Fran Kelly doesn’t have the cult following of Alan Jones or the populist pull of Mel & Kochie. But when it comes to influencing the influencers — the politicians, the public servants, the press gallery hacks — the ABC early bird is in a league of her own.

What gets said on Kelly’s show, Radio National Breakfast, reverberates through the day’s news cycle and worms its way into question time. Her daily political powwow with Michelle Grattan, in particular, constitutes appointment listening for the political class.

“Fran is like the Madonna of the journalism world,” says Sally Neighbour, the Walkley-award winning journalist turned 7.30 executive producer. “You don’t even need to say her surname. It’s just Fran.”

Environmentalist Ian Kiernan summed up her style well when he described her to Fairfax as “incisive, aggressive, well-briefed, knowledgeable and absolutely scary”: “I’d hate to be somebody who had done something wicked or was trying to be evasive under her assault … she’s pretty bloody deadly.”

When Crikey quizzed the nation’s top journalists last year on their news habits, Fran was the name that came up again and again. Sydney Morning Herald economics editor Ross Gittins described her show as “unmissable for serious followers of politics”; political commentator George Megalogenis said her energy levels are “probably incomparable in journalism”; The Australian’s editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell tunes in most days and is a big fan of her interviews.

“We do set the agenda on a lot of days and we’re a must-listen,” says Kelly, who sounds scarily sprightly 11 hours after coming off air.

She’s forensic yet fair, energetic but not overbearing, upfront but not immodest (she’s keen to share credit with her colleagues, particularly executive producer Timothy Latham and political reporter Alison Carabine for the show’s success).

Breakfast reaches 390,000 people each week in the five capital cities — a figure that soars when you factor its audience in regional areas and the bush. Listener feedback shows it’s a diverse crowd: farmers on their tractors as well as lawyers, academics and Canberra insiders. Their message is almost always the same: don’t dumb it down.

“The motto in our office is: we can never be too serious for our audience,” Kelly says. “They love serious.”

There’s plenty of other, less pleasant, feedback too. “I get feedback every day that suggests I’m a signed-up member of the Liberal Party and a member of Julia Gillard’s cabinet. That can happen on the same day from the same interview.”

The conservative commentariat was particularly incensed by an Insiders appearance last June in which Kelly voiced strident support for a carbon price. She said:

“Bring on the certainty I say, get the thing voted in. I’m firmly of the view that a price on carbon is the way forward. The Shergold Report convinced me that that’s the most effective way for this country to prepare for a low carbon economy. We have to get into this.”

Kelly now admits: “I shouldn’t have said that … I presented it too starkly as opinion at the time.”

While we’re on regrets, Kelly has another: describing herself to The SMG last year as an “activist”. It’s a quote the nation’s nitpicker-in-chief Gerard Henderson regularly uses as evidence of impartiality.

“Once you become a journalist you can’t be an activist; you can’t join protest movements,” says Kelly, who was involved in the feminist movement and marched in anti-nuclear, environmental and Aboriginal rights rallies in her youth. “I’m not at activist now. Now I’m a journalist. My aim, always, is to be fair and balanced.”

Kelly’s critics tend to forget former PM John Howard listened to the show each morning while shaving and was a regular guest. That’s why Kelly was chosen to research and narrate The Howard Years, the 2008 ABC documentary series.

That series was criticised for revealing little new — a charge that can also be levelled at Breakfast. Kelly admits the program relies heavily on that days’ papers and rarely breaks news (a July scoop on government plans to abandon the carbon floor price was a rare exception).

“We’re a small team — we don’t have the luxury top do investigative pieces. A lot of our stories are driven by the news of the day but our job is to take the story on. My job is to make sure the key players come on and speak to me,” she says.

One key player not keen to front up is opposition leader Tony Abbott, who’s appeared on the show twice since the last election. “That’s not really satisfactory,” Kelly admits.

The Canberra press gallery — in which Kelly previously served as ABC radio correspondent and 7.30 Report political editor — has come under heated criticism over recent days for being unrepresentative and out-of-touch. It’s a hard accusation to level at the former punk rocker and AFL nut. As well as fronting all-girl band Toxic Shock, Kelly worked as a university events officer and festival organiser before starting at Triple J aged 29.

Although she sounds permanently perky, the Sydneysider admits seven years of 4.30am starts — and an extra half hour on-air this year — have taken their toll. That’s why she’s been on long-service leave for two months, gadding about Europe.

Luckily for Franophiles everywhere, she’ll be back on air next week — and is already excited about covering next year’s federal election. Maybe she’ll even get to chat to Abbott.