Crunch time in the great breakfast battle

DJ Christian O'Connell's move to Virgin is the latest wake-up call to any station that means business
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is known as "the curse of the Sonys". Your top presenter wins a clutch of Sony awards, the Oscars of the radio industry, and next thing you know he has been poached by a rival willing to make an exceptionally generous offer. It happened last week to London station Xfm, whose charismatic breakfast DJ, Christian O'Connell, won Sonys for breakfast show of the year, best entertainment show and best competition. Days later O'Connell revealed that he was quitting to join Virgin Radio. Paul Jackson, Virgin's acting chief executive, jokes: "We'll give it a few years before we enter him for the Sonys."

It is known as "the curse of the Sonys". Your top presenter wins a clutch of Sony awards, the Oscars of the radio industry, and next thing you know he has been poached by a rival willing to make an exceptionally generous offer. It happened last week to London station Xfm, whose charismatic breakfast DJ, Christian O'Connell, won Sonys for breakfast show of the year, best entertainment show and best competition. Days later O'Connell revealed that he was quitting to join Virgin Radio. Paul Jackson, Virgin's acting chief executive, jokes: "We'll give it a few years before we enter him for the Sonys."

The Sony judges said: "There is a touch of genius to Christian's approach to improvisation and presentation that really sets him apart." It includes the competition "Bounty Hunter" in which Xfm listeners approach celebrities and invite them to be interviewed by O'Connell in return for a £10,000 donation to charity. Stars including Alice Cooper, Brooke Shields and Sir Ian McKellen have taken part.

Jackson, who first proposed O'Connell for the Xfm job, is predictably delighted to have captured him for Virgin. "He is the number one radio broadcaster of his generation. He has grown and grown. In an ocean where they are very few and far between, Christian is a giant." Small wonder that Virgin will use him as their breakfast DJ as soon as he comes on board in January 2006.

In the 22 years since BBC's Breakfast News fielded Frank Bough and Selina Scott against the new threat from TV AM, radio's early morning dominance has been dented, but not broken. Getting ready for work or school, Britain listens to the wireless. Manylisteners are half asleep, but breakfast is the battleground on which the success of entire radio stations is built.

Paul Brown, chief executive of the Commercial Radio Companies Association, says: "Traditionally, radio has been a morning medium, television an evening medium. It is hard-wired into the DNA of the British. People don't have time for a primary medium in the morning. Radio is a secondary medium. It fits into people's lives while they are performing ablutions, picking up their tool-box and making toast."

Every radio executive from the BBC's director of radio and music, Jenny Abramsky, through to individual station directors in independent local radio knows he is right. Audience levels achieved between 6am and 9am are never repeated later, but a proportion of the listeners won by "radio caffeine" will stay with a station throughout the day. The spoils are dramatic. The stately Today programme, the spine of the Radio 4 schedule, counts its listeners in television-humbling millions. Talksport's Sports Breakfast with Alan Brazil and Graham Beechcroft performs the same role for the national commercial station.

But pure speech is a minority taste. Music, news and humour blended by DJs such as O'Connell are the real ratings toppers. The king of breakfast radio is BBC Radio 2's Terry Wogan with more than 8 million listeners. Radio 1's Chris Moyles attracts 6.17 million. These are the dripping roasts from which national commercial competitors such as Virgin must win converts if commercial radio is to close the 10 per cent audience lead that BBC Radio enjoys over its advertising-funded rivals.

"Your breakfast show is your flagship," says Paul Jackson. "It defines the entire tone of your station. Listeners who tune in at breakfast time may stay for the whole day. It is the time when the biggest possible audience is available." It is also, as the "curse of the Sonys" implies, massively dependent on the personality of your breakfast DJ. That is why the BBC frets about who will eventually replace Terry Wogan even more than it worried about finding the successor to Jimmy Young. It is why Paul Jackson was delighted to hire Christian O'Connell even though his existing breakfast duo, Pete (Mitchell) and Geoff (Lloyd) have delighted listeners for three years and performed impressively in the ratings.

"Great radio presenters are extremely rare," Brown says. "You can't train them. They are either good at creating a microcosmic world in which people want to join them or they are not. They work in a tiny, closed environment, surrounded by white walls and flashing lights, almost completely alone, and yet perform to millions as if they are talking to two or three intimate friends. They have to be extrovert and introvert at the same time."

Great names from John Timpson and Brian Redhead via John Peel to up-and-coming stars including O' Connell and Radio 1's Zane Lowe tend to be radio dedicated and not attracted to the small screen. Radio wisdom is that television stars do not convert to radio and true radio talent is not interested in television. Jackson agrees. He considers O'Connell a genuine radio talent for the future and is dismissive of rivals who hire imported television faces in a bid to boost radio ratings.

Such confidence that radio requires unique skills will always make Sony award-winning breakfast presenters highly sought after. But they have to be carefully looked after when they arrive. Getting up in the middle of the night to sound fresh at the microphone can become gruelling for even the most dynamic broadcasters. BBC London's breakfast ace, Danny Baker, proved it with his response to Sony Awards triumph. Named DJ of the year, beating O'Connell, Baker announced his departure from the airwaves within the day. He is going to write a film script for Five. Radio executives searching the market for proven breakfast talent are hoping it flops.

Comments