Evans’ departure to a Rupert Murdoch-owned radio station tests the limits of the BBC’s ability to hold on to its biggest stars after new rules forced the disclosure of leading presenters’ pay. His exit to a deep-pocketed commercial rival follows that of Radio 4 presenter Eddie Mair, who has left to join LBC. It is thought Evans was unhappy with the very public criticism of his pay packet and BBC chiefs struggled to match his demands during recent negotiations.
They have privately raised concerns that the media attention on pay disclosures will put talent off joining the broadcaster, although there are no major concerns that other stars are about to leave the corporation. Evans took a pay cut following a public outcry over presenters’ incomes – partly as a result of quitting Top Gear – but was still paid between £1,660,000 and £1,669,999 by the broadcaster in the previous financial year, making him the BBC’s second-highest paid star after Gary Lineker.
He will present his final Radio 2 show in December, 13 years after presenting his first show for the station. Speculation over his replacement has focussed on Sara Cox, another former Radio 1 breakfast show host, who currently presents a late-night programme on Radio 2. The station currently only has one woman in its daytime line-up: Jo Whiley, who co-presents the drivetime programme with Simo Mayo. Evans will take over the Virgin Radio breakfast show from the new year.
The current version of the station was relaunched in March 2016 and recently bought by Murdoch’s News UK, under the leadership of the former Sun editor Rebekah Brooks. The company hopes to develop a major presence in British radio. The digital-only station reaches 413,000 listeners a week, compared with the 15 million who listen to Radio 2. Announcing the move on-air, Evans suggested he was leaving for family reasons. “The twins are on their way,” he said, but he added that he was looking for a “new adventure”.
Evans previously quit the BBC in a flurry of publicity to host the breakfast show on the old Virgin Radio from 1997 to 2001, which he briefly owned before selling on at a substantial profit. The deal turned sour and ended up in court when he was sacked having failed to turn up for work after going on an alcohol binge with Billie Piper. The station was later rebranded as Absolute Radio. Chris Evans and his wife, Natasha Shishmanian.
In a statement, Evans said: “I have absolutely loved every single moment of my time at Radio 2. The last 13 years have flashed by in what seems like the blink of an eye. I have learnt so much from so many people to whom I will be eternally grateful.” Citing his late predecessor, Terry Wogan, Evans added: “As Sir Terry said before me, there’s never a right time to leave something you love, but there might be a wrong time if you hang on too long.” Evans took over from Wogan as host of the Breakfast Show in January 2010. Audience figures peaked in 2014 at 9.91 million listeners a week, but have fallen since.
In May, the BBC said his show had attracted 9.12 million listeners a week in the first quarter of 2018, down slightly on the previous year. Evans said on Monday, however, that the show was “in fine shape for its next custodian. Whoever that turns out to be, I wish them all the very best, they are in for an absolute blast.” Tony Hall, the director general of the BBC, said: “Chris has been an absolutely first-class presenter of the Breakfast Show. He has brought both warmth and a genuine insight into what listeners want.
“He has given 100% to each of his BBC projects, including raising millions of pounds for Children in Need. I’d like to thank him for all his efforts over the years and wish him all the best for the future.” Lewis Carnie, the head of Radio 2, said: “Over the past eight years on Breakfast, Chris has built an incredibly close relationship with the Radio 2 audience. I’d like to thank him, on behalf of them all, for becoming their friend via the airwaves. We look forward to launching a brand new Radio 2 Breakfast Show early in the new year.”