Christian O'Connell: Top of the morning

Christian O'Connell was breakfast radio's next big thing when Virgin grabbed him from London's Xfm and let him loose on a national audience. Three months into his new job - and with his first ratings looming - he tells Ciar Byrne how it's going
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The Independent Online

Virgin Radio chief Paul Jackson fired someone live on air on the station's breakfast show last week. Fortunately, it was not the programme's new presenter Christian O'Connell, but his fictional alter ego, Mr T.

In the fiercely competitive arena of breakfast radio, O'Connell lives or dies by his ideas. His wacky concept of a live radio drama based on a character from the 1980s TV show The A-Team bit the dust after four episodes.

But success means taking risks, and another of O'Connell's ideas has just taken off. A competition to come up with a "People's Anthem" to rival the official World Cup song by Embrace attracted more than 500 entries. The winning track - "Hurry Up England" by punk band Sham 69 - has been released with the help of producer Stephen Street and former Blur guitarist Graham Coxon. When Ladbrokes offered odds of 20-1 on it reaching No 1, a rush of bets meant the odds were slashed within an hour.

The Sony-award winning DJ - poached by Virgin Radio last year from Xfm, where he spent five years - is three months into his new job. It is a sign of O'Connell's popularity that after he left Xfm, listening figures for the station's breakfast show fell 20 per cent. In 10 days' time, the next Rajar figures will show whether he's improved on the 1.2 million audience he inherited from predecessors Pete and Geoff.

Virgin is a national station, whereas his Xfm show was only broadcast in London and to digital listeners. "I love the fact that you get a caller in Scotland, and then one in Wales and one in Coventry," says O'Connell. But he adds: "When we were on Xfm I never wanted it to be a London show, because I think that's quite narrow-minded these days. I always thought of it as something anyone anywhere in the country could listen to, so it was quite an easy thing to get my head round."

The 33-year-old presenter is the object of a constant stream of jokes from his BBC Radio 1 rival Chris Moyles. But he insists he's unconcerned by the regular pasting he receives.

"I'm lucky that Chris Moyles has been slagging me off a lot. Some people get curious when they hear your name. We had this great e-mail the other day from someone who tuned in for the first time last week because he wanted to know why Moyles kept banging on about me, and he's now staying with my show. So please Chris, slag me off more; it's great marketing for me."

He's reluctant to bad-mouth Moyles in return, but admits that he thinks Moyles's show - which has 5.4 million listeners more than his own - is "boring".

"If I was a young kid and liked knob jokes and people belching in the morning, I'd probably like it, but I'm not 13, so it's not really for me. He's an absolute natural for radio, Chris. He's so confident, and a very good presenter, but it bores me quickly."

The juvenile appeal of its breakfast presenter is the least of O'Connell's gripes with Radio 1. He believes the station is not distinctive, has neglected new music, poached presenters from commercial radio rather than nurturing new talent, and should be taken off air altogether.

"I don't think there's a role for Radio 1 any more. It used to play lots of new music. They've cut new music back drastically to compete with commercial radio. That's not why I pay my licence fee. When I tune into Radio 4, Radio 2 and Five Live, I'm proud. I think Radio 1 should be commercialised or shut down."

But he believes commercial radio needs to improve its game, stop moaning about the BBC and innovate to win listeners.

Although he insists he is "not on that kind of money", O'Connell views reports of BBC radio presenter's salaries with equanimity (Moyles was said to earn £630,000 a year and Terry Wogan £800,000). "It's fair play. They do good shows. Millions of people tune in. People in this country are obsessed with what people earn. People were looking at me here like, 'What do you reckon he's on?' I feel a bit paranoid at the moment."

O'Connell has claimed that he knew it was time to move on from Xfm when his wife bought a Volvo, but an impending sense of middle age was not the only factor in his decision to jump ship. The lack of resources at the station, now owned by GCap Media, also played a part.

"Capital FM was their big station. Obviously they're going to put more resources into Capital and after a couple of years that was quite frustrating. You didn't have so much money; you had ideas and they said, 'We can't afford to do it.' After five years, I thought, 'We should move on and go somewhere else.'"

Virgin has also had its ups and downs, notably the court case it fought and won against Chris Evans, who sued for unfair dismissal after he was sacked for failing to turn up to work.

