The cull of Radio 1 

1 December 2003 tbs.pm/3198

Radio 1 entered the 1990s maintaining its position as Britain’s most popular radio network, held over the previous two decades, but in a short period of time, the station had become a national object of ridicule, excellently epitomised by Harry Enfield’s astutely created characters Smashey and Nicey.

This wasn’t helped by a post-1980s, post-Thatcherite realisation of the embarrassing state of the nation. It seemed a station as schizophrenic to include The Evening Session and Our Tune in its daily schedule couldn’t be taken seriously by the nation’s youth. Research showed that Radio 1’s general audience profile was greater among 30-45 year olds, the original young generation when Radio 1 launched in 1967 and remained loyal listeners for 26 years.

The years leading up to 1993 were bad times for the BBC, whose position as a public service broadcaster was questioned by the Government, media critics and the audience.

Radio 1 was often the brunt of vociferous criticism; some believed it was pointless for the BBC to provide a ‘throwaway’ popular music station, and some even suggested the Corporation should privatise the network. Johnny Beerling, who had steered Radio 1 throughout most of the 1980s, gave up his post as the station’s controller in the summer of 1993.

His successor certainly had a tough mantle to assume, and the choice of Radio 1’s was critical to sustain its successful future. It could be said that Beerling’s successor, Matthew Bannister, succeeded in turning around the station around and creating a perfect consumption for a young audience, but the way in which he implemented those changes led to recrimination and media savagery.

It seemed obvious where Radio 1’s faults laid; despite having an established and popular presenter portfolio, many of these presenters had now reached their 30s and beyond. Little was known on how Bannister would achieve his goals of making Radio 1 ‘trendy’ again, but the clandestine plans Bannister and his team had to revitalise the station were brought to the public fore on Sunday 8th August 1993. Dave Lee Travis, one of Radio 1’s most popular DJs who worked for the station for 25 years, suddenly and shockingly announced his resignation on-air.

In his notorious speech, he criticised the new controller elect’s plans with the much-quoted words: “There are changes being made at the station that go against my principles”. Travis’s resignation and his opinions made the front pages of the following day’s papers, and almost immediately an air of unease blew around the corridors of Radio 1, as the staff considered their future in the station line-up.

Subsequently, Travis wasn’t the only long running name to fall under Bannister’s axe. By the end of October, more presenters were to leave the station. Simon Bates, a presenter on the network for 20 years and one of the station’s highest rating assets in his morning slot, was to go.

So was his daily successor, Gary Davies, who after taking over the Sunday request programme, left at the end of 1993 after 11 years. Adrian Juste, who also began his controversial Radio 1 career in the 1970s, was also to be axed. A few of the older roll call of presenters were held on, for the time being.

Bruno Brookes was to retain his chart presenting duties until the axe fell on him in April 1995. Steve Wright was initially to benefit from inheriting the all-important breakfast slot (after a brief locum by Mark Goodier), but Wright eventually left Radio 1 in 1995, at the same time as Brookes, after ratings fell and internal differences.

In place of the old guard came an influx of new, younger DJs with a more diverse canon of musical tastes and shared the music credibility the teen and young audience Radio 1 wanted to target had.

With the Britpop explosion around the corner, a greater emphasis was placed on promoting new music from up and coming and unsigned bands, and the station’s playlists embraced a greater diversity throughout the day than the typical chart fodder and MOR material increasingly favoured by ILR, the recently launched Virgin and Atlantic 252.

During Bannister’s period of control, the playlists weaned itself of older material and artists; most famously Status Quo, who in 1996 failed in a legal challenge to have their new single played on Radio 1. One famous policy from 1995 proclaimed a ban on pre-1990 music was only a short-term policy, and the long-running Golden Hour format at 9am was temporarily rested, albeit narrowing down the time periods for eligible tracks from 1980 to 1985 (later 1988) on its eventual return.

The changes had their immediate pros and cons. Bannister was successful in reducing the age profile of the average Radio 1 listener, indeed the station began to tap into new listeners among the youth audience, and Radio 1’s negative reputation was quickly shed, with positive response from the music press and record industry on the station’s sudden turnaround.

