“Virgin Radio”

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!

RAJAR Q2 2016

RAJAR

Once again, this post is brought to you in association with RALF from DP Software and Services. I’ve used RALF for the past 9 years, and it’s my favourite RAJAR analysis tool. So I continue to be delighted to be able to bring you this analysis in association with them. For more details on RALF, contact Deryck Pritchard via this link or phone 07545 425677.

All views here are clearly my own!

Early August means the results of RAJAR Q2 2016, and most of the new second national DAB multiplex (D2) services are reporting for the first time.

The first thing to note is that overall listening is at its highest ever for radio. 48.687m people listening to the radio each week. While listening hours aren’t at a similarly high record level, the average radio listener listens for a solid 21.5 hours a week.

You can perhaps partially attribute this record to that launch of those new commercial services, which in the main have a cumulative effect on radio listening. And commercial reach has overtaken the BBC’s again, with 35.570m people listen to commercial radio each week – another all time high.

(It’s fair to add at this point that RAJAR updates its estimate of the UK population in Q2 each year, so if radio listening remains constant, then you would expect numbers to increase proportionately with the population regardless. But we do know that there are some real challenges at the younger end of the age spectrum for radio, so this remains a good result.)

New Services and National

This quarter saw the launch of no fewer than six completely new services on D2, as well as the movement across from D1 or up from local multiplexes, of a number of other services.

But I must confess that I’m interested in a couple of specific stations in particular. First off, Virgin Radio reports for the first time. It has delivered a reach of 409,000 with 1,453,000 listening hours – a result that seemed to be good enough to send everyone off to the pub on Wednesday afternoon!

Now the key thing here is any possible misattribution.

Recall that I previously looked after ratings for Virgin Radio as it changed to Absolute Radio back in September 2008. We were acutely aware that no matter how big our marketing budget (and it was never going to big enough), many listeners would continue to think of the station as Virgin Radio. If they were long term listeners, they might have been listening for 15 years at that point. And the station adopted a more adult approach of rebranding, slowly morphing from Virgin to Absolute, rather than the more usual ‘off air on Friday, back on air with new format on Monday’ approach that more regularly happens. The majority of the presenters remained the same, and the music was only very slightly tweaked – probably not enough that the average listener would notice. So the big job was to expunge the old name and get people calling the station by its new one.

As far as RAJAR went, we had a label in diaries that said something like “Absolute Radio (was Virgin Radio)” which is pretty typical, and helps respondents navigate the name change. Capital Liverpool still refers to Juice on its label, for example.

Of course the station initially took a massive hit in listening figures, and that label referencing Virgin Radio remained in RAJAR diaries for many subsequent quarters – indeed years. It takes a long time for people to forget a station’s name.

And now we get the new Virgin Radio, with the same logo, but nearly all new presenters. The music mix isn’t the same as Absolute Radio, although the new Virgin shares just under a third of its playlist (at time of writing) with Absolute.

So take that into account when you’re considering its figures. Looking at its figures in comparison with the other new launches from the Wireless Group (or should that be News Corp now?), this feels a little high for the first set of numbers. But then Absolute Radio has gone up this quarter too very slightly (see below), so maybe all is fine. One to watch…

What about the other new launches? TalkSport 2 saw a reach of 285,000 and 913,000 hours. As expected, they’ve picked up Absolute Radio’s second pick of Saturday afternoon Premier League football commentaries, so this may take time to grow as they build out their portfolio of sports.

TalkRadio is at 224,000 reach and 840,000 hours. That’s going to need to grow since speech radio isn’t cheap. I suspect that the success of this will be down to marketing. Fortunately for all of their stations, having a new owner who owns a series of national newspapers (and has interests via a parent company in a satellite TV network), marketing might prove to be a bit more achievable in the medium term.

In any case, these are decent results, and all have plenty of room to grow.

Mellow Magic achieved a respectable 380,000 audience, with nearly 1.6m listening hours, while Magic Chilled (which is DAB+ recall, so not available on all DAB radios even within the D2 transmission area) reached 233,000 listeners for 601,000 hours. I suspect Bauer will be perfectly happy with both as something to build on, and something to add into a Magic Network national sales proposition.

As an aside, Magic has also been running a series of pop-up DAB stations. We’ve had Magic Abba, and right now there’s Magic Soul Summer. Sadly, these don’t get measured by RAJAR as they’re on-air too briefly.

The final completely new service on D2 is Awesome Radio, but I don’t believe that it is currently being measured by RAJAR.

Elsewhere, there’s no doubt that Radio 1 has had another shocker, down 4.6% on the quarter and 9.4% on the year in reach terms. 9,455,000 is its lowest reach since 2003, and there are no immediate signs of improvement. Listening is actually up a little on the quarter, but also down on the year. As I’ve repeatedly mentioned previously, I believe this to be a larger problem than Radio 1 and more “radio” – although arguably Kiss is bucking the trend (see below).

Radio 2 is down a little, but nothing to be concerned about, with 15.3m listeners and “only” 179,000,000 hours, or 17% of all radio listening!

Radio 3 has had its best reach figures since 2011 at 2.2m, all the more surprising for not happening in a Proms period (they’ve just started). Hours are down a bit though. Meanwhile over at Classic FM, they’ve bounced back from last quarter’s very poor results, up 7.6% in reach to 5.5m. Cue lots of headlines about a classical music resurgence, which I don’t believe is true.

