Captain Moonlight: An unpopular pop picker

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The Independent Online
SO WHAT would you expect the controller of Radio 1 to look like, be like? Here we deal in stereotypes and templates. According to our records, the Radio 1 controller should be loud, wear black leather, gold and a white T-shirt with the latest logo, say 'man' and 'groovy' a lot, break into jingles and the current number one, put the arm round the shoulder and explain what the kids out there really want, Charles.

Matthew Bannister is a disappointment. He wears urban tweed and collects P G Wodehouse first editions. He is 36, and married with two children. When he says 'gig', it jars. Radio 1 is not playing in his office and he is not drinking from a plastic cup. But he is slightly defensive.

This is not surprising. Last week Radio 1 announced that it had lost more than 2 million listeners in the past 12 months. Bannister has acknowledged that changes he made to the station last autumn have contributed to the fall. The casualties of those changes - lots of people in black leather etc and usually called Simon or Gary - have been jumping up and down, shouting that he has ruined Radio 1. Tony Blackburn says Matthew Bannister is the best thing that has ever happened to commercial radio.

Last month Bannister introduced more changes, more concentration on current affairs and topical debate. 'Wonderful Radio 1'? These days it's 'All You Need To Know, All You Want To Hear'. The old jocks and the pundits are not convinced. Too much talk, too much obscure music. Plumbers, painters, factory hands and Youth, the received wisdom runs, want nothing fancy. They want 'pop and prattle'. Radio 1 should be 'the jukebox of the nation'.

On the new Steve Wright breakfast show they now have a 'Word of the Hour' slot, where the meaning of a word or phrase is explained. Patronising, the old jocks and pundits call it.

Slightly defensive, but not apologetic. 'It's a rather patronising attitude that people who like pop and rock music don't want to keep in touch with current events. You must never underestimate your audience. Radio 1 has a very different job to do from commercial radio. What we are doing is both modernising the station and emphasising the things that make it different and justify public funding. And in doing so, we're taking risks with our audience. If I'm going to ask for licence fee funding, it's important that I offer an alternative to commercial radio. One of the things we are doing is to be a patron of new talent in pop and rock music which makes a contribution to the cultural health of the nation.'

Well. Bannister apologises if he sounds pompous. He does not apologise if he also sounds Reitho-Birtian. Far from being 'the jukebox of the nation', he wants Radio 1 to surprise people: he is introducing poetry, science, new live music, and planning a soap opera. 'Radio 1 is saying that under one roof we have all this range. It's a rather Reithian idea that people might bump into things they weren't expecting to hear but are a revelation to them.' Renaissance Radio 1.

Enthusiastic, but not rash. He accepts he has to keep a large audience but won't be drawn into figures. In the golden days of monopoly when pop was simple and Tony Blackburn was young (and vice versa) Radio 1 used to bring in 25 million. Now it is 14.2 million and, Bannister thinks, likely to fall further before his changes attract new listeners. By next year, he will be facing 150 commercial stations.

You can argue that the bold new culturally correct Radio 1 is principally a response to all this and the threat of privatisation too; whatever, it is the most striking test yet of Birtist belief. Bannister, you will not be surprised to learn, is a Birt subaltern who has been working on the overall BBC radio and television programme review, due to be revealed later this year.

Despite this, and the tweed, he remains sensitive to the charge that he is not a Man of Pop, or popster, as they used to be known. As well as the Wodehouse habit, the pundits also point to a love of opera. They concede he once played in a band, but stress it was on the violin. Bannister is anxious to stress that he played the violin 'very badly' and that the last three concerts he went to were Richard Thompson, Take That and Meat Loaf. 'I enjoyed all of them for different reasons,' he says. You will not be too surprised to learn that he read law at Nottingham University.

He has worked at Capital Radio, where he helped pioneer the 'zoo format' popularised by Steve Wright on radio and Chris Evans on television. He innovated successfully and cleverly as head of GLR, the BBC's London station. Now he is testing the sophistication of the nation. And the best of luck to him.

(Photograph omitted)