. Two blokes together, talking like they were in the pub, hadn't really been tried."

"We got lucky, and the station got lucky, no one knew this would take off," says Russ. "The market has changed so much since we started that if I were launching a new radio station now I wouldn't take any risks with the breakfast show, I'd just pay a lot of money and buy in an established success."

And if someone wanted to buy an established success, Russ 'n' Jono qualify in spades. They have been rapidly building up their audience over the past year and it now stands, in the latest Rajar statistics, at 1.9 million. Which is third for a music programme behind Chris Evans (6.2 million) and Chris Tarrant (2 million). A good crowd then, but as yet there is little evidence of cabinet ministers, newspaper editors and the massed ranks of the great and good altering a habit of a lifetime and switching from the Today programme to tune in to their chuntering. From the evidence of phone-in participants, the Russ 'n' Jono audience is somewhat less influential.

"Big with builders, that's us," said Jono. "I was on holiday last week and was basking in my garden. There was building work going on all down the street and everyone was tuned in to Virgin. We're two blokes standing at the bar, so blokes like us. But funnily enough, a lot of women tune in too."

Though, not, it would seem, women lawyers. Indeed it appears that not many lawyers tune in at all. Otherwise one of Jono's extended raps about Judy Finnegan's relationship with the wardrobe department at Granada Television would have had many a libel specialist's chargeable time opportunity monitor twitching.

"I was a guest on Ned Sherrin's Loose Ends the other day and someone did a pretty tame gag about OJ," said Jono. "I couldn't believe it. Hardly had the words left his mouth than OJ's lawyers were on the phone. In three years of trying, we haven't had a call."

Not even from the Radio Authority?

"None," said Jono. "I had one of them in Australia, mind. I used to be on a morning show in Sydney and we used to pretend we had a flying traffic reporter - I'd drum my chest as I read the bulletin to make it sound as though I was reporting from a vibrating chopper. We got reprimanded by the Australian radio authority who demanded we take it off air. We called it the 'Brown Eye in the Sky' so I assumed it was for rudeness, but it turned out it was because we didn't really have a helicopter."

A rich diet of knuckle-shaving is not the only reason Virgin's morning men have shone in such a competitive environment, however. Much like the scratch-card mania in tabloid newspapers, the commercial radio stations are engaged in a ruthless giveaway war. Prizes litter the airwaves, and big prizes too. Russ 'n' Jono regularly offer cars, holidays and lump sums of cash of up to pounds 30,000 (not hard to win, either; the 30 grand was given away in a competition in which callers had to, well, get their name right). Such promotions are backed up by expensive television advertising campaigns, the most recent of which saw Russ and Jono dancing around dressed as giant peanuts: to accumulate an audience at that time of the morning you need to speculate and shame plays no part.

"At the end of the day it doesn't matter how good you are, the greed factor plays an enormous part," said Russ. "If your competition is giving away 20 grand you have to inflate the prize and offer more. That's the name of the breakfast game."

Rudeness and bribery: it may not seem much, but people have got to be prime minister offering little more.