Vivant feminae! Vivat Viva!

Next month, Britain's first all-women (give or take a couple of men) radio station goes on air. Will it be absolutely fabulous or is it a gimmick, asks Sue Summers
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE COLOUR scheme for Viva! office was supposed to have been purple and green, the colours of the Suffragette movement. It was a bold gesture to link Britain's first women's radio station with the crusading zeal of Emmeline Pankhurst. In her day women could only get media attention by chaining themselves to the railings of 10 Downing Street.

But something went wrong at the designers. Instead, Viva!'s offices in central London are tricked out in a queasy, washed-out shade of lilac, more suitable to a 1950s poodle parlour. The colour has been indiscriminately slapped over everything, overflowing from walls and ceilings to chairs, desktops, even stair-rails.

Viva!'s founders are determined that nothing else should dilute their new station's purpose. When it takes to the airwaves (London only) on 3 July, Viva! will be the first radio station in Britain conceived, launched, programmed and operated by women. It is aiming to reach 400,000 listeners a week between the ages of 25 and 44. Its 24-hour mixture of talk and music on 963AM promises to provide a woman's perspective on everything from men, sex and shopping to news, politics and the law. Even the music is intended to have a feminine slant. It will be adult rock with a sophisticated dimension provided by frequent recourse to Oletta Adams, Tori Amos, Mary- Chapin Carpenter, Kirsty MacColl, Joan Armatrading, Sheryl Crow and (you guessed it) Joni Mitchell.

Viva! lifts off as a team effort by some of the most powerful and high profile women in British media. Its "chair" is Lynne Franks, one of the most influential PRs in the country, who has helped sell products as diverse as Brylcreem and the Labour Party; she was, so it is said, the inspiration for Jennifer Saunders's hit television comedy, Absolutely Fabulous. Viva!'s directors include literary editor Deborah Owen, wife of former Foreign Secretary, Lord Owen, and TV producer Linda Agran, the force behind programmes like Widows and Minder. Among its regular contributors will be Eve Pollard, former editor of the Sunday Express, and now a novelist and broadcaster.

None of them is in any doubt that Viva!'s arrival on Britain's airwaves is decades overdue. "There's a crying need for women to have a voice on radio," Lynne Franks, 47, says. "I'm talking about women like us who are professional or, if at home with children, still very professional in their attitude. If they listen to anything, these women probably listen to Radio 4, where women's coverage is bitty. They don't want anything strident, but they want to be amused and entertained with intelligence."

All of Viva!'s founders insist that there really is a woman's angle left unexplored, even at a time when many BBC radio programmes are not only presented by women, but edited and produced by them as well.

"When you have listened to a news item in the morning, you often think, 'Hmm, I would have put another question to him on that'," Deborah Owen says. "There's frequently a women's perspective on things which is missing at the moment."

"The majority of people listening to radio are female, so it makes sense to consider them first for a change," says Linda Agran. "Yes, there are some heavyweight female presenters on radio, just as there are some female judges and some female MPs. But the majority are over- whelmingly male."

IN HER small violet box of an office, Viva!'s programme controller, Chris Burns, knocks back Nurofen as she wrestles with turning these aspirations into reality. A confident, fresh-faced 33-year-old, with a background at the BBC, most recently as managing editor of Radio Kent, she is reckoned in the business to be one of Viva!'s biggest assets, despite having joined the station barely two months before its launch. The two things to be avoided on air at all costs, she says, are "sounding as if we've had a sense of humour bypass and sounding very worthy. Because that's exactly what people will expect us to be."

Her line-up mixes experienced BBC broadcasters like Radio 4's Dilly Barlow, Radio 5's Michele Stephens and former GLR presenter Diana Luke, who will have a programme about "sex, relationships and taboos" each weekday afternoon, with newer names like TV presenter Magenta De Vine, DJ Valley Fontaine from Choice FM, and Sarah Parnell, a ex-Equity official who sent in a demo tape and now finds herself presenting a show from 10pm to 2am four nights a week. Eve Pollard has her own 7.30pm show once a week, interviewing politicians, while Carol Thatcher will have a programme once a month - agenda as yet unrevealed.

