Big mouth: Chris Moyles
Radio 1's most audacious DJ is about to eclipse Tony Blackburn as the station's longest-serving breakfast show host. What's his secret?
Saturday 05 September 2009
If anyone was ever born to be on radio, it was Chris Moyles. He first turned up in the Leeds studios of Aire FM as a schoolboy doing work experience and making tea for presenter Carol Vorderman, although he denies her claim that he addressed her as "Auntie Carol", which would have been a trifle bumptious for a nine-year-old.
By the age of 14, he was presenting his own hospital radio show in Wakefield, and when he left school two years later he began broadcasting professionally as an in-store DJ at the Leeds branch of Topshop.
Twenty years on and Moyles, 35, is a phenomenon who on Monday will become Radio 1's longest-serving breakfast presenter. He will have held down this most coveted of jobs for five years and nine months, or 2,073 days: one day longer than that pioneer of the 1960s and 70s, Tony Blackburn.
The medium is, Moyles says, "my canvas, my football pitch, my operating theatre". But while an audience of 7.7 million is testament to his powers of communication, the brash Yorkshireman is regarded by some of "polite society", particularly radio critics in the quality press and the self-appointed chattering classes, as someone whose publicly-funded banter is tainted by perceived homophobia, racism, anti-semitism and boorishness.
The former Radio 1 disc jockey Paul Gambaccini used his position as Oxford University's professor of broadcast media to demand the sacking of Moyles. "I find his continual presence on Radio 1 unacceptable," said the New York-born Gambaccini. "Chris Moyles should be gone."
In March, the media watchdog Ofcom censured Moyles for an impersonation of the openly gay pop singer Will Young which "condoned certain negative stereotypes". And yet with every scandal, so Radio 1's breakfast host becomes more successful.
What a dilemma Moyles presents to the BBC. Under fire from all sides over the scale of its funding from licence fees, the corporation has become acutely fearful of breaching broadcasting standards following the uproar over obscene telephone calls made to actor Andrew Sachs last year by presenters Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross on Radio 2. That debate quickly turned to the question of excessive pay for presenters and Moyles, on a reported £630,000-a-year, is one of the BBC's best-rewarded stars. To the commercial radio industry, under immense pressure from a decline in advertising revenue, Moyles's publicly-supported dominance of the all-important breakfast market is unacceptable. His daily three-and-a-half hours of fast-moving, observational comedy and prepared skits do not, they argue, constitute public service broadcasting.
Tim Davie, the head of BBC Radio, is deeply aware of these claims and anxious that the corporation – also being attacked by other sections of the media for the power of its vast website – does not appear as a radio bully. "I want to make sure the BBC moves away from commercial radio," Davie told BBC Radio 4's The Media Show this week. "We drive distinctiveness. There's no point in offering exactly what the commercial sector can offer."
The conundrum for Davie is that Moyles has largely done everything that was asked of him when Radio 1's controller, Andy Parfitt, moved him from the afternoon schedule to the prize role on the station. Famously, Moyles proclaimed himself as "the saviour of Radio 1" and, though he now describes that comment as a "gimmick", he has in many regards lived up to the billing.
Parfitt had become concerned that Radio 1, once derided for being out of touch, had gone too far the other way and was becoming a ghetto for elitist musical "scenesters". Moyles, who grew up the son of a Leeds postman and an Irish mother and attended a Catholic high school, was the spearhead for an attempt to engage with a more mainstream audience. Putting funny before cool, Moyles had an instant accessibility that quickly reversed the downward spiral in listeners that had seen his predecessor Sara Cox shed 400,000 in ratings in the space of three months.
Moyles – who has lived with his TV producer girlfriend for seven years – is a radio natural and knows it. He joined Radio 1 in 1997 after an apprenticeship that saw him work at, among other stations, Radio Luxembourg, Chiltern Radio, Severn Sound and London's Capital Radio. "I'm great at making great radio ... only a few people on the radio make great radio," he says. That boast may be borne of an acknowledgement that, for someone of his considerable public profile, he has not managed to crack television, struggling first with channel Five's Live With Chris Moyles and recently with Channel 4's Chris Moyles' Quiz Night.
