MEDIA: HEADLINER - His star is rising but how long can Chris Tarrant keep it up? Ian Darby meets the man who brought us the radio zoo and the TV millionaire

Chris Tarrant likes to rant. This morning it's about Davina McCall's revealing outfit at last week's Q Music Awards, or rather the 'bunch of old scrubbers' in the national press who criticised her virtually non-existent dress.

Chris Tarrant likes to rant. This morning it's about Davina McCall's revealing outfit at last week's Q Music Awards, or rather the 'bunch of old scrubbers' in the national press who criticised her virtually non-existent dress.

This style of on-air rant is hugely successful, keeping Tarrant's show on Capital ahead of the competition in London. Last week's Rajar figures showed that Tarrant has 1.79 million adult listeners, down slightly on last quarter but more than Sara Cox's and Chris Evans' combined London listenership. Cox on Radio 1 has 838,000 listeners in London and Chris Evans 608,000.

Tarrant, now at the pinnacle of his career due to the success of ITV's Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, has fronted the Breakfast Show since 1987.

For listeners and advertisers it is a unique vehicle. Tarrant is part of many Londoners' lives, creating a sense of identification because of his direct and jokey style.

This is the kind of bond with listeners that Capital is attempting to build on with its current rebranding and new advertising that uses the line 'It's your Capital' and features Tarrant.

Tarrant is flying high - his Capital contract alone pays more than pounds 1 million a year - but he has seen some dark days. Born in 1946 in Reading, his first break in media came in 1972 when he landed a reporter's job for ATV in Birmingham. Within two years, he was hosting Tiswas on Saturday mornings. After Tiswas ended in 1981, and his own show, OTT, lasted just one series, there was a spell in the wilderness. It lasted until he joined Capital in 1984.

Tarrant's success has helped raise standards across commercial radio.

David Fletcher, the planning director and head of CIA MediaLab, says: 'Chris Tarrant has been in the vanguard of making commercial radio as potent as anything the BBC can offer. He has defined attitudes to local breakfast radio. There's something very definite about his style - there's no negotiation with the listener. He just says 'this is the way it is'.'

Tarrant says that an improvement in the standard of radio advertising has helped his show. 'Radio ads are much better than they used to be. I remember when I first started it was just hours of dry speech, not even any jingles. It's important to have ads that fit the style of the station.'

Tarrant says the format of the show won't change significantly despite other planned programming moves at Capital - including new evening and weekend schedules to refocus on the core 'twentysomething' audience that the station is striving to target.

He speaks about his rivals, DJs such as Evans and Cox, but shows no animosity.

He says Evans has 'lost his edge' in radio terms and criticises the format of his show. 'We started the zoo format, openly lifted from US radio. But to work you need one man who is the ringmaster with the power to close ranks. But if everybody at the zoo is paid by the ringmaster it becomes a problem,' he says.

Despite being a man with a lot of drive and ambition, Tarrant seems well liked at Capital. A source at the station says: 'He's held in high esteem, a lot of success hangs on the Breakfast Show. He's pretty well liked. It's recognised that he works hard and he's not too proud to put a client's T-shirt on.'

Tarrant's hard work - he often puts in a 19-hour day - isn't about to end. He has more than a year left on his Capital contract and would like to carry on doing the show that he calls his 'greatest achievement'. However, the decision by David Liddiment, the ITV controller, to increase the number of Millionaire shows to three a week means something may have to give.

He says: 'When Millionaire started it was big blocks of event TV every three months, which was fine. Capital said we could work around this, but then David Liddiment wanted to go to three shows a week and it's proving difficult.'

So can he keep it up? 'It's how I like it; I love the adrenaline. But I will have to look at how I pace it because I am losing contact with my family.'

For the time being, then, Tarrant will continue with his punishing schedule and 5am starts. After all, he would miss the chance to rant for London.


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