Andria Vidler: How to cast a Magic spell

The London radio station's formula of 'More music, less talk' has left Capital and Heart in the dust. Now, the boss is gunning for Radio 2
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The Independent Online

One of the fastest rising stars in British radio sits at her desk in an open-plan office with a giant letter "I" hanging on the wall above her head and a reality television personality perched in the seat opposite.

The high-flyer is Andria Vidler; the TV figure is Fame Academy's Richard Park and "I" is the fourth of six letters spelling Magic, the name that the two of them have turned into a 21st-century radio phenomenon.

From almost nowhere, Magic, with its battle cry of "More Music, Less Talk" has thrust aside its more established rivals Capital and Heart to become the leading commercial radio station in London. But for Vidler such success is not nearly enough, and she has trained her sights on making Magic a national brand capable of challenging Radio 2 for the right to be known as the most popular network in Britain.

"What we hope is that we will take away listeners from Radio 2 as much as Capital and Heart," says Vidler, before raising her voice to add: "Give me a national licence and I will give them a run for their money."

Vidler, who is as close to a Jennifer Aniston lookalike as you will find in the upper echelons of the British radio industry, likes to remind her staff of her mantra: "Nothing is impossible. Everything is achievable." She spent six years working at the BBC after being recruited by Jenny Abramsky who was impressed by Vidler's work as a young advertising account director working on the launch of Radio Five Live. Vidler became Abramsky's marketing manager and subsequently worked with her at the outset of BBC News 24 and BBC News Online. She also witnessed at close hand the resurrection of Radio 2.

She left for the challenge of being managing director of London's biggest commercial station, Capital 95.8, and initially helped to deliver a record audience share. But when she departed in 2003 after less than three years, her record was called into question. Her unplanned leaving was interpreted as the culmination of a management overhaul after a year of poor Capital audiences and her replacement, Keith Pringle, promised to bring in more focus on the core 25-34 age group. But in the three years since Vidler left, Capital has haemorrhaged listeners.

In March last year Emap sent for Vidler - who had been doing consultancy work but hungered for a return to the industry - and asked her to oversee a Magic revolution that was already gathering pace. And a revolution it has been. It was only in 1998 that Emap bought from the industrialist Lord Hanson a virtually unknown station called Melody Radio, with its downmarket audience of, mostly, over-65-year-olds. Emap was so unsure at first what to do with its acquisition that it gave the station the quaint but absurdly long title of The Magic of London's Melody. Despite Vidler's recent successes, the notion persists (enthusiastically fuelled by rivals) that Magic is a station for old fogeys. She is palpably angry at this and reels off the statistics. "Thirty-four per cent are 15-34 and 60 per cent are under 45. Twenty per cent are women under 35," she says. "We've got a huge number of people who are under 45 listening, and when you are growing and you're offering a unique mix that parents and children can listen to together, you are going to pick up both ends of the spectrum."

This is the crux of the Magic formula. Just as television networks are desperate to find formats that reach across generations and constitute the kind of family appointments to view that the BBC has enjoyed with the revamped Doctor Who and its Strictly Come Dancing phenomenon, so popular radio wants a similar appeal.

Magic's key to finding it has been Park, who might be best known to the public as the "headmaster" in Fame Academy but who is also an impresario who created the Party in the Park music festival and a radio industry titan with a career stretching back 40 years. Park joined the network in 2003, two years ahead of Vidler, and has been honing the Magic musical mix ever since he arrived.

"Tuneful and melodic backed by a bit of depth from an artist who can genuinely perform. We are not looking for out-and-out rock or rap but, to use that old-fashioned word, tunes," is how he defines what he listens for.

Above all else, Park seeks consistency, and so he and his deputy Adrian Stewart rigorously plan every hour of Magic's output, listing each of the 1,500 songs that the station's presenters will play in a week.

"I've been drawing up playlists for radio stations since I was at Radio Clyde in the Seventies and Eighties," says Park. "There's a lot of work that goes into it. I never devise two playlists the same. I take into account where we are, who we are and who we'd like to have listen to us. I'm not just reeling out my own personal favourites, although I really enjoy the output. I come from the camp that says there have been millions of great records made in the three decades that we deal with - let's get a few of them on."

Magic listeners have learnt to expect artists including 10cc, Sinead O'Connor and George Michael played alongside newer acts such as Michael Bublé and James Blunt.

Park, who was named Station Programmer of the Year for 2006 at the Sony radio awards, the radio industry Oscars, says that Magic's musical offering changes according to the season and the weather. "A brighter, hot day requires a very different approach from a chilly winter's morn when you might hear Madonna's 'Frozen' or Elvis's 'In the Ghetto'."

According to Vidler, it was only when Park had nailed down this music formula that she could come on board and confidently put into place the Magic brand strategy. "What we've developed is a product that's different. Some people may think it's not the best and I'm not claiming it is the best for everybody but it is different. We've introduced choice into the marketplace and the More Music, Less Talk proposition is clearly distinctive," she says. "Before we started to refresh the image and trumpet the brand we had to get the core audio product right."

Part of Vidler's strategy has been the introduction of a clutch of "name" presenters to a station that had previously been quite deliberately faceless.

"The research we commissioned a year ago indicated that Magic was loved by its audience but that it was a bit like a guilty pleasure and they didn't actually have any reason to talk about it. It wasn't a badge they could wear proudly. We wanted to create something that would give the station some talkability."