Radio 4 has had its best ever reach under the current methodology (i.e. since at least 1999), with just over 11.5m listeners. Can we put this squarely down to coverage of Brexit? Perhaps we can. Hours are also up, if not quite at record-breaking levels.

5Live also saw gains in the period – albeit, more modest – up 1.5% in reach to 5.858m reach.

Absolute Radio was fractionally up with a reach of 2.185m listeners this quarter, although listening was down. It’ll be worth watching closely with regard to any issues over misattribution as I mentioned above.

Talksport also had a good quarter, jumping 6.5% in reach and 15.4% in hours on the previous quarter. Perhaps it was helped by the a decent end of the season story and notably Leicester City? (Although arguably that should have also affected 5Live.)

Digital

Last quarter, you may recall, RAJAR reallocated listening to platforms for those who failed to record it properly. This led to something of a “bump” for digital listening. It rose to 44.1%.

So this quarter, it was going to be interesting to see if that one-time increase would slow growth. Q1 was also the quarter that new Christmas DAB sets tended to inflate numbers a little.

Well it turns out that it hasn’t dampened growth, and we’ve seen listening increase again to 45.3% of all listening hours now being on a digital platform. What’s more, of those who listen to the radio, 78.6% now choose to listen for at least some of their listening time via a digital platform.

Needless to say, these are both all-time highs.

Breaking that 45.3% down, 32.2% of listening is via a DAB radio (a record), while 8.0% is via the internet (also a record). Only DTV is fairly settled at 5.1%.

Streaming grows as broadband improves, smartphones become more normal, and data plans increase. In another year or so, we might be at one in ten hours of radio being streamed in the UK.

I was disappointed, but not at all surprised to see that Absolute 80s has registered a fall this quarter. Recall that this was the largest commercial digital only station. Last quarter Bauer moved it from the D1 to D2 multiplex. Unfortunately, there is significantly less coverage for D2, and stations like Absolute that moved across, saw decreases in availability. Maybe it was due a dip anyway, but it exhibited an 8.1% fall in reach and 9.9% fall in hours on the previous quarter.

Not everyone can switch to streamed listening or the digital television when they lose their DAB signal.

6 Music has another record reach, up fractionally on last quarter’s record reach to nearly 2.3m listeners listening for nearly 22m hours.

Radio 4 Extra seems to have rebounded a little from last quarter’s disappointing results, back to nearly 2m listeners.

Asian Network achieved an all-time record reach of 676,000 which will please them.

The BBC World Service was basically flat in reach (-0.8% on the quarter) at 1.454m, but down 5.5% in hours.

Finally, LBC is worth examining. Reach and hours across the network are at record highs under the current methodology. It’s reach is now 1.729m, up a massive 12.3% this quarter, and 16.7% on the year, while hours are even better with 17.5m up 15% on the quarter and 20% on the year. I think we can squarely put that gain down to Brexit, and indeed the question is whether they can hang onto that listening in future quarters. A really excellent performance.

Networks

The Kiss Network is an interesting one to keep an eye on. It seems to be continuing to grow, building out Kisstory and Kiss Fresh. And what’s interesting is that all the Kiss brands are young, with Kiss aged averaging 30, Kisstory 32, and Kiss Fresh 27. Radio 1 on the other hand averages 35. The Kiss Network has achieved a record 5.5m reach, up 5.4% on last quarter. And Kisstory is now only just behind Absolute 80s in the battle for best performing commercial digital station. Kiss and Kisstory also achieved record results in London.

The Capital Network is also growing, although we need to be careful because they’ve grown their portfolio of stations too. This quarter, the network is up 3.9% in hours to nearly 7.9m listeners, while hours have also grown very solidly by 7.4%.

The Heart Network isn’t doing quite as well, falling slightly this quarter in reach and hours. Nothing disastrous, but it doesn’t feel that Heart Extra has had any effect so far. But there is a curiosity here. Heart Extra is a service I can listen to on DAB, but it doesn’t arrive on RAJAR until Q3 since it launched mid-period [Updated].

The Absolute Network suffered a small drop down 1.6% in reach and 1.3% in hours. Nothing major – but it would seem to be driven by Absolute 80s.

Finally we have the brand new Magic Network placing a strong benchmark figure of 3.7m listeners. We’ll see how it does from here on in.

Breakfast

Grimmy on Radio 1 has held his show flat this quarter, which is actually a pretty decent result when compared with the station’s overall performance. He is down 7% on the previous year however. But a solid result in the circumstances.

Over on Radio 2, Chris Evans has perhaps been temporarily distracted by Top Gear – the press certainly has (has a TV show ever had its production pored over by the press in such detail?). His radio show is down a modest 2.6% to 9.472m, but down a little less on the year. Nothing to worry about here as he now concentrates on his breakfast show.

Christian O’Connell had a great set of results last quarter, so it is perhaps not surprising that he’s slipped back this time a little. But he fell just 0.1% or by 2,000 listeners. I’m sure both Bauer and Christian will be very happy with 1.923m listeners! Listening is up too.

People are always interested in how Chris Moyles is doing. As already mentioned, Moyles featured in another heavy TV campaign during at least part of this period. He’s actually down in audience a little this quarter to 694,000 nationally. This could be a slow build for Global.

London

Before talking about any particular London station, it’s always worth carefully looking at the market overall because we have seen some odd shifts around. Arguably, this quarter is no exception, with All Radio listening up 4.5% in reach and 9.7% in hours. Year on year changes are more steady, but this is worrying as it seems unlikely that overall behavioural listening patterns are changing quite so much. As ever with RAJAR, look for long term trends rather than short term blips.

