The dumbing down of an after-dark DJ

Radio 1's new man in the morning isn't moronic enough for the slot, argues David Walker
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Behold: a northern star is born. Mark Radcliffe, a radio presenter confined until now to late hours and the acclaim of students and sixth- formers, is to be Radio 1's Breakfast Show replacement for Chris Evans. The usual ration of fame and fortune attached to such a slot has been doubled because of the manner of Evans's going.

Up or down, Radcliffe's first set of listening figures will get him on the front pages. If he keeps the style and scatological content of his present late evening show, he will get there long before. If he doesn't, if he cleans up his act, goes for the mainstream and performs the musical equivalent of a self-lobotomy, he won't be worth listening to.

Whether you can tell Pavement from Pulp or house music from hip-hop, Radcliffe's fate will be worth watching - at least as a demonstration of the allure of the lowest common denominator. Moving to the morning slot on Radio 1, he confronts blandness and brain death. Radcliffe stands to prove, for the umpteenth time, that popular culture is intolerant of idiosyncrasy except in niches, out of hours, in cult formats.

The show, built on stints he did on the old Radio Five and local radio, consists of a dialogue between two professional Mancunians, Radcliffe (who is actually from Bolton) and Marc Riley, a former bass player with the Fall, nicknamed Lard, who impersonates an intellectual oaf. I say dialogue - some of it is grunts and raspberries, some of it is sounds like they have both had a good drink before the green light came on, and some of it is radio at its very best - the peculiar capacity of the medium to create a club atmosphere intimately linking listener and presenter. There are turns from a "cultural correspondent" in New York, an American based in Britain, film crit, readings from books and - Radcliffe gets accolades from the Arts Council for promoting interest in verse - poetry from the likes of John Hegley. Generally, it's funny.

However, Radcliffe's appointment tells us two things. The first is that nobody listens to late-evening radio - nobody, that is, from the ranks of the nation's self-appointed censors. Radcliffe talks dirty; talks irreligiously. Here is a gem from the wit and wisdom of Mark Radcliffe the other night - why is Stonewall Jackson so called? Answer: because he's built like a brick shithouse. Followed by a conversation about what happens if you stand down wind of a farting elephant and defecation in fish tanks. Followed by talk about the publication of J D Salinger followed by a gem of radio stream of consciousness about how Raymond Chandler would have sounded if written by his former Dulwich school chum PG Wodehouse.

Then there is the music. Officially, Radcliffe's taste is indie, but that just means he is allowed to play tracks he likes. A live session with Beth Orton is followed by three Brian Wilson tracks. It is hit and miss. It is crude. It is also distinctive radio listening. It works.

Radcliffe's appointment also says a lot (and not very flatteringly) about the desperation of Matthew Bannister, BBC Director of Radio. Here's a network controller who seems to have no reserve, no talent back-up, who has been forced into translating a presenter whose style, whose essence as a broadcaster is night-time into the open cornfields of morning radio. And so much for youth radio - Radcliffe is 38, nearly twice as old as the Spice Girls he will have no option but to play on the morning programme.

One of the puzzles of celebrity in modern media is how, despite an increasingly diversified array of outlets fragmenting the audience and dividing up attention, certain individuals can still command general recognition and become generic "stars". In Britain, celebrity is made easier to understand because the national newspapers act as a sort of smoothing agent. Millions were talking last week about Brian Harvey, though they had never heard an East 17 track, because he had been taken up in the press.

Mark Radcliffe will now benefit from the same phenomenon, at least in terms of his bank balance. But for how long? It is hard to see the Radcliffe translation working, even though he has insisted on staying in Manchester to present his programme. Morning radio is mainstream. People don't listen in the attentive way they do at nights. It is about playlists and promotions. Where will the famed Mancunian iconoclasm - a word he uses at night but would never get away with using in the morning - go?

To talk about selling out can make you sound like one of those rock historicists endlessly debating when things started going off the rails - when Elvis was inducted, when John Lennon met Yoko Ono, when Johnny Rotten popped his DMs. It's all only showbiz.

So what is at stake for Radcliffe is not principle - unlike, say, the presenter Andy Kershaw, Radcliffe seems entirely apolitical. What he stands to lose is character. Radio is, perhaps even more than television, where blandness will get you a long way, the supremely honest medium. If you've got it - character - your voice, your personality lodge in the listeners' hearts as well as ears.

Gimmicks (the format that Steve Wright, Evans's predecessor, used) will get you some of the way but ultimately there has to be a nugget of individuality. Radcliffe's devoted following of a weekday evening has to do with his appeal to a perennially sixth form temperament - a mixture of vulgarity, wit and a sense among listeners that through their popular cultural choices, they were marking themselves out as distinctive.

Radcliffe appeals to them because - there is no doubt - he has a mind and for all the banter, he has been unafraid to use it, albeit in a self- mocking Mancunian way. What he says is this - we are all, actually, clever people together. You cannot do that with the morons of the morning. Radcliffe will have to dumb down and as he does so, he is going to lose his voice, and most of what has made him worth listening to.