Handbags at dawn

In the cut-throat world of breakfast radio, female listeners are the holy grail. Ciar Byrne meets the presenters of the show that's grabbing their attention

She is a smart young girl about town with a weakness for shopping, he is a wisecracking Aussie dad of two who loves nothing better than a good ole barbie - on paper the pairing of Heart 106.2FM breakfast presenters Harriet Scott and Jono Coleman shouldn't work.

But when I meet them after their show on a balmy day in London's perennially hip Portobello Road market, their easy chemistry is immediately apparent. While having their pictures taken, they horse around among the fruit and veg stalls, juggling with oranges, dancing the tango and pulling saucy poses with a cucumber.

Heart, London's second biggest radio station, is banking on the duo to triumph in the battle for listeners in the highly competitive London market. And their competition? Johnny Vaughan, who recently replaced Chris Tarrant as the breakfast-show host on rival Capital 95.8FM.

After briefly overtaking Capital in the Rajar radio listening figures last year, Heart slipped back to number two in the first quarter of 2004. In his last three months on air, Tarrant increased his listeners by 133,000 to 1.38m, while Jono and Harriet's audience figures slipped by 39,000 to 833,000. The arrival of Vaughan, who is a newcomer to radio, leaves Scott and Coleman with everything to play for.

It is a war Heart hopes to win with an arsenal of melodic pop hits to get its target thirty-something female listeners dancing round their handbags on the school run or the way to the office. And Scott is Heart's secret weapon.

In an arena dominated by "blokey" presenters, she is the only woman who enjoys equal status with her co-host. Vaughan inherited Becky Jago from Tarrant, but she is still very much a sidekick.

"It's so annoying for us, because most women in radio just get the sidekick tag," says Scott. "No disrespect to Becky, but at the moment I'm certainly the only one fifty-fifty with a voice."

"I feel sorry for Becky, she doesn't get a word in," agrees Coleman. "When you look at breakfast radio these days you've got Terry Wogan on Radio 2, who's a bloke, you've got Pete and Geoff on Virgin, very blokey, you've got XFM which is Christian O'Connell, blokey, and you've got Johnny Vaughan on Capital. We're the only alternative to that."

The 31-year-old Scott believes that she typifies Heart's listeners. "My best compliment is when people come up to me and say, 'You say just what I'm thinking'. I'm me and I don't try to be all things to all people, but I think I've lived quite a varied life. I'm not married with kids, but I've lived with boyfriends. I've had quite a few experiences but I'm not some mad ladette party girl who doesn't enjoy the simple things in life like having your friends round, or staying in and watching TV."

As a teenager, Scott's DJ heroes were Radio 1 legends Simon Mayo, Steve Wright and Simon Bates. "There weren't particularly any female role models for me at that time, so mine were really guys. I wanted to play the men at their own game. I wanted to be a DJ and I deliberately did not want to be bimbo the weather girl; I always wanted my own show and to stand up for myself in what was then a man's world."

Scott admits she has always been cast as "the girl next door". But beneath her approachable exterior lies an unswerving ambition that has seen her land plum jobs at a relatively young age.

Scott started out in hospital radio at the age of 16, before choosing to study at Hull University because it had a student radio station, a BBC station and an independent local station.

Her big break - after several years in local radio - came when she was head-hunted by Chris Evans at Virgin Radio. In 2002, she moved from Virgin to a weekend slot on Heart, before taking over from Emma Forbes as Jono's co-host in April 2003. Forbes defected to Capital, only to quit a month later when it became clear she would not be given a co-presenting role with Vaughan on the breakfast show.

But what about the music? Don't the pair ever get sick of listening to cheesy pop songs?

"I love it," says Scott. "I'd been at Virgin for four years wanting to slit my wrists to the Manic Street Preachers, and then I came here and I thought it was hilarious that you could get paid for sitting there and playing Chic and Abba. The music has changed, even from when I joined the station. We're a lot more trendy now and we'll play Outkast and Jamelia."

Jono is slightly less enthusiastic. "We work in commercial radio, so people want to hear their favourite songs. Because we hear them every day we might get fed up with this Anastasia song or that song from Will Young, but you have to remove yourself and say, 'I'm playing this for Helen and Steve - it's their favourite song, it's their anniversary today.' "

It is a musical formula that is proving a hit at other radio stations up and down the country. When Capital Radio bought the Century network four years ago, it was a decidedly unattractive proposition, listened to mainly by downmarket men over the age of 45. Capital set out on a mission to alter Century's listener profile to 25- to 44-year-old females and dreamt up a role model to personify its new brand.

Debbie, a name arrived at by looking back at statistics to discover the most popular name for baby girls 33 years ago, is married with two kids. Her husband spends his weekends watching football, while she watches soap operas and Sex and the City. She likes to keep in touch with current musical trends, while also reliving the disco hits of her 1980s youth.

The result has been phenomenal. Century now accounts for 30 per cent of Capital Radio's revenues, and its Manchester-based Century 105.4FM has knocked its long-established rival Key 103FM from the top spot.

Century's managing director, Nick Davidson, sums up the appeal of this new wave of "handbag radio". "Ours is a very emotional radio station. Our particular success has come from females who want a relationship with us. Women want to connect when they listen to the radio, whereas men want to get away from it all."

It is a message Vaughan should bear in mind if he is serious about staying number one in London.

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