Chris Evans

Chris Evans – Ad Free?

Christmas Eve sees Chris Evans present his last Radio 2 breakfast show. Then he takes a few weeks off, before he reappears in brand new studios over in The News Building, just under The Shard by London Bridge station. There he’ll begin his new Virgin Radio breakfast show from the 21st January 2019.

When I took a first look at the news that Evans was leaving Radio 2 to “return” to Virgin Radio, I said that it was a big financial gamble by News UK. And that’s still the case.

But now comes news that Virgin Radio is going to run his breakfast show “with no ad-breaks.” Instead we learn that Sky is going to be sponsoring the breakfast show, and that promotions for Sky will be integrated into Evans’ show.

Now I’ll confess that I’ve always wondered if it was possible to run a full-service commercial radio station without any ad breaks, instead relying on sponsorship, promotions and other means to support the business. This isn’t quite that, as the rest of the schedule will continue to have ad-breaks, but it’s an unusual move as I’ll explain. However for the first few months of the new show, it does make some kind of sense.

Stations going ad-free during the launch phase aren’t an unknown thing. A number of digital stations, like Union Jack, have done it during their first months, in part because they don’t have any data to trade from at first. While Virgin Radio does have current data, Evans joining them makes January a new year-zero and creates a set of circumstances for going ad-free as I’ll explain below.

At the time of the Evans announcement, former radio executive Phil Riley tried to run the numbers on the deal. While these are definitely “back of the fag packet” calculations, they bear looking at, because it’s tricky to make the sums add up.

For a station the current size of Virgin Radio, there’s absolutely no chance that a Sky sponsorship would cover the costs of Evans (and his team), unless either they were taking a pay cut from what they were getting at the BBC, or Sky was paying massively over the odds for its sponsorship.

Neither seems likely to be the case. I don’t see Evans taking a pay cut – you expect Sky will definitely be paying a premium for exclusivity in the show, and there’ll be an expectation that Evans’ show will grow substantially beyond where the current Virgin Radio breakfast show is. But paying massively above the market rate?

Of course Sky and Virgin Radio owners News UK were related within the Rupert Murdoch empire previously. But Comcast has just bought Murdoch’s controlling interest in Sky, and completed that acquisition in October, with the departure of James Murdoch amongst others from Sky’s board. You feel that the recent announcement that Sky would cease to sponsor its spectacularly successful cycling team suggests that Comcast is definitely in control of the business and making its own sponsorship decisions

While it’s possible that some kind of “sweetheart” deal was signed prior that final acquisition, I still really don’t see Sky paying over the odds for a sponsorship property like that.

You would imagine that there’s still room for promotional activity beyond Sky’s involvement in the new show – i.e. sponsored competitions. These remain big business in the radio industry (And that’s why we’re more likely than not to see networked breakfast shows on stations like the Capital Network in the near future. You can do bigger and better promotions with greater creativity and impact if you have a single show).

Between those two revenue sources, perhaps the sums will lead to a break-even situation (if we exclude other costs like marketing). But going ad-free definitely means turning away spot-airtime money which is still the bulk of any commercial station’s revenues. And not having those spots has a wider impact on the station.

Ordinarily, you wouldn’t allow an advertiser to only buy spots in a big name breakfast show. You would limit those spots carefully, requiring advertisers to buy packages of spots across the whole station. If you want a couple of breakfast show spots, you’ll need to buy daytime, afternoon, evening drive and overnight spots as well. Those spots get packaged up, and you buy the whole package (Without these packages, there would be barely any advertisers overnight at all!).

By doing away with any breakfast spots, there’s less of an incentive for advertisers to bother buying slots elsewhere on the station.

I had assumed that Virgin would also invest in other parts of the schedule, perhaps picking up a few other high-profile names, but that doesn’t seem to have happened, and that potentially means that spot advertisers aren’t going to want to come to the station as much.

However the real reason to go ad-free – at least for the first three months until they get a set of RAJAR results that incorporate Evan’s listening figures – is because the current data is so low that there’s no significant loss. With just 1.3m listening hours across the station in the most recent RAJAR results – listening hours is the most important measure from a trading perspective – the loss of spot advertising revenue just isn’t that significant.

You may as well go out of your way to incentivise as many current Radio 2 listeners as possible to follow him across with the promise of no ad breaks, and accept what is a relatively small loss.