Capital has lost a few listeners this quarter, down 0.9% to 2.266m (although up on the year), however it maintains its position and number one in London in reach terms.

In hours terms, Kiss can claim to be the “most listened to” commercial music station with a 17% bump in hours on the quarter, essentially righting a massive fall in hours last quarter. It’s reach is just behind Capital’s with 2.127m. So it looks like for the foreseeable future, Capital and Kiss will be slugging it out for commercial music dominance.

Heart has bounced bank from last quarter’s awful numbers, climbing 11.4% in reach to 1.724m, although it did see a fall in hours by 9.0%.

Magic on the other hand, fell back from last quarter by 6.5% to 1.632m listeners, while its hours improved 4.7%. Perhaps it was seeing some its listeners trial some sister services? (See more on this below).

LBC had a massive bump this quarter surpassing its national performance, jumping 29% in reach in London to 1.292m, and a frankly astonishing 61.5% in hours to 14.5m hours, making it the biggest commercially listened to station in London. The jump is so large as to almost be unbelievable. However, as mentioned above, there was Brexit during this quarter, and I think it’s fair to say that this was discussed more than once on LBC…

Radio X had a modest jump this quarter with a 31.2% increase in reach to 442,000, and a 27% increase in hours to 2.5m. The percentages are good, but the numbers are low.

And BBC Radio London had a massive jump from last quarter’s dismal numbers – up 44% in reach to 510,000 and 60% in hours to 3.7m. Again, could Brexit be part of this?

Sister Stations

Absolute Radio and the BBC paved the way – in essence copying something that TV had been doing prior to that. But we continue to see sub-brands or sister services popping up. We’ve had TalkSport 2, Mellow Magic and Magic Chilled just this quarter. And of course there are decades stations and Extra/Xtra stations a-plenty. But to what extent do these services share audiences with their brethren? (Yes – I’ve done this before.)

Since I’ve been chart-free so far this quarter, here’s an incomplete look at some of these services… charted! And since it’s hard to display overlaps beyond three services in just two dimensions, I’ve limited my analysis to the three biggest services within a group. Note that these are only very roughly to scale, and they default to the period over which both or all three stations would be reported.

Radio 1/1Xtra

Slide1

Radio 4/Radio 4 Extra

Slide2

Absolute Radio/Absolute 80s/Absolute Radio 90s

Slide4

Capital/Capital Xtra – London

Slide3

Magic/Mellow Magic/Magic Chilled

Slide5

TalkSport/TalkRadio/Virgin Radio (by special request)

UTV

Further Reading

For more RAJAR analysis, I’d recommend the following sites:

The official RAJAR site and their infographic is here
Radio Today for a digest of all the main news
Go to Media.Info for lots of numbers and charts
Paul Easton for more lots analysis including London charts
Matt Deegan will have some great analysis
Media Guardian for more news and coverage
The BBC Mediacentre for BBC Radio stats and findings
Bauer Media’s corporate site.
Global Radio’s corporate site.

Source: RAJAR/Ipsos-MORI/RSMB, period ending 26 June 2016, Adults 15+.

UPDATED to correct Virgin Radio’s reach.

Disclaimer: These are my views alone and do not represent those of anyone else, including my employer. Any errors (I hope there aren’t any!) are mine alone. Drop me a note if you want clarifications on anything. Access to the RAJAR data is via RALF from DP Software as mentioned at the top of this post.

Celebrity Deaths in 2016

Small Purplish Chap

No. I’m not about to pen a piece about sad the death of Prince. I couldn’t ever say I was a massive fan, although I’m enormously respectful of him and the range of his music. But in truth I never owned much of it. I think the album I must have listened most to of his was actually his Batman soundtrack – or at least the album of songs inspired by Tim Burton’s film, a handful of which actually made it into the movie alongside Danny Elfman’s score.

Instead I wanted to highlight a very worthwhile piece that aired on Radio 4’s More or Less last Friday exploring why so many celebrities seem to have died in the first months of 2016. There certainly do seem to have been more this year, although there are always ups and downs.

But what was hypothesised in the programme was the fact that we’re now reaching the period after which television, and pop and rock music made many more people famous than previously.

Suddenly there were an awful lot more people who’d found fame – often people who touched our lives during our adolescent years. And sadly they’re now reaching an age when they’re more likely to die.

That’s not to say that 69 for David Bowie, 62 for Victoria Wood or 57 for Prince aren’t terribly young ages to die at in 2016. But it does seem likely that celebrity deaths will become more common than they once were because from the latter part of the 20th century we had more cultural touchstones.

The edition of More or Less is really well worth a listen.

And that photo above of Prince?

It was taken at a great fun day out at the O2 in 2007 during Prince’s 21 night residency, when Virgin Radio took the entire station for a night out to see him. Prince had a strict “no photography” rule, but I was snapping away nonetheless until I felt the tap on my shoulder of a security guard. Worried that he was going to either wipe or take my SD card, I palmed it off to a colleague next to me, before being forced to put it in storage until after the show.

D2: All Coming Together

US 2014-90

NB. This is not a DAB radio. The picture above is of possibly the most beautiful radio I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s the Nocturne, made in 1935 by a US company called Sparton and designed in Art Deco style by Walter Dorwin Teague. This one sits in the Wolfsonian museum in Miami. If you want one, there’s a YouTube video showing a 2012 auction with one going for $34,000, so you may have to start saving. This radio has a whole website dedicated to it, where you’ll notice that teaser adverts for forthcoming new models are nothing new!

