Radio Zoe Ball versus Chris Evans: this is the battle of the breakfast shows
In 1997, it was the Ginger Whinger v The Ladette. But who’s going to win this time – Chris Evans or Zoe Ball, asks James Hall
This morning Zoe Ball replaces Chris Evans as the presenter of Radio 2’s flagship Breakfast Show while Evans prepares to take over the same slot at Virgin Radio next week. Radio listeners – not to mention Ball and Evans themselves – will be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu at this round of musical chairs. The situation mirrors the so-called “Battle for Breakfast” that gripped the nation over two decades ago when a fresh-faced Ball took over Evans’s former slot on Radio 1’s Breakfast Show as he moved to Virgin. The Balls-evans breakfast show rivalry became one of the media stories of 1997, resulting in newspaper spats and a fierce ratings battle.
Twenty-two years on, all concerned will be hoping that hostilities won’t be repeated. It’s unlikely. Now middleaged, Ball and Evans have been BBC stablemates for many years. And in these days of media plurality – podcasts and smartphones now jostle with radio for people’s attention in the morning – presenter clashes don’t attract the febrile scrutiny they once did. But, back then, the static on the airwaves was palpable.
Evans fired the first shot. On Jan 16 1997, following a decision by Matthew Bannister, the controller of Radio 1, not to let Evans have Fridays off to focus on his TFI Friday TV show, the presenter quit. A pair of Radio 1 evening DJS, Mark Radcliffe and Marc “Lard” Riley, replaced him but only lasted eight months – they were too alternative for such a mainstream slot.
At the time, Zoe Ball was forging an impressive media career. With her hard-partying “ladette” tag yet to fully emerge, the broadcaster had done a stint presenting The Big Breakfast and was co-presenting children’s weekend TV show Live and Kicking with Jamie Theakston.
Ball, then 26, was driving back to London from a week in Devon in the autumn of 1997 when her agent Peter Powell, himself a former Radio 1 DJ, telephoned. “Peter calls to say, ‘Do you want to do the Radio 1 Breakfast Show with Kevin Greening? Be at this hotel by six tonight.’ A crash-the-car scenario,” Ball told author Simon Garfield in The Nation’s Favourite, his book about Radio 1. Nervous, Ball arrived at the hotel “in a daze” to meet with Bannister, his deputy Andy Parfitt, Powell and Greening, a Radio 1 DJ seen as a safe pair of hands.
“It’s horrible when you first meet people you might work with and you’re the new girl, hideously intimidating,” Ball recalled. “You have to impress but also be quite cool. Kevin came in in his biker gear, and the first thing I said to him was, ‘Hello, I’m Zoe. What sort of music do you like?’ Embarrassing.”
Ball signed up for the show, despite never having properly DJ’D, and started intense rehearsals with Greening and producer Barrie Kelly. After three pilot shows, the team still hadn’t nailed the right tone.
“Then, a few days before we start, we find out that Chris Evans is going to Virgin and that he’s going to launch on the same day as us,” Ball said. She’d be going headto-head with the man whose shoes she was tasked with filling.
“My initial reaction was to laugh, saying, ‘I don’t believe this’. Then by lunchtime I was in tears.”
The two were actually friends, knowing each other from the London party circuit. They occasionally got drunk together. But a few days later a story appeared in the Mirror in which Ball said she hated Evans. Ball said the story was total fabrication. But it didn’t matter. Hype was reaching fever pitch, aided by Kellogg’s Cornflakes decision to withdraw its sponsorship of Virgin’s breakfast show because Evans didn’t fit with its “family values” image.
On the morning of Monday Oct 13 1997, Ball and Evans launched their shows simultaneously. A blizzard of energy, Evans drank a can of Beamish on air at 8am. He quizzed a caller about her breast enlargement operation and only played five songs in the first hour due to all the chat and ad breaks.
Ball and Greening delivered a solid show against the odds. They interviewed the Spice Girls, footballer Teddy Sheringham and the Lightning
Seeds’ Ian Broudie. Producer Kelly described the show as “a dream”.
Both sides held post-show press conferences. At Virgin’s, Evans and Richard Branson – then the station’s owner – sprayed each other with champagne. Ball’s press conference
– at the Langham Hilton – was very different. “There were all these very aggressive questions, mostly about Chris Evans, very sneery, waiting for us to fail,” Ball recalled.
The reviews came in. The Sunday Times labelled both shows “inane”. The Mail on Sunday suggested that Ball had based her persona “on Loaded’s pin-up babe, rather than on the nice girl we’ve seen presenting children’s TV”.
All that really mattered, however, was the next set of listening figures. They showed that Radio 1’s show
had 5.4 million weekly listeners,
‘My initial reaction was to laugh, saying ‘“I don’t believe this”. Then by lunchtime I was in tears.’
up 400,000, while Virgin’s had 2.3 million, up 750,000. Ball and Greening remained the biggest. But Evans had added more listeners. Both sides claimed victory.
The rivalry continued into 1998. Ball and Greening’s lightweight, knockabout show featured a quiz called Shop ’Em or Drop ’Em in which celebrities had to dish some gossip or drop their pants. There was a character called Major Holdups, who did traffic reports in a sergeant major’s voice, and a feature called Headline Makers in which they made up puns. There were regular controversies. On one occasion, Ball received an official warning from bosses after using the f-word to describe a gig by her beau Norman Cook, aka the DJ Fatboy Slim. And it was clear from an outside broadcast from Ibiza that she was enjoying the island’s party lifestyle to the hilt. She admitted last week that things were “quite wild” back then.
Over on Virgin, Evans was even more of a loose cannon. His shows were more unstructured, featuring lengthy phoneins and opinionated monologues. He took to defending friends on air, such as footballer Paul Gascoigne, and was fined a record £75,000 by the Radio Authority for broadcasting his support for Ken Livingstone in the run-up to the mayoral elections.
Odds were even. In 1998 Evans won radio’s highest honour, the Sony Gold award. Ball took over completely from Greening in September 1998 and the following year won the Sony Gold herself. She quit the show in 2000 to start a family with Cook.
Ball and Evans are hugely different broadcasters today. Evans has mellowed, and his Radio 2 show – which he left on Christmas Eve last year after almost nine years – was a mixture of shout-outs to listeners, celebrity interviews and quizzes. Meanwhile, Ball’s recent Saturday afternoon Radio 2 show featured personal choices from her record collection and specially themed broadcasts, while her ITV chat show included a book club. The wild days are over. Evans has arguably changed the most. His barely contained rebelliousness and innovation have been replaced by something more inoffensive and mainstream.
Nevertheless, it would be foolish to assume the rivalry is over. It’s just that the daily duel between two loud-mouthed and ambitious insurgents is going to be replaced by the gentle jousting of rich, middle-aged professionals.
The Zoe Ball Breakfast Show is on BBC Radio 2 from 6.30am Mondays to Fridays. The Chris Evans Breakfast Show launches on Virgin Radio on Jan 21
Best of enemies: Chris Evans and Zoe Ball today, right, and at the Q Awards in 1997 Red tops: the tabloids went to town on the original Breakfast Show ratings war
Breakfast in bed: Evans with Virgin boss Richard Branson, who signed him in 1997