However, although they’ve not announced it as such, you would strongly suspect that once those first Chris Evans listening figures come through with the mid-May RAJARs, and start being traded on from early June, that ad breaks will duly make their appearance on Evans’ show. That would be my bet.

(As a side note, it would also be in most radio groups’ interest to lower their current ad loads as streaming music services become more mainstream, but that’s another blog for another time.)

In the meantime, I await an upcoming marketing blitz!

Don’t Bring Back TFI Friday: And Why Are Today’s Most “Dangerous” Presenters All Working on Radio 2?

This isn’t a proper review of TFI Friday since I must admit that I dipped out a few times during near two hour run-time of last night’s show – and it over-ran massively last night, even becoming a joke in the show.

TFI Friday was a terrific programme of its time. Because Chris Evans first became a Virgin Radio presenter and then its owner, early during its run, there was a large crossover of staff who would work on the show. The TFI team ended up in the basement of One Golden Square. In the Virgin Radio sales team, it was a regular thing to take clients out to lunch then down to Riverside Studios in Hammersmith where the show was recorded. They’d get to be in the bar. I even got to stand it the bar myself for one episode when the entire staff of Golden Square decamped to watch an episode recorded. I had a jacket which had both TFI Friday and Virgin Radio logos stitched into it.

I liked and admired many of the people involved in TFI.

So I should be a massive fan. But… well… I was curious about Friday night’s show. And yet…

TFI Friday was a product of its time, just as The Tube and The Word were before it. They caught the zeitgeist of their moments. They were live… well until TFI was pre-recorded as live. And they spoke to their generation.

Yes, this one-off edition of TFI crammed in lots of clips from old episodes – although they played a clip of bowling balls hitting mirrored wardrobes a few too many times. But it was a little shambolic. It could be argued that this was what the show was like anyway, but I’m not sure that’s true. When you get into the run of a series, you make things tighter and perhaps are willing to jettison ideas that might have at first seemed good on paper, but turned out not to be so.

In this instance it felt like anything that was thought up made the cut. And that just made the show baggy. By the time Evans was playing a game with Lewis Hamilton about how long the show might be allowed to overrun, it just felt tired. It really didn’t help that Hamilton was the big guest since he’s really not the most animated of guests at the best of times. And if you’re going to get the audience to ask questions, then at least prep them in advance.

Incidentally, the audience in the bar was way more distracting than it ever used to be. They really needed some floor managers up there shutting them up. I’m sure that tickets were really hot to get, but if you’re going to be an audience member of a show, please shut up.

The ratings, of course, were great. 3.7m in the overnights, giving Channel 4 a rare slot win. But I would say that there were two contributory factors. First BBC1 and ITV weren’t really playing the game. Have I Got News For You ended its run last week, so BBC1 had a repeat of New Tricks. Meanwhile ITV wasn’t really bothering either, with a repeat of Doc Martin. Arguably only Channel 5 was in the mix with a Big Brother live eviction. But nobody cares about that programme any longer – particularly the non-“celebrity” editions.

And yes, I believe that the show did well in the younger demos that Channel 4 so prizes from a sales perspective. But this really counted as event television. Frankly, if you were at home on Friday night, you might as well see what it was all about.

My fear is now that Channel 4 will look at those numbers and commission a new series. But they shouldn’t, even with a new host. And here’s why.

In the ad-breaks, we repeatedly got to see ads for a new TFI Friday compilation album, packed full of 90s music (not live performances from the show, as far as I can see). I really hate to say this, but in 2015, this is dad rock in 2015.

The TFI brand is fairly meaningless to a 20 year old today – something that was pretty clear from the various kids/babies that appeared on the show reprising their appearances from years before. Even with a new host, it would be akin to the BBC bringing back Jukebox Jury or The Old Grey Whistle Test with Reggie Yates. The only people who’d relish that thought would be the people outside the target market.

Then there are the presenters. Now we have find generation of presenters, and Chris Evans is clearly one of them. The clips showed him to be massively confident when TFI was in its heydey, and he still is.

But why are all our biggest, and arguably most “dangerous” TV presenters on Radio 2? Evans; Graham Norton; Dermot O’Leary; Paul O’Grady. And then there are ex-hosts like Alan Carr and Jonathan Ross. Kudos to Radio 2, but that can’t be right?

