RADIO / The new pilots of the airwaves: Sabine Durrant visited the Soho studios of Virgin Radio as Britain's new national station prepared for today's launch

The man from Fast Lane magazine leans back into his leather jacket, runs his fingers through his short-cropped hair, and smiles. He's just been pitched by John Pearson, sales director of Virgin Radio, and he likes what he's heard. The station has the right profile (national, with the exception of odd hilly areas like the Grampians - 'so no sheep'), the right age group (25-44 - 'too old for ram-raiders'), the right sounds (classic album rock). When his company, Perry Motor Press, releases their new car mag in the autumn ('Did I say autumn?' he says, coquettishly) they'll seriously consider advertising. You can tell. For one thing, before he leaves the boardroom he and Pearson have spent five fascinating minutes discussing a particular back issue of Supercar (the one about old Jaguars). It makes you wonder: is Virgin Radio going to be anything more than a station for middle-of-the-road car bores?

They say otherwise. They say rumours of their anti-soul, anti-dance, anti-heavy metal policy are exaggerated (Danny Baker may have turned down a job because he was told 'no black music', but that, they claim, was before the management shuffle in January). They say everything they do won't be Bryan Adams; that they won't lay down wall-to-wall Pink Floyd; that Queen won't rule. They're even wary of using the word 'rock' - 'it's a big turn off for women,' says Pearson. The playlist is determined, not by each individual DJ but by a small group of people who trust their own taste. 'Stevie Wonder releases a new single - we'll play it,' says Richard Skinner, joint programme director, 'but only if it deserves to be played.' 'Nothing gets by,' says chief executive David Campbell, 'unless it's good.'

'But hey come on,' said Chris Evans, cocky flagship DJ in specs, at Wednesday's press conference. 'You don't accuse Kiss FM of not playing Bruce Springsteen. If you don't like it, fiddle your dial.'

From 12.15pm today, when Virgin goes on air (the time matches the wavelength, minus the AM bit), listeners can judge, and fiddle if necessary, for themselves. One thing's certain they won't hear Simon Bates creaming that 'Mick's a very funny guy, very easy to get on with'. DJs at Virgin are called 'presenters' and are supposed to keep their mouths and their plastic bags of fav vinyl firmly shut. There are no turntables at Virgin Radio's Golden Square offices. Instead, there's a complicated computer system, complete with resident bug, a team of PAs trained by Lucy Clayton and the SAS, three floors of glossy plants and fitted carpet, a humungous amount of 'enthusiasm and team spirit', a lot of men in jeans with bleepers on their belts and an awful lot of tired faces. Guaranteed: when Virgin formally takes to the air today, a large proportion of its 42 staff won't have slept.

It all started in January, when the team began to arrive from other parts of the Virgin organisation, or were poached from Capital and Radio 1, but it reached a frenzy this week. The big countdown sign on the wall behind the receptionists' heads was reading '3 days to launch' and the test transmission was in its 27th day, when Emperor Rosko and his ponytail arrived from Los Angeles, the laminate invitations for the 'first night' party were delivered, two film crews - from Sky and Granada - got tangled on the stairs and David Fanning, one of the DJs, had a baby. 'If you're here for the day, you're gonna hear the F word' said the man behind the bar. 'Take care in the Ladies,' warned a passing member of the advertising team, 'Two secretaries were crying in there last week.'

(The internal speaker-system relays the test transmission. On the air: Starship - 'We Built this City on Rock and Roll'.)

The Virgin office is like a complicated weather system; thunderous activity and gathering clouds can swirl in one section of the operation (computer grief, say), while on another floor, or in a different room, people lounge around and bicker over chocolate biscuits as if they had no homes to go to. On the top floor, the press office was having kittens over a sponsorship deal with Nescafe - 'the biggest in radio history' - but at the morning staff meeting, the information went down like a cold cappuccino. 'Oh' said someone.

(Across the speaker-system: Simply Red's 'Holding back the Years'.)

In the bar area, which they call 'the Zoo', the runners were horsing around, but in the adjoining boardroom men in jackets talked seriously across a bowl of fruit. Downstairs, Julia Biddle, David Campbell's PA, was up to her ears in laminates, security passes and job applications - 'Golly, every day is different actually'. In the office next door, John Revel lay on the floor, waving a ruler around.

(On the air: Squeeze with 'Goodbye Girl', followed by Sting.)

And in a large room behind reception, a gaggle of DJs joshed and sorted through their post. Here, it would seem, for all the grand statements of 'cohesive identity', is the real personality of the station, here are the presenters 'with a passion for the tracks they play'. Here's Tommy Vance with mirror specs and a voice that could descale a kettle: 'Hi, how ya doing?' he says, 'Nice talking to ya. Have fun.' Here's Russ Williams, tall, handsome with a mouth full of shiny caps - so smooth you could have him on toast (as he hosts the breakfast show, a lot of people might): 'It's all fine tuning. It's time for a change, a change of listening habits, slipping up a gear as Nigel Mansell might say.' Here's Emperor Rosko: 'I said 'send me twice what I need and I'll make the final selection'. Now has anyone seen the drinks machine?'

And here's Jonathan Coleman, the 'Thunder from Down Under', the 'Mound of Sound', the man who says 'dontchajusluvit?' on the Foster ad. Coleman has ideas, so to speak, above his station.

'I won't play that Chris de Burgh song 'Woman in Red' ' he says, 'no wa-ay. Though I suppose thinking about it there are 2,000 people out there who live for Chris de Burgh . . . Or Tina Turner - yuk. I'm putting together a list of my favourite tracks here, a whole stack of stuff . . . When it comes down to it, it's all negotiable. Here, listen to this.' Coleman thrusts a CD into the mini system on the desk - it's a band called Yothu Yindi. The sleeve says they're some of the 'traditional owners of the Northern territories' North East Arnhem Land'. It's not exactly middle of the road.

It sounds convincing, but across the internal speaker system comes 'A Horse with no Name' by America and when, later at the press conference, Richard Skinner says their listener-figure estimation (3.3 million) is 'conservative', the adjective scrapes close to their playlist, too. Perhaps a lot of people like their radio safe. And male (there's only one woman DJ and she's on from 2am to 6am). And white. But maybe some will think, where's the fun in that?

(On the airwaves: 'Wondrous Story' by Yes.)

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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