In my recent RAJAR post, I wrote a little about the second national commercial multiplex – Sound Digital – which is due to launch from the 29th February (with some services launching across the following month).

The full line-up of services has been announced, and we’re now getting a drip-feed of more details about who will be on those services.

First properly out of the gate is the new TalkRadio. I’ve long thought that UK radio is under-served by speech, with essentially four national speech services currently available. LBC was very late in the day in going national, but it has made a good fist of it, and in particular has delivered a lot of publicity by making a virtue of giving politicians of all hues their own shows.

TalkRadio looks like it’s going to be quite similar, but perhaps a little lighter in tone. Paul Ross, who seems to have had stints on just about every station going, but most recently on BBC Radio London’s breakfast show, will helm TalkRadio’s breakfast. Then comes Julia Hartley-Brewer, who has previously done a similar show on LBC. Sam Delaney moves over from TalkSport, and then there’s Iain Lee, who recently had a run-in with BBC Three Counties and left, with a return to late-night on TalkRadio being the obvious gig. However, I really could do without George Galloway though who I find abhorrent, and who has a tendency to take cash from the Iranian and Russian governments via their state broadcasters as well as say obnoxious things.

With LBC filled with ex-politicians like Iain Dale, occasional Newsnight presenter James O’Brien, former Five Live breakfast presenter Shelagh Fogerty and of course, Nick Ferrari, it feels like a slightly more current affairs driven service than TalkRadio.

The proof will be in the pudding of course, and with Dan Walker off from Five Live to BBC Breakfast, listeners may be exploring their dials to find something new to listen to.

Of course Five Live and TalkSport do have the advantage of analogue carriage. If you want TalkRadio, or LBC outside London, you do have to listen on a digital platform. That will affect audiences – particularly in-car because while new cars now nearly all come with DAB, the vast majority on the road don’t have it. But late nights in particular are going to be really interesting.

Next out the block is UTV’s other big new station, the reborn Virgin Radio. Considering I spent much of my working life at the original Virgin Radio (It launched in 1993, and I worked there from late 1996 until it re-branded in 2008), you might think that I have mixed views about this, but to be honest I don’t.

The big questions for me were always going to be: What kind of service would UTV offer, and was the Virgin Radio brand a bit passé in the UK? The new version of the station is interesting because UTV is a partner with Bauer Media (and Arqiva) in the multiplex, and Bauer’s Absolute Radio is the evolution of Virgin Radio. Christian O’Connell, Geoff Lloyd and Leona Graham are still there from the Virgin days, all in key shows. You would imagine that many of those legacy Virgin Radio listeners are now Absolute Radio listeners.

And whisper it, but I’m not sure Virgin is quite the sexy brand it once was. It’s a transport and finance brand these days, rather than record label and record store. Yes Virgin Atlantic is aspirational, and Virgin Media does a decent job. But it does feel a bit tarnished. Even the potential of Virgin Galactic has not been achieved.

Then there’s the marketplace for where a Virgin Radio music service might fit. While Virgin Radio isn’t a prescriptive service that comes with a set playlist – stations in Dubai and Thailand show that local Virgin Radios can be whatever the market dictates there’s a space for – there was a serious question about whether a relaunched Virgin should be recognisable from before, or something new. Should it just be Virgin Radio about ten years older? Well eight years on, anyway. Or do you disregard what Virgin Radio meant as a brand to listeners in the past, and do something new? If you choose the latter, what is the point of retaining the brand? I suppose the thinking is that like a movie studio relaunching a popular franchise for a new generation, the same can be true for a radio station.

Although I did see a UTV presentation recently that noted the continued strength of the Virgin Radio brand, that perhaps wasn’t surprising given the station’s previous life, and the fact that it had a very successful run with Chris Evans at the helm. And anyone who’s been through a station re-brand will know that old brands live on much longer in listeners minds than marketeers might perhaps hope.

Then there’s the question of the wider radio landscape and a new Virgin Radio’s place in it. As well as Absolute, in broadly the same musical area, there is the new Radio X with its massive marketing budget and big-name presenters, and BBC 6 Music which gets larger all the time and is undoubtedly the “cool” station of the day.

The announcement of the new Virgin Radio line-up suggests to me that they’re actually trying something a bit different! I will admit that I was surprised that UTV let Johnny Vaughan up and leave for Radio X, when they’d had him on contract for TalkSport, but budgets are always finite, and UTV will undoubtedly hae some realistic audience targets that take account of their distribution. So instead it looks like Liam Thompson, Virgin Radio’s Programme Director, is trying something much more interesting.

Having former Radio 1 presenter Edith Bowman at breakfast almost seems like a direct response to the “male-ness” of Radio X, or at least the marketing surrounding that station’s launch.

And putting Kate Lawler in the afternoon slot – formerly of Capital, Kerrang and more recently Bauer’s Big City network – compounds that feeling. National radio is certainly too male, remaining the Achilles heel of Radio 2. Of course it’s disappointing that it should even need to be noted that 2 out 4 daytime presenters are women, but that’s a reflection of our industry today.

Also in the line-up are people I’m less familiar with like Jamie East and Matt Richardson, neither of who’s output I’ve ever seen. This also suggests, that I’m outside the target market for the new Virgin.

Rounding things off is Tim Cocker, who many were disappointed to lose when Xfm rebranded, as he lost his Manchester breakfast slot.

