Media: Rock station that is finally on a roll: The wrong music policy and poor reception gave Virgin a shaky first year, reports Maggie Brown

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The Independent Online
Virgin 1215 started off very confident - 'too confident,' says a rueful David Campbell, chief executive of the national commercial radio station launched a year ago this week. As with any Richard Branson project, he says, 'We got a lot of the limelight and started to believe our own press that we would be an overnight success.'

But establishing Britain's first national rock station - Mr Campbell's first brush with radio - is proving to be a hard haul, even though Radio 1, which has mislaid 3 million listeners (one-third of its market share) in one year, has been a soft target.

No one station has been in a position to benefit from this dramatic decline in Britain's most popular music station, though the Irish-based Atlantic 252, with 3.9 million listeners a week, is close to the levels a more world-weary Virgin now aspires to.

But this week's Rajar radio audience figures show that Virgin's audiences, at 3.24 million a week, are starting to nudge upwards from 3 million in the last quarter of 1993. There was a nasty dip after the post-launch euphoria evaporated, which shook the confidence of advertisers during the autumn and resulted in thin pickings until February. Spring has brought some comfort in the shape of Bass, Carling, Ford and the Woolwich Building Society, who have signed for either sponsorship or advertising.

'What I want to see from the station is a consistent growth, adding 50,000 to 100,000 new listeners per month, so we can approach a 4 million audience (the initial target) by the end of this year,' says Mr Campbell.

Several factors combined to hamper Virgin's launch. The first, says Mr Campbell, is that the music policy was wrong, even though Virgin had lots of research to suggest it was doing what listeners said they wanted. 'We did something we should never do: pursue critical acclaim, playing obscure tracks, gaining the praise of the music press,' he adds.

The solution has been evolutionary: to mix in more familiar music and add more relevant chat. The feedback from focus groups shows that listeners found the original 'pure' music format cold.

Another problem has been poor reception in crucial areas - including London, where the key advertisers are based and where the competition, led by the long-established Capital, is most intense. This meant that the new service has had no choice but to commit pounds 700,000 to building extra transmitters to fill in such areas.

Virgin has also been damaged by its campaign for an FM frequency to improve reception. The subtext was that Virgin 1215 listeners thought they were getting second-best. Virgin has now changed tack, plugging away at its longer-term campaign to win a new set of frequencies which have come up for grabs only in the past six months - a 105-107 FM band width which becomes available in 1996.

Last Friday Virgin handed the Radio Authority a petition signed by half a million people urging that the frequencies be made available to the national station. It hopes to devise a way of bidding for them while still broadcasting on AM, a desire that will test the workings of the Broadcasting Act.

Mr Campbell, who has worked for Richard Branson since 1986, says that while the advertising market has picked up (radio advertising grew by 27 per cent in 1993), conditions for newcomers are tough. Along with the rest of the industry, he is amazed at the optimistic pounds 3.8m bid by Talk Radio to run the third - non-music - national channel.

After a year getting Virgin up and running, he says he knows the score and the figures from the inside. Even in the current improving climate, with objective proof of an audience to sell to advertisers, he does not expect Virgin 1215 to break even until 1995.

(Photograph omitted)