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Greg James on his new breakfast show gig and how much he gets paid

He hosted his first breakfast show for Radio 1 today. But days before settling into the hot seat, Greg James told Susannah Butter about pranks, pay and 5am starts

First of all, he's not too old. DJ Greg James is 32, which used to qualify you for retirement in Radio 1 years, but the new host of its breakfast show insists it is entering a different era. "There was a point where if you were over 30, Radio 1 didn't want you to listen," he says. " Now, anyone is allowed to listen - the show is about feeling connected to pop culture."

James was speaking just days before his debut this morning, taking over from Nick Grimshaw (33) in the coveted slot. Grimmy now has James' drivetime show and is relieved to get a lie-in.

Despite having woken up at 5am for a rehearsal, James is perky. He wears an immaculately pressed blue shirt, and is tanned from a holiday in Tuscany, where he ate 10 types of pecorino in one meal. The breakfast show is a lifelong dream, but one that he had almost given up on after 10 years at the BBC. "I'd really wanted it, then decided I was okay with not having it and got stuck into my show and writing (the Kid Normal books for children). I still hoped to have the chance and felt ready but the moment I stopped giving a s***, hey presto, it happened. I couldn't believe it."

The breakfast show's tone may be larky, but James has his work cut out for him. So far this year, the show has lost 600,000 listeners - with an audience of 5.1m, the second lowest since it started in 1973.

"I'm up for a challenge," says James, undaunted. "I got to a point with drivetime where I could do it with my eyes closed. I climbed three mountains for Sport Relief and the BBC was like, 'Try this, it's a bigger challenge'. I'm at an age where I can cope with the scrutiny and stress."

He's given up drinking in the week to ease the 5am starts but jokes: "I'll let you know after the first show, because I might need a lunchtime wine then."

James wants to create "a club of listeners". "It's the most joyful thing because they confide in you; funny stories about dates or, on a more serious note, they open up about mental health."

He did a Sport Relief campaign about mental health that was so successful that strangers now come up to him in the supermarket to confide. "My friends don't even say this stuff to me. Radio should reflect a friendship - we can have a laugh and they can come to me with problems."

His father, a headteacher, suffered from depression when James was about to leave the family home in Bromley for the University of East Anglia. "That was bad because I had no idea about (depression then). My girlfriend suffers from bad anxiety. It's uncomfortable and there aren't cures, it's about talking about it and accepting you will go to a dark place. It's dangerous to say it's normal."

If James wasn't doing this job, he says he would go and study white privilege. "Radio 1 will and should become more diverse. I want someone listening to my show, whatever background they are from, to hear something they think is relevant to them. I understand that being a white middle-class guy I get so many opportunities and I have a huge job to give others opportunities."

Of course the show is also about music. "My absolute favourite, Robyn, has returned with an insanely good song," he says. "You can't like everything, but I'm not a snob and I'm not so arrogant to only do content that interests me. That's where you become an echo chamber of banality."

Ahead of his first show, he was planning "to get some words of wisdom" from Grimmy. The pair marked their swap with a 22-hour game of hide and seek live on the radio, where listeners had to try to find them. James wants to do more stunts like that. There's a new jingle in the works too: "The first cut was too laddy, we've come up with a more mischievous melody."

James claims to have got going out and getting drunk out of his system. "I've done a lot of shows hungover and was distracted by big nights out - it meant I wasn't funny enough the next day. You're compromised if you're mates with the people you're interviewing. I had a high-ish profile relationship (with the singer Ellie Goulding for 18 months) and I hated it. You become a story."

Now, earnestly, he "just wants to make good radio shows".I s he concerned that breakfast show presenters have a limited lifespan? "Yes. But I'm in touch with the world. If I wasn't I wouldn't be the right person for the job. It's good not to see Radio 1 as for an imaginary 15-year-old."

He'll be paid less than Grimshaw, but he's not complaining about his £150,000-£199,999. "I'm unBritish in that I will tell people how much I'm paid. I feel well paid but it's an important job that connects to a lot of people who don't otherwise listen to or watch the BBC. I could get four times more at a commercial station but I never would - I never wanted to do it for money."

James has nearly a million Instagram followers and sees it as "an enormous part of my job". "One of the reasons Radio 1 kept me on is I've embraced social media. You can't be pig-headed, saying, 'I'm on the radio, find me'. You have to be proactive." But he can turn off. "On holiday I left my phone in a shoe and I didn't lose my job."

James' mother is also a teacher and he has an older sister. "I remember listening to Test Match Special, aged nine," he says. "It got me into radio because it had that feeling of being an enormous show but also like it was just for me." He made his own programmes and pretended to be Chris Tarrant. He does a passable Tarrant impression.

He also does a decent Taylor Swift. He was criticised by her fans for saying he'd let her go take a shower at the end of an interview - it was a hot day. "She apologised for her fans. I told her it was funny and she agreed."

One reason he is feeling so sorted is his fiancée, journalist Bella Mackie. He's wearing a bracelet she gave him. "She said I had to wear it until it falls off," he laughs bashfully. "It's a horrible, cheap bracelet but I'd be lost without it."

Mackie surprised him with a marriage proposal in February. "It was the night before I was due to set off for Sport Relief and I was stressed. We went out for dinner at our local Italian. I was drinking, she wasn't. Halfway through I looked up and she was crying and shaking. She thought we should get married. I said, 'We will definitely, at some point' - we'd joked about it before - and kept eating. She said, 'No, now'. I was like: 'Are you actually asking?' It was unplanned, but that's how we've always been. It got me through Sport Relief. I had this nice thing at the back of my head, 'Someone wants to marry me'. We're not going to have a white wedding though."

Mackie's father is former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger. James says he is "a remarkable man, her parents are super-smart", and takes him to Lord's. Does he listen to Radio 1? "He does now."

He's trying out morning routines so that his new start time doesn't disturb night owl Mackie. "I don't know how we're going to do this. I'll lay out my clothes the night before and I've taken the hairdryer downstairs so I don't disturb her." But his main worry is his opening line on Monday morning: "I'm worried I'll accidentally say good evening instead of good morning."

© Evening Standard

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