"The Evans fallout cast a shadow over the station because Chris is such a big personality. They only started to break out of that last year," O'Connell says. Although he is "flattered" by comparisons with Evans, O'Connell thinks they have "pretty different" styles. "We've both got an enthusiasm for life, the weird, bizarre side of stuff. At first I used to get quite angry - 'I'm not like Chris Evans, I'm me' - but now I think it's nice being compared to someone who's done some great radio in this country."

Apart from a stint in hospital radio, O'Connell did not break into the industry until the relatively late age of 25. Stuck in jobs in telesales, he recalls listening to Evans's breakfast show while ironing his shirts. "I think that makes you better, because I knew what it was like to get up in the morning and go into a job you didn't want to do."

He learnt his trade on local radio stations in Bournemouth and Liverpool. The latter was "just me, really. I had to ring the competition winners after the show, make my own trails. It was a budget, tin-pot station. They didn't have a lot of money. They didn't have an engineer there; I had to ring an IT help number. I'd be in the middle of a link and we'd go off air. For half an hour there'd be no show."

O'Connell is proof that persistence pays off. He dreamt of working at Xfm and bombarded the station's bosses with tapes. "They were like 'No', 'Getting there', 'No, you've gone back a bit', 'Ooh, maybe now'. They came up, took me out for lunch and said, 'We're going to stay overnight and listen to you in our hotel room tomorrow morning.' I couldn't sleep that night."

As the married father of a 21-month-old girl, O'Connell eschews the laddishness of some breakfast-show hosts. He's more likely to chat about wife Sarah and baby Ruby than birds and booze, and is pleased that he has a female successor at Xfm, Lauren Laverne. "She's funny, intelligent. A lot of female presenters get pressure to be ladettes, but Lauren isn't like that."

One of the first items he launched at Virgin was Who's Calling Christian?, a version of a game called Bounty Hunter that he played at Xfm. Listeners are encouraged to persuade celebrities to ring the show, and then vote for their favourite. It was an instant hit, with Roger Moore phoning from Switzerland and Slash of Guns N' Roses calling from Los Angeles.

"Launching with that was hard work at first, because the listeners are trying to make their minds up about you and then you ask them to go and find a celebrity for you to speak to live. That's a big order. They're like, 'Hang on a minute, monkey boy, who the hell are you?' But they took to it really quickly." In three weeks, the competition notched up 120 celebrities.

O'Connell admits it was a deliberate strategy to start with tried and tested formats. "For the first year, we really wanted to set the stall out because it's so competitive now to do a breakfast show. You're paid well and you should have to work a bit harder and smarter.

"You're up against not only all the other breakfast shows, but the different ways people get music and information in the morning, whether it's through podcasts or the internet. I wanted to hit the ground running and have some banker ideas, ones we knew worked. Then you want to mix in some newer stuff as well."

Unlike some DJs, O'Connell has always worked hard at his banter, trawling magazines and websites for ideas, including Rolling Stone, GQ, Esquire, The Week, The New Yorker and even Marie Claire. "I tear through them like a vampire, sucking life out of them. These days people like information; they want to get a heads-up on new stuff, bands and TV shows coming over from America."

He brought his Xfm team to Virgin, including the producer Roque, and spent two months on gardening leave brainstorming with them before starting the new show. He writes down his ideas in a black Moleskine notebook. "Ernest Hemingway used one and I'm such a sucker for a sales spiel. I thought they might bring us luck, so I bought a shedload and gave them to all the guys."

O'Connell's first foray into television, the Five show Live With... Christian O'Connell, produced by Chris Evans (Chris Moyles presented the show before him), was axed after just one series. After three years of batting away "rubbish offers", he has finally been persuaded by the new Sky One chief Richard Woolf to present a Sunday night show. It is just about to go into production and he is buzzing with ideas, although he is determined that it will not be "over-formatted".

"I've always wanted to do a Sunday night show. Sunday night is so depressing. You've got the back-to-school feeling and the TV doesn't help. Last of the Summer Wine has been on for 33 years. There's nothing really fun."

To remedy this, Sunday Service will feature barmy items including Britain's worst best-man speeches, the world's ugliest pets and Celebrity Fat Club. "We get celebrities and see how much weight they can put on. We'll have video diaries of them sitting on the couch, eating crisps."

With the demands of a young daughter to cope with, 4.30am starts and a television show about to go into production, where does Christian O'Connell find the time to sleep?

He confesses: "I find myself gormlessly sleeping on the train. I apologise to anyone who has to get on the train from Waterloo to Kingston."

Christian O'Connell's show is on Virgin, 6.30am to 9am Monday to Friday