John Myers, the outgoing chief executive of Guardian Media Group Radio, is widely described as a “dyed in the wool radio man” and regarded as the last of the radio old guard after GCap Media chief executive Ralph Bernard and Chrysalis Radio chief executive Phil Riley stepped back from the front line.
Myers’ decision to leave comes at a critical point in GMG Radio’s development. There has been much speculation over the years that GMG, owner of the Smooth, Real, Century and Rock Radio brands, is not as committed to radio as Myers, and that a sale was inevitable. Talks took place with Chrysalis Radio but GMG rejected a £115m offer in April 2005. It was understood to be seeking closer to £150m for its portfolio.
But three years later – even though GMG acquired Saga Radio and the Century stations in 2006 – it has not played a major part in the consolidation of the market. The time to grow through acquisition has now passed. There are limited options for launching stations, with no new analogue spectrum available and digital radio suffering a much-documented crisis of faith.
Myers’ legacy in the radio industry is a strong track record for launching and building radio brands through entertaining content, personality presenters and an understanding of audience needs. However, industry observers point out that deputy chief executive Stuart Taylor, who will succeed Myers next April, is facing a different challenge, namely how to squeeze more revenue out of existing assets.
“[Myers] has an intimate knowledge of how radio works,” says Grant Goddard, radio analyst at Enders Analysis. “I am not sure anyone else in the group has the same detailed knowledge. [Taylor] brings wider skills from his experience in the print market.”
Nearly 30 years have passed since Myers started his career in radio as a presenter for BBC Radio Cumbria. He worked for a series of stations before becoming the programme controller for North-west station Red Rose Gold in 1988. He spent time as a continuity announcer and programme presenter on Border TV during the late Eighties and early Nineties, before moving on to begin launching stations in 1993. He launched CFM in Carlisle followed by Century Radio in September 1994. He was also presenter of the Century breakfast show under the pseudonym John Morgan.
However, it was yet another stint on TV, this time on BBC fly-on-the-wall documentary Trouble at the Top which followed his exploits during the launch of Century 105.4FM in the North-west, that brought Myers to the attention of Bob Phillis, then chief executive of GMG. Phillis subsequently poached him to build a radio division. Despite rising to become chief executive of the division in 2002 and joining the GMG board in 2006, Myers has continued to present shows throughout his tenure.
In tune with audiences
It is his experience as a broadcaster, says Rob Jones, chairman of production company USP Content, that taught him what audiences want. He adds: “He is probably the last bastion of quality programming. He understands what listeners want and focuses on delivering it.”
Real, which has three regional stations – in Wales, Scotland and Yorkshire, and the two Century stations – in the North-west and North-east, are described as “shining examples” of how regional local stations should work, with some drawing a comparison with BBC local radio. However, if there is a regret for Myers, it may be that Smooth FM in London has so far failed to become a serious contender in the capital’s competitive market.
Howard Bareham, head of radio at MindShare, believes that the gamble of rebranding Jazz FM, a much-loved if little listened-to specialist station, to Smooth, a music station for the over-45s, could still pay off. “It is a project that hasn’t born fruit yet.”
Myers, who in 2003 was reported to be in the running for the job of controller of BBC Radio 2, has perhaps come closest to showing how commercial radio can successfully replicate the BBC stations. He has been very personally involved in driving commercial radio forward. Without Myers’ commitment to the division, some question if GMG sees a future in the medium.