Virgin Radio has had a turbulent 18 years with the high-profile sacking of Chris Evans, its then breakfast show host; his equally high-profile unfair dismissal trial; the constant rumours about its future ownership; and the recent defections of senior staff to GCap Media. The stories unfolding inside the station have, perhaps, attracted more attention than the programming.
The sale of the station late last week to a subsidiary of The Times of India and its subsequent rebrand – the £53.2m deal does not include keeping the Virgin licence – should help to draw a line under its lively past.
TIML Golden Square, its new owner, will work with European radio operator Absolute Radio, which will manage the station. The team remains tight-lipped about potential names, but appears to have ruled out using its existing format, Jack FM, operating in Oxford. It has, though, already appointed Albion to handle the launch, set for the autumn.
Clive Dickens, who will replace Richard Huntingford as chairman of the station, says, in the meantime, it will work to reassure listeners, agencies and advertisers that the format of the station will remain pop and rock-oriented. He stresses they will build on Virgin’s strengths, such as its 15 different distribution platforms and existing audience, including 6 million online unique users globally.
“We want to harness all the innovation of the existing team and see how we can develop those things in a world unfettered by the brand,” adds Dickens.
Investment in new areas
The £15m that the new owners are planning to invest should help ease its passage into a new era. As well as investing in marketing, the company is looking into areas such as social networking, gaming, subscription downloads, personalised radio and ticketing – none of which were allowed under the terms of the Virgin licence.
Dickens says: “One of the problems for the team is that they had next to no money to spend on marketing. They have been very innovative but it has been allowed to drift.”
Industry insiders are nonchalant about the loss of Virgin as one of the UK’s three national brands. One says that it feels “very Nineties” and others agree that it has been “holding it back”.
Relaunch for growth
Jonathan Barrowman, head of radio at Initiative, believes the relaunch is what the station needs to kickstart its growth. He adds: “It has a good team, from commercial to programming, and it has worked to leverage the Virgin brand equity. Virgin has been quite successful but it hasn’t grown, so this is a great opportunity to re-evaluate and bring something fresh to listeners and advertisers.”
While he does not believe changing the name will have a negative impact on the station, Barrowman warns that suggestions that the owners are planning to take a male-focused route with the new format would be “limiting”.
Meanwhile, industry observers will also be watching Virgin Radio International, part of the core Virgin Group, with interest. It has been launching stations in Italy, France, Dubai and India over recent years. The latter is thought to be the reason why Virgin wanted to retain the UK rights, believing it would be confusing to have two Indian businesses with Virgin-branded interests.
The group has made clear its intentions to launch a station – using DAB and online – in the UK when the rights are returned.
Virgin Radio is the last of the major UK stations and operators to change owners in the past five years. Industry observers seems positive about the changes and welcome the influx of private money that recent deals have brought; now they are poised for those operators of the new radio landscape to show their hands.