However, the rise in the youth audience was cancelled out by the almost extinction of the station’s older listeners, who switched over to independent radio and Radio 2, contributing to total losses in the months after Bannister’s schedule changes were implemented.

The general decline in Radio 1’s ratings was well documented in the media, especially the tabloid press, who followed the seemingly freefall of listeners in each RAJAR ratings publication. Some critics stuck their neck out to predict the beginning of the end of Radio 1.

Another problem for Bannister was the effect of his new choice of presenters, especially those whom he personally rested high hopes on. Emma Freud, daughter of political and author Clement, was a new voice in the afternoon, but the talk format of her programme didn’t bode well with the Radio 1 audience, and she left the station after barely a year. Danny Baker, a former GLR and established TV presenter, was to inherit a weekend slot in late 1993, but his three-year tenure at Radio 1 suffered exponential slides in the ratings and critical mauling.

After the bad publicity surrounding Baker’s appointment, Bannister’s next coup was signing up Big Breakfast presenter Chris Evans for the breakfast slot, replacing Steve Wright in 1995.

The Bannister-Evans relationship was packed with many stormy and well-publicised incidents, and ended acrimoniously and abruptly in 1997 when Evans’ demands (and ego) became too much for Bannister to tolerate. Ironically, Evans got the sack from the station he subsequently purchased, Virgin Radio, in June 2001, in similar circumstances.

As Radio 1 relinquished its leading position in the RAJAR figures to Radio 2 and ILR, the rejected found little time to lick their wounds and continued their careers to varying levels of success. Steve Wright, after a Saturday evening primetime series on BBC1, started a successful Saturday morning programme on R2 a year after quitting R1, and has since settled into an afternoon show similar to the Radio 1 institution he oversaw for 12 years.

Indeed, it could be said that today’s Radio 2 continues the tradition of the pre-1993 era of Radio 1, with many of the station’s voices, and no doubt listeners, settling into Jim Moir’s reinvigorated, and successful, network. Other ex-Radio 1 DJs, such as Simon Bates and Dave Lee Travis, soon found homes among the ever-growing multitude of ILR networks, even taking successful segments of their Radio 1 shows with them.

Since then, Radio 1 has undergone further restructures and attempts at “Year Zero” relaunches over the past 8 years. Some names have come and gone, a few have stayed, plenty have arrived, and even the station’s branding of itself changed. The 1FM moniker, introduced by Beerling in 1992, and still in use at the start of the Bannister era, quickly yielded to the all-encompassing 97-99FM Radio 1 still used by the station today.

Gradually, Radio 1 has succeeded in eradicating its distant past further into the confines of nostalgia. Nicky Campbell traded in his afternoon programme in 1997 for a phone-in format on Radio 5 Live. The final ventures of that annual summer institution, the Radio 1 Roadshow, occurred in 1999, replaced by the One Big Sunday series of summer showcases. Simon Mayo bowed out from the network after 15 years of faithful service in March 2001 to a daytime slot on Radio 5 Live, and Mark Goodier also departed in November 2002 to a Classic FM slot.

Matthew Bannister’s control at the helm of Radio 1 came to an end in February 1998, quick on the heels of his nemesis Chris Evans, to concentrate more on his new position as Director of the BBC Radio networks. Andy Parfitt, who remains the station’s controller today, assumed Bannister’s job.

Only a handful of DJs with experience of the pre-Bannister Radio 1 remain at the station today, predominantly evergreen presenters John Peel and Anne Nightingale, who have survived because of their endorsements of contemporary music genres, allowing them to retain pivotal positions of musical authority and respect within the station.

Since the subsequent fall in listeners in 1993 and 1994, Radio 1’s audience share has remained relatively stagnant for the past 6 years, and the network seems to have finally consigned its obsolete and out-of-touch era to a distant, but often fondly reminisced, history.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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Colm O'Rourke Contact More by me

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