Chris Moyles called himself the 'saviour' of Radio 1 when he took over the ailing breakfast show two years ago, and faced a barrage of criticism. With listeners flocking back, and with the late John Peel's blessing, is he now having the last laugh, asks Amy Raphael
In the middle of our interview, Chris Moyles starts reading a text message on his phone. He is aware this is a little rude; he apologises twice. But still, he continues to read it, then laughs. 'I sent Will Young a text message this morning because I knew he was going to be on Jo Whiley's show and I wanted him to dedicate his new single to me. His reply? "I will dedicate it to the man I love." I'm going to write back and thank him, because I take it that's me.'
With a daft grin, he writes a return text on his very modern phone. He doesn't really look like the self-confessed saviour of Radio 1. Not very tall, stocky, fleshy, unglamorous. Hair just long enough to push a hand through the fringe. Stubble. A stripy shirt, untucked, blue jeans with turnups, white trainers. He sits back on his chair in a room devoid of soul somewhere in Radio 1's central London building. For some reason he takes his watch (large and functional, not designer) on and off every now and again. He doesn't look at the time but it suggests impatience.
Chris Moyles is an unlikely saviour, yet that's exactly what he is. Before he took over Radio 1's prestigious breakfast show two years ago this month, the show was ailing under Sara Cox (who lost 400,000 listeners in the space of just three months), but is now in rude health and boasts an audience of 6.5 million. Yet Moyles comes with baggage; he is not without controversy. By the time he arrived at the breakfast show, he had failed on television with the Chris Evans-produced Live with ... Chris Moyles but had already made a name for himself as a belligerent, bellicose DJ, first on Radio 1's 4-7am slot and then on the station's late afternoon show.
His uncompromising style, quickfire pub humour and endless talk of breasts endeared him to such magazines as Zoo and Nuts. He has his detractors - more of which later - but he is respected too; he won an illustrious silver Sony radio award in May 1998 less than a year after his arrival at Radio 1, while his style and professionalism impressed the management at the station right from the start.
Radio 1 controller Andy Parfitt is unequivocal about the Moyles effect. Of the many positive assertions he finds to make about his 31-year-old star DJ, this is just one: 'I'd soberly say he's the best young broadcaster in the country. He's a Radio 1 great. So when you listen to the show, you have this feeling of chaos, the sense that anything could happen. But behind the scenes, Chris takes his craft incredibly seriously.'
I witness this first-hand watching Moyles do the last half-hour of his breakfast show. He looks like a gameshow host, standing up at his sound desk, barking into the mic, peering at the computer screen, flicking switches. His five-strong team mostly choose to sit, but occasionally someone else will stand and talk into another mic. The difference between what you see and what you hear booming out of the radio in the adjacent production studio is considerable. Moyles stands calmly, seriously, focused on the job in hand, but he sounds energetic, slightly out of control, spontaneous. It's a fascinating illusion.
There is much laughter both on and off mic. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon were today's celebrity guests a little earlier in the show and did some brilliant impressions (Coogan of Terry Wogan and Brydon of an angry man in a box). After they've left the studio, Moyles and his team talk about the comedy couple in glowing terms, giggling at the impressions. They do a competition to win tickets to the premiere of A * and Bull Story, in which Coogan and Brydon star, and Moyles makes a joke about the winners meeting them there - warning any nice-looking girls about Coogan's reputation as a ladies man. It's the sort of comment that would alienate some DJs from Coogan, but Moyles's skill is in making it sound funny and therefore less offensive.
As much as Moyles dominates the small studio by virtue of his standing position and his size, the show's success - as that of shows such as Steve Wright in the Afternoon in the past - is firmly rooted in its team dynamic. During a record ('Dare' by Gorillaz) Moyles sits down, wraps his arms round Aled Jones (no, not the Aled Jones), the show's diminutive and openly gay broadcast assistant. Jones giggles and wriggles away. Producer Rachel chats to the news and sports readers while Comedy Dave, director of comedy and a sidekick of Moyles's dating back to the Radio 1 afternoon show, smiles and shakes his head as Aled composes himself.
