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A pound for every listener lost? The BBC has given Zoe Ball a whopping raise for failing

The Radio 2 breakfast host's eye-watering £1.3 million salary bears no relation to her talent or popularity – how can the BBC justify it?

Zoe Ball, on her first morning hosting the Radio 2 Breakfast Show, on January 14, 2019
Zoe Ball, on her first morning hosting the Radio 2 Breakfast Show, on January 14, 2019 Credit: PA

Zoe Ball has lost a million listeners from the Radio 2 breakfast show since she took over from Chris Evans. On Tuesday we learnt that she has had a pay increase of a million pounds. A pound for every listener that she lost. Now earning £1.3 million per year, according to the BBC’s Annual Report, she is the corporation’s second highest paid star after Gary Lineker.

It’s very charitable of the BBC to reward an employee for doing worse than they expected. I suppose it’s a bit like a teacher being extra supportive to the children who are falling behind, to help them catch up, but that’s not the traditional way to run a media organisation. Actually, Ball's pay is likely to have been set before anyone knew just how many listeners the show would lose, but it certainly makes it hard to defend paying her the same again next year.

Still, the BBC had to come up with some mechanism for making it look as if they're finally paying women more decently than they were before; the spectre of the corporation's gender pay gap and its accompanying legal disputes from the last two years still looms large, and that may be why Ball has received such an eye-watering increase in her salary.

But the question of whether the women working lower down in broadcasting and production are being paid more fairly is harder to answer. What we do know is that Ball now earns more than twice as much as the next highest-paid radio star at the BBC, which is Steve Wright, on £475k.

Ball's published salary, furthermore, is only for her radio work and does not include what she earns for presenting Strictly It Takes Two, which is made by BBC Studios.

Zoe Ball with her Breakfast Show predecessor Chris Evans Credit: BBC

Ball is an engaging radio broadcaster, as proven by the fact that she still attracts 8.1 million weekly listeners to the show (each of them, we now know, effectively paying her 16p per year). Presenting a breakfast show is a high-pressure gig and requires confidence, reliability, star quality and endless energy. All of these are uncommon skills. 

But I don't think she's the best radio presenter that the BBC employs, and I don't even think she's the best broadcaster on Radio 2. Ken Bruce, Liza Tarbuck and Sara Cox are all at least as good. Ken Bruce actually rivals Ball for the most popular show on Radio 2, with an audience of around 8.2 million listeners making his £385,000 salary look like a bargain by comparison.

Even if you love radio, it's hard to crunch the numbers without feeling as though something is off. In March 2018, Ball cycled from Blackpool to Brighton in the “Hardest Ride Home” challenge to raise money for sport relief. She managed to raise £1,198,012 in donations from the public, which is a very impressive sum. Astronomical, to most of us. But to put it in the context of BBC salaries, if you were to take that figure out of her personal pay packet this year, there would still be more than £100k left over for her to spend.

It’s none of our business how Ball, or any BBC employee, chooses to spend their own money, but it is our business how licence fee payers’ money is divvied up at the BBC. For every salary increase or decrease recorded, a decision in the public interest has been made, and this gives us a sense of what our national broadcaster values most. With Zoe Ball's salary, that isn’t entirely clear. How much more would they have paid her if she’d actually added listeners?

Ball’s pay increase suggests a desperation within the BBC to retain their radio stars. Worryingly, this seems to be coming at the expense of less well-known radio news reporters, who are currently facing sobering cuts. Local radio stations have been told that they will have to operate a permanently "simplified" schedule of programmes, and any shows with two hosts will go down to one, which will have a particular impact on breakfast shows. Perhaps the BBC hopes that disappointed local radio devotees can simply be transferred neatly over to Zoe Ball's listening figures.

Star power, the BBC is telling us, is worth investing in. But how do they decide which stars are worth the most money? If it's not listening figures, then what is a good measure of on-air talent?

Perhaps the BBC felt bound to pay whoever succeeded Chris Evans a lot of money no matter what their performance. Otherwise it's hard to see exactly why Zoe Ball deserves to earn a million pounds more than, say, Ken Bruce.

Surely it couldn't be that the BBC has simply decided to reward whatever they perceive to be cool and valuable, instead of prioritising what audiences actually want?