But his radio success is the consequence of a level of professionalism for which he is rarely given credit. Within Radio 1's central London headquarters, Yalding House, Moyles's technical skills are regarded as superior to some DJ colleagues who are regularly invited to get behind the decks at superclubs around the world.
From 6.30am each weekday morning, in Studio Two in the bowels of the building, he broadcasts standing – throughout his career Moyles has always worked on his feet – behind his treasured quartet of Neumann microphones. His Cartwall screen will be loaded with scores of jingles, sound effects and musical theme tunes. He may have recorded material on to a mini-disc while watching television the night before and will use it as the basis for some knockabout with his established team of studio colleagues, including "Comedy Dave" Vitty, newsreader Dominic Byrne, sports newsreader Carrie Davis and producers Aled Haydn-Jones and Rachel Jones.
The finished result is a feeling of spontaneity that cleverly disguises Moyles's acute attention to detail. The result resonates with a large chunk of the population and Moyles has piled on listeners throughout his time on the breakfast show, though he is behind Capital's Johnny Vaughan in London. Despite the frustrations of commercial radio executives at his playing of "golden hour" music classics, Moyles attracts a high number of teenage listeners, according to Radio 1. His achievements, he feels, have not been sufficiently recognised by his peers and, although he won a gold Sony Radio award in 2006 in the entertainment category, he has consistently had to watch his rivals pick up the big industry trophies.
Among the more unlikely fans of The Chris Moyles Show is the comedy and film writer Richard Curtis, who suggests that some critics might be missing the point. "That's the genius of Chris Moyles – that day after day, year after year, he and his gang seem to maintain this naturalness, the spontaneity of friends hanging out together – talking about whatever is on their mind, going back to old themes, lingering on pauses, suddenly speeding up as the joke catches fire," says Curtis, the creator of the pirate radio movie The Boat That Rocked. "It's the experience most like being among friends that I know."
Curtis founded the charity Comic Relief, for whom Moyles – a portly figure of somewhere between 15 and 20 stones – climbed Mount Kilimanjaro earlier this year. "I absolutely love the fact that this unsentimental and sometimes cynical man always goes the whole mile for Comic Relief, and this year climbed up a big mountain and helped his excellent listeners to help him save a lot of lives," Curtis says.
Yet while Moyles was still up the mountain, doubts about his future hit the press. "What we have seen with Moyles is that his listeners have grown up with him and are getting older," The Sun quoted a Radio 1 source as saying. A month later, the paper ran a front-page story, "Moyles Facing Breakfast Show Axe". He responded with a 12-minute on-air tirade in which he accused The Sun of having an agenda and said he "wasn't going anywhere".
It was certainly true that, during the spring, senior BBC figures were briefing against Moyles's extended tenure in his current role, saying he represented a generation beyond Radio 1's key audience of listeners aged 15 to 29. In the event, it was other senior presenters such as Jo Whiley and Steve Lamacq who made way as the network shuffled its cards again. Moyles still rules the airwaves.
A life in brief
Born: 22 February 1974 in Leeds to an Irish mother and an English father.
Career: Began his radio career working for a hospital radio station in Leeds, before joining Aire FM at the age of 16. Worked for various stations, including Chiltern, Luxembourg (using the name Chris Holmes) and Capital FM, before moving to BBC Radio 1 in 1997 where he styled himself as "The Saviour of Early Morning Radio" taking the 4am slot.
In May 1998, he won the Silver Sony Radio Award for DJ of the Year. In October 1998, he was promoted to host the late afternoon show. With the introduction of Radio 1's new daytime schedule, Moyles's weekday show was extended by an hour. In 2004, he took over the breakfast show from Sara Cox. His television work includes Live With Chris Moyles (Five, 2002) and this year's Chris Moyles' Quiz Night on Channel 4. He also took part in the ITV1 reality contest The X Factor: Battle Of The Stars. Moyles's autobiography, The Gospel According To Chris Moyles: The Story Of One Man And His Mouth, was published in October 2006.
He says: "I'm great at making great radio. Only a few people on the radio make great radio. Sounds arrogant? Absolutely."
They say: "Chris Moyles is not helping people to come out by his comments." Stonewall, the gay rights group
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