Overall, this is a much more interesting Virgin Radio than I’d envisaged. Again, my fear is that there could be too much congestion for audiences, so marketing for this and the other new stations will be imperative. Cross promotion on Talk branded services might not be enough.

I’m still curious to see exactly what TalkSport 2’s schedule ends up looking like, and whether it’ll be closer to Five Live Sports Extra (some extra programming, but lots of filler/repeats when there’s nothing new), or whether it’ll be more of a full-service. The next UK radio rights package for the Premier League has yet to be announced, and TalkSport might try to take a little more to put something on their new service. But Championship football might be more affordable at a time when the company is making a lot of investment in UK radio, and ridding itself of television.

What press there has been for TalkSport 2 mentions cricket, football, golf, horse racing, tennis, rugby and US sport. They launch at the Cheltenham Festival, and that might suggest that afternoons will have a lot of racing. Putting US sport on overnight might be a smart idea. Five Live Sports Extra covered the NFL this season, and in the past, the World Series has been broadcast. The radio commentaries exist, and with baseball, NBA and NFL (maybe even MLS), it could be as simple as retransmitting those commentaries. I speak as someone who once upon a time used to tune into distant Armed Forces Network programmes on AM to drift off to sleep listening to baseball.

Overall though, UTV should have a much healthier network offering to sell to advertisers, and given that most of the market is driven by large “share deals” for Global and Bauer, this is imperative for them.

Elsewhere, it’s very sensible that instead of the originally planned TalkBusiness, UTV has done a deal for the slot with London station Share Radio. Their challenge will be finding that business niche and monetising it.

From Bauer, we have not one, but two Magic spin-offs. Mellow Magic (or, as it was briefly, and bizarrely known, “Magic Mellow”) is to be joined by Magic Chilled, perhaps a little bit of one-upmanship against the upcoming Heart Extra back on Digital One. I confidently expect these to work precisely as Absolute Radio’s digital brethren work with its main brand. While it remains to be seen whether that includes changing the breakfast show music as Absolute does for Christian O’Connell, I would expect the same Magic presenters to be voice-tracking some more specialist versions of the Magic oeuvre, with perhaps a couple of new names helping out. The Absolute Radio Network model has proved itself.

The rest of Bauer’s services are either stations shifted from Digital One, to a perhaps more cost-effective platform, or moved up from local DAB multiplexes, where Bauer has a substantial shareholding.

Nearly all the rest of the DAB services on D2 are spin-offs of existing services. So Premier gets a second service, Premier Praise, as its main brand shifts multiplexes too. UCB 2 is another Christian service, previously available in London, while Sunrise and Panjab move up to a national platform.

The only other completely new service seems to be Awesome Radio (previously called British Muslim Radio), coming from the people who run Asian Sound Radio in Manchester. You would imagine that they will be able to utilise existing studios and personnel to keep costs reasonable.

Finally there are the two other new DAB+ services. When Sound Digital won the multiplex, they only talked about a single DAB+ service, whereas rival bidder Listen2Digital was talking of offering 4 DAB+ services. The fact that the Sound Digital bid won without a named service in place, and that subsequently it was advertising for services willing to run in DAB+ was perhaps a little concerning.

DAB+ has always been a chicken and egg situation in the UK. Because DAB has been around since the end of the nineties, many radios in UK homes do not have DAB+ compatibility. In territories where digital has been adopted more recently, DAB+ was offered from the outset. While more recent models have included DAB+, if only because the radios were built for more than just the UK market, it isn’t clear what proportion of radio sets in use today are DAB+ compatible.

So while I’ve no doubt there’ll be some rough numbers kicking around, produced with the help of manufacturers, it’s still a leap of faith for a broadcast who wants to go DAB+ only. Some radios might be upgradeable, since the choice about whether to include the DAB+ codec was really more about the intellectual property licences payable rather than the hardware required. But how many consumers will actually seek out that information, and go to the effort of plugging memory sticks into USB ports?

Sound Digital’s solution is to offer two existing relatively niche services in DAB+, as well as the new Magic Chilled. Jazz FM’s was once available on Digital One, but latterly it was largely available online, with only some local DAB coverage. Getting national coverage is good for the service.

It’s a similar story with Fun Kids. They target an audience that even RAJAR doesn’t properly measure, and so they need to be careful about how they spend money on broadcast transmission.

You would imagine that all three services are getting a “good deal” from Sound Digital, with everyone watching with interest to see how successful the services are. Because if DAB+ is actually available more widely than previously realised, then we can expect more services to switch to it. It’s a more efficient use of the limited data available in DAB multiplex, and can offer – shock – stereo sound at a more affordable price to stations. Stereo is especially important to Jazz aficionados!

For what it’s worth, I’ve been retuning some of my own DAB sets at home, which are largely Roberts models, to receive the test Waves and Waves+ test stations. All three of my main radios are DAB+. But none of them are especially old. Other, older radios await a retune.

[Updated to reflect that Magic Chilled is also in DAB+]

[Update: I’ve now tested all my radios and the results are here.]

Super-serving Men 20-44

Today we finally heard a few details* about the relaunch of Xfm as Radio X. The much mooted re-branding sees Chris Moyles take over breakfast, with Vernon Kay on mid-mornings and Johnny Vaughan on drive.

Jon Holmes will move to weekend breakfast, when Ricky Wilson from the Kaiser Chiefs (and The Voice) will have a show. While I’ve not seen the full schedule, it’s clear that some people will be staying and others going – Eddie Temple Morris will be taking his long-running The Remix show to Soho Radio for example.

