Changing the face of radio

Andy Parfitt's overhaul of Radio 1's daytime schedule has been ruthless. Now it's time to focus on the evenings, he tells Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

You have to look the part when you are competing for the attention of the nation's 15- to 24-year-olds, so Andy Parfitt makes sure he gets his hair cut prior to the arrival of The Independent's photographer.

You have to look the part when you are competing for the attention of the nation's 15- to 24-year-olds, so Andy Parfitt makes sure he gets his hair cut prior to the arrival of The Independent's photographer.

But the visit to the barber's is not the only cut that the controller of Radio 1 has in mind. For the past six years, Parfitt, 45, has been re-sculpting the network formerly known as "the nation's favourite".

Alongside the blood-fest of Matthew Bannister's 1993 "night of the long knives" - which killed off the "Smashie and Nicey" era of Radio 1 DJs - Parfitt's makeover has been comparatively subtle. Nevertheless, he has dropped Mark Goodier, moved out Mark and Lard, ditched Sarah HB and taken Sara Cox away from breakfast, in a complete overhaul of the day-time schedule.

Now he is about to turn his attention to a night-time roster that includes some of the most famous DJs and presenters in modern music, names like Pete Tong, Steve Lamacq, John Peel, Judge Jules, Seb Fontaine, Tim Westwood, Trevor Nelson, Zane Lowe, Gilles Peterson, and Fabio and Grooverider.

It will need to be, Parfitt admits, a "tricky and delicate" operation. But he acts from a position of strength, in the wake of the release this month of Radio 1's most impressive set of listening figures in the last two years. The 4.3 per cent quarter-on-quarter increase in audience reach (to 9.85 million) has given the station's staff a new spring in their step after a period of decline.

Parfitt has already warned the specialist shows that they need to find ways of making themselves relevant to a wider demographic. "All of those shows appeal to particular musical communities," he says. "I'm really pleased that they have credibility within these specific communities, but I think the job of Radio 1 - given that we are a national broadcaster - is that we can't just preach to the converted."

If the changes are as radical as the controller has already made to the daytime schedule then some big egos are likely to be damaged.

"What I'm talking about is trying to arrange the universe of Radio 1 specialists in such a way that it matches people's lifestyles and moods," he says. "Frankly, there will always be some compromises because there are a limited number of slots and everyone would like more time."

Parfitt is convinced that no specialist show can be allowed to exist in isolation of the rest of the schedule. "Radio 1 is not a station that is divided into daytime and night-time," he says. "We are a complete team. We work across the board. The plan involves everybody on the station, not just one part of it."

The controller also wants his specialist DJs to be more active in finding musical gems that can sit on the network's playlist and become mainstream hits, just as Lamacq backed the emerging rock group Keane and Westwood endorsed the rapper Kanye West. "What you can do is channel a piece of music from the outskirts of the radio schedule into the mainstream."

Parfitt is well aware that superstar DJs attract fanatically loyal followings and that any changes to their output are likely to provoke a fierce backlash. He promises that it is not his intention to make the night-time schedule "less spiky" or to try to increase the station's listening figures by introducing a more mainstream feel to the evening schedule. "We are not here to dilute what any of the specialists do and make them more accessible," he says. "Our commitment to delivering at the cutting edge for all of these genres is absolute," he insists.

The prospect of changes will undoubtedly create anxiety among some of the established programmes on the Radio 1 schedule, but Parfitt is adamant that the status quo is not a viable option. In May last year, he went to the BBC's board of governors with a three-year plan of reform that he is only part way through implementing.

"If you listened to Radio 1 daytime output now and compared it with a year ago, it is markedly different," he says. "There's only two presenters who haven't changed in the whole of Radio 1's mainstream output - Jo Whiley and Dave Pearce - everything else has been changed; weekends, weekend breakfast, weekend afternoons, weekday afternoons, drive-time, breakfast, early breakfast. For any radio station that's pretty full-on change."

The jury is still out as to whether Parfitt's surgery will be life-saving for the network or whether it is the work of a back-street quack who believes that blood-letting is good for a patient's health.

Parfitt points out that Radio 1 is the only publicly-funded broadcaster in a "ferocious and intense marketplace for young ears and eyes", and is often judged by middle-aged critics who have a limited understanding of the role of the modern Radio 1. "It is so different a brand now to those decades ago. I think sometimes people have an expectation that it will be what it's not, particularly if they haven't listened to the station for some time. It's kept in a time capsule for older people," he says.

With charter review approaching, he is anxious to stress Radio 1's public service credentials at every turn, highlighting the long-running youth current affairs programme Newsbeat ("an incredible asset") and the health show Sunday Surgery, which gets its biggest response for the subjects of self-harm and sexuality.

Above all, though, Radio 1's priority is music - and not just by playing hits but by encouraging new talent. "Our job is to discover, support, promote, take part in, the new musical experience of this country, which has for 40-odd years been an incredibly successful, interesting and diverse culture," says Parfitt. He mentions as an example the rock band the loveGods, discovered on the station's website and quickly promoted to the Radio 1 playlist. They will perform at the Glastonbury festival in June, and opened the recent Radio 1's One Big Weekend in Derry. Parfitt was particularly proud of the latter event, which also featured the Glasgow band Franz Ferdinand and the American stars Avril Lavigne and Kelis. "In the six years I've been at Radio 1, it was the warmest buzz," he says, pointing out that crime fell in the Northern Irish city while the event was on.

Radio 1's recent audience rise has been partly down to the new breakfast show presenter Chris Moyles, who has delivered an extra 400,000 listeners. Moyles has described himself as "the saviour of Radio 1" but Parfitt (who regards the brash Northern presenter as a "consummate broadcaster") has already warned him that - though he is "delighted" with the early success - it is the long-term that matters.

The Radio 1 controller, who says he has developed a "rhinoceros skin" to deal with critics, acknowledges that with his new daytime presenters still finding their feet and widespread changes afoot in the night-time schedule "a period of uncertainty" is ahead.

"The extent of change that Radio 1 has undergone in the past 18 months will take a while to bed down," he says. "I hope we can build on an early good start but I won't be surprised if there's some churn."