GWR finds the right wavelength

The owner of Classic FM is moving into the new age of visual radio. Rachelle Thackray reports
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The Independent Online
WHAT does it take to make a successful radio station? Easy: ask your listeners what they want, then play it to them. While other radio stations have fruitlessly hauled in catchy new presenters and up-to-the- minute music to push up listening figures, the ultra-simple approach has worked well for GWR. The company has grown exponentially: it started with two small local stations in Swindon and Bristol, and now runs a network of 30 stations across the UK, plus Classic FM and several overseas concerns in countries as diverse as Finland and Bulgaria.

It is also spearheading the move from analogue to digital radio, with its recently awarded Radio Authority licence under Digital One, a consortium formed together with NTL and Talk Radio. The venture will pave the way for a new age of visual radio - top-quality sound accompanied by a screen full of complementary information - and its proponents hope listeners will flock to buy specially designed radios in the same way they exchanged old tape cassette recorders for CD players.

According to Simon Cooper - director of policy and public affairs, and a former breakfast show DJ - a section of the industry "reacted with horror" when the idea of independent national radio was first mooted in the 1980s. "They feared they would lose advertising to it," he says. "But our view was that the cake would get larger, and that's what happened."

Classic FM attracts many advertisers who may find TV prices too high, or whose chairmen listen to the station on the way to work. For some, there is still a cringe factor involved; one man in his 30s admitted in a survey that he changed channels before getting out of his car to avoid potential embarrassment. But the station has been remarkably successful in broadening its constituency of listeners. "There's something rather unfortunate about the way the British classical elite seem to want to keep the music exclusive. We're there to welcome them," says Mr Cooper.

The group has also learnt much about organic growth through its stations abroad. It has launched projects in countries where commercial radio is in its infancy but which have enough of an economic infrastructure to support the venture.

"The last thing we wanted was to be paid in pickled gherkins," Mr Cooper says. "The variables have got to be right. There are countries where developments have become overheated, where there are a lot of pirate radio stations.

"You have got to have a relatively stable and growing economy. And there's got to be a demand for the type of station we are putting in there. In the UK, we have a state broadcaster which people have a particular image of. It's a bit sort of Auntie, but generally they like the BBC. In Eastern Europe, people don't like (the state station) because of what happened in the past. In many areas, there's a cleaner tablet to write on."

Broadcasters, however, need to be aware that the same music won't be a hit across the board. "With pop music, in some parts of Eastern Europe, there are gaps in the history. In 1968, they didn't have much to listen to in terms of popular music. If you research a band like the Eagles in the UK, everyone has heard of it. You research it in some of these countries and everybody goes: 'What?'."

In the coming age of digital radio, GWR enjoys an ideal position because of its infrastructure of stations and advertisers: new clients are also likely to be attracted by the possibility of targeting specific niche audiences with the multiplex system, says Mr Cooper. "You can create stations that will pop up, and for advertisers it's a lot more attractive. Analogue, effectively, has to be 24 hours a day. People aren't really going to want to listen to a hard dance station at breakfast time unless they have been up all night. With digital, it isn't there during the day, but the radio learns what your listening habits are."

In addition, the pictorial element adds new commercial possibilities. "Essentially it's a visual education system. If you are a car dealer, it's rather a drab advert to put on audio. We want to make it a richer experience. The media that demand your total attention are declining because more and more things compete for your attention. But because radio is a parallel thing, you can listen to it while doing something else."

The new radios are not cheap (car versions cost from pounds 500 upwards, a home hi-fi model costs around pounds 800 and a PC card costs pounds 300), but there is likely to be a tranche of "early adopters"; after that, it's down to word-of-mouth and the inexorable roll of progress. Even so, Simon Cooper anticipates Digital One will not make a profit for seven years. The licence is for 12 years, and the bid is likely to get the go-ahead next month. Broadcasts will begin next year.

"It's a brave new world and once we have got people to sample [the radios], they are bound to want to buy," he says. "The challenge is to get them to sample it."

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