In the soundproof production studio, I talk to Joss, who is setting up contestants for the Beep Beep Busters competition (for people who are stationary in their car, able to press their horns and answer very easy questions). She says the male contestants tend to be relaxed because they think of Moyles as a mate ('a lot of truckers'), while the females ('nice women with kids'), unsure of what the DJ may say, are more nervous. There is more sniggering and banter as Joss has misheard contestant Brian in the pre-competition chat, thinking he was talking about a blow-up dog, when, inevitably, it was a doll.
After the show, Moyles nips out for a quick cigarette on the street. When he comes up to the soulless room, I ask how often he has to hold back from what he really wants to say. He laughs. 'Sometimes I get carried away and start talking as if I'm just having a conversation with someone. I'll be talking about Big Brother and say, "Oh god, Jodie Marsh just comes across as a real ff ff f" ... I realise I'm going to say "* slag" but you can't say that on the radio. For the normal reasons and for legal reasons too. You lose yourself for a second ...'
The profanity is one thing but, to me at least, the word 'slag' is offensive. He leans back in the chair, runs his hand through his short fringe and sighs. He sounds bored. 'Yeah, but you know what? That's such old hat. The really old review of our show was that I'm a big, fat, homophobic, sexist bully who surrounds himself with sycophants and together we laugh at everybody. I really couldn't care less any more because it doesn't bother me.'
He is starting to sound like a Catherine Tate character. 'OK, whatever, fine. It doesn't matter because I know it's not what the show is about and if anyone listens to it for more than two or three days, it's all very tongue in cheek.'
He sits up, spins his silver mobile around on the table. 'And really, which woman is going to argue that Jodie Marsh isn't a * slapper? I don't see any hands going up. If you pardon the expression.' The very next morning he calls Marsh a slag several times on his show and I realise he was talking only about not being able to say '*'.
We also talk about his choice of adjectives for current Celebrity Big Brother contestant Faria Alam, whom he has renamed 'Fire Alarm' because he 'actually doesn't know what her name is'. This nickname shouldn't be funny but somehow it is. But he then goes on to call her a 'tart with a fat arse'. And will take no objections on board. 'I don't think that's offensive to women because that's what she is. Taking her as I see her, she slept with some famous ugly man at the FA and sold her story and went into the Big Brother house because she wants to be famous.' He scowls. 'Tart.'
A sigh. 'Do you know what? It's weird because I've done this now for so long that I'm really, really surprised at the reaction to some of things I say. Quite genuinely. I can't think that calling Fire Alarm a "tart" is offensive to anyone ... except maybe her.' Andy Parfitt says he didn't hear the comment and insists that these things look much more 'awkward' when written down. 'It's very different when hearing it as part of a bit of banter with the team. Chris doesn't mean anything malicious, it's just a turn of phrase.'
Moyles certainly has a very specific kind of humour that's based in 'telling it how it is'. He likes to think he says what we're all thinking but are all too scared to voice. He doesn't feel a need to censor himself and hasn't regretted anything he's said for a long time. 'Nothing is really said to be cruel to anyone or to hurt anyone; most things are said only for a laugh. If I say something it's because that's the way I'm feeling at the time. And this sounds really smug, but chances are, if I was thinking it, a lot of other people were too. It's honest, freeform radio where you can say what the listener is thinking.'
In the past, Moyles has talked in interviews about drunkenly defecating in a Boyzone hotel bath or having a smelly shit at work. He seems to embrace rather than shy away from such stories. 'I've always found that type of comedy funny. I remember years and years ago going to see Ben Elton live. He did this routine about going to your girlfriend's parents' house and having to do a number two.' He grins. 'You excuse yourself all embarrassed, tear off a few sheets of toilet roll and put them in the loo to deaden the fall, so the parents can't hear you. It got a huge laugh. Elton said, "Yep, 2,500 other people laugh and I thought I was the only one." I sat there thinking, "I really, really thought I was alone!"'
