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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.