The new broom at Virgin Radio

Virgin Radio has a turbulent history and 2007 is shaping up to be no different. By the start of March, the station had already lost its chief executive and appointed a replacement, while owner SMG had ended a second round of merger talks with Ulster TV, dismissed its board and gained a new chairman and chief executive.

Two weeks after the drama at SMG, new Virgin chief executive Paul Jackson describes it as “a heck of a week” but claims the uncertainty over its ownership has not affected staff morale.

Virgin moved quickly to appoint Jackson to the top job when former chief executive Fru Hazlitt announced her departure at the start of the year. Some industry observers described the move as a “holding position” while it wrapped up talks with UTV, who it was thought would want to bring in its own people.

But the merger is now history and SMG has a new chief executive (former Channel 4 commercial chief Rob Woodward) and chairman (former Scottish Radio Holdings chief executive Richard Findlay). There is no indication yet of what the SMG board plans to do with Virgin but Jackson says he is feeling “optimistic”.

Jackson, who joined Virgin as programme director in 2001 and was interim chief executive during 2005, says he is not daunted about following Hazlitt, who is well known for her high energy and ambition. He has been on the board since 2001 and has been part of every programming and operational strategy since then.

Minimal change
For this reason, few industry observers expect Jackson to bring in any great changes or believe that anything radical is required. He says he has “plans to discuss with the new owners” but in the main, he appears to promise more of the same strategy that it has followed for some years.

It has been at the forefront of listening across new platforms and, according to internet measurement company Arbitron, it is the most listened-to station on the internet. Last year, the site was revamped to add blogs and forums, which aim to develop it into an entertainment site, rather than just an online radio station.

In terms of listening, Virgin’s audience figures for its traditional AM/FM stations have been steady in recent quarters. The Radio Joint Audience Research (Rajar) figures for the last quarter of 2006 show that it has 1.8 million national listeners on AM and 949,000 in London through FM. It is keen to grow its female listeners among its core 25to 34-year-old audience but its key challenge will be to move its AM listeners onto new platforms as multi-platform listening continues to grow.

Patrick Yau, media analyst at Bridgewell Securities, believes this is the right strategy for Virgin. He adds: “Continuity is no bad thing, given how long it takes to build a radio station’s audience. A poorly executed change to programming can lose you listeners in a second.”

Busy behind the scenes
Radio industry insiders say Hazlitt’s contribution to Virgin was “more behind the scenes”, such as restructuring the sales team, but there is little doubt her energy brought a renewed interest in the station. There is a feeling that SMG must now invest properly in the station to build that interest into tangible results.

Mark Middlemass, managing partner at Universal McCann, says Virgin is a “strong proposition” in a difficult market but adds that it needs proper support and investment from its new owners.

Jackson says there will be more promotions like The Big Star competition last year, which saw it hang a 20ft by 20ft star full of cash over London’s Regent Street, and the Pay Your Bills promotion, both of which were supported on TV. It will also promote heavily during the summer through its festival partnerships with Isle of Wight, V and London Calling.

But Howard Bareham, head of radio at MindShare, believes the station will have to do more to survive in the changing radio market: “Virgin is a strong brand but it still needs a good Rajar. A strong brand won’t be enough – it is a very tough market.”

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