Chris Moyles has taken Ben Elton's comedy realism, some Howard Stern-style shock jock tactics and added a celebrity element to make the breakfast show his own. It is obviously a seductive combination for its target audience of late teens to late twenties - I'm a decade outside that remit, which is possibly why I don't read Nuts or Zoo or appreciate the word 'slag' on the radio - and Moyles is undeniably very good at what he does.
He sets himself up as a very accessible DJ, the sort of bloke listeners feel they could buy a pint in the pub. He grimaces. 'Most people would probably find me pretty dull in real life.' Really? Despite myself I can't help laughing during much of our interview. He may be more old lad than new man, but he is a genuinely funny character. I certainly wouldn't classify him as 'dull'; is he really that different off air? 'Only in the sense that all these things I say on air I can't say in real life to people. That's my release; three hours in which I can be as brutally honest as I want. And because it's on the radio, everyone thinks it's an act, not the real me. It's great.'
From Monday to Friday, Mr and Mrs Moyles of Leeds set their alarm just before 7am to ensure they hear their youngest son on the radio. Mrs Moyles, an Irish Catholic who used to drive her son to and from his radio shows when he first started out on hospital radio at 14 and later when he was a Topshop DJ, and her husband, a retired Post Office worker, genuinely like the show.
'Of course they're proud of me; I'm a huge success,' grins Chris Moyles . 'I've saved BBC's ailing pop station and I've been on both billboards down the road from my parents' house. And I've been on another one outside Elland Road, home to Leeds United. I know that made my dad proud.'
Bizarrely, Chris Moyles's mum probably goes to more gigs than her son. Moyles 'really loves music' and is currently addicted to downloading songs from iTunes just because he can, but he makes no pretence of being a talent spotter. If anything he'd rather be 'unfashionable' and discover music in his own time; he liked Coldplay when everyone else was bored of them and isn't sure about Arctic Monkeys because of the hype. While Moyles rarely gets invited to gigs because he has a reputation for not going, his mother snaps up guest tickets.
'My mum's met Cliff Richard because I'm on the radio. So she's happy. She gets Access All Area passes to all sorts of gigs. She went to the Leeds Festival and met Dave Grohl from the Foo Fighters.' He pretends to look disturbed. 'There are so many pop stars who have met my mother. It's actually quite scary. Noel Gallagher. All of Travis. Feeder. Meanwhile, I've never met Dave Grohl ...'
His mum is proud of both her sons - older son Kieron works as a radio plugger round the corner from Radio 1 - but would like them to go to church again. Chris Moyles went with his parents on Christmas Day for the first time in a long while but is ambivalent about it all. He wants to believe but isn't sure there's anything to believe in.
But all those formative years going to church have made him wary of the possible existence of heaven and hell. 'I don't want to die and go to heaven to find a big, burly-looking Jesus on the gates saying, "Oh, I didn't exist, huh?" It's always better to keep an open mind just in case.'
Apparently it's all too easy to develop an opinion of Chris Moyles that then proves to be wrong. He tells a story about the late John Peel that demonstrates this perfectly. When Moyles first met Peel, he found him a 'cantankerous, miserable old bastard'. Peel said something derogatory on his show about Moyles, who retaliated with a vicious comment. 'I got bollocked by management; I was pretty much told you don't say things like that about John Peel. I was like, * you, it's fair game. But they said no, you didn't hear us.'
In John Peel's book, Margrave of the Marshes, his widow Sheila Ravenscroft writes about the two DJs and how Peel initially said: 'When Chris Moyles came to Radio 1, I thought about strapping explosives to myself and taking us both out.' But when they met at a Radio 1 social gathering, 'he realised he rather liked him'. Moyles remembers the night very well. 'I was standing at the bar when someone came up and pinched my arse: there was John Peel looking at me. I bought him a drink and we spent the rest of the evening talking about football and families.'
