Can Liberty set Viva free?

Mohamed al-Fayed's media group has snapped up the ailing women's radio station.

Life certainly looks brighter this week for Viva! 963, Britain's first radio station for women. The ailing station has suffered a vicious spiral of dwindling audiences and financial cutbacks since its launch. Then, last Friday, Mohamed al-Fayed stepped in to buy it for pounds 3m, cash. But while Viva!'s financial fortunes have stabilised, its future role in the media marketplace is by no means assured.

It seemed such a good idea. With most of the media establishment dominated by male executives and male interests, women's magazines were booming - why not women's radio, too? A formidable group of women backed the idea pioneered by Katy Turner, a former director at Jazz FM: the ex-Marie Claire editor Glenda Bailey; Carmen Callil, founder of Virago Press; Barbara Follett; the journalist Eve Pollard and the PR boss Lynne Franks.

Led by Jazz FM parent company Golden Rose Communications, they applied for - and won - a licence to run a station catering for women's interests, aimed at London women aged between 25 and 44. Their idea: a music-and- chat station with magazine-style programming, catering for the same audience as the highly successful, much-envied Marie Claire.

However, problems arose even before launch. Turner became ill and had to step down - although now fully recovered, she never returned to the station. The absence of her focus and clear eye was soon evident. The station's chairman, Lynne Franks, became the face - and voice - of Viva!, communicating an earnest worthiness that alienated many.

Then there was the quality of the output: "boring and banal" was the verdict after only a few weeks on air. The problem was coming up with the women's perspective on all news, every day. The volume of fresh and original material to fill the airwaves, 24 hours a day was, perhaps, underestimated. The target audience at launch was 400,000; six months on and Viva! was clinging on to 59,000.

To cap it all, the station was hamstrung by poor transmission facilities - large sections of the capital are still unable to receive Viva!'s signal.

Golden Rose struggled to cut costs: the operating budget was slashed, reportedly from pounds 350,000 to pounds l50,000. A relaunch was planned, but the station had become such a drain on its parent's resources, few believed enough would be spent to make it work. "If Viva! is thinking of investing money without spending a significant amount on a big marketing effort, it will be difficult to increase its listener base," Denise Clark, head of radio buying at Abbott Mead Vickers, told Campaign magazine in March.

Enter the White Knight: Mohamed al-Fayed, owner of Harrods, would-be media mogul and aspiring politician. Earlier this year, he launched Liberty Publishing to develop a range of media interests following thwarted attempts to buy the national newspapers Today, Express and Observer and the commercial station London Radio. His first purchase was Punch magazine, which relaunches in September. And now Viva! - a move that surprised many.

"No one would have been mad enough to do it apart from a man with an awful lot of money," one commercial radio source observes. "It's an ailing station with a questionable format bought by an organisation with no radio expertise. They don't stand a chance in hell." Katy Turner, the station's original founder, adds: "Making an AM speech station work with their poor transmitters is going to be very, very difficult."

Liberty executives were unavailable to comment, although in an official statement, Stewart Steven, the chairman, stressed: "We would not be entering into this agreement if we were not committed to making it a success. Radio is an exciting growth area in media."

Liberty is understood to be ready to invest heavily in programming and advertising to support a relaunch. City sources suggest the initial launch cost of pounds 1.5m will need to be matched at least to get Viva! on to its feet.

Already, there are signs of a shift in emphasis. Before completing the deal, Liberty and Golden Rose applied to the Radio Authority to approve changes to the station's format. The authority will allow Liberty to raise Viva!'s speech quota to up to 80 per cent in peak time, and run more news. "Expect to see a Viva! that's much less obviously women-oriented, much more general interest with a women's slant," one source close to the deal observes. "To survive, it must be about targeting rather than niche marketing."

Unsurprisingly, there are relieved smiles back at Golden Rose. Richard Wheatly, chief executive, insists he was not looking for a buyer, although he concedes: "This is a tremendous deal." His company will continue to provide studio and production facilities to Viva! under contract. "It allows me to focus on our core jazz business - which is what I wanted to do; it substantially reduces our cost base." Even so, he remains confident there is a market for women's radio in London. "We were attracting 100,000 listeners - there's an audience out there. The question is: how to grow it." And at what cost.

Turner agrees. "There's definitely still room in London for a bright, female-oriented magazine station - I'm sure of it." As Viva!'s promise of performance does not require it to be packaged as a women's station (so long as it continues to appeal to women aged 25 to 44) there's scope for quite a significant shift.

On television, women's interest programming has worked for UK Living which, although small, saw its share of the cable and satellite TV audience rise 45 per cent in the first 11 weeks of this year. The station recently announced plans to invest an extra pounds 1m in new programming. And two weeks ago, Flextech confirmed plans to relaunch the Family Channel this autumn as a service for "upmarket housewives".

But whether we want a radio station for women is another matter. Speaking earlier this year, Julia Calo, the former director of Independent Radio Sales, which sells radio advertising, said: "I and my sales team feel that a women's [radio] station is not an appropriate or an intelligent concept. It is much too narrow and limiting. There are so many different types of women." Many would agree.

News
John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
News
i100

Other places that have held independence referendums
Sport
Jonas Gutierrez (r) competes with Yaya Toure (l)
football

Newcastle winger reveals he has testicular cancer - and is losing his trademark long hair as a result

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Blossoming love: Colin Firth as Stanley and Emma Stone as Sophie, in 'Magic in the Moonlight'
film

Actors star in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

News
peopleThe Times of India said actress should treat it as a 'compliment'
Arts and Entertainment
Maxine Peake plays Hamlet at Manchester's Royal Exchange
theatreReview: Maxine Peake brings emotional ferocity to Shakespeare's most starring part
News
news

Watch this commuter wage a one-man war against the Circle Line
News
We are phenomenally good at recognising faces; the study showed that humans have been selected to be unique and easily recognisable
science

Human faces unique 'because we don't recognise each other by smell'

Property
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
lifeShould we feel guilty about keeping cats inside?
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
news

Man's attempt to avoid being impounded heavily criticised

Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
Student
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama is to offer a BA degree in Performance and Creative Enterprise
student

Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Digital Project Manager

£25 - 30k: Guru Careers: A Digital Project Manager is needed to join an exciti...

Paid Search Analyst / PPC Analyst

£24 - 28k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Paid Search Analyst / PPC...

Head of Marketing - London

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Interim Head of Marketing / Marketing Manager / Dig...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week