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.

No comments: