NME Cover Feature: Inside Chris Moyles’ Controversial Return To Breakfast Radio

As presenter of Radio 1’s breakfast show between 2004 and 2012, Chris Moyles was the most listened-to DJ in the country. People loved him. People despised him. But you couldn’t get away from him. Then he disappeared. Leonie Cooper joins him as he returns from the wilderness on the newly-launched Radio X

“Sh*t, maybe I’m a feminist,” blurts Chris Moyles, shocking himself almost as much as he just has NME. It’s the week before the most controversial DJ in the country returns to the airwaves on the newly-launched Radio X. For a man previously branded as the bad boy of the BBC, regularly facing accusations of sexism for his behaviour on Radio 1, his admission is something of a curveball. “My manager is female, my assistant is female, my press person is female and my exec producer is female,” he continues, before unexpectedly assuming the role of a women’s rights activist. “Why do women have to pay for sanitary products? That’s crazy. That would never happen if it was the other way around!”

Moyles’ musings are even stranger in light of the fact that Radio X – the successor to beleaguered indie-rock station XFM – is being positioned as ‘male-focused’. According to a press release, their target audience is men aged 25-44. In keeping, the vast majority of the new hosts are male, middle-aged and overwhelmingly white. As well as Moyles there’s Johnny Vaughan (who’ll be joining from Talksport), Kaiser Chief and The Voice judge Ricky Wilson, and ITV face Vernon Kaye, who left Radio 1 in 2012.

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Despite being pretty much the originator of blokeish banter culture, Moyles is adamant he’ll be bucking the station’s lad-leading direction. “It’s b***ocks,” he says bluntly. “The whole male-focused thing came out of the blue. A load of us presenters went out for a beer the other night and everyone was like, ‘This is bulls**t, who said this?’ The weird thing is, if that’s what they secretly want to go for, they’re f***ed, because my audience was always 50/50 male and female, if not with a slight edge towards females. I don’t think that will change much.”

As he often did at the BBC, Moyles is more than willing to bite the hand that feeds him. At the height of his Radio 1 fame, a staggering eight million people tuned into his breakfast show, which ran from 2004 until 2012. Alongside the chart parodies, toilet humour and the occasional record, there were Moyles’ self-indulgent rants, including half-an-hour spent complaining about not being paid by the BBC in 2010, which led to Radio 2 host Chris Evans saying it was time for him to quit.

NME meets Moyles four days before his first show for Radio X. In classic heist movie style, he’s done his best to get his old team together for his new show, bringing back producer Pippa Taylor and newsreader Dominic Byrne. ‘Comedy’ Dave Vitty and producer Aled Haydn Jones will not be returning, but the zoo-radio style of broadcasting – lots of shouty people in a room – most definitely will.

He’s just finished a real-time run-through with his team, and in a hotel restaurant across the way from the Global Radio offices in Leicester Square, a trim-looking Moyles orders tea and toast and explains his return to radio. “I’d said to myself ‘never say never’ about going back. People thought I’d given it up for good, which I hadn’t,” he says. In fact last year he said he had no plans to get back into radio in one of his online vlogs. “They approached me,” he stresses. “Be under no illusion that I went knocking on doors for work.”

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Asked to leave Radio 1 in 2012 as part of a drive to lower the average age of the listeners, the station’s longest-serving presenter was replaced by chipper 20-something friend of the stars, Nick Grimshaw. The result was either a success or failure depending on who you ask. As of May this year, Grimshaw’s listenership was down to 5.5 million, a record low. Yet Ben Cooper, Radio 1 controller and the man who moved Moyles on, congratulated Grimshaw for shaking off the older listeners, who made up 90 per cent of those who had abandoned the show. “I’m pleased that Grimmy is doing what I’ve asked of him by keeping his young audience happy and scaring off the over-30s,” he said.

Moyles appears casually vindicated by the outcome. “They had to be seen to be making the biggest move they could possibly make to achieve that [younger listenership] because they’d been trying for a while and it’d not happened,” he says. “Still not happened!”

After leaving Radio 1, Moyles busied himself on the fringes of the entertainment world. There was a tour with a live band, the role as Herod in a stage production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar (which The Guardian branded the show’s saving grace) and a sojourn to LA to write a screenplay, which has since been picked up for a development deal. There was the aforementioned crack at vlogging, with Moyles documenting his adventures in Hollywood and Norwich, interviewing the likes of Peter Andre and dissecting S Club 7 performances: “Oh, my failed YouTube attempt, as it got dubbed.” There was also controversy with Moyles publicly outed as being part of a tax avoidance scheme. “I didn’t break the law, and I paid it anyway,” he states.

For a man who’s never been shy of the sound of his own voice, Moyles’ return to radio is exactly where you imagine he wants to be, especially seeing as various attempts at a television career have never taken off (see box left). Now, not only does he have the most prestigious slot of the day, he has bosses who call him a “broadcasting genius” (Ashley Tabor, head of Global).

