Profile: A really capital chap: Radio supremo Richard Eyre seems almost too nice for the job, but Gail Counsell reports he's making waves

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The Independent Online
RICHARD EYRE has thoughtfully removed his jeans before letting me in. But that is no more than his colleagues have led me to expect: everyone insists on how thoughtful he is. Considerate, they chant as one.

Finding anyone prepared to do anything other than offer panegyrics about Eyre is tediously time-consuming. 'Quiet, talented, articulate, intelligent, full of integrity, bashful, modest . . . Quiet, articulate . . . ' - the list of his virtues is mantra-like.

Even for an industry of luvvies, the relentlessness of it all is almost convincing. And there are the abandoned Levis to bear witness in his favour. Eyre is too considerate to risk giving offence to a visitor by appearing sloppily dressed. So those worn blue symbols of media brashness have been considerately replaced in advance with orthodox trousers.

He is not, of course, that Richard Eyre. That Richard Eyre is the artistic doyen of the National Theatre. This Richard Eyre is the boyish-looking chap who used to be in advertising and now runs Capital Radio. That Richard Eyre merits 23 lines in Who's Who and is past his half century. This Richard Eyre has yet to gain entry and has only just scraped 39.

Everyone always assumes he is that Richard Eyre. He is used to it. 'One of these days I'm going to ring him up and ask him if anyone ever mistakes him for being the head of Capital Radio,' he observes cheerily. There is something vaguely boy-scoutish about his amusement.

Eyre took over at Capital, which runs London's two main independent radio stations, Capital FM and Capital Gold, just under two years ago. He succeeded Nigel Walmsley, who had disappeared to help Carlton Communications launch its bid for the London television franchise.

Those were fractious times: there were rumours Walmsley was unhappy at the absentee nature of Sir (now Lord) Richard Attenborough's chairmanship, and dissent over investment policy. Moreover, the recession was beginning to bite and earnings were tumbling as advertising disappeared.

Empathetic Eyre was the perfect oil to pour on troubled waters. John Bartle, who worked with Eyre at the Bartle Bogle Hegarty advertising agency, said: 'He's the loveliest person. In his dealings with people, he always seems able to see things from their point of view.'

Yet Eyre's appointment stunned the industry. Almost all his previous working life, bar nine months at Granada, had been spent on the other side of the divide as a media buyer, purchasing TV and radio airtime for clients' advertisements.

But then, Capital specialises in such shocks: Walmsley had arrived fresh from the Post Office. And things seem to have stabilised. Lord Attenborough has stepped into the specially created honorary role of 'president' to be replaced as chairman by the experienced Ian Irvine, deputy chief executive of Reed Elsevier, the Anglo-Dutch publishing group.

Unsuccessful diversifications, such as the Duke of York theatre and a stake in the failed Irish broadcaster Century Communications, have been largely dealt with and the group is now concentrating on its strategic core business - witness its widely acclaimed purchase of Midlands Radio.

Eyre has played a part in these changes, but his key role has been to sow the seeds of a more structured approach to selling radio advertising as a serious medium. Radio has always been the Cinderella of the ad industry and receives a pitifully small share of the display advertising cake: less than 2.8 per cent. That is tiny by international standards: for Europe as a whole, the figure is 6 per cent and in the US nearer 10 per cent.

Encouraging advertisers - or more pertinently, their agencies - to allocate a greater share to the medium remains the Holy Grail of the radio industry. Enter Eyre, who defines the solution in terms of co-operation between the UK's 120-odd local radio stations. 'I am passionately of the view that unless all the ILR fall into line we are going to miss it - just like the local newspapers have missed it in national advertising terms. No amount of hype is going to make that medium attractive to advertisers again, for exactly the reasons that threaten us - in-fighting and 'ring road' (parochial) thinking.'

Things are improving. The bigger local radio groups set up the Radio Advertising Bureau recently to promote the medium. Perhaps even more significant in the long run is Eyre's own new baby, National Network Radio. This enables an advertiser to place an ad in any combination of independent radio stations with a single phone call and a single invoice. NNR takes care of the mechanics and shares out the revenues. It is an important step.

Eyre stumbled into advertising, rather as he stumbled into Capital - he insists he was joking when he suggested himself to Walmsley as a candidate. After school at King's College in Wimbledon and a degree in PPE at Oxford, he was at a loss. As he (modestly) tells it, the only thing he could think to do was to follow in his marketing father's footsteps.

'I wasn't one of those very bright children who plotted their course. I decided to pursue a career in marketing mainly because my dad had. I was a very conformist boy.'

There was one hitch. 'I went on a Procter & Gamble marketing course and was horrified by all these intelligent people who seemed to be just like me but five years on and spending all their time worrying about dandruff shampoo. One bloke told me in great detail how he worked from 7am to 10pm for three months launching Crest (toothpaste), despite having a wife and two small children.'

The sensation that this was 'the most massive waste of a life' was reinforced by the fact he had just Found God. Smitten with an urge to do good, work for a charity beckoned.

Or at least he thought it did. When he offered his services, he found that what charities really wanted, but couldn't afford to train, were people with marketing experience. It tied in neatly with a parental refrain.

'My father's words still ring in my ears: 'Go get a job, get on the first rungs of the ladder and then from a few rungs up you'll find you've got a much better view, rather than sitting around here saying you don't like this, or you don't like that'.'

The forces of darkness triumphed. He applied for a job with the advertising agency Benton & Bowles and found to his astonishment he adored it. Before long he was following in the formerly despised footsteps of the man who had abandoned hearth and home for the sake of Crest. The only difference was that Eyre was working from the crack of dawn until midnight attempting to sell Camay soap.

All thoughts of a career in charity work rapidly evaporated. For a while Christianity took a back seat too, as he went through 'a sort of dopey phase' in which he became much more interested in his 'beautiful career'.

Then, about seven years ago, he and Sheelagh, his wife, whom he met working voluntarily at a Christian drop-in centre in west London, found their 'whole vision absolutely turned around' by the Folly's End Fellowship, a 'house church' in South Croydon where they live.

'House churches are a strain of Christianity which has broken away from the Establishment,' he explains. 'They are called house churches because people started meeting in their own houses, but we're proper Christians - it's sincere and not the least cultish.' He plays the guitar in the church band and his evenings are filled with family life - they have two children - and church activities.

Out of hours, such wholesomeness is one thing. At work it is quite another. Few industries are more heathen than the media - and few offer more scope for conflict between morality and commercial expedience.

Eyre asserts integrity is good for business, though he worries about where to draw the line when applying personal morality to what goes out over the airwaves.

'As an individual I struggle with this. I do think that I have (a responsibility), but on the other hand I don't think as MD of this company that a proper part of my remit is to foist my beliefs on the public of London.'

Nevertheless, horoscopes have been banned at Capital for as long as Eyre is in the driving seat. 'I think horoscopes are immoral, so we won't have anything to do with them. When I came here, we had a horoscope line where people could dial in and hear some fraud make up some gibberish. They'd pay for the phone call and we'd get some revenue.

'Well, either horoscopes are fraudulent, in which case we shouldn't have taken the money, or they are much more insidious and worrying than that, in which case we shouldn't be dabbling in it.'

Some might call it censorship. But anyone less of a Grand Inquisitor it would be impossible to imagine. Anyway, it comes as a pleasant shock to find a managing director prepared to admit he has sacrificed revenues for the sake of his conscience. Perhaps he really is that nice, after all.

(Photograph omitted)