ARTS / Show People: Long player gets another spin: 70. Richard Skinner

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The Independent Culture
THE SECOND voice you will hear on 1215AM at 12.15pm on 30 April will be Richard Skinner's, which sort of sums him up. He is not quite the man who will launch Virgin Radio. That job falls to the proprietor, Richard Branson. Yes, after the record label, the Megastore, the airline and the hot-air balloon comes the first national rock station for adults, and all on the frequency that gave you classical music and cricket.

No one is saying what the first song will be, but Skinner says it won't be 'Like a Virgin', or anything else by one of the few people on the planet who out-self-publicise his new boss. The dull money's on 'Stairway to Heaven' - not Rolf Harris's lovably profane version, but the hoary original.

Nothing would better encapsulate what Virgin 1215 is all about. An album track from rock's golden age, it takes its time, it is melodic, and it has an intro that the DJ can't blab through. In short, it has no appeal for 14-year-olds in tracksuits baggy enough to enshroud Led Zeppelin's rhythm section.

Richard Skinner, 41, formerly of Radio Solent, Radio 1, Capital and GLR, has been a DJ for more than 20 years but is only now about to host his own daily, daytime nationwide show. On the advice of Johnnie Walker, he launched Portsmouth's first hospital radio service while still at grammar school. At Radio 1, which he joined at 21 as a presenter of Newsbeat, he was the man who spun album tracks in the small hours. He may have fronted Live Aid and the Mandela concerts on television, he may have been the first DJ to play a CD on national radio (Dire Straits - how did you guess?), but his epitaph will probably say that he was the man who covered for Simon Bates when he went on holiday. You must begin to wonder when after 18 years at Radio 1 you're still not a household voice. The plan is that Virgin will change all that.

Skinner is also one of Virgin's two musical directors, with a final say on the playlist. It is largely on his musical taste that Virgin will sink or swim. No British disc-jockey has ever had that measure of clout, and it couldn't have happened to a person who looks less power-hungry.

In an office beyond reception, beyond the number on the wall that says 39 days till lift-off, beyond the high-rise crates of lager in finance, sits a casually dressed, quietly cropped minor-celebrity type - forty-somethings of similar appearance talk about rugby in the pub on Sundays all over the Home Counties. He is welcoming, talkative, enthusiastic, but not at all mouthy. Apart from the definitively mouthy Chris Evans, who will spend his day-off from The Big Breakfast hosting a Saturday show, Skinner is Virgin's biggest draw and just the man to wield the backlash against the 'charismatic' chat and Top 40 dance-pap purveyed by its nearest rival.

He might so easily have still been with the BBC. 'I got a phone call on New Year's Eve. It was pure coincidence that my BBC contract came up that day and I hadn't signed my new one because I couldn't find an independent witness. It was on my desk and I kept thinking I must sign that.' How did that go down at the Beeb? 'They told me to clear my desk and get out that day, although in fact they've been very supportive on a personal level.' Unacerbic to a T, he won't do a Tony Blackburn and go in for on-air recriminations. He can talk his old employer down, but only to talk his new one up. 'I think it's a terrific radio station with a lot of very good professionals who are working under difficult constraints: they're having to be all things to all men. If they were allowed to be totally commercial, they'd be mightily powerful opposition.'

Virgin will mix Radio 1's rockier instincts with an almost Radio 3-like reverence for the canon - a kind of Radio 1 1/2 , a round- the-clock Golden Hour, the aural equivalent of Q magazine, reconciling wit with a proper respect for dinosaurs. Like Skinner himself it sounds too good to be true, so we'll have to wait and see whether or not the likes of U2 will lord it too emphatically over, say, their compatriot Christy Moore, whether the playlist will ever take more than a short stroll outside the built-up area between Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins.

Skinner doesn't seem to want to talk about anything but who'll make the playlist and who won't. He knows his stuff, but he wears that knowledge lightly - a buff, not a boffin. He hasn't yet heard of Riot Grrrls, but it is hard to hold that against him.

His two decades at Radio 1 barely get a mention, except to say: 'They believed that Top-40, personality-led radio was what their forte was. They dealt with album tracks as a minority interest. Often we had lively debates about this because clearly albums outsell singles dramatically nowadays.' If 'lively debates' is a euphemism for 'rabid slanging matches that ended with blood on the floor-to-ceiling carpeting', you'd never know it.

We end with a visit to the studio from where the nation - except, that is, for the Highlands, North Devon and the Wash - will be bombarded with grown-up rock. It seems a bit cramped, but apparently the desk is above-average size. A radio is on, but it's not playing a song. 'Ah, guess who it is,' says Skinner. It is Simon Bates.

Virgin Radio begins test transmissions in certain areas on Thursday (MW 1215kHz).

(Photograph omitted)