All things to all women - maybe

Sharp, feminist, funny: can Viva!, the new all-women radio station launched yesterday, possibly deliver? By Polly Toynbee
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The Independent Online
The poster campaign for Viva! 963 AM features a Fifties-style woman covering her husband's face with her hands. Her thought-bubble reads: "I wanted to have a baby, not marry one." The poster is designed to position the new all-women radio station among sharp, metropolitan, feminist, witty, intelligent women. For Viva! 963 AM proclaims itself thus - sexy, ballsy, sassy, contemporary, controversial, with energy, verve, sense of humour ... crucial listening for all women with attitude aged 25-44, juggling careers and families.

Does such an audience exist in the numbers needed to support a 24-hour radio station? If they do, will working and raising a family leave time to listen to the radio? Lynne Franks, Viva's chair, and the country's most famous PR, is sure but breathless, with a taxi to the airport ticking at the door. Franks is going for a blend of She magazine, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire and Guardian women, pitched at Daily Mail-reader level, "without their horrible politics". News, views, issues and fun, fun, fun, all from a women's perspective.

But is there a distinctive women's perspective on everything that moves and breathes? Women play a small part in editing and choosing what makes news in most information-led organisations. Women in the media have often argued that if they had an equal say, there would be a subtle shift in the news agenda. The male ethos of many newsrooms favours the boys in the safari jackets who like to get close to the bullets. Doesn't matter where the war is;if there are tanks and guns, they're in there. So television awards often go to the bravest journalists, rather than the best.

Viva's newsroom offers a chance to redress the balance; it's suck-it- and-see time. It may mean leaning towards social issues. Women might be more interested in exploring European social problems not unlike ours, rather than arguments between Brussels suits. (That sound you hear is a thousand women bridling. Isn't this patronising? Are women less serious? No. Not less serious but subtly different, though not all women are different to all men: the Thatcher exemplar.)

But we're talking theory here, when examining more practical matters, like money and the marketplace, could be more to the point.

Viva! spokespeople sound faintly divided at the moment. They don't know whether to be more afraid of coming over worthy or of imitating the dafter end of the women's magazine market. Lynne Franks, who knows about marketing, plainly realises that money comes from opening up a big, new, cheaper market for advertisers who would have opted for women's magazines. A glossy magazine campaign costs hundreds of thousands, while a radio campaign is counted in only tens of thousands. So Viva! has hit the same market as Marie Claire.

On the other hand, Chris Burns, the programme controller, sounds like her BBC origins. She used to run all the social action programming on Radio 1, heavy subjects like Aids and so on. She has also presented Woman's Hour. She talks of busy intelligent women who need to be kept informed, with a bit of humour. So a newsy breakfast show is followed by a celebrity morning show - Joan Collins and Anita Roddick on the first day, with the emphasis on sex in the afternoons. The format is half-talk, half-music.

And it's shoestring. How do you run 24 hours a day with a staff of 25? It takes some 250 to run Radio Five Live, 24-hour news and sport. But then, Viva! isn't counting on expensive documentaries.

Viva!'s overheads have to be low. There are already 13 commercial radio stations competing for advertising in London. Yesterday, Viva! launched with 20 brands, from Toyota to Barclays Bank, Marie Stopes clinics to the Daily Express - it's a good start. (One struggling station launched with just one brand.) Advertisers are always reluctant to get on board until presented with proof: the sound in their ear, the width of the audience.

It's a tough market, according to David Fletcher, director of CIA Media Network, one of the biggest media buyers. Advertisers are conservative, he says. "But some are fashion-conscious and maybe Viva! is the 'in' place to be - right time, right proposition. That's the way the Independent was when it launched."

Fletcher says Viva! needs to be upmarket - niche but not too niche: "If it ends up being Guardian Women, that's a niche too far." Others fear the Cosmopolitan/Marie Claire model will win out.

Either way, Viva! can currently count on being mocked and misunderstood by all sides: too feminist and not feminist enough, too serious and not serious enough, the butt of weary jokes about humourless women. Let's see what people - women especially - are saying in a month or two's time.