Saturday, 27 September 2008

"Parting is such sweet sorrow..."

Virgin Radio is no more. It ended on Friday 26th September with a fantastic on-air retrospective of the last 15 years, which brought back many memories to me as a listener, and even more as someone who worked there for 3 years.

Plenty of people are writing about the passing of this station (and let’s not forget the start of the new one) and it would be amiss of me not to add my own personal thoughts.

I joined in 1999 as Head of Music. Chris Evans was on the Breakfast Show, the ratings were good, and the money was pouring in. Remember the dot com bubble…? All those new start ups with sack loads of cash to blow on marketing? Well Virgin took more than its fare share of their money in exchange for providing plenty of fun sponsorships and promotions.

As a result of the combination of great audiences (over 4 million) and fantastic revenue, the ‘vibe’ the station had, was a brilliant one. Everyone worked hard to make the best sounding station possible, and then enjoyed their successes when the figures were good and the income was strong.

Therefore, I seem to remember a good amount of time was spent in the pub next door, which was called ‘The Midas Touch’. It kind of became a second home. You’d tip up in the morning, have some meetings… do some work… and then wait for the then Finance Director (he was the drinking ringleader!) to signal that it was time for a pint or 3 in the ‘The Midas Touch’.

Before you knew it, 2pm rolled round but often the view was taken that if people had done their work and everything was covered… why go back? If you were needed, everyone knew where you were!! So, many long afternoons were spent in the pub, discussing the radio station next door! In fact, serious consideration was given to running an extension phone line through the window, so we people could just put calls through to our fixed line in the pub. I don't think it ever got that far, but I did once hold a playlist meeting in The Midas Touch! Those were the days!!

The laissez-faire culture that existed was made easier by the fact that Chris, who now owned the station outright, was known to enjoy a drink or 2. So when you hear many people talk about the culture of the station being so great, they’re right. I witnessed it first hand, and it was probably the most fun I’ve ever had in radio. The culture was there from the start… driven by a ‘Branson’ view of “corporate culture” and it continued with Evans. To this day though, although pretty much all the faces are different than in my day, people still talk of the culture of the place being very special. I know that will live on and flourish under Absolute Radio.

A couple of stand out moments then for me; I remember when Chris was going through a particularly chatty (!) phase at breakfast, and not playing much music. I used to schedule 4… yes only 4 songs an hour... and had just brokered a deal with the lovely Dan McGrath, Chris’s producer, that he would try and play those 4 records an hour. Not a great 'ask' you’d think. I tuned in expectantly the next day and felt somewhat deflated as between 7am and 8am, we managed to play…. Not 4, not 3, not even 2… but one solitary record! And to an insult to injury, it wasn’t even one I’d scheduled!! Haha!

Another moment involving Chris at breakfast was when I’d become Deputy Programme Director. During the show, Dan McGrath had likened a certain females genitalia to a, and I quote, “badly packed kebab”. It seemed I had assumed the mantle of ‘Head of Complaints’ too, due to the calm way I could talk down mad listeners from suing us, and sure enough the complaints came thick and fast for this one. Looking back now, it was a surreal moment discussing with Dan why this perhaps wasn’t the most appropriate topic for breakfast radio and how he ‘really should know better!’. Fortunately we laugh about it now, and a friendship forged by arguing over ways of describing a "lady-garden" on the radio has manifested itself in us now playing together in a fantastic covers band... currently available for weddings, bah mitzvahs, Christmas parties etc!!

There are too many fun moments to mention. Giving away ‘1 Million Pounds’; creating the station’s first proper festival coverage at V2000; spending a couple of hours chatting to Paul McCartney and making a documentary with him; helping break this unknown band with a curly haired lead-singer. They were called ‘Coldplay’ I seem to remember; Doing The Breakfast Show live from the Guinness Brewery in Dublin… on St Patricks Day!etc etc… (Oh – and I met my fantastic wife there too!)

Programming-wise, Virgin had its fair share of highlights through the years, and some real broadcasting greats passed through the doors of One Golden Square. Listen back to the retrospective on Friday, I was reminded of the huge variety of ‘real’ music that has been played over the years… everything from Tommy Vance’s particular bag of solid rock tunes, Pete and Geoff's new music on their great evening show, sessions in The Zoo by some real legends, through to Gary Davis’ Late Night penchant for some really obscure 80’s treats!

