Here is the news – there will always be a Virgin

Although Virgin is losing listeners hand over fist, management is sound, prospects are solid and radio is on a roll at the moment

Just one week after Steve Penk’s departure from the Virgin Radio breakfast show, the Rajar results for the station are not a good read.

The number of hours people listen to Virgin is down by 12.1 per cent year on year. The station has also lost just over five per cent of its listeners in the past year.

Breakfast shows are, and always will be, the highest listener period for any radio station. After the very public removal of Chris Evans, Steve Penk was seen as a high profile saviour to bring back the audience Evans once had.

Penk did not seem to go down well with Evans’ existing listeners. Where Evans brought with him many listeners from his days at Radio 1, when Penk joined Virgin his following of listeners was not as apparent.

With the continued loss of both audience and high-profile DJ’s, criticism could be directed at the changes in music policy that have not sat well with listeners, both loyal and infrequent.

These continued changes in pursuit of extra audience could result in another Atlantic 252 situation. Atlantic changed its music policy every six to 12 months, with no success and the station brand is no more.

However, I do not think these recent blips mark the beginning of the end for Virgin. The recent changes to its music policy need to be seen through.

The recruitment of Daryl Denham as the new voice of the breakfast show could bring back the cutting-edge humour Virgin was once renowned for. The rest of the programming schedule seems to be sound, but the next 12 months will be crucial.

In the short term, it will be a struggle for the Virgin sales team, as loss of audience will have an effect on schedules. More spots will have to be added to maintain frequency levels. Historically, stations have reacted to this by running more ad breaks per hour, which in turn could lead to listeners tuning out once they begin to hear more ads and less music.

Seen from the long-term perspective, Virgin has a sound management structure and is trying to move the game on. The recently announced “Access All Areas” has to be applauded. This initiative allows agencies to converse with all departments in Virgin at one time, to develop bespoke ideas and campaigns.

Overall results showed an uplift in news-based stations. Radio 4 has seen a significant increase in audience. In fact, so have two other news-focused stations – Radio 5 and London News Radio.

As these results take in the aftermath of September 11, it is too early to tell if this trend towards news is secular. After all, a good number of music-based stations have also increased their audiences over this period.

It is more likely to relate to the portability and instant news offering radio can give its listeners, whether on the move, at work or at home.

Howard Bareham is head of radio at MindShare

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