Colin Murray: The pop picker who got serious

Filling big shoes does not scare Colin Murray. The new Music Broadcaster of the Year tells Guy Adams that he relies on a John Peel rule - just play songs you like

If you've got a poisoned chalice, Colin Murray's the man to handle it. That, at least, seems to be the view at Radio One, where the young Irish presenter has twice been asked to take over shows from "cult" DJs, and twice now managed to emerge from this most tricky of challenges with his career smelling of roses.

In 2004, Murray and Edith Bowman were parachuted into the BBC youth station's afternoon show, which had for six years been the home of Mark Radcliffe and Marc Riley (better known as Mark and Lard). Critics predicted meltdown; but Colin 'n' Edith's boy-and-girl-next-door act increased listeners to 5.5 million, the highest in the slot for more than a decade.

Then, in June last year, he moved to his current berth, The Colin Murray Show. It's a weeknight programme showcasing what he calls "new music and alternative classics" between 10pm and midnight - a famous witching hour (or rather, two) that music lovers will forever associate with the legendary John Peel.

At first, listeners wondered if Murray's mass-market background gave him sufficient gravitas to fill the great man's leather sandals; but he won them round. At last month's Sony awards, Murray was named "Music Broadcaster of the Year." Peel, rather appropriately, received a posthumous gong: "Broadcaster's Broadcaster."

We meet at the buzzy Radio One headquarters in Marylebone, where Murray reckons to spend around forty hours a week. In person, he's a dead ringer for Ralph Little, though admits to looking more like David Baddiel, since passing his thirtieth birthday.

In addition to his Sony, Murray is also celebrating the latest set of Rajar figures. They reveal that he's pulling in 1.09 million listeners, up 160,000 on the year and 140,000 on the quarter, and enough to make him one of the hottest properties in broadcasting. "For me, it's a perfect home," he says of his current job. "What I like is that it's always represented honesty, and never been influenced by what's supposed to be cool at the time. Peel played music he liked; I just play music I like."

A typical Murray playlist includes acts as diverse as Jeff Buckley, Tori Amos, Manic Street Preachers and Kings of Leon. Although he boasts a background in what might be called "serious" music journalism (and began his Radio One career playing "alternative" music in late-night shows), the Colin 'n' Edith days gig required him to champion plastic pop.

"There were times when I'd put a record on that I'd think was absolute shit," he admits. "But the move to late-night wasn't actually about that. It was more a personal thing: it was getting to the stage when I didn't need to second-guess to do the afternoon show. It worked on auto-pilot. I was turning-up to work later and later, getting in at half twelve, and could do the job with my hands behind my back. So I just wanted a new challenge."

The result has interspersed fashionable sounds with a range of quirky feature items. One is called "The Black Hole," and showcases music that listeners have found on the internet ("we call it The Black Hole, because of the ridiculous stuff that gets in there"). Another is a half-hour documentary, on anything from politics to festivals. On Thursday nights, he gets bands in for a major interview.

Murray is spreading his wings into TV, after joining the celebrity circus of Comic Relief Does Fame Academy in March. Later this year, he'll front a new channel Five quiz show, Payday.

"It's about working out the highest earner in a room by how they look, how they dress, and how they answer questions," he says. "If you get a question right, you win the daily wage of one of the other contestants. It's about preconceptions, you know, if some guy's got tattoos then he can't be rich. If some guy's old, he can't be earning."

The show will be broadcast for a month at 6.30pm, before Five decide whether to commission an entire year's worth. Rather appropriately, pay-packets have been a major talking point for Murray lately, after last year's scandal when the Radio One presenters' salaries were leaked (Murray was on £170,000, his then co-presenter Bowman on £175,000).

"It didn't annoy me, because at the end of the day I get offered a wage, and I accept it. I could say someone else is getting four times as much, or the breakfast DJ is getting six times as much, but I had accepted the wage, and it was better than I was getting before," he says.

"I also really enjoyed finding out what everyone else was on. My friends all went 'I thought you got three times that' so I could also tell them that's why I wasn't paying for all their holidays. At the time I was a single guy, with no kids and no tax credits. I'm losing half of what I earned in tax anyway, so I could be quite pompous and cling to my working-class roots."

Like most BBC presenters, Murray is actually on a freelance contract. He supplements his Radio One earnings with the Five Live sport show Fighting Talk on Saturday morning, where he tries not to allow a childhood loyalty to Liverpool FC (he's taking four days off to attend the forthcoming Champions League final) to colour his BBC impartiality.

"I'm on after the fat bloke, Eamonn Holmes. He's got this one thing Wogan had, that if you listen he's got the ability to talk about anything and it's really relaxing immediately. He's a lovely guy as well, very self depreciating, and almost every show he's been on has been a success."

What Murray, Wogan and Holmes have in common is Irishness: a good accent for radio. Murray was born in 1977 on a Protestant council estate in Dundonnald, East Belfast, and educated at the local grammar.

After being expelled at 16 ("actually, in grammar school they call it politely asking to leave") for being a disruptive influence in class, he became a trainee on the Ulster Newsletter. He evidently showed great promise and spent a year on a fellowship at the Toronto Star in the mid-1990s, before leaving to set up a pop magazine called BLANK. Murray picked up a pop column on the Sunday People and began presenting for Radio One in 1999.

Murray quit radio for a brief and unhappy stint on the Channel Four breakfast show RI:SE. "It taught me a lot about how people shouldn't be treated," he recalls. "Staff were demotivated, the company wasn't behind us, and I felt that if this is what TV is then I don't want to do it again. It scared me off TV for a long time."

He lives in North London with his Danish fiancée Katrina and spends his days honing the late night show, paying attention to set-piece interviews, which he feels is a format poorly-served by modern broadcasters.

"It used to be that you'd turn on a TV chat show, and watch it, and you'd learn by the end something about the person that you liked or disliked. These days, it tends to be just an interviewer cracking bad jokes.

"You know, it's a bad state of affairs when Frank Skinner's the best interviewer on television, but he's the only one that does it properly. Like with Ron Atkinson, Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, and Matthew Kelly. Three times Skinner didn't dodge the issue: a racist, a drug taker, and someone accused of being a paedophile," he says.

Only a fool would vote against Murray eventually popping up on his own television chat show. In the bubbly, knockabout world of broadcasting, there will always be plenty of poisoned chalices to take up.

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