Radio 1 in a turmoil after chief quits: Commercial pressure and crises of identity among broadcasters could change the face of some of Britain's most popular media institutions

'THE NATION'S favourite radio station' was in turmoil last week after the sudden resignation of its controller, Johnny Beerling. The news, broken to staff at a hastily convened Monday morning meeting, marked the end of an era for Radio 1 - Beerling joined the station at its launch in 1967.

The station is embroiled in a fierce struggle to retain its identity and its ratings. The controller's departure was followed by leaked ratings from the first month on air of Richard Branson's Virgin 1215. The unofficial figures give Radio 1's first national rock rival a 7 per cent share of the audience - nearly 3.5 million listeners. Many of these will have come from Radio 1, whose audience has fallen consistently with the recent growth of commercial competition and is now around 19 million.

The atmosphere of gloom at 1 FM was compounded by reports that the Secretary of State for National Heritage, Peter Brooke, is still toying with proposals that Radio 1 and Radio 2 should carry advertising. Several responses to the Government's Green Paper on the future of the BBC, including that of the Radio Authority, have argued strongly that Radio 1 should be sold to a commercial buyer.

Mr Beerling's resignation threw into doubt all the ill-kept secrets about autumn changes at the station. The open secret at its headquarters just opposite Broadcasting House in central London had been that the mid- morning housewives' choice, Simon Bates, 43, was to be switched to a weekend show.

Dave Lee Travis, 48, has also been rumoured to be leaving. The self-styled 'bearded wonder', whose weekend show wins high audience figures, joined Radio 1 24 years ago, before its typical listener was born. Speculation now is that Radio 2 will make him an offer if he cannot get a better deal from a big commercial station.

A Radio 1 disc jockey said: 'If Radio 1 and Radio 2 had an integrated policy, he and Bates would be off to Radio 2 by now.'

According to plans that Mr Beerling is believed to have been drawing up, Simon Mayo, who has hosted the breakfast show - which has Radio 1's single biggest audience - for more than five years, was to do a straight swap with Steve Wright, whose afternoon show is widely regarded as one of the station's most innovative programmes. Mark Goodier was to take over Bates's show.

But with Mr Beerling's departure 'all deals are off', according to a source at the station. And presenters and producers have a new fear - that Janet Street-Porter, the BBC's head of youth programmes, is interested in taking the station on. She has been a past critic of its format.

If not Ms Street-Porter, the next controller might come from commercial radio.

Paul Robinson, editor of mainstream programmes, has already confirmed that he will apply for the job. The other internal front- runner is thought to be Chris Lycett, Mr Beerling's deputy.

Tony Blackburn, who was at the station for 15 years from its launch, believes it has lost its identity and badly needs a fresh mind from commercial radio. He thinks it is suffering from 'Birtism' - more speech. He said: 'It's got gay shows, religious shows, it's going more speech-based and losing its identity. Radio 1 had its heyday in the Sixties and Seventies. But it's now got a confusing mix of broadcasters, including people older than me, when it is supposed to be a young people's station.'

The brightest ray of hope for the embattled station is that Liz Forgan, the BBC's head of network radio, is a staunch and outspoken champion. She said last week: 'Radio 1 is going to be the most popular network on the radio for ever as far as I am concerned and the key to that is music aimed at a young audience.'

(Photograph omitted)

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