Complete controllers: Former Radio 1 bosses Andy Parfitt and Matthew Bannister on running 'the nation's favourite' radio station

BBC Radio 1

Radio 1 and sister station Radio 2 turn 50 this weekend. In the current issue of the new-look Music Week, current Radio 1 controller Ben Cooper and head of Radio 2 Lewis Carnie team up – alongside star presenters Clara Amfo and Jo Whiley – for a rare joint interview about the pressures and pleasures of running the nation’s two biggest radio stations.

Cooper and Carnie have to deal with the threat from streaming services, fragmenting audiences and increasing government regulation. But then the job of running a national radio station has always had its challenges.

Matthew Bannister was controller of Radio 1 between 1993 and 1998, a period of turmoil that saw a cull of the station’s original DJs and Chris Evans’ turbulent stint on the Breakfast Show. Andy Parfitt took over from Bannister and served until 2011, bringing in Chris Moyles to breakfast and overseeing the launch of 1Xtra.

So, with a wealth of anniversary programming planned for the 50th anniversary on September 30, Music Week collared the two ex-controllers for their memories of running the network…

What was the highlight of your time running Radio 1?

Matthew Bannister: “There were so many: Westwood’s rammed stage at the Notting Hill Carnival; Chris Morris’s award winning comedy Blue Jam; Chris Evans taking the Radio 1 Roadshow to Driffield to apologise for being rude to its residents; Mark and Lard’s Shirehorses playing live at Glastonbury; Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode teaming up to review movies for the first time, the Manic Street Preachers at Sound City in Leeds; the Essential Mix showcasing all the top DJs; Zoe Ball becoming the first woman to present the Breakfast Show… I could go on and on. But if I had to pick one moment, it would be Oasis at Knebworth. We had supported them from the release of their first single to playing live in front of 125,000 people - and we broadcasted that concert to the world. It summed up our philosophy of backing new talent and showcasing live performance in a way that no commercial station would have done.”

Andy Parfitt: “Radio 1 creatively has a cyclical nature and we caught one of them on the up. There was a period of about five/six years when all the work we’d done as a team on culture, audience and strategy came together and actually worked - Radio 1’s Big Weekend, Chris Moyles on Breakfast, Zane Lowe, Live Lounge.  It was very exciting. In retrospect, the highlight was the band of talented brothers and sisters who I had the privilege to lead - I loved them.”

And what was the biggest challenge?

MB: “Again, there were loads. The radio market was changing rapidly - and we were changing Radio 1 to meet the new challenges, but also to serve a younger audience and make it clear why the station deserved public money. So, as we began to make it stand out from commercial radio and target a much smaller demographic, the audience numbers fell. We radically changed the music policy to emphasise support for new talent and especially British artists - which led to the success of Britpop and the dance music boom of the 90s. We brought on loads of new presenters, increased our commitment to live music and commissioned innovative comedy. If we hadn’t made the changes, Radio 1 would simply have carried on growing older with its audience and BBC Radio would have abandoned the next generation of listeners. It’s hard to imagine what BBC Radio’s services would look like now without our changes paving the way, not just for the contemporary Radio 1, but also the re-positioning of Radio 2.”

AP: “The challenge was always to make sure that the underpinning idea of Radio 1 - that it is a public service for young people in Britain - was properly understood. The vital job that it plays bringing new UK music to audiences and its news service are obvious ones and then there’s the whole ethos of operating without a commercial imperative and yet wanting to compete and reach as many people as possible. It’s a balancing act.”

What do you think of Radio 1 nowadays?

MB: “I’m incredibly impressed by the way Radio 1 has changed yet again over the last few years to reflect the changing needs of young people in the UK. The innovations in using social media and visualisation alongside the audio broadcasts have made Radio 1 a truly multi-media brand.”

AP: “When I left after 13 years (yes, 13!) leading Radio 1, I had to take a complete and extended break. I focused on my new career and listened to BBC Radio 3. I also started working internationally, in the US particularly, so I quickly got out of touch. Recently, however, as I approach my 59th Birthday it’s been creeping back in - I love the guy on Sunday nights who was previewing the Reading Festival, Cel Spellman. Also, Danny Howard and of course Annie Mac. In the States, the Live Lounge is building a profile and I can’t help but be impressed by the awesome recent line-up announcement. What I like is its energy, confidence and great music - it’s alive. Ben Cooper had better make sure I never get given a RAJAR diary!”

Will Radio 1 still be with us in another 50 years?

AP: “I’d like to say an unhesitating yes - it deserves to be - but there are so many extraordinary and seismic changes happening in the media technology world to be that sure. The global control of content distribution and therefore audiences is consolidating in the hands of three/four near monopolies - Facebook, Google, Amazon, for example. It’s like you can see them from outer space, like the Great Wall Of China. The question is whether you will also be able to see the BBC clearly in that future landscape - it is bloody scary. Any future re-invention of Radio 1 will need to focus globally and it will need new investment. In 1967 Radio 1 was funded 'in the margins’ of the licence fee. Even today it delivers out of all proportion to its costs. Its next chapters will need major help.”

MB: “If it keeps changing, yes.”

To read Music Week’s exclusive interview with Ben Cooper and Lewis Carnie, click here or see the new issue of Music Week magazine. To subscribe and never miss a vital music biz story, click here.

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