Channel 4 absolutely should be making a new show like this. But it needs to speak to today’s audience. So it needs a presenter who’s not about to turn 50 (in any case, Evans is now doing Top Gear). Look again at Evans’ confidence in those shows, or further back, Jonathan Ross’s confidence when he launched The Last Resort. Even the Network 7 crew.

They need someone new bursting with that kind of energy.

Channel 4 needs to discover people like that. And ideally not just someone from the conveyor-belt of stand-ups who appear everywhere all the time (Live From The Apollo, HIGNFY, 8 Out of 10 Cats, Mock the Week, QI…).

Even the idea of “anointing” Nick Grimshaw as his successor doesn’t seem sensible. I thought Grimmy didn’t do himself too many favours on the night, and he now seems to be aligned with The X-Factor.

In short then, this was fine as a retrospective, although it was flabby.

But Channel 4 needs new blood in a new format.

A Brief History of Virgin Radio

[Republished from 2008 after first appearing on the One Golden Square blog]

So as the lights come down on 15 and a bit years of Virgin Radio, I thought it might be worth giving everyone a whistlestop history of Virgin Radio – how it came about and some of the things that have happened here over the years.

virgin-stars

1990-92

Virgin Radio really started with the 1990 Broadcasting Act, which for the first time allowed national commercial radio services to come into existance. Up until that point, there’d only been local stations, with regional ones to follow. The BBC was the UK’s only national broadcaster.

The Broadcasting Act wanted to introduce a diversity of services, so of the three services that were to be licenced “one is a service the greater part of which consists in the broadcasting of spoken material” and “another is a service which consists, wholly or mainly, in the broadcasting of music which, in the opinion of the [Radio] Authority, is not pop music.” This restriction is still in place and these services are today known as TalkSport and Classic FM.

Entertainingly, the Act defined “pop music” so that no wily service operator should later turn Classic FM into a rock or pop format. It was defined as including “rock music and other kinds of modern popular music which are characterised by a strong rhythmic element and a reliance on electronic amplification for their performance (whether or not, in the case of any particular piece of rock or other such music, the music in question enjoys a current popularity as measured by the number of recordings sold).” So now you know.

The licence that was to become Virgin Radio was to broadcast on the old Radio 3 AM (or Medium Wave) frequency. In those days, it was also used to broadcast cricket commentaries during the summer.

In total there were five bidders, including Virgin Radio which at the time was a 50/50 joint venture with TV-AM. The bid wasn’t the highest, but Virgin Radio got the nod when the company that bid the most was unable to come up with the cash they needed to launch the service. Virgin Radio moved from temporary offices in TV-AM’s Camden Lock building to No. 1 Golden Square where studios were built, and where the station has been since day one.

1993-4

On 30 April 1993, Virgin Radio started broadcasting at 12.15pm from the Manchester Virgin Megastore. Richard Branson launched the service and back in London Richard Skinner played a cover of Born To Be Wild which had been especially recorded by INXS.

Other DJs who broadcast on that initial schedule included Russ Williams who presented the breakfast show on his own, Mitch Johnson in the afternoon, and Tommy Vance on drive. Nick Abbot was on late nights, and on Saturday mornings Chris Evans presented The Big Red Mug Show. Over DJs on that first schedule included Kevin Greening, Emperor Rosko, Graham Dene and Jono Coleman.

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Fairly soon after launch Chris Evans had left the station, and Jono had joined Russ on breakfast to form the Russ ‘n’ Jono breakfast show. But at a managerial level, the fight was on to get Virgin Radio onto FM in London. The only national commercial FM service had been awared to Classic FM, but the Radio Authority was still licencing new services in London and elsewhere.

russ-and-jono-and-kylie

1995-6

By 1995, the campaign had born fruit and Virgin Radio was launched on 105.8 FM from 10 April that year, beginning with a message from David Frost at 6am followed by the Russ ‘n’ Jono breakfast show. Part of the licence requirements for the London service meant that a daily London “opt-out” was broadcast on FM, presented initially by Roland Rivron.

roland-rivron

In mid-1996 Virgin Radio launched its first website and began streaming – making it the first radio station in Europe to be available to listen to via the internet.