As well as having a healthy number of listeners, both on the radio, the internet and through podcasting (his show hovers around the top of the iTunes chart), Moyles also has enough clout to attract plenty of celebrities. Jack Black and P Diddy turned up when Moyles took the show to New York at the end of last year, while recent guests back home have included Charlotte Church and, of course, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. The comedy duo said they had to be out of the studio by 8.30am but then stayed till almost 9am.
Moyles laughs. 'The whole thing was basically if they liked me, they'd stay. I was really excited to meet them; I'm such a huge fan of Steve Coogan, back to his early stand-up days. He was charming and lovely and everything we hoped he'd be on air. Rob too. I love the fact that I made Steve Coogan laugh. That's great.' He smiles. 'My showbiz pals.'
Apart from Will Young, who else does Moyles stay in touch with? 'Well ... if I get on really well with a guest and they suggest going out for a drink, I'm hardly going to refuse. I'm still waiting for a date to meet up with James Nesbitt. But I won't go out with him on his own. I want a mutual friend to come along because it might get messy. Paddy Kielty is going to be our ... mediator.'
That date will have to wait as Moyles is off the booze for the whole of January. He did it at the start and towards the end of last year too, partly to prove he can, but also because he wants to lose weight. A month off the premium-strength lager might result in the loss of half a stone. He would like to get fit again, return to running every day as he did a few years ago.
He doesn't like being asked if he's happy when he's a bit thinner. 'I'm certainly not unhappy that I'm this big.' He tuts. 'I can't fit into my jeans anyway.' His long-term girlfriend, Sophie Waite, whom he often mentions on the show, doesn't drink much so he finds it quite easy to abstain as long as he doesn't go to the pub too often. 'The best thing about not drinking for a month is the smugness,' he says, almost shouting as though back on the radio. 'When I did it last January, I was quite shocked at how extremely self-righteous I was about it.'
Chris Moyles shocked at being self-righteous? That doesn't sound quite right. He smiles. 'There was a time when I'd have to look around a room before I walked in just to see if I'd pissed anyone off in there. That doesn't happen so much now. I don't upset as many people as I used to.' He puts his watch back on, checks his phone. 'I'm probably getting older and a bit more ... mellow.'
The time is up. He gets to his feet, offers a hand. I wish him luck abstaining from alcohol. He stands at the door, fills the frame. 'The smug feeling you have not drinking for a month - you can't buy it. The not drinking is fine, thanks.' He is about to leave but turns back for a moment. 'I'm so off my tits on heroin, I couldn't really face a lager.' He laughs to himself as he makes his way out of the building.
Life before Moyles
The early years of Radio 1's breakfast show were dominated by a few 'personality' DJs. Its first host, in 1967, was Tony Blackburn, whose six-year tenure has still to be bettered. Improbably, his popularity had much to do with 'sidekick' Arnold the Dog, whose bark the DJ took from a BBC sound effects tape.
Eventually, in 1973, Blackburn was superseded by Noel Edmonds, who initially attracted 12 million listeners a week. His five-year reign was notable for his prank phone calls and the pitiful competition prizes, which included gnomes and welly stickers. Cheers!
For all his flaws, Dave Lee Travis, never sank that low. None the less the self-styled 'Hairy Cornflake' was, arguably, Radio 1's most reviled DJ, thanks to his wacky, unbearably smug air.
But apart from Simon Mayo, who introduced the 'breakfast crew' concept, no one else had such an impact on the airwaves before Chris Evans in 1995. In just over two years at Radio 1 he increased listenership by one million - before he was sacked for demanding Fridays off.
There then followed a cluster of DJs - Mark and Lard, Zoe Ball, Sara Cox - none of whom endeared themselves to the British public in the way that the show's bosses envisaged. Enter Moyles ...