Greg James: From uni student to radio star - the rise of a boy wonder
Less than a year ago, Greg James was at university. Now he's helming Radio 1's 'Early Breakfast' show – and attracting listeners in droves. Miranda Bryant asks for the secret of his success
Monday 25 February 2008
Great Portland Street, central London, at 5am. It's dark and barren, and the only sign of life is at a lock-in at a pub on the corner. The Radio 1 office situated nearby is also empty, but venture down to its studios and a whole new world unfolds. The disarmingly young Greg Milward – or Greg James as he is commonly known – is the new voice of Radio 1's Early Breakfast and he has accumulated more listeners to the show than any other of the station's DJs since 2004.
The 22-year-old, who was discovered by Radio 1 as a student, has been entertaining commuters, truckers and schoolchildren alike from 4am until 6.30am on weekday mornings since October. Inside the studio, James, who is both clean cut and cheekily good-looking, is eagerly encouraging listeners to take part in "naked day", delivering speech to his producer Neil Sloan as if acting on stage.
Though he has a comical side, when discussing his audience he turns serious, talking about the listeners like a concerned friend: "I don't think there's a distinct listener that I have in my head, but I often think of them being on their own and wanting company," he says. "I like to talk like you would in the pub, because it's normal conversation and you sound like a real person, not a DJ."
His approach evidently works, because, as a virtual unknown, he totted up 1.3 million listeners per week in the final quarter of 2007, an increase of 8,000 on the previous quarter and 120,000 more than the same time last year, beating Virgin Radio's JK and Joel, who had the gig before him. It's not bad for his first job since graduating from university less than a year ago.
This sudden leap to the top has impressed more than just his former peers in student radio at the University of East Anglia. Ben Cooper, programme controller of Radio 1, was the man who "found" James and says that the young presenter has a rare talent. "Greg has something I haven't heard in a demo for a year and a half. It's not just about good voice, humour, intelligence or love of Radio 1, but it's a combination of all of those."
James started listening to Radio 1 after discovering Chris Moyles' afternoon show. "I listened to him religiously. I became obsessed with the makings of a radio show and I couldn't believe that people got away with doing that for a living." James was also inspired by television: "I love watching and listening to live, exciting shows. That's what attracted me." This is apparent on Early Breakfast, where much of the show is dependent on listener response. James relishes the interactivity: "It can change so quickly. I find that exciting and I think the listeners do too."
James had to wait until university to get on air for the first time. Although he was involved in hospital radio before that, he bashfully explains that his shows were never broadcast because the transmitter was broken. "But I did get practice," he says. "I learnt the basics: introducing songs, getting timings right and not talking over vocals. I also learnt how to tell stories. 'Idiot of the Day' was one of my first features."
His springboard to Radio 1 came when his show at the UEA, where he studied drama, won him Best Male DJ at the 2005 Student Radio Awards. The prize was a one-off show on Radio 1.
While the competition is prestigious, winners don't typically walk into jobs on national radio. But James attracted interest, especially from Sloan who was crucial to his fast-track rise. Sloan has become his friend as well as his producer. "We stayed in touch after he produced that first show, it grew from there and it helped Radio 1 to become aware of me," says James. "It was an hour of shaky nervousness, but they thought it stood out, which meant I was on their radar."
Radio 1 was not alone in following James's progress. His work at Galaxy FM during university holidays nearly led to a contract and provided invaluable experience. "It was a few steps up from university radio and I was broadcasting to a few thousand people. It was a buzz and another discipline to learn." But then the offer from Radio 1 came.
His dream job hasn't always been as much fun as he anticipated. "When I first started, negative comments affected me," he admits. "The pressures of performing daily were challenging. It can take over your thoughts. I'm trying to take one show at a time and keep my head down."
Some observers have already pointed to similarities between James and Scott Mills. "The comparisons annoyed me at the start because I wasn't trying to be like anyone else," says the younger man. "But it's inevitable. When Keane came out, people compared them to Coldplay, Pigeon Detectives were supposed to sound like Kaiser Chiefs and so on. But so what?"
Judging by his boss Cooper's views, any worries James may have about his job are unfounded. "Early Breakfast is an amazing training ground," notes the programme controller. "I hope that Greg goes on to bigger and better things at the station in the next couple of years."
James's appointment is a sign of his talent rather than part of a broader policy to hire younger presenters, Cooper insists. "It's fantastic that Greg's living his audience's experiences, but age isn't everything – John Peel didn't need to be 16 to broadcast to a 16-year-old. It's important for us to sign the newest, freshest talent and quite often that is in younger people."
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