Today is my final day at One Golden Square.
After more than 17 years of Virgin Radio and Absolute Radio, I’m off to do new things. I’m not going to be able to begin to tell you what a great time I’ve had. In all that time, nearly every single person I’ve worked with has been excellent.
I joined Virgin Radio in November 1996 at a time when Russ and Jono were on breakfast. People like Robin Banks and Mark Forrest were also on the station. Alan Freeman did the Friday Rock Show and Paul Coyte presented the London only show that our FM licence required us to run.
I came from local newspapers and besides being an assiduous radio listener (I’d listened to Virgin’s test transmissions back in 1993), I knew nothing about how it worked – how programmes were really made, how radio was sold, or how ratings – RAJAR – was compiled. I was actually quite shocked that a team of around 70 was all that was needed for a national radio station when it took several hundred people to produce and print a local evening newspaper.
For those of you who’ve never been here, One Golden Square is an eight story building including the basement. At various times, the station has been tenants of some or all of those floors. When I started, you had to get in the lift and head to the second floor for reception. The company had floors 2-4 and 6. There was a TV edit facility on the first floor, and a certain H Bauer had the fifth floor.
Over the years, the station has been sold four times. Capital Radio tried first of all, but then Chris Evans’ Ginger Media Group gazumped Capital while the competition authorities did their thing. Chris cashed out with a sale to SMG (now STV), although that all famously ended a bit disatrously for him with a big and expensive court case. Then the Times of India came along, bringing with them, Clive, Donnach and Adrian. And Absolute Radio was born. And now, from the start of this year, Absolute Radio is part of Bauer Media.
In all that time One Golden Square managed to maintain a certain atmosphere. Partly because of its nature, and partly due to its size, it meant that most people knew most other people. And quite often you’d drink with them in the same pub after work – The Midas Touch is sorely missed. This isn’t just a social thing, it means that diverse teams of people talked to one another even if they wouldn’t ordinarily have much to do with one another inside the workplace. And that sparks some great ideas.
While for the most part I’ve sat alongside the sales team, helping out with commercial research alongside my other responsibilities, I’ve also sat alongside programming – having a desk adjacent to Brian and Roque when they worked on the breakfast show together was an interesting experience. Maybe it’s because I’m innately nosey, but it’s proved really useful trying to tie together disparate parts of the business and create some of those links.
There are way too many stories to tell right now, but here are two of my favourites.
Sometime around 2001, we’d done a deal at Virgin Radio to let Levis make a weekly radio programme called Global Sound Kitchen. It was dance music – definitely not something that Virgin Radio would ordinarily play. But in fact, the show wasn’t being broadcast on our transmitters. Instead, we’d licenced some space from Merlin Communications, the company that by then ran the BBC’s overseas transmitter network for the World Service. So this dance music show was being broadcast on shortwave. Anyway, a trip was pending to Cuba – being both a holiday and a stag do (yes – that does make it the most outrageous stag ever). We had some credit with Merlin, so I made a half hour radio show featuring Virgin out-takes, some favourite songs, a message from the “hen” and other bits and pieces. I put it onto Mini-Disc as required by Merlin. And so it came to pass that in the Hotel Nacional in Havana, we crowded around a shortwave radio with antenna hanging out the window, and listened to our very own programme beamed into Communist Cuba!
Then there was the time that one of my favourite bands, the Cowboy Junkies were coming in to record a session for Nick Stewart’s Captain America show on Sunday nights. Essentially, it was just the band, a producer, and me listening to the short session. Afterwards I got an album signed and was very happy. Unfortunately, the entire show got cancelled a day later, and as a result the session never aired anywhere. I do of course have what is probably now the only copy!
It’s obviously all change now. The difference between this sale and those that have gone before it is that Bauer is already a major player in the radio marketplace. I’m sure in due course, we’ll get certainty over who’s working in what building. But change was inevitable, and I hope that as much of the Virgin/Absolute Radio ethos can be carried through.
UK radio is going through a lot of change. We’ve now got certainty for the future of the stations that Global was prevented from fully owning by the OFT. I know it’s been a tough time for those working at Real and Smooth over the last few years. There’s been the growth of digtial sub-brands – led by Absolute 80s. From Kisstory to CapitalXtra, these are helping to drive digital listening and providing commercial impressions for those stations to sell (I love radio, but there is an imperative to make money – otherwise the stations just won’t exist).
Then there’s the challenge of new “radio” services. As Spotify, Blinkbox and Rdio co-opt our terminology, this is undoubtedly the biggest struggle that radio has ever had to face. Where once there was a delineation between music a listener bought and music they listened to on the radio, today those things are merged. Anyone who believes otherwise just needs to spend some time with teenagers to see how they use various services. And look for a radio in their bedroom while you’re at it. Getting younger people to listen to the radio is going to be a challenge. And we’re waiting – perhaps not with bated breath – for Apple to launch iTunes Radio in the UK. It’s going to happen – and probably very soon!
But we’ve also got the continued growth of DAB. Certainly it could be faster. Yes, I wish more services were in higher quality. However FM is full, and without DAB we’d not have Absolute 80s, 6 Music, 5Live Sports Extra, or a national LBC. And I also know that listeners love the new services. And while the internet will at some point usurp broadcast, we’re a way off that. You have to pay for the internet, and it’s not universally available – particularly in cars where 20% of our listening happens. Poorer people and those in more rural areas either don’t have it at all, or struggle to receive decent connectivity. Broadcast is here for a while.
2014 will see Ofcom advertise “D2” – a second national commercial multiplex. This is an opportunity for smaller services to step up nationally and for new stations and formats to launch. Hopefully it’ll provide some price competitiveness and keep the costs as low as possible for services.
So it’s still an exciting time for radio. There will be challenges, but also opportunities. In many respects, I think of the On/Off switch on a radio as the “Entertain me” button. It takes little effort on the user’s behalf, but they get hours of free music, speech, information and above all, entertainment. The cost base will always be challenged, whether from a new round of Licence Fee negotiations or from digital interlopers trying to reduce the advertising spent on commercial services. But that’s a fight I think most are ready for.
Finally, to give you an idea of the spirit of One Golden Square, I put together a little “best-of” video as a sort of leaving gift. Apologies to Bob Dylan for co-opting his song. The video doesn’t include nearly everybody, and while I shot a lot of it, I didn’t shoot everything (notably the ads).
As for me?
Well in the very short term, I’m spending a month touring the US. I shall almost certainly be listening to a lot of radio and audio while I’m out there. They make the miles fly by. This blog is highly likely to take a change in direction towards being a travelogue while I’m away.
But it will of course be continuing in its slightly odd radio/photography/video/media/cycling/rants form once I return.
Once I’m back in the country I’ll be looking for something new to do. Feel free to get in touch.
If you want a bit more on the history of the place, I’ve written quite a lot in the past.
Here’s a Virgin Radio star that I made in 2008:
I put together a brief history of Virgin Radio over for the One Golden Square blog, which I republished a day or so ago
And I wrote a piece on the history of Golden Square itself also republished this week.