Her solution was to bring in such big personalities as the ubiquitous Eamonn Holmes (ex-GMTV, now Sky Sunrise, BBC Radio Five Live, National Lottery) and Neil Fox who was previously synonymous with the rival station Capital 95.8 and a judge on ITV's Pop Idol, the more successful rival of Park's Fame Academy. But how was the station to retain its growing reputation for being all about the music when it had such elephants in its studio?

Vidler admits: "There were a few raised eyebrows when we said we wanted the station to have more talkability but still have more music and less talk. Can you really get people like Eamonn Holmes to be succinct with no wasted words?"

She was also sure that, while adding profile and providing "talkability", these new presenters could not be allowed to overshadow Magic's own identity. "I'm a believer that no single programme should be considered stronger than the brand itself. I wanted everyone to be sure what Magic was all about first and foremost."

Essentially the strategy could work only if the presenters could be persuaded to sit back a little and take their instructions on tone and musical selection from the Fame Academy headmaster. "It's my music policy," says Park, who coaches all the presenters. "The broadcasters know that taking a liberty would be the wrong thing to do, and they know the efforts that are going into it because we've had to come from a long way back to persuade listeners that this might be a station that they might enjoy."

When presenters talk on Magic they are obliged to think that less is more. "It's a real art to be able to totally communicate with the audience without babbling on and on," says Park. He describes Fox as "a heritage broadcaster who has had great moments while broadcasting to this city [London]" and says Holmes is a "raconteur" who, when he tells a story on Magic, "knows it's all inside format" (ie he keeps it brief).

With this offering in place, Vidler feels able to take it to the nation. Magic, she says, has a slight (53 per cent) female bias because "there are a lot of other male products around". She says: "I come from a very basic marketing school: you look at the market and work out where a gap is and then stick to a very basic proposition."

Vidler's father had his own film production company and, in spite of her spell in public broadcasting, she has always had ambitions in business. She has an MBA and was a management trainee at Jaeger before working for four years in the advertising industry, where she encountered a young Unilever marketer called Andy Duncan, now chief executive of Channel 4.

Having just turned 40 she describes herself as "absolutely core market" for Magic. (The average age of the station's audience is 41.) Married to a management consultant and with daughters of eight and six, she spends her weekends on the Sussex coast, attending to a family of newly hatched moorhens and a pond filled with koi carp.

By Monday morning she is trying to nurture a different family, namely the diverse brood of media platforms bearing the brand Magic: a television channel, a website and a string of radio stations in Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Leeds, Hull and Newcastle. These stations all operate in the shadow of larger local networks run by Emap, such as Manchester's Key 103 FM, Liverpool's Radio City and Leeds's Aire FM, where Chris Moyles cut his teeth.

Vidler thinks the time is now right to give a leg up to those Magic stations (all on the MW band) by aligning them more closely to the FM London station, Magic 105.4.

"Magic's AMs have traditionally sat alongside the big city networks and had a vaguely similar music mix. Some have sport and some don't. We believe there is now a multi-platform [Magic] brand proposition that would work very well," she says.

The stations would still have a distinct regional flavour and would be managed locally, she emphasises, but would benefit from association with the success story in London.

The website, www.magic.fm, provides cohesion along with the sort of content - film reviews, wine club, bingo and book promotions with the publisher HarperCollins - that is unsuited to the USP of the radio offering but gives the audience fresh opportunities to engage with and talk about Magic. "We are not going to start doing film reviews on air because we're a more music less talk station, but we can use different platforms to take advantage of opportunities," says Vidler.

Though it may well be the case that many young women listen to Magic, it also seems to be true that the station is hugely popular with cab and van drivers who appear to appreciate the respite the musical mix offers from the drama that surrounds them on the roads. Vidler is upfront in saying that many of her listeners (whether they are driving, washing up or working online) will use the station as background music, "a complementary medium" as she puts it.

"We are not a radio station that wants to provoke you. We are never going to have phone-ins where someone is coming up with a ridiculous concept or hypothesis and everyone is shouting it down. One of the key things we identified was how frenetic everyone's lives are and how mobile phones mean people can continually contact you. People need moments when they can go [she lets out a relaxed sigh] 'Aaaah', but they don't necessarily want to be alone. They want some background companionship but they don't want to be shouted at and they don't want someone interrupting them continuously."

Magic has introduced a feature every night at 7pm called Seven Stressbusters. Park says: "It's intended for people who've got into their car and have just about had enough and want to hear a few decent songs without being preached to about a new record that some record company wants them to hear."

To those musical snobs whose radio listening is determined by specialist DJs and presenters, Magic FM might seem boringly middle of the road. But the undeniable fact is that it has found a gap in the market and has skilfully filled it. Lesley Douglas, whose Radio 2 empire is in Vidler's sights, admits to listening to the station in half-hour bursts when she takes time out from her own network.

And commercial rivals are going even further, Magic claims. Smooth, LBC and Heart are all accused by Vidler of copying Magic's competitions. Meanwhile, favourite Magic artists such as crooner Bublé and country singer Keith Urban have started to appear on stations that previously concentrated on pop music. The last set of official Rajar audience figures gave Magic a 7 per cent share of London listening, well ahead of Chrysalis station Heart (5.7 per cent) and GCap's Capital 95.8 (5.5 per cent).

For the woman who was once cast aside by Capital, the shift in the balance of power has been especially sweet. "They didn't really ever take us seriously," she says. "Capital and Heart had leapfrogged each other for the past couple of years. For us to win so convincingly really delighted us."

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