“They know what they’re buying,” says Moyles. “I don’t have to play a number of songs a day, I don’t have to do this and that, which is great – it’s what I wanted. I’m tired of being told I didn’t play enough music [on Radio 1].” It takes him a huge 28 minutes to play the first song on his opening Radio X show the following week. When I ask which acts will make up his core playlist, Moyles is non-committal.

“I just want the songs to be big,” he says. “Radio 1 had enough shows where it was about the music – our show was never about the music. And what happens then is people think you don’t like music, which is really frustrating, ’cos I do like music.” Asked to name his top five bands though, he flounders. “I’m a little bit eclectic, I love a bit of everything, so my iPod is embarrassingly diverse.” Pulling it out of his pocket, Moyles rattles off a list of what he’s been listening to recently, including The Strypes, The Rolling Stones, Ed Sheeran, ELO and the soundtrack to The Book Of Mormon, the musical from the creators of South Park, which Moyles recently saw for the third time. One of the last gigs he went to was Taylor Swift in London’s Hyde Park. “I love Tay-Tay, and anyone who says that they don’t is a liar,” he states. “She writes amazing pop records. I think people assume pop music is cr*p and they’re wrong. Pop music is popular music and everyone should calm the f**k down.”

Don’t, then, expect to come to Moyles to find obscure new grime artists or cutting-edge psych-rock bands. Radio X has retained new-music champion John Kennedy’s late-night X-Posure show for that. Moyles is here for the express purpose of entertaining people as they battle hangovers, get ready for another mind-numbing day in the office or peel out of bed before going to college.

“They’re like, ‘Just do what you do and don’t get us fined,’” he comments of his new bosses. Despite all the controversy that surrounded Moyles’ time at Radio 1, he was never fined or suspended. “So it’s great when you read about how outrageous and terrible I was. I was quite a good little boy, actually.”

Of course, there are many who believe he should have been fined, not least for offering to take the virginity of Charlotte Church when she turned 16 – which saw him reprimanded by the Broadcasting Standards Commission. “That Charlotte Church thing, I said once, [but] it’s been written about a hundred times, which I find hilarious,” says Moyles unapologetically. “I moved on, everyone else still goes on about it.” In 2006, LGBT charity Stonewall named the presenter Bully Of The Year, for using the word ‘gay’ as a pejorative and for comments about the singer Will Young.

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“Anybody who knows me at all will say I’m really not homophobic, I’m really not sexist, I’m really not a racist, I’m really not xenophobic,” he stresses. “Apart from the French. That’s a joke,” he adds wryly. “I really don’t care. One of my best friends is transgender and I spent the last three years asking every single possible question I could think of about it, because I didn’t know much about it. I don’t care what you are, as long as you’re nice and not an a***hole, that’s all I care about.”

In his new time slot, Moyles will be going head-to-head with his Radio 1 replacement, Nick Grimshaw. Laughing off tabloid reports of a feud, he’s keen to stress he sees this as a mutually beneficial move. “We’ll take a lot of his older listeners and his average age will go down, he’ll get patted on the back and we’ll get patted on the back – everyone’s going to win,” he says, confidently. “I don’t think anyone can lose in this scenario. Apart from Capital and Heart,” he adds with a chuckle.

As with Grimshaw, much has been made of Moyles’ supposed rivalry with the late John Peel, with Peel once calling Moyles a “DLT-in-waiting”, referring to the cheesy – and now Yewtree-convicted – 1970s host Dave Lee Travis. At the time Moyles responded by branding Peel “Kenny Everett-in-waiting, because Kenny Everett’s dead and it’s only a matter of time before John pops his clogs.” “John and I ended up having a lovely little friendship, from him thinking I was the Antichrist and me thinking he was a miserable old b*stard,” explains Moyles. “The moment we started bonding was when he pinched my a*se in a pub one day when I was at the bar.”

At 6.30am on the morning of September 21, Moyles and his team rattle through their first broadcast with a calm confidence and a tongue-in-cheek first track: Girls Aloud’s ‘Love Machine’. “You’re gonna love this, haters,” smirks Moyles before pressing play. Much is made on air of Moyles’ distaste for the ‘male-focused’ comments about the station. “I don’t care if you’re male, female, gay, straight, white, black,” he comments, ad infinitum, before making a very public commitment to turning over a new leaf. “I’m a nice man now,” he confesses. “I always was, but now I’m nicer.” Before he started his Radio 1 show, he admits he was still out drinking at midnight. But when NME checks in with him following his Radio X debut, he explains, “I had a quiet night in, watched a movie, had a vegetable curry and one beer and then went to bed at 11.”

That’s not to say he doesn’t slip back into some of his other old ways on air; he only plays three songs in the first hour, does a spurious Belgian accent and delivers a caustic kiss-off to his old boss, Ben Cooper. “Ben, we can do whatever we like and you can’t stop me!” he cackles midway through the show.

“I really enjoyed it,” he beams to NME afterwards. He’s not the only one. #MoylesIsBack trends on Twitter throughout the show and the Radio X app keeps on crashing due to overwhelming demand. Whether he can stick to his newfound feminist ideology, however, remains to be seen – we’ll believe it when we see him campaigning outside Boots for free tampons.