The station will also be going onto the national D1 DAB platform – albeit another mono station – where it’s replacing Teamrock.

Re-brands are never easy, since audiences hate change. A quick glance at Xfm’s Facebook page shows that. But Global know what to expect – they’ve re-branded much of the UK’s commercial radio output over the last few years, as they built the Heart and Capital networks.

But sad though it is for those who love the station as it is now, something really had to be done with Xfm. Essentially it has been a bit of a basket case for a while, not getting to a million listeners in a while, and suffering especially in the London marketplace. And it’s notable that the small Paisley FM licence has been handed back to Ofcom.

That’s not to say that those that listen don’t love it. They don’t want changes as they like it as it is. But with lack of investment and a resurgent 6 Music becoming the “cool” station, it couldn’t easily carry on as it was.

One place that Xfm has actually always done well in is the advertising community. Advertisers love being involved in cool brands. And over the years, despite poor listening figures, Xfm was able to captialise on that. The audience may be small, but it was passionate and otherwise hard to reach. So like those strange magazines that seem like bastard children of Nathan Barley’s Sugar Ape, selling virtually no copies but being very profitable, so was Xfm able to get by. But following its threatened closure, it was 6 Music that had the kudos. And that’s what Global needs to get back.

It’s been reported that Moyles want’s to double Xfm’s audience. To be honest, that should be achievable considering the starting point. And it doesn’t actually have to do as well as 6 Music in audience terms to be a success. The BBC can’t take advertising, but Radio X can.

The wider question is what this means for its target audience. The press release for Radio X says that it will be “a completely new national music and entertainment property for 25-44 year old men.”

Well that’s essentially the same demographic that Absolute Radio is already targeting and has been for many years.

And there’s there the forthcoming version of Virgin Radio, from UTV and the Virgin Group in the new year. We are again promised a service that will target 25-44 year olds.

That’s suddenly a lot of stations all targeting the same people.

But just because you’re targeting the same audience, it doesn’t mean that the music will be the same. The Radio X press release says they’ll be playing: “Florence And The Machine, Mumford And Sons, Blur, Arctic Monkeys, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, The Maccabees, Radiohead, Nirvana, The Smiths, Royal Blood, Kasabian, Catfish And The Bottlemen and Kings Of Leon.”

Except that all bar five of those artists appear in the top 40 most played artists on Absolute Radio according to Comparemyradio. And of the remaining five:

– Absolute Radio plays Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds more than any other service on Comparemyradio
– Absolute Radio is the third biggest player of The Maccabees and Royal Blood
– Absolute Radio is the fifth biggest player of Nirvana after stablemates Absolute Radio 90s, Absolute Classic Rock, Kerrang! and Planet Rock

Only Catfish and the Bottlemen haven’t been on Absolute Radio is the last 30 days. But then, of the stations Comparemyradio measures, they’ve only had a handful of plays on TCR and Radio 1 period. (Note that Xfm isn’t currently monitored by Comparemyradio).

In other words, this isn’t going to be an entirely unique sound.

And as a commenter on Digital Spy noted, there is some disparity between the a station who’s character of service claims its targeting 15-34 year olds, and one who’s commercial aim is to target men 25-44.

So Global is starting over. From the characters of the presenters in the key drive slots, you’d imagine that speech will be as important as the music they play – and that’s ever more true amongst an audience that is perfectly able to find music on its own without the help of a radio station.

To go for a full rebrand would suggest that they feel the need to leave the Xfm brand behind. It just isn’t cool and can’t regain that coolness. I think what’ll be important is how they market the station. Global isn’t scared to spend a lot of money on marketing and we’ve seen big and bold commercials for the Heart and Capital brands. Radio X will be harder. For example few stations truly advertise nationally on television, even if they’re national brands like Global’s because it’s very expensive to do that. I would imagine that much of the Radio X budget will go towards its FM sites in London and Manchester. While both are highly competitive radio markets, it’s the obvious starting point (and the ad agencies are in London which is important). But digital marketing will also be key for this audience.

Anyone looking for Moyles to repeat what he did at Radio 1 would be foolish. That audience has moved on. I wouldn’t expect to see anyone too worried at Radio 1. But it will be interesting to see what Bauer does to combat the threat, particularly to Absolute Radio. It does have its successful Absolute Radio Network to support it, but this probably represents the biggest direct competition the station has had in its history. I wonder if there will be any marketing budget released to compete a bit.

* Incidentally, Global really needs to redesign its corporate site. It’s just dreadful for navigation, and not remotely responsive in design.

Farewell One Golden Square

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).

One Golden Square – 1996-2014 from Adam Bowie on Vimeo.

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 collated many Virgin Radio ads together here and here.

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.

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.

Image

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.

terry-venables

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!

img_8408

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!]

A Brief History Of One Golden Square

Republished and slightly updated from 2008 on the One Golden Square blog.

Absolute Radio is based at One Golden Square, and Virgin Radio has been based at the same address since its launch in 1993. Golden Square is in the heart of Soho, and it actually has some fascinating history including a wonderful musical past in this very building.

Today when you head into London, you may well head towards the West End to shop or visit cinemas or theatres, but of course, London grew out of the City which is east of where we’re based.

There’s a great book called The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson about the last great cholera epidemic in London, in the part of Soho surrounding Golden Square, detailing how the disease was finally understood to be spread by contaminated water.

