After Chris Evans ... why women are leading the race for the breakfast slot

As the longtime presenter vacates his breakfast slot, five of the six favourites to take over his popular show are women. So what has prompted this cultural shift in a schedule that has been dominated by men for years?

On Monday morning, on his Radio 2 breakfast show, Chris Evans surprised many by announcing that he would be leaving at Christmas. “Some of us are mountain climbers,” he said. “But if you get to the top of your favourite mountain and stay there, you become an observer.” Almost immediately, Virgin Radio issued a press release that Evans would be presenting its breakfast show from 2019, thereby increasing his pay from £1.6m to £2m, which made you wonder if the mountain he was talking about was made of money. But anyway, since Monday, there has been a whole lot of speculation about who will be the programme’s next host.

The Radio 2 breakfast show is the biggest radio programme in the UK. Radio 2 is still, by some way, our most popular station: its audience hovers at the 15 million mark; it accounts for more than one in three of BBC listening hours. And the breakfast show is the most popular of all its programmes, with 9 million people tuning in every day. Whoever is the next presenter will instantly become the most listened-to DJ in the whole of the country (though Ken Bruce, who hosts the mid-morning show, will give them a run for their money). Not only that, but the BBC will be keeping a close eye to ensure that this doesn’t change, that whoever takes over won’t cause those enormous figures to drop. After all, Virgin clearly thinks that Evans will bring some of his Radio 2 fans with him. No pressure, then.

So, shall we consider the runners and riders? The Ladbrokes odds on the new breakfast host make interesting reading. Scrolling down the list of the top six bets, you are struck by a quite remarkable thing: five out of the six most likely contenders are women. Sara Cox, at 4/5, is the frontrunner, followed by Simon Mayo at 5/2. After that, we get Zoe Ball at 4/1; then Jo Whiley, Liza Tarbuck and Claudia Winkleman all hover around the 10-12/1 mark. Vanessa Feltz comes in rather lower, at 40/1 (worth a flutter?).

This might seem unimportant. After all, every one of those presenters would do a good job. But it is not. For longer than you might expect, Radio 2’s Monday-to-Friday daytime schedule has been dominated by men. Until Mayo made room for Whiley to join his late afternoon show last May, Radio 2 had a man at the main microphone from 7am until 7pm, when the specialist shows would kick in. And as they, too, were often presented by men, it wasn’t until Whiley’s previous 8pm show that a woman was permitted to be in charge.

And let’s look at just how long men have been in those slots. Evans started in 2010, moving from Radio 2’s drivetime. Before him, Terry Wogan had hosted Wake Up to Wogan since 1993. I’m not going to list every single in and out (though there isn’t much movement); suffice it to say that you have to turn back the clock to the 90s to find a woman on Radio 2 during the day. Gloria Hunniford had an afternoon show until 1995, followed by Debbie Thrower, who was replaced by Steve Wright. Judith Chalmers had Ken Bruce’s slot for two years from 1990; Bruce has stayed there ever since. Radio 2, the nation’s most popular radio station, boasted an all-male weekday daytime line-up from 1998 until May of this year.

Chris Evans
Chris Evans is moving to host Virgin Radio’s breakfast show. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

When Bob Shennan took over as controller of Radio 2 and 6Music in 2009, I took him to task over this. He told me that there were two problems he had to contend with. One: all of the Radio 2 daytime shows were immensely popular, so he couldn’t risk doing a Matthew Bannister Smashie and Nicey-style clear-out. And two: the BBC had taken its eye off the ball. It hadn’t given talented female presenters enough airtime for them to be able to take on such high-profile presenting jobs.

We could spend quite some time taking apart the mad logic of his last point, but what is more interesting, perhaps, is to consider what has changed. How did we get from there to here? The Sound Women pressure group, set up to help women progress in radio, did significant research and lobbying in its five-year stint (2011-16). This did not change Radio 2, but did lead directly to BBC director-general Tony Hall insisting, in 2013, that BBC radio needed to up its quotient of female presenters: he demanded that at least half of BBC local radio breakfast shows had a woman presenter or co-presenter. Suddenly, Radio 2 looked even more old-fashioned.

The BBC’s publishing of the salaries of its top presenters is another factor. The storm caused by its shocking gender pay gap revelations is still raging through the BBC. The highest-paid men on its roster have been asked to consider a pay cut (John Humphrys has taken two). Evans was revealed as one of the BBC’s most highly paid. Even if you thought he was worth it, suddenly the BBC’s commercial rivals knew how much to bid to tempt him away.

What else has changed? To give him his due, Shennan, now BBC director of music, has made sure women have stood in whenever regular Radio 2 presenters are away. One reason Cox is the favourite for the breakfast slot is that she has done so well presenting the show when Evans has been off. Ball is a regular sit-in for Bruce; as is Feltz for Jeremy Vine.

Zoe Ball
Zoe Ball has tabloid appeal – something Radio 2 loves. Photograph: Bryan Adams/BRYAN ADAMS

I’ll come back to Cox and Ball, but let’s consider the other contenders. Mayo, at number two, is in a slightly tricky position as the co-presenter of a new show that’s taken time to bed in. Not all listeners have been happy with him and Whiley presenting together, but the heads of Radio 2 may well want them to continue until they get it right. You could imagine Mayo moving to breakfast and Whiley taking on teatime by herself, but Mayo, whilst eminently experienced, isn’t quite bright and breezy enough for the breakfast show. Also, if Radio 2 were to give the job to yet another man, with all those women in the running, the furore would give way to fury.

Whiley, too, isn’t quite snappy enough for breakfast; plus neither she nor Mayo do anything to trouble the tabloids. Radio 2 likes a bit of celeb sparkle with its cornflakes. So: Winkleman? Too self-consciously ditsy: the show requires discipline and a sense of someone being in charge, as well as humour. Tarbuck seems very happy with her Saturday night 6-7pm slot. Which leaves Cox and Ball. Both have presented breakfast shows before, on Radio 1. Both are naturally upbeat, as well as experienced. Plus both, especially Ball, are still tabloid-worthy, their personal lives fair game, their coming and goings papped on a regular basis. Radio 2 loves that: its front doors are often swamped with photographers and fans.

Someone said to me that the reason why Cox and Ball are seen as likely contenders is that fortysomethings grew up with them. Radio 2 would like to tempt new, younger listeners (the average age of a breakfast show listener is 53). But I think it’s more than that. Cast your mind back to the 90s, and remember the label they were given. Ladettes. Fit women who could keep up with the jokey, blokey, Britpop times.

Though their lives, and ours, have changed since then, the truly strange thing is this: Cox and Ball are considered the women most likely to break Radio 2’s all-male daytime club because many men still think of them as “one of the lads”.


Miranda Sawyer

The GuardianTramp

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