Neil Fox: Rise and shine, the Fox is prowling the Magic airwaves

After being overlooked as a breakfast DJ by Capital, Neil Fox has emerged as Magic's king of early morning radio. His secret has been to keep his motormouth in check, he tells Ian Burrell
Click to follow
The Independent Online

At precisely 5am each weekday morning, Neil Andrew Howe Fox steps out of his Chelsea home, climbs aboard his Harley and for the next 11 minutes purrs through the trafficless streets of London on his way to the radio studio behind Oxford Street where he plies his trade. In appropriate weather, he will don a pair of sunglasses for the duration of his commute.

The artiste who began his career as "Doctor Fox", evolving into "Foxy" before eventually settling on plain old "Neil Fox" is enjoying the time of his broadcasting life as the most listened-to breakfast presenter in London on commercial radio, defeating such competitors as Johnny Vaughan, Jamie Theakston and Christian O'Connell. In the capital, not even Chris Moyles can match the Fox.

Yes, he has been mocked by satirist Chris Morris, who tricked him into appearing on a mockumentary about paedophilia and observing that paedophiles shared the same genes as crabs ("That is scientific fact. There's no real evidence for it but it's scientific fact," Dr Fox). Sure, the animated BBC3 show Monkey Dust questioned the validity of his doctorate and depicted him being chased by a pack of hounds. But who's laughing now?

The King of Breakfast sits himself down in the restaurant area of the trendy Sanderson Hotel and starts spreading jam on his toast. He is wearing a checked jacket, with a hankie protruding from the pocket, and jeans with fashionably large turn-ups.

Not only is he dominating the radio waves but the former judge on ITV's Pop Idol is developing a series of television formats through his independent production company, Powder Blue, and is making two feature films, one of them with Jeffrey Archer, of all people.

When it comes to radio, Neil Fox, 46, is an old pro. Richard Park, his former boss at Capital radio, knew as much when he persuaded Fox to move to Magic 105.4, currently London's leading commercial station, two years ago. The DJ had been part of the furniture at Capital and had been hurt by the station's decision to overlook him in favour of Vaughan as the successor to its breakfast stalwart Chris Tarrant.

The idea of a famously chatterbox presenter joining a station with the catchphrase "More Music, Less Talk", may not have appeared the most prescient of career moves but it has turned out to be an inspired step. "Part of my style was that I could talk for England that was what made me Foxy. I haven't lost that but you have to adapt it," he says. "We have a more mature ABC1 audience and they don't want to hear me waffling on."

The transfer to Magic was "a really lovely easy move", he says. "There I was at 44, two kids at the time, there comes a time when you think 'I don't want to be an old man on a young people's radio station. I want an audience that is like me.' I don't ever want to be fake because you get found out."

So he gladly switched from drive-time to early mornings, rumbling in on his iron horse to be on air half an hour before his rivals. He says that dawn ride is "an absolute joy", though his analogy is a little disturbing. "It's like the city has been hit by one of those terrible catastrophes, Terminator or something, and suddenly the city has been emptied and there are no cars there. It's brilliant."

The school run is central to the Fox offering. At 8.15am, when the Today programme is in the middle of its big set-piece interview, Magic will do a sweep of feel-good tunes aimed at inspiring a family sing-a-long on the way to the school gates. That morning it was Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive", Simply Red's "Stars" and "Daydream Believer" by The Monkees. "These are great uplifting records. My kids know a lot of these. 'I Can't Help Myself' by the Four Tops they say it is the Shark Tale song," says the presenter, referring to the DreamWorks cartoon movie. "They've no idea it's a 40-year old song but Magic never says what year a song is from because it's irrelevant."

Whereas other stations try to "kick start and punch" people into the day, Fox's listeners "need a bit of gentle easing, they've got family and kids and everything is a little bit stressful and nobody has enough time".

The phenomenon that is Magic has seen the station's audience grow from 1.5m to 2m in the two years since Fox has been there, all with minimal marketing. Rivals have sought to detect its formula and Fox says that the sound of the street-smart Vaughan reduced to playing Magic's favourite crooner Michael Bubl "made all of us laugh".

Though he describes Vaughan as "a really talented bloke", Fox says of his competition that "I don't think it's the right show for Capital it's a bit blokey for me and I think a station like that should be a little more female biased". It was unbecoming of Vaughan, he says, to quibble over Fox's success in the ratings. "There is a lesson for Mr Vaughan, when the Rajars come out, to not whinge about it, just accept it. It just makes you sound silly and small-time, which is certainly not what Capital should be. This time round we won and that's life."

Fox is more concerned about Heart, now that his old pal Park has jumped ship to work on that station for new owners Global Radio UK. He also wants to take listeners from Radio 2's Terry Wogan who, along with Today, is the only radio offering to beat him in London in the mornings.

The Magic breakfast show has its own website, offering "Mr Men podcasts" narrated by the presenter and a "Foxy's Soapbox" feature, where he blogs forth on subjects such as the expansion of Heathrow Airport. Reports that this work in modern media has prompted another name change, this time to "X-Fox" are, sadly, not true.

With his business partner Stefan Allesch-Taylor, Fox is working on a series of TV projects, including a documentary on the music business. He is not bitter about his treatment by Morris, saying "you look back at it as an edit and think 'Why did I say that?' but of course you film so much more and get sucked into it. It was very clever. On the other hand I did think it was a bit of a sick subject. Paedophilia is not really your normal comedy area, let's be honest."

One of Foxy's film projects is a movie about the mountaineer George Mallory, based on an Archer screenplay. "It's for general release around the world and has a US$35m (17m) budget, so it's a proper film," he says, though he won't identify his "Oscar-winning director" (rumoured to be Bruce Beresford of Driving Miss Daisy fame).

His other movie is also based on a true story. "We had a story brought to us by a couple of real-life spooks about an incredible con that happened in London two years ago," he reveals. "The guys got away with it but we know who they are, where they are, how much money they got and how they got away with it. We know everything. They can't be prosecuted for some clever reason so we are going to make a movie about them and use their real names just to piss them off."

Magic's More Music Breakfast Show with Neil Fox is on weekdays, 5.30am-9am, on 105.4FM in London and nationally via Freeview, Sky Digital and Virgin Media