An early paragraph in the book sets the scene:

In the middle of the Great Plague of 1665, the Earl of Craven purchased a block of land in a semirural area to the west of central London called Soho Field. He built thirty-six small houses “for the reception of poor and miserable objects” suffering from the plague. The rest of the land was used as a mass grave. Each night, the death carts would empty dozens of corpes into the earth. By some estimates, over four thousand plague-infected bodies were buried there in a matter of months. Nearby residents gave it the appropriately macabre-sounding name of “Earl Craven’s pest-field,” or “Craven’s field” for short. For two generations, no one dared erect a foundation in the land for fear of infection. Eventually, the city’s inexorable drive for shelter won out over its fear of disease, and the pesthouse fields became the fashionable district of Golden Square, populated largely by aristocrats and Huguenot immigrants. For another century, the skeletons lay undisturbed beneath the churn of city commerce, until late summer of 1854, when another outbreak came to Golden Square and brought those grims souls back to haunt their final resting grounds once more.

In other words, Golden Square is built over the dead bodies of four thousand people who died during the plague 340 years ago.

The map extract below from 1658 shows the edge of the city of London as it then was. Golden Square is somewhere near the windmill in the top-left hand corner of this image – a field in countryside. The crossroads just below it is now Piccadilly Circus, while the bottom right hand corner shows Charing Cross.

map1658-450x360

Having been known as Pesthouse Field following the burying of the plague-bodies, it then became known as Gelding Close because horses had been kept thereabouts. It’s also thought possible that there was a tavern called the Gelding.

But as the area was divided into plots, the new residents thought that Gelding Close wasn’t refined enough for them and the name had been changed to Golden Square by the early eighteenth century.

The map below shows how all the plots were divided up, and it’s thought that Sir Christopher Wren might have had a hand in determining how this happened. Buildings on the plot had to be of high quality, made from brick or stone. There had to be “substantial pavements” and “sufficient sewers”, while “noysome and offensive trades” would not be tollerated (In Soho? Never).

As you can see, plot 1, was then, as it still is, in the top right hand corner of the square.

goldensquaremap-330x450

One Golden Square was one of the last sites to be developed with the first building going up in 1705/6.

The first occupant of the building was Lord Maudaunt, but he spent most of his time fighting wars in the Low Countries with the Duke of Marlborough’s armies. Then the 4th Lord Byron – an ancestor of the poet who would be born a hundred or so years later – lived here for a while, before the building and several adjoining ones were bequested to a foundation that provided scholarships to children of the poor. The Bishop of Salisbury also resided here temporarily.

Between 1794 and 1861 a certain William Stodart took up residence – beginning the site’s musical heritage. His firm made harpsichords and pianos; there were a number of makers and manufacturers of the instruments based all around the square including the famous Broadwood firm who had a warehouse at number 9.

stodartgrandpiano

Stodart’s father, Robert, patented the first “Grand” piano a few years earlier, while William Stodart patented the “Upright” piano.

stodartpiano

Stodart’s piano was described by a competitor as “a new mechanism which combined the utility of a bookcase with the musical use of this odd piece of furniture.”

stoddartglab

There’s still a heritage of musical instruments in the square with Foote’s music shop at number 10 [2014 Update – this has now moved to Store Street].

Charles Dickens used Golden Square as the home of Ralph Nickleby, Nicholas’ antagonistic uncle in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby which was published in 1838/9. Dickens also reflects the square’s musical links in this description of the square from the novel:

Two or three violins and a wind instrument from the Opera band reside within its precincts. Its boarding-houses are musical, and the notes of pianos and harps float in the evening time round the head of the mournful statue, the guardian genius of a little wilderness of shrubs, in the centre of the square. On a summer’s night, windows are thrown open, and groups of swarthy moustached men are seen by the passer-by, lounging at the casements, and smoking fearfully. Sounds of gruff voices practising vocal music invade the evening’s silence; and the fumes of choice tobacco scent the air. There, snuff and cigars, and German pipes and flutes, and violins and violoncellos, divide the supremacy between them. It is the region of song and smoke. Street bands are on their mettle in Golden Square; and itinerant glee-singers quaver involuntarily as they raise their voices within its boundaries.

By the turn of the twentieth century Golden Square was at the heart of the textile trade with a tweed manufacturer taking residence, Henry Ballentyne & Sons. But in October 1913 the building was badly damaged by fire and was finally demolished in 1927 before being rebuilt as it is today.

[2014 Addition]

During the Second World War, the poet, Dylan Thomas, worked on scripts for propaganda films at a company called Strand Films. He sometimes took a turn on the roof of 1 Golden Square looking out for fires during the raids. Although it seemed he had other reasons to be up there.

Adam

For more information, as well as the book mentioned above, you can read about the history of Golden Square at British History online. And thanks should also go to an un-named local historian who wrote into the station many years ago with some background history. And thanks to Lee Price for the photo of the Stodart piano detail.

#radiodetritus

This week is my final week in One Golden Square. More about that anon.

However, one of those things you have to do when you leave, is have a bit of a clear out. One way or another, I’ve accumulated quite a pile of “stuff” over the years. My already cluttered flat has a pile of old Virgin Radio photographs. And a browse through my YouTube channel will reveal a load of old Virgin Radio adverts scraped from a variety of sources.

As well as Virgin Radio and Absolute Radio material, there’s also a pile of Capital bits and pieces. Not because I’ve ever worked there – I haven’t – but because when Virgin was being set-up, copying the Capital model was probably the sensible thing to do.