IT IS two weeks to go before Viva!'s launch and Lynne Franks is in such a flurry of activity that she hasn't even managed to do a pilot for her own week-night programme, Frankly Speaking - her first as a presenter - in which she will have a one-hour conversation with someone from her wide acquaintance. "It could be anyone from the Dalai Lama to ChrissieHynde," she says. "I'd like to interview a Nigerian woman who's been circumcised. What I don't have to do is sit here waiting for a press release. As a former PR, I'm the last person who's ever going to take notice of one of those."

With 19 radio stations now competing for the ears of London listeners - and 13 of those competing for advertising revenue - Viva! plainly cannot afford to turn off half of its potential audience. The statistic engraved on the hearts of everyone at Viva! is that "30 per cent of Cosmopolitan's readers are men". It would plainly be suicidal to create the image of some grim and humourless feminist political exercise. Constant stress is placed on the fact that Viva! is not intended to be anti-men. "Men will listen to a station like ours because they want the inside track on how women are thinking," says Chris Burns. "The dominant sex on this radio station is women, but we want male contributors too."

Viva!, in fact, recognises that women could grow bored with listening to an exclusive diet of women and, now and again, might hanker for soothing masculine tones. Male contributors will be encouraged throughout all the news and talk output. There will even be two regular male presenters. Bill Overton, formerly of GLR, will share the crucial peak-time breakfast show with Annie Webster, who previously had a morning magazine programme on Radio Scotland. The other man, Keri Jones, from a radio station in St Albans, will work the late shift from 2am to 6am four times a week.

The idea of Viva! first germinated three years ago when Katy Turner, then sales and marketing director of Jazz FM, realised on car journeys to work that no radio station had anything to offer a person like herself, professional, single, in her late thirties, and tired of being patronised by the BBC. Persuading her bosses at the radio group Golden Rose Communications was no problem, but convincing the Radio Authority was: Viva!'s first licence application in the 1993 franchise round lost out to other newcomers like Country 1035 and the Asian station, Sunrise. Viva! finally got through the net last year, along with Virgin FM and London's first Christian radio station, Premier.

Sadly, however, Katy Turner, now Viva!'s managing director, has not been able to see her idea through on to air. Two months ago, aged only 40, she suffered a brain haemorrhage and is still receiving treatment. This has meant an enforced evolution for Lynne Franks, from part-time figurehead to full-time involvement. The approach from Viva! to her came at a time when she was relinquishing the reins of her multi-million pound company, Lynne Franks PR (as well as giving up Buddhism), and seeking a new media role. "Katy will be back," says Franks. "But for the present, this is virtually a full-time job for me."

Her duties include chairing "networking breakfasts" at Viva! every couple of weeks, at which eminent women like Janet Street-Porter and publisher Gail Rebuck (and even a few men) have been canvassed for ideas and support. "It all gets pretty yacky, as I'm sure you can imagine," says Linda Agran.

With pounds 1m invested in Viva!, Golden Rose Communications, which also runs Jazz FM, cannot afford to let an untried team of women broadcasters have it all their own way. The result, ironically enough, is that Britain's first women's radio station has two men at the very top: David Maker, Golden Rose's chief executive and the man credited with saving Jazz FM, sits on the Viva! board, as does the group's chief operating officer, Richard Wheatly.

According to Lynne Franks, the relationship between Viva!'s women and its men has been happy and harmonious so far. "David and Richard love women. And the other men at Golden Rose are absolutely charming and totally behind Viva! because they believe in it.''

Admittedly, there has been the odd suppressed snigger when Maker, a 55- year-old former regional journalist, has offered the power women his own interpretations of what Viva!'s style should be. In one discussion, touching on Diana Luke's afternoon show about sex and relationships, Maker wondered whether women "really wanted to hear about penises at two in the afternoon". And he greeted the idea of a motoring programme with the enthusiastic observation that it could tackle "really different subjects" like the colours of car interiors.