So as the sun sets on an certain era in UK radio history, we say 'Goodbye Virgin Radio'. Saying farewell to Virgin is a little bit like waving off a good friend that's been a part of your life for a while. Without sounding too slushy about a radio station, it will always remind me of happy times and has secured a certain place in my heart. But at the same time, I'm excited about being introduced to a new friend… ‘Absolute Radio’. Let’s hope it brings as many happy moments as my old friend did.

Monday, 22 September 2008


Rebranding and re-launching radio stations seems to be all the rage at the moment.

I spend a good deal of time working in Denmark with the fine people at Radio 100FM. The rival national commercial station that was formerly known as TV2 Radio (originally named after the parent company, TV2!) has been recently bought by SBS, and just re-launched as ‘Nova FM’. Not sure in a fast moving digital world I would have stuck the letters ‘FM’ in the title of the station, but there you go.

“Virgin Radio soon to be known as Absolute Radio” has set a date when it will fully become Absolute Radio… September 29th for all you date junkies.

And, as widely predicted, Global Radio in the UK recently announced that around 30 of their newly acquired stations will be re-branded as Heart, and have lots of networked programming. This will, it is claimed, provide a much clearer brand for potential advertisers to buy into. It probably will.

So, it will be interesting to see how heritage names such as Fox, Invicta, GWR, 2-Ten FM and Chiltern handle the transformation process on air. Having “a conversation” with your listeners is the very modern and transparent way that Absolute Radio has done it. Asked by listeners why they had to change the name, they answer…

“The old one wasn't ours, it was lent to us. That means we could not do all the other things we wanted to do, in spinning off the radio station into other areas which we feel you wanted. Our new name, which we own, means we are freer to do what we want, and it also says that we're re-inventing ourselves.”

Fair enough. I buy all that, particularly the last bit… (plus the fact that it would have cost an arm and a leg to continue ‘renting’ the name from Branson, but I genuinely don’t think that was the main reason they ditched it.)

So, how will Global approach the similar dilemma of ‘name change’, particularly when many of the stations are familiar local brands and have been on the air since the early 80’s. Of course, nothing has the divine right stay the same forever, but how do you convince local listeners that it’s in their interests that you need to deliver a consistent brand to national advertisers, therefore you must remove most of the local programming apart from Breakfast and Drivetime, and rename their familiar local brand, with a quasi-national brand named after a vital organ.

There is of course the argument that much of commercial radio in the UK needs reinvention, and this is one of the only realistic ways to do it. Centralised control with some local management, product consistency and a uniform approach to marketing and promotions; A kind of ‘McRadio’ if you like. Hmmm…

Will listeners like this homogenised approach to local radio? Is there an unavoidable inevitability about it? And will the DJ’s have to wear brown uniforms and get stars on their badges for doing good local links? We shall see… but the most fascinating part of this is still to play out. How will the changes be communicated on-air. Or maybe they haven’t thought that far ahead yet?! Any ideas welcome!!

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

RadioCentre Training Days

Now the summer is behind us, and it's started raining properly again, we can get back to business... so it’s time for another batch of RadioCentre training courses! I ran a couple of these earlier in the year and for those who weren’t able to get to them, we’re repeating them at the end of September and beginning of October.

For those who don’t know, RadioCentre in London is the organisation that is responsible for building and maintaining a strong and successful UK Commercial Radio industry — both in terms of listening hours and revenues. It operates in a number of areas including working with advertisers and their agencies, working with government, Ofcom and policy makers, and also stations themselves. Developing talent (both on and off air) is vital to maintaining that healthy industry. Therefore, RadioCentre help facilitate a comprehensive training programme.

“How to be a Better Presenter” is a one-day seminar aimed at presenters broadcasting in small to medium size markets, on all dayparts. In a crowded radio market, how do you make your shows stand out from the rest? When you have fewer resources than the big guys, what are some of the ideas you can use to make your show sound bigger and better. It’s a practical seminar covering specific tips, tricks and techniques for making listeners listen longer - and keeping coming back for more.

