Crisis at Virgin as listeners continue to switch off

Station blames slump on DJ's exit while the events of 11 September boosted popularity of news programmes
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The Independent Online

Virgin Radio has blamed the sudden departure of Chris Evans for a 25 per cent slump in the number of hours people spent listening to it over the past three months.

The station, which also lost Evans's successor, Steve Penk, last week, added that some listeners had switched to news-based stations after the 11 September attacks. Evans was sacked as a breakfast show DJ last summer, having called in sick only to go off on an alcoholic bender.

Paul Jackson, the programme director, said: "The abruptness of Chris Evans's departure last summer forced us to change the schedule without the station or the listeners being prepared for it.

"It affected not only the breakfast show but had a knock-on effect on the rest of the day. The world events of last autumn have had an impact, too, as many of our core listeners turned to speech and news-based radio stations in order to keep up with the news agenda." He added: "That's behind us now."

Figures released yesterday by Rajar (Radio Joint Audience Research), showed Virgin has lost 5 per cent of its listeners in the past year. Scottish Media Group (SMG), Virgin's owner, cannot have been expecting such a severe slump when it bought the business from Evans two years ago.

SMG paid £225m for the media empire built up by Evans under the self-mocking name, Ginger Productions. Echoing his ejection from BBC Radio 1, Evans seemed to lose interest and began failing to turn up for his breakfast show.

Audiences fell and the final straw came in July when he telephoned in sick while the press photographed him on a long drinking session with his new wife, the teenage singer Billie Piper. He was sacked, forfeiting his final tranche of SMG shares, worth £11m.

Penk, newly signed for an afternoon show, was parachuted into the morning slot and early figures suggested he was a hit. But yesterday's results showed it was only a temporary surge. The overall trend was doggedly down. Anticipating the poor results, Penk was removed from the morning slot.

An analyst for Zenith media buyers said SMG would have to turn things round sharply in the next quarter. "They have not had a very good time of it at all, to put it mildly," he said.

The migration of listeners to news could not explain everything. Roger Lewis, managing director of Classic FM, pointed out that its audiences had actually gone up since 11 September, to a record 6.7 million.

However, SMG was yesterday insisting things could only get better – and that Virgin had been a good buy.

Mr Jackson said there was now a strong line-up of presenters including the new breakfast show host, Daryl Denham, who has a track record in morning shows. "While it will take time for the benefits of these changes to feed through, I'm confident that ... the station is in good shape," he said.

He had some support. Mark Mendoza, managing director of the Media Planning Group, said: "Chris Evans has obviously been a thorn in their side but Virgin Radio is much bigger than he is and will come through. I think they will be disappointed by these figures, but not devastated."