Plucky Jim

Jim Moir is the man who did the impossible - he made Radio 2 cool. But why, Vincent Graff asks him, did it take seven years to get rid of Jimmy Young?
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Jim Moir was on his feet. He had an important announcement to make. The controller of Radio 2 knew that his employees, gathered at the Reform Club for his annual Christmas party, were interested in only one topic of conversation: the broadcaster Nicky Campbell's boastful claim, in a newspaper interview a few days earlier, that he had been offered Jimmy Young's job – behind the back of the veteran presenter whose "JY Prog" had run on the network since 1973.

Campbell, of course, was nowhere in sight. "I sent a car for Nicky," said Moir, pausing for effect, "but sadly it missed."

The message, delivered with Moir's traditional rosy-cheeked grin, was not lost on his audience. For Campbell's unwelcome intervention had screwed up the delicate negotiations behind the trickiest manoeuvre of Moir's radio career: getting rid of Young.

He won't say this, but Young's eventual departure, to be replaced by the masterful Jeremy Vine, was to be Moir's final proof to the nation's thirtysomethings that it had become OK to listen to the station that had previously been – thanks, in part, to JY's "legal eagle", "recipe of the day" and "ta-ta for now" – the epitome of uncool.

Moir is due to step down at the end of the year. Next month, his job will be advertised. He leaves a station that has been reborn – and with a record 13 million listeners, a fifth of them aged 15-34. And the former JY slot? Recent figures show Vine on 5.7 million listeners, a mere 50,000 behind Young's highest audience. Ask your friends – you won't have to whisper when you do. It's no longer embarrassing to say you are a fan of the station.

Moir says that when he took over, Radio2 was suitable only for "aunts, mum and dad, and certainly granny". Listeners at that end of the age spectrum have some very bad habits – not least of which is dying, a selfish lifestyle choice that can severely hamper the amount of time they spend tuned in to the station.

"I was given a task: introduce a new audience and keep the loyalty of the heartland audience." To use his favourite phrase, Moir wanted to give younger people "permission to listen".

"The big difficulty in the changes that we have brought here has been one of perception. Even when we were making very good progress in increasing our range and altering our tone, the perception of 'old, dull, boring, not for me' hung on."

A tired brand, weighed down by a public image that suggests it is wedded to the past, has no relevance today and is beyond its sell-by date... ring any bells? Jim Moir needed a symbolic act he could show to the public to demonstrate that he had left the old Radio 2 behind and was not going back.

In effect, I suggest, a Clause Four. "Yes. What we needed to do to alert the external world to the fact that we were changing was to do something that gained attention." So Moir planned "a series of explosions".

The first came on a Saturday afternoon in 1996, in the form of Steve Wright.

"Radio 2 owes a great gratitude to Steve in this strategy. We had a hell's-a-poppin', foot-on-the-gas-pedal, going-places show, playing music that had previously not been heard, and commentators immediately said: 'What is happening at R2?' It was a big signal."

The first of many. Within time, in came Jonathan Ross, Mark Lamarr, Johnny Walker and Vine, alongside grown-up, sometimes esoteric, rock music. Weirdly, they continued – and continue – to coexist alongside David Jacobs, Richard Baker and Desmond Carrington. Alan Keith, who presented Your 100 Best Tunes, only recently lost his 44-year-old show a few days before he died, aged 94.

It's a bizarre balancing act. But it works. Amazingly, the station does not merely attract more young listeners – it gets more than a million extra older ones, too.

The trick, says Moir, was to move slowly. Not for him the tactics of the former Radio4 controller James Boyle, whose shake-up of the schedule came all at once and led to howls of anguish in the shires (and the pages of The Daily Telegraph).

Boyle's "disturbance [of the schedule] was the greater. I am not saying he took the heat off us, but by comparison commentators were more approving of our velvet revolution than his methodology," says Moir.

Did Boyle go too fast? "No," stutters Moir, stopping off to pay tribute to his former colleague, "James thought he had such a big target to take on that he lined his troops up and did a full-frontal assault. The difference is clear, and therefore the background noise would clearly be louder for him."

While no one disputes his success, Moir's softly-softly tactics receive criticism from some quarters. "The whole JY episode caught Jim badly offside," says one source, otherwise a fully signed-up fan. "It was pretty much the first item in his in-tray when he arrived, and it took him seven years to do it. Young continually bamboozled him – 'I'll do just one more year' – and this went round and round for years. It took seven years for the cleaver finally to come down."

"Jim's problem," says one presenter, "is that he is not very good at sacking people. The story goes around about Ed Stewart. Jim decided he had to get him off the afternoon programme. The word got out – as far as Ed's wife. She made her way into the building, found his office and burst into tears. 'What have you done to my husband?' So Jim said to her: 'We'll get him a programme on Sundays.'"

When pressed, Moir does not deny the tale – "It may be true," he says – but he is insistent that Stewart's weekend show was a not a sop to the presenter's wife. "Nothing is done on appeal; everything is done according to plan and strategy. When Ed went from the afternoon show, we had an opening for him on a Sunday. All the moves are carefully thought through."

Is he a bad sacker? At first Moir revels in the compliment; it is only when I point out that some have seen his approach as lacking nerve that he hits back.

"For every person who would say, 'He is not much of a sacker', there would be very many who would say, 'He has a steel will.' It's not for me to say. But when the trigger had to be squeezed, it was squeezed.

"All you have to do is look at the schedule and see who isn't there any more. These are people of enormous talent, and it requires finesse to tell them why it is necessary for them to be somewhere else. However well you do it, and however well they [seem to] understand, they don't understand. They understand the strategy, but the question they will always ask is: 'Why me?'"

He adds: "I wouldn't want to leave the impression that I have anything other than the highest regard and affection for JY. He really has served the BBC well."

But finally, Young has gone. And not just from in front of the microphone. Moir's desk used to be home to a rather marvellous bust of the presenter. No longer.

"It's gone to the great art store of the BBC," says Moir. "It will no doubt be on public display in due course."