Johnny Vaughan: Tarrant was a shadow I had to escape

Two years ago Johnny Vaughan was given an almost impossible act to follow when he took over the breakfast show on Capital Radio. Here he explains how he did it
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Before the big intro, Chris took me up on the roof of the Capital building in Leicester Square, not to push me off, but to give me a fatherly chat and a few scraps of advice ("If you're ever stuck for anything to say just tell them it's 8.23 - it normally is"). Then he took me downstairs and the whole office was there to greet me. Everybody was clapping and really enthusiastic. It was the big handover. That was the moment when I realised what a big deal it was and it sunk in, just like when a footballer signs for a big club and they are holding up the team shirt with their name on the back. It was that kind of moment.

Taking over from Chris Tarrant, the biggest name in commercial radio, was a huge deal and something that, until now, I haven't really talked about even though every press interview seemed to be focused on CT and I was always asked, "What's it like, the pressure of filling Tarrant's shoes?"

I guess my reason for not talking about it was that I felt enough pressure taking over the Capital breakfast and learning the craft of radio without having the added responsibility of filling a legend's shoes. If you imagine a relay runner waiting to receive the baton - he's not thinking about how awesome the guy doing the handover is, but focusing on the leg he has to run, making the handover smooth and hopefully not losing any of the lead his team-mate has built up.

When I started I knew so little. I didn't know how much there is to know and I thought it was much easier than I do now. The first thing I discovered is that you can't hide on radio. I had always thought that radio was the medium where you could hide and that television is where you were really exposed. But in radio you have to create a total world just using your voice. There's no "Look at this". You can't say something harsh and get away with it because you've done a little smile to say "Hey, I don't mean it really". Now I know enough about radio to know that there's a lot more to know - so I'm vaguely on the path of wisdom.

Teamwork's the really vital thing on any daily live show, and having a truly amazing team round me and enjoying every second of working with them is the real thrill of my job. When we get on a roll and London's playing along on text, it is about the biggest buzz in broadcasting. I'm also lucky to have bosses that know a damn sight more about radio than I do, even if it means hearing things that perhaps I don't want to hear.

The secret to Chris Tarrant's radio is the sunshine in his voice. It's always there, even when he's been asleep during a record. When you tuned in to Tarrant you were always waking up with a bit of sunshine. He's got a different humour from me but I look to his energy and positivity, the fact that he never talks down to callers; they're all his friends and part of his team. These skills, I've learned, are the foundation stones of doing good morning radio. Bright but not too bright for someone with a hangover.

I feel lucky that, two years on, I've stayed as number one of London's breakfast shows. We even had one month where we beat Wogan. To lose not too many of Chris's listeners is thoroughly nice. Although I had a hint of it when I presented Channel 4's The Big Breakfast, I had no real idea how strongly people feel for the person who wakes them up in the morning and brings them into the world. Chris Tarrant really was the listeners' big mate and then, suddenly, I was stepping in to their world and saying "I'm going to be your friend now". You are a new friend imposed on them - and it's a question of whether you cut it or not. I'm just delighted that they didn't all desert and we've stayed number one.

Weirdly, the pressure hasn't come from replacing a legend because you're not expected to be as good - by the listeners, that is. It comes when the media see other people catching you up or a rival having a good set of figures for one month. Suddenly the knives are out.

The press coverage has reminded me a little bit of the articles you read about how evil, unhealthy or in decline fast food is - you never see KFC or Burger King up there, or Morley's Fried Chicken for that matter. It's all about the golden arches of McDonald's. That's the price you pay for being the top brand - you never get the underdog coverage.

Another thing I wasn't prepared for was how DJs at rival stations publicly like to have a dig and criticise the show. As far as I'm concerned, a pro never insults another pro, especially not if they're in direct competition.

I didn't really appreciate how competitive commercial radio in London really is. It's about the nearest thing I've experienced to working in American telly which I did last year. British television is still a bit like the Auld Firm in Scottish football, with two big players dominating prime time. London commercial radio is truly competitive; you are all on a level playing field so to stay No.1 is satisfying. It would be even more satisfying if I understood how they work out the ratings and ensure a truly representative survey group.

Another thing I've noticed about doing breakfast radio is that in some small way you are allowed your citizenship back by the public. In television you are seen as waltzing in each week, doing a show and picking up a cheque but it's not a real job. There's a perceived phoniness about it.

I know you get that in radio as well, but doing an early show you do get a bit of credit for getting up at dawn and sharing the daily grind of your listeners. I get people in the streets - hard-working people like scaffolders, or a guy running a hectic café - saying "You must be knackered" and I think "What, I must be knackered?".

That's why I sometimes feel criticism of DJs is a bit redundant. If even one person in a hospital listens to you then you're in some way a success - because they've chosen you. If you slag a presenter off then you're really slagging their listeners off for choosing that person.

I'm still learning about radio and am really enjoying that.

Learning is what we are on this earth to do and you can derive such satisfaction from chasing the perfect show. It never quite happens but you get special moments. Such as when, just as you are saying the word "news", you see all the zeros line up on the 8.00.00am. Then you read out the papers and it works perfectly with the music running underneath ending just in time. You introduce the next record and the vocal comes in just as you've finished speaking. These are moments when you have done something as well as it can be done and it really is so satisfying.

You can't really get that in telly because there are too many people taking up the slack. In radio, it's really down to you.