And Russ & Jono won Virgin Radio’s first ever Gold Sony Radio Award for a music based breakfast show. Virgin Radio also won the On-Air Contest/Competition Award for a competition based around the opening of the film Apollo 13 in cinemas.

4x4s-and-helicopter

1997

Then in May 1997, it was announced that Virgin Radio was being sold to Capital Radio, the group that owned the flagship commercial radio station in London and a number of other cities including BRMB in Birmingham, and Red Dragon in Cardiff. Because of the size that the new business would be, the merger was referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission (MMC) in July that year, before the deal was actually allowed to go through.

In the meantime, Virgin Radio scored something of a coup by signing up Chris Evans to present the breakfast show with his old team from Radio 1. Evans had previously presented Channel 4’s Big Breakfast before presenting the Radio 1 Breakfast Show from where he’d been fired at the start of 1997. Now he was being brought to Virgin Radio on an initially limited contract basis.

chris-evans-broadcasts

Quickly realising that he liked the relative freedom Virgin Radio offered him, he entered into discussions with Virgin Group and agreed to acquire Virgin Radio for £85m via Ginger Productions the company through which he was also making TFI Friday for Channel 4. He was able to do this because the MMC investigation had effectively put Capital’s merger on hold. But there was nothing Capital was able to do, and the deal was completed ahead of the MMC report that said that Capital would either have had to divest itself of Capital Gold or Virgin Radio FM on completion.

On-air, the station briefly split its AM and FM services during daytime, but by Christmas 1997 they were back together as a single service. 1997 also saw Virgin Radio win a Sony Award for its On-Air Station Image, and was the joint winner of the Themed Music Programme award for Alan “Fluff” Freeman’s Friday Night Rock Show.

fluff

1998

1998 saw Johnny Boy’s Wheels of Steel show start, and the on-air positioning statement was changed slightly to “Classic Tracks & Today’s Best Music” – dropping “Album”. Jonathan Ross began his radio broadcasting career on Virgin Radio in March 1998, and the following August Rock ‘n’ Roll Football began on Saturday afternoons.

wheels-of-steel1

The autumn of 1998 saw another first for Virgin Radio as Sky One started simulcasting the breakfast show each morning for an hour between 7.30 and 8.30am. When a track was played on the radio, viewers would see a video at the same time. Remote-controlled cameras were installed in the studio as well as a roving cameraman. Chris Evans was a Bronze Sony Award winner for his breakfast show, but he won the overall Gold Award that year as well.

virgin-football-team

1999

Pete & Geoff joined Virgin Radio from Key 103 in January 1999 presenting their evening show at 6.45pm if you lived outside London and from 7.30pm if you lived in it (Paul Coyte was by now presenting the London opt-out show). Jonathan Ross’ time at Virgin Radio came to a finish at the end of January, and Gary Davies joined as a late night presenter in March that year. Meanwhile Harriet Scott started presenting TFI Nightly as the London opt-out show.

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By July 1999, the Virgin Radio website had reached its third major version with new streams being introduced, and the start of the new football season in August saw Terry Venables join Russ Williams in a show that would precede Rock ‘n’ Roll Football.

In November 1999, Digital One launched which meant that for the first time, Virgin Radio was available nationally on DAB offering a superior sound quality to those outside London. Although initially radios were very expensive, they’ve gradually come down in price over the years, and as they’ve done so, more people have been able to listen to the station via DAB.

At the end of 1999, with the TV programme Who Wants To Be A Millionaire having not given away its top prize, Virgin Radio became the first radio or TV station to make a listener a millionaire as it gave away £1m to 35-year old Clare Barwick at the culmination of “Someone’s Going To Be A Millionaire.” A week later, someone won a further million on TFI Friday.

millionaire

2000

Then in January 2000, Scottish Media Group announced that it had reached agreement to takeover Ginger Media Group including Virgin Radio. As well as owning STV and Grampian in Scotland, they then also owned Pearl & Dean, the cinema advertising company, a poster company called Primesight, and the Glasgow Herald newspaper group. The takeover was approved in March of that year and the new owners moved in. March also saw The Radio Authority fine Virgin Radio a then record £75,000 for a breach of impartiality following Chris Evans’ support of Ken Livingstone as he ran for Mayor of London.

