Radio: They say that waking up is hard to do

After 18 years presenting the breakfast show Christ Tarrant has left Capital Radio with a yawning gap. Lucy Rouse reports

After 4,558 5am alarm calls, Chris Tarrant hosted his last Capital Radio breakfast show on Friday, bringing an 18-year era to an end. The show has been the top-rated breakfast radio programme in the all-important London market for years.

But what is it about superstar presenters that allows them to carry on broadcasting in the way Alistair Cooke did for BBC Radio 4? Cooke aired his last weekly Letter from America just a month before he died last week, aged 95. He'd been on air regularly for more than 50 years.

Is it something about the individual, whether it's Tarrant, Cooke or even Radio 2's Terry Wogan, who's still hosting the nation's most popular breakfast show after more than 30 years? Or is this longevity a quirk of the intimate medium of radio? Perhaps star status lies in the gift of the audience, who can take to a presenter such as Jimmy Young (28 years on air) to the point that only an exceptionally brave controller such as the then R2 chief Jim Moir can pull them off.

Tarrant has tried to leave Capital before. Rumours of his imminent departure dogged his last few years on air but, according to a source close to the DJ, Capital managers last year persuaded him to stay on for another 12 months and his contract was renewed for the last time.

The man whose career took off in 1974 when he hosted the madcap Saturday morning TV show Tiswas wants to do more TV presenting, although a new project, Tarrant's Travels, hasn't been commissioned by ITV. Sources suggest he earned around £1m a year from Capital, but this is considerably less than the £4m he earns a year from TV promotions and presenting, including his role as host of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

Despite Capital Radio courting Ant & Dec and Davina McCall to fill the slot, Tarrant will be succeeded by Johnny Vaughan who made his name on Channel 4's Big Breakfast. The similarities between the careers of Vaughan and Tarrant are striking. Breakfast TV aside, both they and Wogan have dodgy TV credits to their name - BBC2 sitcom 'Orrible and a chatshow for Vaughan, ITV's Man O Man for Tarrant and a thrice weekly BBC1 chatshow for Wogan.

Radio often provides a solid base for a presenter's career. "TV is very polarised, you're in or you're out," says Virgin Radio managing director John Pearson. "Wogan and Tarrant both had hits and misses on TV but both managed to go back to the bedrock of radio."

Although radio, particularly in the lucrative London market, has got more competitive, radio doesn't inhabit the same febrile atmosphere of TV so presenters can take longer to build audience loyalty. "I was at Capital when Tarrant started," says Pearson. He went on between 11am and 1pm and didn't work," . "It took two years of testing at lunchtime and breakfast before he got critical and ratings success."

Pearson reckons radio presenters have a place in the hearts and minds of listeners. "DJs become friends, because they're on for four hours a day. That's really powerful. It's more than a half an hour a week on telly will ever do for someone." But it takes a certain attitude to become a long-running success. "People like Wogan and Tarrant are rooted, they're not lost in showbiz," says Pearson.

The unspoken contrast is, of course, with Chris Evans who hosted Virgin's breakfast show before spectacularly falling out with the station's senior management and going on a drinking binge in June 2001. It ended in court, where Evans was branded a "petulant prima donna". He later agreed to pay the station he'd once owned £7m.

By contrast, Virgin mid-morning DJ Russ Williams, who in the early 1990s covered for Tarrant's 16 holiday weeks of the year, says Tarrant was always "delightful". "He would have a big fat Cuban cigar, even at that time in the morning, and would try to sneak Status Quo records on which, even at that time, were frowned upon," he recalls.

Williams reacted with good grace when his Virgin breakfast show was, as he put it, "unceremoniously replaced" with Chris Evan's zoo format in 1998. He decided to stay with Virgin, while his former co-star Jono Coleman left in high dudgeon.

Steve Orchard, operations director at GWR which owns Classic FM, says that while every broadcaster wants stars, veteran presenters can bring complications. "It can be difficult to attract new listeners because people know what you represent at that time of day and if they've decided it's not their cup of tea they don't come back," he says.

"Breakfast is the highest profile slot of the day. It's where we make our money," says Orchard. "The value of commercial airtime is based on the size of the audience and the peak is always breakfast. It's a Mount Everest of radio listening compared to a small foothill during drivetime from 4pm to 6.30pm."

Orchard says Capital must differentiate itself from Chrysalis's Heart, Emap's Kiss and Virgin which between them have driven Capital's share of London radio listening down from more than 10 per cent to 7 per cent over the past two years. "They've gone for top talent and Vaughan's a great name. But top talent has to have strong management or it can lose its way," says Orchard wisely.

Lucy Rouse is a former editor of 'Broadcast' magazine

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