Auntie's poor relation comes of age

Six Faces Who Emerged From Behind The Radio Mike
Six Faces Who Emerged From Behind The Radio Mike

COMMERCIAL RADIO'S woefully low share of the advertising cake and less than dynamic management meant it was known as the "2 per cent medium with the 1 per cent attitude" in advertising

Commercial radio celebrated its 25th birthday yesterday. It is now a confident, pounds 400m-a-year industry, which can boast of making money while reflecting the diversity of Britain in a way newspapers and television stations cannot match.

Unlike America, where commercial radio was embedded in the culture and largely responsible for soap opera and rock 'n roll music, commercial radio came to Britain desperately late and unbelievably naff.

Listeners were turned off by constant repetitions of advertisements in the style of: "Did you know ... Carpets was having their biggest-ever sale?", employing conversations between increasingly amazed and progressively bad actors. "The only people with radio experience at the beginning were from the BBC," says John Pearson, chief executive of Virgin Radio.

"That's all the radio there was and they had no commercial experience. The advertising departments were treated with some distaste.

"The programmers were from the BBC, and the owners and managers came from local business," Mr Pearson adds. "They were local butchers who were radio enthusiasts with no broadcasting business experience."

The BBC monopoly was supposedly destroyed when Capital Radio and LBC in London and Radio Clyde in Glasgow got their licences in 1973; in fact it took a further five years for commercial radio to crawl to just 19 licences across the country and 21 years more before its audience share overtook that of the BBC.

The slow development of the medium meant that in 1978 the first 19 stations took under pounds 30m a year in advertising and much of that was for local businesses who were responsible for the less-than-creative attitude to producing advertisements for radio.

Yet it was commercial radio that first introduced broadcasting ideas borrowed from America, which in turn were later taken up by the BBC. The phone-in, the on-air competition and the traffic helicopter were all introduced as commercial radio slowly started to steal listeners from "Auntie".

The real revolution came with the 1990 Broadcasting Act which created the first national commercial stations - Classic FM, Talk Radio and Virgin.

The Act also freed up space on the FM spectrum specifically for commercial stations with the result that there are now 204 commercial stations across the country.

In 1994 the increase in stations propelled commercial radio's share of listening above that of the BBC for the first time. Advertising revenues have grown by about a fifth every year since 1992 and the industry will take over pounds 400m this year.

"It went from being a cottage industry that had good audiences but never made any money to being a proper professional business," says Paul Robinson, programming director of Talk Radio.

The growth has been accompanied by big business moving into the sector.

Regardless of the high profile purchase of Virgin Radio by Chris Evans last year, much of the industry is now in the hands of three major companies:

y Publishing group Emap owns the Piccadilly station in Manchester and the Kiss franchises among others;

y Capital has its London station, licences across the country and a market capitalisation of pounds 500m;

y Swindon-based GWR owns Classic FM and local stations, including the Galaxy franchises.

All three companies are near the limits of what they are allowed to own by broadcasting regulations and are lobbying hard to be allowed to grow even bigger.

While the big commercial groups criticise their industry regulator, the Radio Authority, for restricting their growth, listener groups complain that it allows too many music stations playing middle-of-the-road album tracks to proliferate.

Yet commercial radio's local nature has always meant it has had a strength in minority broadcasting. From the start stations in the likes of Glasgow, Liverpool and Belfast succeeded because of their strong sense of local identity.

In the Nineties, commercial stations such as Sunrise, Choice and Spectrum now cater for audiences that range from Bangladeshi, Jewish and Arabic to specifically Gay and West Indian.

"It is a commercial station so we raise money from the businesses in the communities themselves, or from advertisers who want to reach a very specific audience," says Sathari Kan, a director of Spectrum Radio. "But stations like us are the place where commercial reality meets community and public service."

Chris Evans, DJ:

The Ginger Media empire got its start at Piccadilly Radio in Manchester where Evans began life as a general dogsbody for Timmy Mallett. He eventually managed to get himself on air as one of many background voices in Mallett's comedy sketches and studio mayhem pieces. Today he owns Virgin Radio.

Alan Bleasdale, writer:

Before writing the TV award-winning Boys from the Blackstuff and GBH, Alan Bleasdale had his own weekly comedy programme on Liverpool's Radio City. From 1974 onward he wrote and performed as Scully, an archetypal Liverpool character who later appeared in a Bleasdale-written television drama.

Jon Snow, news anchorman:

The Channel 4 News anchor's famously bad ties were acceptable when he began his broadcasting career with the 6am show on Independent Radio News. IRN began life as a subsidiary of LBC and had as its first client, Capital Radio, which was handy, as they were the only two independent radio stations in existence when it started in 1973.

Dave Lee Travis, DJ:

Another Piccadilly Radio in Manchester alumni, DLT later went on to become the quintessential Radio 1 disc jockey of the Seventies and Eighties. The main model for Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse's Smashey and Nicey take-off, Travis had a taste for silly nicknames and all that was wrong with the pre-Matthew Bannister Radio 1.

Bob Holness, game show host:

The generations brought up on the quiz show Blockbusters will find it difficult to believe that Bob Holness was once much more than a sixth- form cult. He started on LBC as Britain's first man reporting on traffic jams from a helicopter and went on to host LBC's award-winning breakfast show with Douglas Cameron for 10 years.

Janet Street-Porter, presenter:

Janet Street-Porter's move from print journalism to broadcasting was less than glorious. LBC gave her its 2am graveyard shift for three months at a time when her studio was unfinished before giving her an afternoon show with a producer who used to cry and hide in the lavatories whenever her guests didn't show up.