“How to Effectively Coach Your Presenters” is a one-day seminar aimed at Programme Controllers / Programme Directors, Producers, and any one who is directly involved in coaching on-air talent. Investing time in developing talent is one of the most important areas within programming, but is often overlooked. How do you get the best out of your presenters? How do you manage big egos as well as focusing on developing promising new talent? What are the most effective ways of providing feedback to your presenters? This seminar will cover specific tips and techniques for coaching presenters and provides programmers with a useful and practical advice that will help them develop their talent themselves.

If you’d like to come to either of these, you can find out more by clicking here, or email me and we can chat about them some more...

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

It's Absolutely A Logo...

The process of rebranding a station eventually requires that the 'logo people' get involved. And as we don't often get the a launch of a powerful new national brand in UK radio, I thought we'd pause for a moment and admire the 'amazing technicolour dreamcoat' of logos laid out for us here!
OK - that's enough on the logo! It's what comes out of the speaker I'll be more interested in...
Photo: Adam Bowie - Virgin Radio / Absolute Radio

Monday, 1 September 2008

"Absolute on Power Drive"

When you read the dictionary definition of the word 'absolute' you realise it's a pretty good word, as words go. It feels like a word you can rely on... a word you can trust... this word could be your friend. I find myself using the word quite a lot in my everyday speech. "Did you hear that breakfast show on your rival station this morning? It was an absolute disaster!!” Or... "Do you like my idea for a new morning show benchmark? I think it's absolute genius!" Things like that.

It also happens to be the new name for Virgin Radio as revealed to me this evening on an exciting, pan-European, satellite link-up live from London, from Clive Dickens, the head programming and operations honcho. (OK - he called my mobile).

I've had a little while to think about it while chomping away at my dinner, and here's the thing. They'll be a lot written about this over the next few weeks by an array of media commentators, brand experts, radio consultants and other interested parties. Some will like it. Some won't.

Some will say it's unoriginal or egotistical to name the consumer facing brand after the name of the company that will run the station. (For those who don't know, Absolute Radio is the name of the management company / owners / consultants that also run Jack FM in the UK / own FM 107.9 in Oxford etc) but I genuinely believe that if they knew they were going to call the thing 'Absolute' from day 1, they wouldn't have hired super-duper creative London agency Albion to help them develop the brand. And guess what... the listeners have never heard of a company called Absolute Radio, so there!! As far as listeners go, this will be a brand new brand.

So, tomorrow morning at 7:45am, the 'conversation' will begin where the current listeners to Virgin Radio will be introduced to their "new best-friend-word"... Absolute.

Like any new brand, I'm sure it will take a small while to get used to it. I remember when this mobile phone company in the 90's decided to name their company after a citrus fruit. And then this other mobile phone company in 2001 decided to name their brand after the vital ingredient in 'air'. Ahh... whatever happened to 'Lemon' and 'N2'.

The point is, after we got used to them, they just became another brand and we were de-sensitised to their 'newness' and they entered into our everyday vernacular. I'm sure the same will happen to 'Absolute'. (I'm just learning to say Bauer instead of EMAP mind you.)

Apparently, in their 'game for a name' that they just played, they wanted a real word (unlike Ocado or Skype), a word that could cross global boundaries (like Big or Fun), a single word (but not 'BigFun' as that would remind me of the band!), and something more importantly that could trademarked. Developing value in the name of your brand is essential in today's brand-ridden world. If you haven't got a strong, cross platform brand, you have nothing.

So, in 12 months time, we'll have forgotten all the fuss and will no doubt be enjoying shows called things like Absolute 80's and Absolute Classic Rock... and listening to the Absolute Weather. "It's absolutely pissing down with rain...” OK - we get the idea Nik.

Comedian Jasper Carrott once said "I'm amazed at radio DJ's these days. I'm firmly convinced that AM on my radio stand for Absolute Moron. I will not begin to tell you what FM stand for!" I'm certain that 'Absolute Radio' will deliver a fresh approach to radio not seen for quite some time in the UK, and the definitions of the word that mean "free from restriction or limitations" and "not comparative" are good omens that will have Jasper re-writing that particular routine. And without further ado, this re-branding gives me a great excuse to play this!!

Breaking News - Absolutely Fabulous!

Reporting live from a hotel room in Copenhagen I have some 'Breaking News'!

I've just been told the new name for Virgin Radio in the UK!

Are you ready... sitting down?

Here we go...

It's gonna be called...


Let me compose some thoughts and get back to you!!