Greg James puts listeners centre stage on Radio 1 breakfast debut

James’s first Radio 1 Breakfast Show is bright and funny and avoids a race to the bottom

Greg James, Radio 1’s 16th Breakfast Show host, opened his first show with a love letter to radio. “I love radio more than anything else in the world,” he began. “It is the best thing. It’s there when you’re happy, it’s there when you’re sad. This is the most famous radio show in the world and it’s a privilege to share it with you every morning.”

During his 11 years at Radio 1, James has hosted an early breakfast show and two different afternoon programmes, but his biggest role yet is, as promised, one that’s shared with his listeners. At one point he plainly stated: “This show is all about you.” The show’s first song, Avicii’s Levels, was chosen by a listener, and new quiz and phone-in formats are engineered to include the show’s audience in Norfolk, Belfast, and a Bulgarian village. It’s a well-judged move that results in some funny moments — new daily feature Unpopular Opinion saw a quickfire barrage of callers offering thoughts such as “custard creams are better than Oreos, but Oreos have better marketing” and “sausages should not be eaten after 1pm”.

When Nick Grimshaw took over the same show in September 2012 his appointment was aimed at reconnecting Radio 1 with a young audience who’d been alienated by nearly a decade of previous host Chris Moyles. Grimshaw’s first show featured contributions from Justin Bieber and Grimshaw’s friend Harry Styles. The idea was that young people, who were all incredibly cool and obsessed with celebrity, would tune in for this well-connected host’s peek beyond the velvet rope. Grimshaw’s show succeeded on that level and various others, but it also makes sense that with a new breakfast host comes a new approach to speaking to – or with – the nation’s youth.

In James’s first show celebrity namedrops were conspicuously absent, with the show clearly having been devised on the premise that not all young people dream of careers as YouTube unboxers or Love Island contestants. When James announced, within the first hour, that the show would be “a safe place for people to confess things and be weird”, he seemed to acknowledge that being cool is mostly about not worrying whether or not you’re cool.

Monday’s show included the Red Arrows (whose pilots performed a fly-past on bicycles – better radio than you might imagine), in a programme that refused to underestimate the intelligence or humour of its audience. Elsewhere there were references to Bradley Walsh, guttering, telesales, Playdays, the Biggin Hill airshow and Ainsley Harriott, along with a tacit NHS big-up (“we’d be lost without you”) when a midwife phoned in for the Yesterday’s News quiz. The quiz’s answers included Huddersfield Town FC, Winnie the Pooh, Nicki Minaj, emus, and Countryfile, while a phonecall with Calvin Harris descended into a chat about the wonders of gardening.

It should have been predictable from a broadcaster whose favourite afternoon show guest was David Attenborough, but this new Radio 1 breakfast show is obsessed with wildlife. Within the first two hours there was advice on how to transport cats and news of a climate-influenced flamingo boom, as well as references to frogs, dogs, squirrels and bees. Most spectacularly, the show’s first guest was a lion called Wallace, who is woken and encouraged to roar by a Blackpool zookeeper. There are echoes of James’s former afternoon feature The Mayor of Where, in which he attempted to guess the location of a mayor and in doing so gave listeners a crash course in UK geography and history.

A zookeeper talking about lions’ diets may be as close as a Radio 1 breakfast show will ever get to the Reithian vision, but that’s where the zoo aspect ends. Strikingly, and in stark contrast to previous breakfast shows from Grimshaw and Moyles, James offers virtually no in-studio posse, and no whooping. There’s brief chat with the newsreader Roisin Hastie after her second bulletin, and guest Joe Lycett fields calls from listeners, but the most important conversation in this first show is between Greg James and his listeners.

It’s a bright, funny new show. Most impressively, it avoids a race to the bottom with the likes of commercial youth stations such as Capital and Kiss – the radio equivalent of wrestling a pig. Mind you, given this new host’s penchant for animals, listeners shouldn’t rule out live pig wrestling in the coming weeks.

Snap, crackle and pop: what did you have for breakfast?

Tony Blackburn

September 1967-June 1973

His chummy, plummy tones were later lampooned, but Blackburn’s enthusiastic and breezy demeanour perfectly matched the confidence of Swinging London.

Noel Edmonds

June 1973-April 1978

With his puns and prank phone calls, the bearded joker set the breakfast show’s dominant tone of irreverent, knockabout energy.

Dave Lee Travis

May 1978-January 1981

Disgraced after a sexual assault conviction in 2014 for groping a BBC researcher in 1995, the bluff, garrulous “Hairy Cornflake” is the definitive old-school Radio 1 DJ.

Mike Read

January 1981-April 1986

Read dialled up the embarrassing-dad vibes and is remembered for refusing to play Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s gay anthem Relax.

Mike Smith

May 1986-May 1988

A favourite of Princess Diana, Smith was light-hearted, smooth and perhaps slightly lacking in edge. He died aged 59 in 2014.

Simon Mayo

May 1988-September 1993

Relatively sedate, but with some quirks. Mayo was a popular pair of hands, with features like On This Day in History and Confessions becoming enduring hits.

Mark Goodier

September-December 1993

Better suited to the top 40 show, his tenure was just 109 days as he filled in before the arrival of Steve Wright.

Steve Wright

January 1994-April 1995

His wacky, innuendo-spouting cast of fictional characters gave the show back some of its energy – but it was still dad humour from another era. Controller Matthew Bannister’s axe swung, and the old guard like Wright were cut to make way for a more youthful lineup.

Chris Evans

April 1995-January 1997

The radio voice of the Britpop era, Evans channelled some of the scene’s lairiness while remaining affable and nerdy enough to have wide appeal.

Mark and Lard

February-October 1997

It was refreshing to have a pair of northern accents on the show, but with their anti-showbiz surreality, their short tenure is generally seen – including by them – as a failure.

Zoë Ball and Kevin Greening

October 1997-March 2000

The first woman on the show, Ball was glamorous and matey, and universalised the blokey humour of Evans, ably moving on from an initial double act with Greening.

Sara Cox

April 2000-December 2003

Took the “ladette” baton from Ball and ran it into even more endearing, freewheeling territory, with self-deprecating northern humour.

Chris Moyles

January 2004-September 2012

The self-styled “saviour of Radio 1” was host for eight years and 253 days. Moyles used all the breakfast show strands – laddism, mickey-taking, zoo mentality – to become the show’s definitive presenter.

Nick Grimshaw

September 2012-August 2018

Young and gay, Grimshaw was the anti-Moyles, and a firm recommitment to the station’s reflection of youth culture.

Ben Beaumont-Thomas


Peter Robinson

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