Virgin Radio chief executive has enough of SMG

The timing of Fru Hazlitt’s abrupt resignation from her role as chief executive of Virgin Radio, the Scottish Media Group-owned national commercial station, may have surprised the radio industry but few observers doubt what her reasons may be for leaving after just 18 months.

When Hazlitt arrived at Virgin Radio in August 2005, the station was having a tough time. It was still bruised from former breakfast show DJ Chris Evans’ failed lawsuit for unfair dismissal, and had been the target for an unsuccessful £100m takeover bid from Lord Waheed Ali.

Hazlitt’s brief was to rejuvenate the station, build on the areas where it was already strong, such as online listening, and to build audience figures and revenue.

Industry observers agree that she helped to create a buzz around the station. One media industry source says: “Before she went in there, it had been managed in a uninspired way, but it has a swagger now.” Other observers describe Hazlitt as an “inspirational” leader that elicits “passionate support from her staff”. But another source points out that although she changed perceptions of the station, it had yet to translate into an increase in listeners. However, in SMG’s latest results, which were announced in October, the group issued a profits warning despite the fact that Virgin was described as “outperforming the market”.

The seeds of disillusionment
The lacklustre performance of SMG as a group – it also has TV and outdoor interests – appears to be key to Hazlitt becoming disillusioned with the role.

It is understood that she was particularly unsettled when former SMG chief executive Andrew Flanagan was ousted in July following an earlier set of poor results.

But the media source says that Hazlitt was becoming frustrated with SMG “taking money out of Virgin to shore up other parts of the empire” and other insiders say she was increasingly disappointed at the lack of investment in the station. The media source adds: “One thing that Fru needs is a level of energy and I think she lost that when Flanagan left. It was a bit of a blow for her.” His departure was swiftly followed by SMG’s board turning down a £400m merger with Ulster TV, the owner of TalkSport. Hazlitt was thought to be in the running to replace Flanagan, although the search has been put on hold since SMG – albeit in a worse position following the profits warning and decision to sell Pearl & Dean and Primesight – re-entered talks with UTV just before Christmas.

But it is also understood that Hazlitt, along with other senior members of the Virgin team, approached the SMG board with a management buyout bid that was turned down before Christmas. Virgin declined to comment and Hazlitt was unavailable for comment as Marketing Week went to press.

Search for a replacement
The appointment of Virgin programme director Paul Jackson to replace Hazlitt has been broadly welcomed by the industry, although some observers suggest his appointment is a “holding position” while talks with UTV progress. It is thought that UTV Radio chief executive Scott Taunton will run the group if a merger goes ahead, which could be a further reason for Hazlitt leaving when she did.

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