Anyway, today I posted a pile of stuff on Twitter with the hashtag #radiodetritus, and I thought it’d be nice to repost it all here:

Branson: Behind the Mask

Tom Bower is that rare thing – a writer who takes no prisoners. He goes where others fear to tread – or at least UK libel laws force others to fear to tread. His previous subjects have included Robert Maxwell, Bernie Ecclestone, Mohammed Al-Fayed and a previous book on Richard Branson.

I’ve not read the first Branson book, but following a piece by Roy Greenslade at Media Guardian, I decided that I did want to read this follow up.

Bower’s books have a breezy manner and he dives straight into his subject. This isn’t a biography so much as a detailed look at businesses that Branson has been involved in over the last ten years or so. It’s safe to say that he’s not especially impressed with Branson’s credentials.

The over-arching story throughout the book is that of Virgin Galactic – one of several efforts to send privately funded vehicles into space. The books begins with an accident that took place in the Mojave desert in 2007 that killed three people and injured another three. Bower takes apart some of the publicity and public pronouncements that have been repeatedly made about the project.

This is not a comfortable read if you’re a fan of Richard Branson, and the same themes appear over and over in every business he takes an interest in – he’s the underdog fighting for consumers, but in fact he’s no better than anyone else. His fights change to fit his own needs. Is he taking a green approach to his businesses? Or is he opening new air-routes that compete with more environmentally friendly train travel?

Part of his failings seem to be naivety, and lack of attention to detail particularly in technical areas that he doesn’t properly understand. That becomes a liability when it comes to building spacecraft or putting together an F1 team.

Overall, Bower paints a picture of a man who’s not worth as much as is often portrayed. His businesses are largely not owned to any extent by him any longer – Virgin perhaps collecting a small licencing fee.

I don’t always buy everything that Bower says though. He doesn’t have much belief in the idea of peak oil for example – the point at which oil production will decline. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on this either, and I know that there are a lot of factors in play including technological developments and accurate reporting of what resources remain. But what is clear is that fossil fuels extracted from the earth will run out. And in any case, the impact is already being felt. That’s not to say that Branson hasn’t been foolish in some of the things that he’s said about renewable energy and the pointless “tests” involving different kinds of fuel that he regularly brags about.

And Bower isn’t afraid to point out when Branson has had genuine successes – although he often puts then down to luck rather than any business nous.

Nonetheless, some of what Bower says about Branson is very familiar. A couple of stories from my time at Virgin Radio illustrate this.

When I joined in late 1996, we had a staff meeting a few weeks later in early December, and Richard Branson showed up. In case I was under the apprehension that he popped in all the time, it was pointed out to me that this was a fairly rare occurrence (he would only ever show up in Golden Square one further time while I was there, when he was being accompanied by a feature writer from an American magazine who was doing a big piece).

Staff meetings in those days had a bit in them called “Dumb, Dirty and Dangerous.” The idea was that staff members could anonymously ask the executive team questions which would be answered in front of all staff. “Dumb” questions were things to which you probably should know the answer but were too scared to ask someone. “Dirty” questions seemed to be quite bitchy questions along the lines of, “What does the XXX department actually do?” And “Dangerous”? Well that could be anything at all.

Anyway, somebody asked the question, “Will there be a Christmas bonus this year?” Our Finance Director stepped forward and said, no, there wouldn’t be one. I think he gave some reasons why. And that was that.

All the time, Richard Branson was watching proceedings. We went through other elements of the staff meeting until finally at the end, Branson stepped forward to say a few words in a slight mumbled, wearing a trademark jumper. However, he ended by saying that in fact, yes, we would all be getting a Christmas bonus!

Obviously that left staff very happy, although my boss pulled me aside later to explain that as I’d only been there a couple of weeks, I’d be getting less. But the whole incident left our Finance Director seething. Not only did he have to find the money from somewhere, but his authority had been completely undercut by Branson. It was the Virgin Radio business – only partly owned by Branson that would have to pay the cash. But staff would thank Branson himself.

During those years at Virgin Radio, we’d get annual Christmas presents from Richard Branson himself. These tended to be related to whichever new business he was getting into. One year, Branson had just published his first book – Losing My Virginity. And every member of staff across all the Virgin businesses was given a hardback copy of it for Christmas. A Private Eye article a few weeks later suggested that the Charing Cross Branch of Books Etc had ended up having many more copies of the book “returned” than they’d sold, with nearby Virgin employees cashing in their books for the retail value of them!

Another year, we were given a Virgin Vie fragrance. And the year that he launched Virgin Mobile, everyone got a free phone with a bit of credit on it. Indeed, I dutifully passed on my phone to my parents who still use that number to this day.

As far as I, and other members of staff were concerned, this was a nice touch from Branson himself, as were his summer parties in his Oxfordshire home where staff members were bussed to a big free funfair in his grounds. Branson stood at the gate and shook hands welcoming everybody as they came in.

Only later did I learn how those “free” gifts were funded. Each year Virgin Group would tell the businesses what the gift that year was, and they would then charge the Virgin business for the “gifts”. In other words, the year that we all got a free mobile phone, the business was being charged £100 or so per member of staff for a phone. And they had no choice. They had to “buy” the “gifts” to give to staff.

In essence, we all thought that these gifts were coming from a benevolent Branson, while in fact, it was the individual businesses that were spending the money, but not getting the recognition from staff members for giving their employees a sometimes quite pricey gift.

These are perhaps both small stories, but they explain how even to staff members, Branson came across as being a better guy than maybe he was.

Anyway, if you want to get a truer picture of the Virgin business, then this book is certainly worth reading.