Zoe Ball loses out to Evans in the breakfast war

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Zoe Ball and Kevin Greening, hosts of the Radio One breakfast show, are rapidly losing ground to Chris Evans in the battle for early- morning listeners, unofficial figures suggested yesterday.

Ms Ball, a radio newcomer, was touted as the station's saviour when she took over the failing show earlier this year. But just weeks later, Evans joined Virgin Radio in a 10-week contract worth pounds 500,000, increasing the stakes for his former colleague on Channel 4's Big Breakfast. At the time he said: "I love Zoe Ball and I hope she is great - but this is war."

Official listening figures will not be released until February. But unofficially it is claimed that Evans has boosted the listenership of Virgin's breakfast show by 46.5 per cent since mid-October, to an average weekly audience of 2.359 million. While Radio One maintains a clear lead with 4.621 million listeners, its rival is catching up fast.

Evans, 31, was in typically ebullient mood yesterday. In a thinly-veiled attack on his former employers, he said: "It is the nicest news we could have hoped for and a fantastic base to build from. By adding to our own audience and taking it from other people, the position of Britain's most popular radio station is coming ever closer in our sights."

A Virgin Radio spokesman was more cautious: "We will wait for the official figures in February to see the big picture."

A Radio One spokesman declined to comment yesterday but it is known that Ms Ball, who also presents BBC1's Saturday morning television programme Live and Kicking, has been under intense pressure to justify her reported salary of pounds 250,000 a year. She was recruited after ratings crashed below 10 million for the first time in the network's history. Matthew Bannister, boss of Radio One, had hoped that her popularity with younger fans would win back hundreds of thousands of listeners.

With the announcement last week that Evans has signed for the next five years to front the breakfast show on the station he now owns, he looks set to dominate the airwaves.