Chris Evans - it could take a White Paper to shut him up

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The Independent Online

There were rumblings of discontent when the controller of Radio 2, Lesley Douglas, brought him back to the BBC last year. But they are as nothing compared with the venom that has greeted her announce-ment that Chris Evans will take over from Johnnie Walker as the presenter of Radio 2's drive-time show from 18 April.

Replacing Walker was never going to be easy. His seven-year stint at drivetime has coincided with a period of dramatic success for the station. Total weekly reach has increased to 13.25 million listeners, three million more than its nearest rival, Radio 1. Walker's own programme attracts more than five million listeners daily. But when the veteran insisted on a lighter schedule, Douglas declared Evans a "brilliant radio talent" and said: "I know he will give the audience a great new show."

Loyal listeners appear to disagree, vehemently. Hundreds have telephoned the BBC to express their anger, and Radio 2's internet message boards have been swamped with protests. One contributor calls Evans "just a gob... he can't entertain and he can't deliver to the listener". Some fans allege their complaints are being censored by the BBC. Others are demanding protests outside Broadcasting House. The Daily Mail - newspaper of choice for many Radio 2 listeners - joined in with the headline "Spare us Chris Evans!" and asked readers: "Will Evans undermine Radio 2's reputation?"

Douglas thinks not. She fought off a challenge from commercial radio to hire him last year. Commercial competitors fear she is right and that Evans will prove hugely popular. But they hope the BBC White Paper - due this week - will restrict the corporation's power to make similar appointments in future.

"In an incredibly competitive market, commercial radio is now facing two versions of Radio 1," says Paul Brown, chief executive of the Commercial Radio Companies Association (CRCA). "One only has to look at the ratings - the difference between BBC Radio and us is Radio 2. In 10 years since it adopted an aggressively commercial approach, the BBC has gained 6 per cent and we have lost 6 per cent. The appointment of a presenter like Chris Evans into the middle of the daytime schedule is highly significant." Brown says the BBC's freedom to make such appointments "impoverishes our capacity to build audience".

The CRCA hopes the White Paper will boost competition by imposing a range of measures to limit the BBC's freedom to make programmes similar to those produced by commercial rivals. The Newspaper Society, representing local and regional newspapers, has similar hopes. Its director, David Newell, says: "The BBC is using public funding to leverage its scale and to create a network of screen-based local newspapers. For the BBC to replicate the print and online content of regional and local newspapers is an unjustified use of licence fee money."

The argument is familiar. But last year many commercial broadcasters and publishers abandoned hope that the Government would accept it when the Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell rejected pleas for "top slicing" - giving a portion of the licence fee to commercial broadcasters for them to make public service programmes. But the state of the advertising market has contributed to a new mood in Whitehall. Sources say Jowell is anxious to ensure that the rest of the industry regards the BBC Trust - the independent body replacing the board of governors - as a genuinely impartial regulator.

Professor Steven Barnett of Westminster University under-stands commercial anger about Evans's new role at Radio 2. But, he says: "To remain at the heart of British cultural life the BBC must remain popular. Once you accept that there still needs to be a popular, distinctive BBC there is no reason why Chris Evans does not fit into that. There is an elephant in the room. How big should the elephant be?" That, in a nutshell, is the question that the BBC White Paper must answer.