Commercial radio is struggling to stop its young stars defecting to the BBC

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The Independent Online

Picture the scenario. You, the hip young gunslinger of Middle-of-Nowhere FM, have just won several best newcomer awards after untold, unpaid years slogging it out in the broadcasting backwater of student radio.

Your profile remains low, but the major stations are circling overhead and the sickly-sweet scent of celebrity hangs heavy in the air. A career beckons but you're at a crossroads. The well-trodden but somewhat rocky path of commercial radio lies in one direction, winding and rambling with some serious challenges to be negotiated up ahead. In another direction is the BBC, a glittering radio institution whose current dominance of the industry cannot be underestimated. Which path should you take?

According to Lisa Kerr, the director of external affairs at RadioCentre, the body representing commercial radio interests, there really isn't much to think over. "The BBC could attract any of our commercial radio talent should they wish to," she admits. "For many young presenters it's a logical step in the development of their career."

So what has led to commercial radio becoming an unattractive option for talented young people? According to the audience research company Rajar, commercial radio has recently made up a little ground on the BBC, a 1.3 per cent rise in audience share has taken its overall figure to 42.4 per cent. These figures will come as a relief to battered commercial station managers, but the BBC still remains 13.1 percentage points ahead, with an overall listening share of 55.5 per cent.

Commercial stations must attract advertisers and therefore need to appeal to as many people as possible. But does an overbearing requirement to be populist threaten the creativity and individuality of commercial programming? Andy Swift, a presenter at Beacon Radio in Shropshire, thinks it does. "Commercial stations needs to stop trying to be the BBC, ditch the networked shows and become truly local again."

Ben Cooper, head of programmes at Radio 1, agrees. "Young presenters are attracted to the BBC because they know they have the freedom to be creative and take risks."

Casting an eye over the stars of commercial radio, one would be forgiven for failing to recognise many. Take away Jamie Theakston at Heart 106.2, Alex Zane at XFM London, Christian O'Connell at Virgin Radio and Johnny Vaughan at Capital Radio and the number of household names is minimal. In comparison, the list of presenters at the BBC stations read like a veritable who's who of popular culture.

This proved a stumbling block for Samanthi, who presents the breakfast show on Bauer's newly re-launched Q Radio. "I wanted to work at BBC 6 Music but they didn't seem interested simply because I wasn't a household name," she says. "I even toyed with the idea of doing television just to enhance my radio career."

Can commercial radio still capture the imagination of emerging talent? Chris Wise, a presenter at The Quay in Portsmouth and winner of the Arqiva/Skillset Commercial Radio Newcomer Award, says it can. "It's easier to break into commercial radio and while there you're groomed into a local figure," he says. "I can't imagine many presenters would trade the experience you get at a local commercial station for working at the BBC."

But many bright young things of radio see commercial stations as a springboard to the BBC. Greg James, 22, is one of the BBC's youngest presenting protégées, having began his career at Galaxy in Newcastle before moving to Radio 1, which led to a breakfast show slot. "There's too much safe, boring radio around," he says. "At commercial stations, new talent is left to develop bad habits which aren't picked up on."

Jonathan Ross, Scott Mills, Dermot O'Leary, Russell Brand, Edith Bowman, Chris Evans and Tim Westwood all worked at major commercial stations before finding a home on BBC radio. Melvin Odoom, co-presenter of the Ricky and Melvin Breakfast show on Kiss 100, disagrees that the traffic is all one way. He worked at the BBC station 1-Xtra but was given a presenting break by Kiss. "Most people still see commercial stations as more credible, edgy and fresh than the BBC. Real music fans tune into stations like ours."

How can stations compete with the BBC and its huge budgets and famous presenters? Jamie Atherton of Rock FM, which broadcasts to the North-west, thinks the answer lies in having a strong regional personality. "Commercial stations need to keep up with the trend of personality based radio," he says. "DJ's need local identity and character or people won't listen."