Despite his female colleagues' forebearance, Maker clearly has much to learn about Viva!-correctness. "When we did our research, we discovered that women listen to far less radio than men," he told me. "That surprised us. You'd assume they'd have more time to listen."

Even given the gentle ragging of Maker that goes on, there's no question who has the real executive muscle. And it isn't a woman. So what if Lynne Franks's interviews turns out not to be absolutely fabulous but absolute disasters? "I'll fire her," Maker says, with a little smile. "And she's in no doubt about that."

For a station which will be on the air imminently, the atmosphere at Viva!'s headquarters, a small custom-built studio off the Edgware Road shared with sister station J (formerly Jazz) FM - seems very quiet. Apart from one male researcher, Viva!'s staff is entirely female. With a grand total of 14, not counting presenters, it is also extremely small. The startling fact is that the station will broadcast around the clock with fewer staff than it takes to put out Woman's Hour on Radio 4 five times a week.

To Diana Luke, however, Viva! seems positively luxurious after local radio. The 42-year-old Canadian broadcaster resigned from the BBC's London station, GLR, after a clash with a woman boss. "Women can be just as nasty to each other as men," she observes. Tall, dark and softly-spoken, Luke will not just be the afternoon presenter, but also head of music. This was a role she assumed after early test transmissions of the music output made her "feel sick''. The selection, made by a computer, featured an alarmingly high number of songs by Kenny Rogers and Sheena Easton.

Viva!, she believes, is an opportunity to redress the gender balance on radio. "Women are used late at night,'' she says, "because their voices are thought to be sexy. But they're not given the proper jobs, like breakfast.

"We've already been called Radio Vulva or Beaver Radio, and I'm sure some people will say we're a bunch of dykes in Doc Martens. But most new stations are male stations with some women on them; now it's the other way around, for a change. What's the big issue about that?" DESPITE THE hype and networking and power-breakfasting of this bunch of super-adept female communicators, major questions about Viva!'s viability remain. Is there really a "woman's perspective" which is being ignored by other media? If so, none of the women I asked at Viva! could give me a concrete example of just what it might entail, beyond generalities about how women are more open to talking about their feelings, and more alive to the "human interest" angle. Lynne Franks said the station would campaign against children being allowed to buy fireworks and might even tell women "where to go to meet a guy". She herself plans to report extensively from the UN women's conference in China this autumn.

Are listeners going to sense this new dimension of female sensitivity and caring, or be sufficiently attracted by it to turn away from highly competent talk stations like Radio 4, or pop stations like Capital? "If you want a female audience, you don't put on female voices, because women don't want to listen to other women - not the mass audience, anyway," says one seasoned radio observer (female). "Viva! will get a minority audience which will turn on for a particular presenter. If they're doing it to make money - forget it."

Advertisers are more bullish about the station. Agostino Di Falco, media group buyer at Young & Rubicam, says that Viva! might have a bumpy start, but "if they can replicate a Radio 4 audience on a commercial level, that would be ideal for a lot of advertisers".

The fact remains, though, that Viva!'s budget is tiny. Senior BBC women who were sounded out for Chris Burns's job - thought to include Sally Feldman, joint editor of Woman's Hour - were, says David Maker, open- mouthed at the paucity of money for programmes. "They simply couldn't see how you could possibly run a radio station with the facilities we have," he says. Observers see Golden Rose itself as a group under considerable pressure. Maker - who masterminded the takeover of ailing Jazz FM and launched its twin station last year in Manchester - has proved good at getting franchises, but their profitability remains in doubt. Golden Rose has recorded losses of just under pounds 1m for the first six months of its financial year, due, Maker says, to the start-up costs of Viva! and the Manchester station. By October, he maintains, there will be money in the bank.

No-one in Viva!'s violet studios can forget the bottom line. Golden Rose only rescued Jazz FM, critics says, by diluting its jazz remit. They even changed the station's name to JFM. One can only hope the same fate isn't in store for the airtime suffragettes at Viva! It would be terrible if all their aspirations were to be rewarded at the last by nothing more than a crude V-sign. !