Can Viva! radio survive the blaze of its own publicity?

Britain's first station for women has been a disappointment.
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The Independent Online
Six weeks after its launch, all is not well at Viva! 963AM. First came leaked figures which suggested that Britain's first female radio station is attracting only 100,000 listeners. Then there were rumours that the money men at Golden Rose Communications, which owns Viva!, were moving in. Now comes news of the departure of the managing director, Katy Turner, widely credited with having created the Viva! concept.

Turner, who left the station last week, suffered a serious brain haemorrhage earlier this year. "I've been away four months and during this time the station has developed its own momentum," she explains. "I am going of my own accord."

She is unwilling to comment on how the station has evolved. But insiders say the station that eventually launched was not what she had envisaged. "It should have been light and engaging. Instead it is dull, with women constantly trying to prove they are cleverer than the next," according to one freelancer. Another adds: "We are over-stretched, and you can hear it in the programming."

Despite setting out to offer "a women's perspective" with a vibrant mix of chat and comment, Viva! has turned into a decidedly stiff and lacklustre affair. "They've got it wrong: they're taking it far too seriously," says Vicky Richardson, head of radio at the advertising agency Leo Burnett.

With its suggestion that women have similar interests and a unique manner of debate, Viva! was destined to divide the female audience. And its decision to eschew the more racy editorial content championed by women's glossy magazines has left it dry.

Viva! was launched with heavy PR fanfare on 3 July thanks to the involvement of the public relations supremo Lynne Franks, who is non-executive chair. It is designed to appeal to 25- to 45-year-old career womenand housewives with a 50/50 mix of talk and music. However, Franks's involvement has reportedly divided the station's management. "She has effectively hijacked the station," according to one ex-staffer.

Franks vigorously denies this. "It's rubbish. There is no boardroom rift. As for the leaked listening figures: they're a nonsense - the first proper listening data will not be out for three months. These [leaked figures] cover just a couple of weeks - including 10 days when we weren't even on air."

Richard Wheatley, chief operating officer at Viva!'s parent, Golden Rose, denies that the men are moving in and predicts that Viva! will reach its launch target of 500,000 London listeners within the next six months.Even so, advertising agencies are expressing concern. Advertisers value stations that compete directly against London's commercial radio market leader, Capital Radio, or those that offer a new or hard-to-reach audience - such as Jazz FM, with its up-market, predominantly male audience. Golden Rose's other two stations have low audiences - Jazz in London attracts 491,000 adult listeners a week; the North-west jazz station only 239,000. "I don't see how Golden Rose can be profitable or survive operating three relatively weak stations," says Richardson. Still, she believes Viva!'s basic concept is sound: "They don't need radical changes - just to lighten up and inject a little life."

Although Golden Rose announced interim losses of pounds 1.1m earlier this year, the business plan then approved took into account all launch plans and investment for Viva!, which are likely to contribute to further losses by the end of the year.

But some radio industry sources are now predicting that Golden Rose could soon become the target of a takeover bid. Its share price has slipped from pounds 1.35 to 97p since it was floated earlier this year. "If you are going to have a commercial radio licence - especially in the highly competitive London market - in this day and age, you must put money behind it," says one radio sales director. "I'm not sure Golden Rose has that much more in the kitty."

Such speculation is scotched by Wheatley. "There's nothing to indicate any increased investment is required," he stresses. Attention is focused on the autumn schedule: "a consolidation, not a turnabout", he insists. Time will tell if London's women - and rival radio groups - agree.