Gold but no longer old - how Radio 2 beat the age gap

As the Radio 1 audience dips below Radio 4's, a new controller is transforming the 'easy listening' station
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The Independent Online

He is an icon to teens and twentysomethings courtesy of his slots on pop shows, Big Brother spin-offs and regular appearances in Heat magazine.

He is an icon to teens and twentysomethings courtesy of his slots on pop shows, Big Brother spin-offs and regular appearances in Heat magazine.

But Dermot O'Leary seemingly leapt a generation barrier when nine days ago - and only just into his 30s - he was unveiled as a new voice for BBC Radio 2, once seen as the home of easy listening for the grey-haired masses.

In the past six years it has taken on a dynamic edge without pushing out old favourites. Listeners might now hear Jonathan Ross launching into a monologue about Ann Summers parties shortly before the theme tune to Pick Of The Pops starts.

O'Leary's appointment has prompted mutterings that Radio 2 - already the country's biggest station - will start eating into the audience of the more youth-oriented Radio 1. After all, the station has also signed up Radio 1's afternoon presenter Mark Radcliffe, who fired a parting shot at Radio 1 recently by saying he hated the material he was forced to play on his show. His ex-colleague Zoë Ball is also voicing a pair of documentaries for 2.

The recruitment of O'Leary and Radcliffe has been among the first moves by Radio 2's new controller Lesley Douglas, who took over in January after a number of years as the station's programme editor. She sees the appointments as increasing the breadth of what is available to the station's adult audience - certainly not a conscious move to bring in more youth-friendly DJs.

Douglas says she is not interested in just ticking boxes to find the presenters who will resonate with potential groups of listeners. "I genuinely don't think of presenters in that sort of way. Dermot O'Leary to me is a great communicator. He has a broad range of interest in music and he has a broad range of interests as a person."

O'Leary's appointment comes at a time when Radio 1's adult audience of 9.4 million has dipped below Radio 4's for the first time and the station waits to see how a shake-up in schedules will perk up its fortunes against competition from commercial stations such as Kiss.

"The reason I actually met up with Dermot is that so many producers said can we use Dermot as a dep [deputy for regular presenters]," says Douglas.

"When I sat down and talked to him I realised what a broad range of interests he had.

"You should never sign someone on the basis of what they have done but what they can do in the future. Age is irrelevant. When Mark Lamarr joined he was younger than Dermot and we know how important he is to Radio 2.

"This is not a recent phenomenon. When Terry Wogan joined Radio 2 he was 32 - and as we all know he has had a hugely successful career on the station ... I don't think of a listener in terms of age either. I think people can become fixated by age, but the fact is great communicators are great communicators."

O'Leary is in fact just 13 months older than one of Radio 1's latest signings, Vernon Kay, the ever-smiling former model who fronted Channel 4's Saturday night flop Boys and Girls.

On the face of it both presenters might appeal to a similar market. They each found fame on the same Channel 4 youth and pop strand T4. Indeed, O'Leary - who was a presenter for the London-based new music station 104.9 XFM - had met Radio 1 controller Andy Parfitt.

"He has been in to chat, but I do see quite a lot of people. It depends on what you do. It needs the right opportunity and the right thing which wasn't there for us on this occasion," says Parfitt. O'Leary himself was impressed by the diversity of his new station, and said it was closer to his musical interests than Radio 1. "The reason I want to be at Radio 2 is because of the great music they play, and as I get into my 30s, this is the station for me."

Both Douglas and Parfitt deny they are pursuing the same audience. Radio 2 is aimed at over 35s and alongside the occasionally near-the-knuckle Jonathan Ross there are favourites such as Ken Bruce, David Jacobs and shows such as The Organist Entertains with Nigel Ogden.

Radio 1 is targeted at 15 to 24s, with a sizeable group of under-15s. But there is clearly some common ground. The most recent figures show that of Radio 1's 9.4 million audience, 3.3 million are over 35, although they do not tune in for anything like as long as the target age group. Similarly, Radio 2 has 2.5 million under-35s in its audience of 13.2 million.

"Are we in competition with Radio 2? Of course not," says Parfitt. "We work for the same organisation; the BBC is designed to have something for everyone in the population. It would be wrong to have two brands competing against each other. There is very little crossover and that should remain so. I think the issue is what you do with a presenter."

And Douglas points out: "Dermot is only one tiny part of the whole picture. The daytime schedule remains as it was and we have documentaries about Margaret Thatcher, D-Day, South Africa and music debates coming up. We have a huge range of programmes and we will continue to serve older listeners."

As for Radio 1, Parfitt is confident about the next set of audience figures after a series of schedule changes. After seeing the station's adult audience dip below that of Radio 4 in the final quarter of 2003 for the first time, he has moved Chris Moyles to the Breakfast Show, with Sara Cox swapping places to take up his old afternoon slot.

"But Radio 1 is not all about ratings - it's about serving a particular audience in a busy fragmented market," Parfitt adds.