In April, Leona Graham joined the station, taking over from Gail Porter who had been covering weekend evenings.

In June 2000, the second London DAB multiplex formally launched including Virgin Radio Groove as the first digital spin-off service. The first song played was ABC by The Jackson Five. This was also important because Radio Authority rules meant that services that broadcast on DAB had FM licence extentions automatically added. By November 2000 Virgin Radio Classic Rock had launched as an initially online service.

2001-2

On the 28th June 2001, Virgin Radio confirmed to the media that “Chris Evans is no longer a presenter at the station.” Following widely reported media coverage of his absence, the management felt unable to keep him on as a DJ.

Steve Penk, Virgin Radio's new breakfast show host.

Steve Penk joined Virgin Radio in July that year, and began his stint on the breakfast show, and June 2001 also saw Ben Jones join Virgin Radio.

ben-_and_chad_kroeger

Daryl Denham joined the station in January 2002, initially presenting the drivetime show, but then was parachuted into breakfast a few weeks later. Also in January 2002, the third London DAB multiplex, DRG, launched, including a service owned and operated by Virgin Radio called Liquid.

team000

2002 also saw Jezza – aka Jeremy Kyle – joined Virgin to present his late night Confessions programme. And Jon Holmes was sacked, and the station fined £75,000 for playing a late night game on-air called Swearword Hangman with a child. Meanwhile Pete & Geoff won the Gold Sony Radio Award for Music Programming.

pete-geoff-paul-mccartney

2003

January 2003 saw Pete & Geoff move into the breakfast show slot, with Daryl Denham moving across to Drive. In the meantime legal proceedings were moving apace, and in June 2003, Mr Justice Lightman ruled that Chris Evans was not entitled to any damages for being sacked by Virgin Radio. Indeed at a hearing the following month, the court ordered him to pay Virgin Radio’s court costs.

The internet was moving apace, and a fifth version of the Virgin Radio website had launched by November 2003. Meanwhile Liquid was replaced by Virgin Radio Classic Rock on DAB in London and online. The first record played by the station was the original version Born To Be Wild by Steppenwolf. Richard Skinner was once again the first voice of the station, with Leona Graham presenting the following show.

leona-graham-in-studio-3-june-2003

Dominic Mohan won Virgin Radio a Gold Sony Award for his Who Special, while Ben Jones won a Bronze for Virgin Superstars.

2004-5

In June 2004, Jezza’s Confessions programme ended. Then in April 2005, it was announced that Fru Hazlitt would become Virgin Radio’s new CEO. In September that year, Virgin Radio Xtreme launched, and on 16 December, Pete & Geoff presented their final breakfast show by inviting listeners off the streets and into the studio. Many took up the opportunity!

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2006-7

The 23rd January 2006 saw Christian O’Connell present his first Virgin Radio breakfast show having joined from Xfm, and Geoff moved to a new late night slot. In July, Virgin Radio launched on Freeview meaning that the service was now available on all the digital TV platforms as well as many other platforms.

christian_studio_06

In August 2006, SMG confirmed that it had received a merger approach from UTV plc, owners of TalkSport amongst others, in which SMG shareholders would receive a 50% interest in the merged entity. By September, merger talks were off, but following a profits warning from SMG in October, the merger talks between the two were back on.

In February 2007, the merger talks were off once more, and there was a major reorganisation of the SMG board as a new Chairman and CEO were put in place. SMG now announced that there would be an IPO of Virgin Radio.

Meanwhile, Christian won a Gold Sony Award for Who’s Calling Christian.

2008

The 2008 Sony Awards saw Geoff win a Bronze for Music Personality of the Year.

On 30 May 2008, SMG announced that it had agreed to sell Virgin Radio to TIML UK Ltd, a division of the Times of India group of companies. This sale was completed on the 30th June 2008, with a new management team in place comprising of Donnach O’Driscoll, Clive Dickens and Adrian Robinson. The sale did not include the rights to continue to use the “Virgin” name, and so 1 September 2008, the new name of Absolute Radio was announced.

This Monday at 7.45am, we officially become Absolute Radio (as well as Absolute Classic Rock and Absolute Xtreme). So that brings us up to date. From this coming Monday morning, the start of the new era of this station begins as we become Absolute Radio.

[Obviously there are another five years’ of history to be added to this story at some point!]